That evening, for Doreen’s birthday, Celebrity gifted us with a bottle of Champagne, and we invited Lyn and Jeff to join us for the celebration. The chef at Blu surprised her with a fabulous chocolate ganache and hazelnut gluten-free cake! After the Champagne and several cocktails, we pretty much caused a scene with our fits of laughter, which soon became contagious as the entire restaurant laughed along with us.
On the fourth day we docked in Juneau, and since the sun didn’t set until after 10 P .M., it afforded more than ample time to enjoy the awe-inspiring natural beauty in the surrounding area. A visit to Mendenhall Glacier was truly the highlight of the trip. Unfortunately, it is rapidly shrinking, a true awakening to the veracity of climate change.
The glacial ice takes on shades of blue, absorbing all colors of the light spectrum except for blue, which it transmits. The glacier is surrounded by waterfalls emerging from surrounding mountains. More than 13 miles long, it is a ghost of the last ice age, and where Mendenhall Glacier has retreated, wilderness has filled in.
That afternoon we went on a mammal and whale-watching trip aboard a large catamaran, which cruised from Saginaw Channel to Lynn Canal. We were incredibly lucky, as we witnessed humpback whales “bubble net feeding,” swimming in a circle while blowing bubbles below a school of fish, forcing hundreds of fish upward for the whales to catch in one gulp. This was followed by exciting views of different pods of orcas and humpbacks, bald eagles, and a large colony of sea lions lounging on a giant buoy.
Another highlight of our trip was the next day, as we took a three-hour scenic train ride aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (www.wpyr.com), built in 1898 and revered as the “Scenic Railway of the World.” It was well worth the extra money to book the White Pass Legacy Club Luxury Railway Experience. Our car was limited to 14 people in comfortable leather lounge seating, with our own private guide and complimentary mimosas, pastries, and quiche. Being in the caboose car, it also afforded us the best perch for taking in the scenery and for the best photos.
Our final day on the Millennium was a full of day cruising past the 76-mile Hubbard Glacier. While there were many areas on board the ship to view the majesty of the glacier, including the Rooftop Terrace, we also appreciated the privacy of our veranda. The majesty of the glacier was truly breathtaking. Several times, we were treated to “glacier calving,” a phenomenon that occurs when chunks of ice break off the end of a glacier, resulting in an eerie sound echoing through the serenity of the landscape.
The next morning, we disembarked in Seward, and after a brief visit to the Alaska Sealife Center (www.alaskasealife.org), we boarded a comfortable coach (otherwise known as a bus) to begin our extended land tour. It was a beautifully scenic trek to The Hotel Alyeska (www.alyeskaresort.com/hotel) in Girdwood, a quaint town about 27 miles from Anchorage. Nestled in a lush valley surrounded by mountains, the hotel is a popular ski resort with a wonderful Asian restaurant, lovely grounds for walking or hiking, and panoramic views.
En route to Talkeetna the following day, we had a brief stop in Anchorage, where we thoroughly enjoyed the outdoor market, which had the best array of local art, native clothing, jewelry, healthy food, and more. This was a great place to pick up gifts for friends and a treat or two for myself.
Talkeetna is just what I imagined a small Alaska town would be; a quaint, small village, said to be the inspiration for the fictional community of Cicely in the TV show Northern Exposure. Designated as a National Historic Site, many of the buildings are from the early 1900s: housing cafés, laid-back local bars, and, of course, a few souvenir shops and tour operators. Set on the south side of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), its close proximity to Denali National Park makes it the ideal spot for booking tours and excursions.
Following a night at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (www.alaskacollection.com), a comfortable, spacious hotel with beautiful vistas, we had planned to take a private helicopter tour and land on a glacier prior to going to Denali National Park. However, Alaska’s fickle weather brought in low-hanging clouds, and the flight was canceled. This proved to be the best thing that could have happened, as we changed our schedule from a few-hour tour of the park to the full-day tour.
Denali National Park (www.nps.gov/dena) was the absolute jewel of our trip to Alaska, made all the more beautiful by the sun darting in and out, creating a rainbow of colors and shadows throughout the park. Denali was breathtaking: 6.5 million acres of exquisitely virgin land with terrain ranging from tundra to forests to glaciers. Our guide was a park specialist, and he led us through an amazingly informed tour of the park. Once again the most endearing aspect of our tour guide was his reverence for the park. He loved the park and we would come to love it through his eyes as well.
Our bus tour went 60 miles into the park, inhabited by 39 species of mammals. We were enthralled by the sightings of moose, caribou, bears, and dall sheep. Most of the park is closed to traffic, and the number of tours is limited, in order to protect its fragile ecosystem.
The terrain in Denali changes slowly, almost silently. At first it’s just tundra with lots of wildflowers and unending forest cover. Then you come upon the undulating mountains awash in every shade of blue, orange, and green, with the colors changing with the movement of the clouds. This was unmistakably the most beautifully scenic chapter of our journey to Alaska.
With the land portion of our trip nearing an end, we spent the last night spent in Denali Park Village (www.denaliparkvillage.com). The chalet-style hotel is located at the entrance to the park, surrounded by beautiful wooded trails and a glacial-fed river winding through the property. We meandered through the grounds, taking in the beauty around us, ending the evening with a wonderful dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.
We departed Denali in late morning, taking an eight-hour train ride to Anchorage aboard the Wilderness Express (www.wildernessexpressrail.com), a glass-domed rail car with oversized, comfortable leather seating. Lunch and dinner were served on the train, and the food was surprisingly delicious. While the scenery was beautiful, eight hours on a train without stopping was not the most enjoyable experience, and I would recommend either renting a car, or skipping this last day altogether.
Our journey to Alaska was certainly an adventure to remember, and should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list. Our choice of Celebrity Cruises was ideal, from the size of the ship and the exceptional service to the itinerary.
So what’s next on my list?