The differences between big and small ships in Alaska
I recently took two different kinds of cruise vacations in Alaska. One was a seven-night sailing on a 49-passenger catamaran from Juneau to Ketchikan. The other was a 10-night Holland America trip that included three nights on the 1,440-passenger Zaandam from Vancouver to Skagway, then continued via rail, catamaran and motor coach to Anchorage. After at least five previous trips to Alaska, this is the first time I took such a small ship, or a land portion. I always thought it was fine to see Alaska from a cruise ship as long as I got an aerial view during a shore excursion. These trips opened my eyes: I would now suggest that anyone going to Alaska should consider a small ship -- but definitely take a land portion as well.
Before these trips, I hadn’t been up to Alaska for more than five years. It’s amazing to see how touristy the main cities along the coast have become, so only by getting inland or seeing some of the less evolved places can a traveler really see what makes Alaska such a unique destination.
Holland America’s cruise/land tour
The Zaandam cruise gave me a chance to see what the Signature of Excellence program has done for Holland America. It’s done wonders, revitalizing a cruise product that seemed to have lost ground. With stateroom improvements in all categories, the heightened dining experience of the Pinnacle Grill, and other improvements to public areas, it was well worth the many millions the line invested.
The staterooms have new high-thread-count linens, Sealy Euro-top mattresses, robes, towels, massage showerheads, make-up mirrors, enhanced programming on flat panel TVs and more. Suites have all that plus new duvets and pillows, and stocked mini-bars (there’s also a private lounge and concierge service for the highest categories). The new Explorations Café is a multi-purpose room including library, music listening stations (comfy lounge chairs and high quality ear phones), lots of connections to the New York Times via the Internet, crossword puzzle tables, books and photos. The café has a range of beverages and snacks. The computers themselves are very fast (a nice treat, since they’re not cheap to use).
The Culinary Arts Center, custom built on HAL’s newest ships, is now part of Zaandam’s movie theater. While sightlines aren’t great, it’s a good room for cooking demonstrations and private lessons. The improved Greenhouse Spa and Salon has new rooms such as a dry float suite with massage options, a couples massage room, thermal suites, a new relaxation area and a very well-equipped gym. Naturally I did not get to spend a lot of time in the expanded youth facilities, but it looks great and the outside area may be the best public space on the entire ship. Alas, it’s only for teens.
Glaciers and dogs
The shore excursion I took in Skagway is a clear indication as to how far cruise lines are going to provide new experiences. I booked the Glacier Helicopter Flight and Dog Sledding trip, and it was one of the best shore excursions I have ever taken. After a 25-minute helicopter exploration of some magnificent scenery, including glaciers and mountain lakes and peaks, we set down on an ice field that housed the dog sled camp. We got to play with some of the 290 sled dogs, and took a two-mile sled run alternating as passenger and mushers. The dogs do not react to the word ‘mush,’ but it’s so much fun hollering it out. We explored the camp including the living quarters and kitchen. This is now the shore excursion I will recommend to everyone going to Alaska.
After leaving the ship in Skagway, we took the White Pass &Yukon Route Railroad, a narrow-gauge railway built as part of the gold rush in the late 1890’s. The scenery is magnificent. Normally, guests go back to Skagway at the end of the trip, but this is where the new land portion for me began. We traveled by luxurious motor coach to Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon, seeing some beautiful mountains and lakes. From there, it was up, way up, to Dawson City, one of the key cities of the 1898 gold rush. Here, a tour goes to the gold fields; our guide owns land there and has been actively mining gold for over 25 years. Hearing about life there from someone so involved with it was fascinating.
Dawson City is also the jumping off point for excursions to parts of Tombstone Territory recently developed for tourism by HAL. In 2004, there were fewer than 2,000 visitors to this 2,200-square-mile, boreal forested, sub-arctic Territorial Park. Options for HAL guests include the Grizzly Lake Hike (strenuous to say the least, but I made it; the guide was an expert); a tour of the area via van with a naturalist guide; and the Chapman Lake Coach Tour that goes to the park’s visitor’s center. It was also in Dawson City that the sun set so late and rose so early there was no darkness even in the middle of the night. This phenomenon continued for the rest of the trip.
From Dawson City, it was back across the border to Eagle, Alaska via the Yukon Queen II catamaran up the Yukon River. We had a group tour of Eagle, a small town with lots of gold rush history, before taking the Taylor Highway (a high-quality dirt road) to Tok. From there, it was on to Fairbanks via the Alaska Highway; along the way, we had a view of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Before stopping in Fairbanks, we visited Gold Dredge #8 for a great miner’s stew lunch, a tour of the gold mining machinery and a chance to pan for gold. This may sound hokey, but it gives visitors a great understanding of what the early miners were up against trying to get gold out of the ground. From Fairbanks, a neat excursion is a flight to Fort Yukon, eight miles above the Arctic Circle. Some 500 members of a native clan still live there, even though life is quite basic.
On to Denali
From Fairbanks, we headed for an overnight stop in Denali National Park via HAL’s luxurious McKinley Explorer rail cars. The scenery in Denali, seen from the park’s bus as far in as the road goes or from a helicopter excursion into the park’s glacier- and snow-filled interior, is magnificent. And while you won’t see animals as close-up as in your local zoo, seeing bears, moose, caribou, Dall’s sheep and more in their natural habitat is amazing.
After Denali, the train goes on Anchorage where, after one last sun-filled night, the tour came to an end. Not only was the trip superb in terms of scenery and wildlife, but it was an amazing feat of logistics, since guests had to be taken from Skagway to Anchorage in seven nights, staying at six different hotels along the way, with luggage. The Westmark Hotels (part of Holland America) used along the way were of various styles and quality, but that was part of the experience. Dinners were uniformly terrific, and service at the properties was always friendly and helpful.
Sitting on coaches and trains for much of the land portion gets a little wearying, but mixed in with different shore excursions and other activities, it shouldn’t be an issue for most guests. And it certainly is a splendid way to see more of this outrageously large state (twice the size of Texas).
Note: My detailed thoughts on the small-ship experience will appear in a future column.