9 Alaska cruise tips you should know (we didn’t), and all the details of our own Holland America land-and-sea journey.
This trip wasn’t our first cruise, but it was our first time in Alaska and we wish we would have read these Alaska cruise tips before we left. Alaska is the largest US state, but also the least densely populated. Distances there are on another scale, and so are weather conditions. All of this makes it slightly more challenging to prepare for an Alaska cruise than say, a Caribbean alternative.
While the following tips may not equally apply to all cruise lines or packages, they certainly reflect our experience on our Alaska cruise.
If you’d rather read about the itinerary and the cruise directly, click here.
- Dress in layers. The weather changes frequently and absurdly quickly. You want to be able to do the same.
- Gala night on the ship needs not be gala attire. We were overdressed in business dress. While a few passengers (probably not the ones on the land and sea option) went all out in black-tie, many if not most wore jeans and other casualwear. No need to go overboard (pun intended).
- Bring a backpack (or small carry-on) in addition to your luggage. There are many transfers during the trip and your luggage will have to be placed outside your hotel room at night to be picked up very early in the morning. That leaves you with nowhere to put whatever close you were wearing the day before, whatever you slept in that night, and toiletries.
- Carry cash with you for tips. Gratuity is included on board the ship, but is NOT once on land. You will be entertained, informed and otherwise driven by a number of individuals whose compensation very much depends on your generosity. Being caught without cash (as we did a few times) was not comfortable, nor was it fair to them
- Don’t purchase the all-inclusive meal plan. Not only are you likely to save some money by doing so, you’ll certainly gain flexibility as to where, when and what you’ll eat. To say nothing of the fact that in some cases, you probably wouldn’t want to eat where you would have to with the prepaid option.
- Plan for rain. Not just windbreakers and rain-proof jackets, but also shoes. In some places (Dawson City for example) streets are not paved, and the rain quickly turns everything into mud which you then carry with you everywhere you go. Penny loafers just aren’t the right way to go here.
- If you’re into photography, bring an all-in-one lens, the kind that handles anything from wide-angle to telephoto zoom. Landscapes, weather and other conditions change so fast that you won’t be able to change the lense to get the shot. Something like the Tamron 18-400mm lens..
- Side does matter (on the ship that is). In truth, both sides will offer great views, but still, if your cruise sails north, you want to be on the starboard side, and If it sails south, the port side.
- Pick a package that starts with land and finishes with sea. The pace is much more sustained on land (it was for us) and we felt finishing with a nice relaxed leisurely sail would have given us a better opportunity to reflect on what we had seen and relax as the voyage ended. Instead, we started slow and accelerated throughout, ending our trip rather abruptly at Anchorage airport.
Contents and itinerary
- The cruise
- Pre-boarding and other tidbits
- Boarding and departure
- Meet the ship: the MS Volendam
- Shopping and Internet
- Journey hosts
- Day 01 – Vancouver (day 0) and departure (day 1)
- Day 02 – Day at sea
- Day 03 – Tracy Arm excursion (highly recommended, more on that below) and Juneau.
- Day 04 – Disembark in Skagway. Visit Skagway and take Yukon & White Pass railway to Fraser, then coach from Fraser to Whitehorse
- Day 05 – Take coach from Whitehorse, YT to Dawson City, YT; free afternoon in Dawson City
- Day 06 – Fly from Dawson City, YT to Fairbanks; free afternoon in Fairbanks
- Day 07 – Take coach from Fairbanks to Healy (Denali); free afternoon in Healy
- Day 08 – Tour of Denali National Park by bus
- Day 09 – Healy to Anchorage via McKinley Explorer (dome train)
- Day 10 – Anchorage
- In the end…
A map of our Y5C itinerary
A map of our Y5C itinerary
Holland America Alaska Cruise
10-day Yukon and Double Denali (Y5C)
We’d started planning our summer vacation a bit late that year, and were quickly running out of options. Alaska had been on our bucket list for some time, so when we saw two cabins left on a 10 day land and sea package, we jumped on it.
Sea and land packages are a great way to get acquainted with Alaska. They’re a convenient one-stop-shop alternative that reduces the need to coordinate the array of planes, trains, and buses otherwise needed to visit all key areas. To be clear, if roughing it is your thing, you can just as easily fly into Anchorage, rent a car and wander off into the wilderness. But if like us you have limited time to plan and prepare, a prearranged 10 day tour will do just fine as a first experience. It may not be for everyone, but it did not disappoint any of us.
Even in highly controlled environment like a Holland America cruise, going to Alaska still presents small challenges.
For one thing, the weather… Even in the dead of summer, it is unpredictable at best.
Weather in Denali in mid-August.
It can startle you with a snowy 32°F one morning, and delight you with a sunny 70°F just 24 hours later in the same location (as we experienced). In extreme cases, you can go through that change much more quickly, even within a single day. Hotels in the more remote parts – Holland America standards notwithstanding – are on the rustic side and casual dress is in order. But then there is the Gala Night on the ship, for which you’re led to believe you should dress to impress. So how the heck do you pack for all that?
This piece retraces our voyage and should provide answers to some of these questions based on our experience, as well as detailed descriptions of each stop along the way. It may raise other questions, and if so, please send us a note and we’ll do our best to respond.
If you’ve already been on this or another Holland America Line cruise, please share your comments and experience so we can improve the articles over time.
If you haven’t and this is your first, we hope you find answers to some of your questions as you prepare for or consider your journey.
Pre-Boarding and Other Tidbits
Once you’ve booked your cruise (through the phone or online), you will need to complete all other requirements through Holland America’s (HAL) website. Phone lines are available for you to call in, but we found the wait excessive, and HAL clearly encourages you to manage your booking through their site.
Completing the online check-in is fairly simple but does take a while. Similar to air travel, you need to provide details for each passenger (including passport, emergency contacts etc.). Once done, print all documents necessary for boarding from the comfort of your home (boarding pass, luggage tags etc.) and bring them with you to ensure speedy processing at the terminal.
HAL luggage tags should be printed and attached (stapled) to your luggage prior to arrival at the cruise terminal where your bags will be taken from you before check-in. They will be delivered to your state room within a few hours (or sooner) after you embark. If you forget to print your luggage tags, an attendant can print them for you at a booth located at the drop-off location. This is convenient if you arrive early, but as time progresses, expect significant delays to get your tags processed.
Holland America luggage tag.
During the trip, your luggage will be handled for you between locations. This means you’ll have to prepare ahead of time, often the night before, then leave your tagged bag outside your room where it will be picked up in the morning. You will then only see your luggage the next evening at your next location. That means you often do NOT have your luggage with you in the morning
We suggest you keep a small backpack with you at all times containing basic items (personal identification, cameras, toothbrush and paste, medications, water, a sweater and other basics). It will come in handy during the trip when transferring from one location to another and your luggage has been taken away. Besides, it’s best if you dress in layers to accommodate frequent changes in weather.
One final consideration: gratuities are included on the ship, but NOT on the land portion of the voyage. During that time, you will be informed, entertained and taken care of by your Journey Host, multiple coach and bus drivers, tour, rail and other excursion guides. You may not adhere to the guidelines you will receive during the trip (they are rather generous), but you should plan on carrying a minimal amount of cash to fairly compensate everyone involved in a fair manner. They derive a significant part of their income from tips, so please, consider helping them.
Boarding and departure
Ships in Vancouver dock at the Canada Place convention center and terminal. Boarding for our trip commenced at 10am.
You should plan on boarding the ship early to avoid spending a lot of time in successive queues (luggage drop-off, check-in, waiting area, customs and immigration etc). From noon onward, the line becomes significant and boarding will take much longer with lots of waiting and not much else to do.
Boarding early will also give you more time to familiarize yourself with the ship, its deck layouts, and on-board amenities before everyone else does the same.
View of Canada Place from the Volendam.
You will need your passport handy during the entire check in process since you board the ship in Canada and will be in US territory when you disembark (Skagway, AK). Your passport will again be needed during the land portion of the cruise as you’ll be entering Canada once more (Fraser, BC) before final re-entry in the US (Fairbanks, AK). Bottom line is: you should always know where your passport is.
At check-in, you will receive your key card which will serve as your room key, credit card and overall identification during your stay on board the ship.
Once you receive the card, all other paperwork can be put away. Keep your card with you at all times while on board as you will need it for everything you do, including leaving or re-entering the ship. If you should misplace or lose your card, the Guest Services desk (deck 4 on our ship) can issue you a new one.
Meet the ship: the MS Volendam
Built in 1999, this 781 foot long Rotterdam class vessel features 10 decks (9 passenger decks), 5 of which reserved for state rooms and suites hosting 1,432 guests.
The ship features 8 bars, 2 swimming pools, 2 hot tubs, reduced size tennis and basketball courts, a spa, a fully equipped fitness center, a youth club, a main stage, a casino, and plenty of shopping. In short, lots to do during your time at sea.
You can choose among 6 room options for your trip, including two with no balcony (Inside, Ocean View) and four with balcony and increasing amounts of space (Lanai, Vista Suite, Neptune Suite and Pinnacle Suite).
Aside from standard amenities (complimentary 24-hour in-room dining, daily housekeeping, nightly turndown service, storage safe for your valuables, bathrobes, bath amenities, complimentary fresh fruit, complimentary shoeshine service, complimentary ice service), all rooms include a pair of Bushnell binoculars available for guests to use while on board or on excursion. A nice touch for sure as the ship often travels near shore and wildlife sightings are plenty.
See the “Related Links” section below for more information about the Volendam.
Retractable roof over pool deck.
We found the ship to be clean and well maintained throughout. The overall decorative theme felt a bit dated or old fashioned, but that’s evidently a subjective comment.
A few areas like the carpet in the hallway leading to our room looked worn or faded due to foot traffic, unsurprisingly, though I suspect carpets are upgraded periodically for that very reason. We may have experienced it towards its end of life. Hardly a show stopper.
Before getting into some of the specifics, let’s address the question of whether or not you should go for the “all inclusive” meal option. There’s endless debates about this on cruise forums. Opinions differ, but we recommend you opt out of the “all inclusive” option. Some of the reasons why:
- The cost difference is not substantial compared to what you will end up paying on your own, so no real saving opportunity
- You may not eat big meals at every meal. If you like to enjoy a lighter lunch or breakfast, or skip one or the other, no need to prepay
- Some of the restaurants aren’t worth it and you’re better off looking for your own options
- When the restaurants are worth it, nothing prevents you from eating there anyway
- The all inclusive plan does NOT include alcohol, so you’d have to buy your own in addition to the package price
For these and other reasons, we decided to go our own way, and we don’t regret it.
Back to the ship. The Volendam offers a variety of fine and casual dining options, seemingly common to all ships in the HAL fleet (though we cannot independently confirm). To help with the daily decisions you may have to made regarding food and entertainment, a helpful “When & Where” brochure is provided each day:
Casual dining options
HAL offers 8 casual dining options, most notably the Lido Market, the Dive-In, and the convenient in-room dining.
The Lido Market is a buffet-style setup that offers a number of contemporary domestic and international fares including (but not limited to) sushi (no raw fish however), fresh pasta, Asian cuisine, salads, deli sandwiches, a carving station, and an assortment of breads, pastries, ice cream and other desserts. Coffee and teas are available all day.
Food stations are available, and different, on both the port and starboard side, so be sure to check both sides before filling your plate and your stomach.
Anecdotally, one of the crew members (Neil from Sydney Australia) explained that he challenged himself to memorize the names and faces of every passenger on every voyage. He certainly remembered us during our 4 days on the ship, and judging by how he interacted with others, I have every reason to believe he also remembered everyone else he met. Impressive.
Food quality was good at the Lido, though neither amazing nor fundamentally original. As the most visited venue on the ship open from early morning to late evening with few interruptions, it produces an astonishingly high quantity of foods, which limits options, originality and complexity.
A tour of the kitchens (short but interesting nonetheless) helps understand the organization and labor required to keep the Lido fully stocked at all times.
Volendam kitchens (very partial view – they’re enormous…)
One quick word of caution about the Lido Market experience: most stations are not self-serve. Guests must wait while their food is being prepared, and as a result queues form quickly and move slowly. If you have activities planned for a specific time, plan accordingly.
Finding a table can also be difficult as seating capacity cannot accommodate peak attendance. While there are additional seating options on deck, you may find yourself exposed to wind, rain or other inclemencies. Make sure to plan ahead and show up early if you don’t want to deal with crowds.
As an alternative to the Lido market, you can get a hot-dog or a burger and fries at the Dive-In, enjoy in-room dining, or upgrade to one of the fine(r) dining options.
Apart from some confusingly identified exceptions from the in-room dining menu, all casual dining options listed above are included in your cruise package, so no additional expenses should be expected.
Other casual options include: New York Pizza and Tea Time (both also included in your package), and the Grand Dutch Cafe, Gelato and Explorations Cafe (not included). We never used any of them so cannot provide direct feedback.
Fine dining options
There are 6 fine dining options on board, the most widely used, and only one included in your package being The Dining Room.
All other options are priced as “upgrades”, charged as a fixed additional fee per person (on our cruise, $10 additional per person for Canaletto and up to $25 for The Pinnacle Grill. Pricing may vary based on ship and cruise).
The Dining Room menu changes daily and offers a good variety of options and tastes. Recipe originality, food quality and overall atmosphere is definitely up a few notches from casual options.
Plan to make reservations as soon as you board the ship. Seating availability in The Dining Room can be scarce at the most sought after dining times. Call as soon as possible after you board to reserve a time for each night you plan to dine at The Dining Room. Other fine dining options (upgrades) are much less in demand and should present no issues getting the time you desire.
Gala night was held on the second night (day at sea). We packed cocktail attires for the entire family, and given HAL’s upper-scale reputation, we feared being slightly underdressed for the occasion. In fact, we ended up on the overdressed side of the equation. Some (very few) passengers went all out and showed up in black-tie attire, but the overwhelming majority wore minimal upgrades from any other night.
Frankly, this was a bit of a let down. Had we known, we wouldn’t have bothered packing single-night outfits since the rest of the trip required nothing more than jeans and hiking boots.
Pack a pair of darker jeans, or comfortable slacks that can double as excursion wear, and a nice collared shirt for men, summer dresses for women, and a pair of decent shoes as shoes always improve the outfit. No need to go overboard for Gala night (no pun intended).
We spent a short 3 days on the ship due to our cruise configuration, and regrettably did not dine anywhere else but The Dining Room, so we have no comments on any of the premium venues. On face value however, premium menus do seem a bit more sophisticated, and if food quality matches menu description, the modest upgrade price per person may very well be worth it.
Shopping and Internet
The ship offers a number of duty free shopping options that become available as soon as it leaves the dock and remain open until it docks again. We cannot confirm whether all shopping and deals are similar on all ships and voyages, but significant discounts were available during our trip: up to 50% on select watches and jewelry items on the second day (day at sea) and 35% on the third day before docking. Duty free options also include the usual array of alcohol, tobacco and other perfumes traditionally offered in such settings.
One of the challenges with evaluating those deals is the relative unavailability of internet service while on board (see section below). The bottom line is that it may prove difficult to clearly evaluate the quality of the merchandise and real value of the deals offered, but after all, you’re on vacation, so if you like it, buy it.
The ship also offers basic convenience items such as basic over-the-counter pain and cold medication, but inventory is rather limited and nothing outside of very basic needs will be covered here. Best to plan ahead and bring your own.
Like most cruise lines, Holland America offers a number of internet access options while on board. And like most cruise lines, all options pretty much fall short of anything usable, be it by design (i.e. data volume allowed per plan) or in terms of actual performance. They are expensive, limiting and you’re lucky when internet access actually performs. We didn’t purchase an option and usually don’t, but anecdotally, many guests who did seemed to complain about poor performance. Probably best to count on being disconnected while at sea. After all, isn’t that the point?
Once you get into the land part of the journey, internet service will remain spotty at best owing to how remote most areas still are. Cellular coverage is rare and only available in urban areas (of which there are few) while internet access will de facto be limited to evenings once you regain wifi access at the hotel.
A word of caution: you may want to contact your cellular provider before you leave as the itinerary crosses over from Canada to the US and back a number of times. Depending on the plan you have, this international criss-crossing game could result in significant roaming charges if you’re not careful to turn roaming and cellular service on and off at the right times. Make sure your plan allows for international option before leaving, or make sure you turn off your cellular capability before crossing over to Canada.
Aside from spotty availability onboard the ship, Internet service is not much better throughout the inland part of the journey. Mostly available in hotels, Internet service is generally confined to the lobby/reception areas and rarely available in rooms, so prepare to enjoy substantial disconnected time.
Our Holland America Journey Host, Dena Davis, was extremely helpful and attentive. A number of fellow passengers were older and at times required additional care and attention. Dena anticipated their needs and went above and beyond every single time. With the help of the various coach drivers who all doubled as accomplished tour guides and very knowledgeable about their part of the journey, Dena struck the right balance between entertainment, information and providing the quiet time necessary to fully appreciate the majesty and overwhelming size of the landscapes we visited.
Aside from being a Journey Host for Holland America, Dena is also an accomplished artist and you can see some of her artwork on her FaceBook page (see related link below.
Every guide, driver and host we had on our trip was knowledgeable about key historical, geographic, socio-economic and other contextual information about the areas we drove through. Many were funny and witty, adding occasional jokes to their delivery. None were offensive and all somehow tied us back to the topics at hand and the areas visited. Nothing but positive things to say on that count.
Day 1: Vancouver
Having never been to Vancouver, we decided to take the opportunity to quickly discover the city before the start of our cruise (day 0). To be clear, this is not necessary, and you can easily arrive on the morning of the cruise, saving both time and money in the process.
Northwest Vancouver from the top of the Vancouver Lookout.
Even with just a few additional hours, Vancouver proved to be a great city to visit.
From an accommodations standpoint, we found Vancouver to be on the rather expensive side of the spectrum. We stayed at the 910 Beach Avenue Apartment Hotel, one of the more “reasonably” priced options for a family of four, where for the not-so-modest sum of $335 Canadian, we stuffed into a small studio apartment with a queen-size bed and a sofa that could only be deployed after dispatching smaller incidental pieces of furniture to the outdoor patio. The room was not air conditioned (we didn’t expect it to be) but did include two fans that earned their keep during our stay.
We checked in at 11am, dropped our bags, and the hotel being located on the south-western end of Downtown Vancouver and a block away from a small ferry that crosses the False Creek inlet into Granville Island, proceeded to this charming and “hip” 38 acre peninsula where we spent a few hours enjoying lots of great foods, shopping and leisurely walks.
Downtown Vancouver can easily be walked, but a $30 Canadian taxi ride will get you to the Vancouver Lookout much faster. The lookout is an obvious stopover when you only have limited time in Vancouver, and at 553 feet high, it offers a breathtaking 360 degree view of downtown. Regular narrated tours provide a quick and easy way to get the lowdown on the city, its history and key points of interest.
The Aquabus service to Granville Island.
The next morning (day 1), we checked out, hoped in cab and headed for Canada Place at around 10am to begin the boarding process (see previous sections on “Pre-Boarding” and “Boarding and Departure” for more details). Once on board, the rest of the day went slow and easy, with an on-time departure and a beautiful evening cruise out of Vancouver and into the Inside Passage.
Day 2: Inside Passage
The second day is a “day at sea”, and an ideal opportunity to relax, though for some, days like this can quickly turn into a bore. Not so much on this cruise, however, as that day is spent moving at a leisurely pace through tight fjord-like passageways, with lots of wildlife and sceneries to enjoy.
Volunteer naturalists are on board to share their specific knowledge of Alaska’s plants and animals. You’ll find them on deck long stretches of time, helping to spot wildlife and providing insight on animal facts and behaviors including (in our case) bald eagles and other birds of prey, as well as humpback whales.
When not on deck, or if the weather is too inclement to stay outside for long, the ship offers many activities conveniently scheduled throughout the day. We enjoyed the following:
- Tour of the ship’s kitchens: a rather short (~15 min) but informative tour that illustrates the complexities of keeping 1,432 people satiated at all times.
- Fitness center: given the overabundance of food on board, a few visits here are in order. The center is well equipped with new and rather premium PRECOR machines, including: ellipticals, treadmills, bikes, full body workout weight machines as well as a limited but comprehensive set of free weights. The Fitness center staff also offers a numbers of presentation on nutrition and exercise during the trip, along with giveaways including free and discounted offers for massages, facials, acupuncture and other services.
- America’s Test Kitchen: HAL features a full kitchen theater with live demonstrations and commentary from an America’s Test Kitchen chef. Our cruise featured two salmon recipes with helpful cooking and preparation tips along with hand outs. This turned out better than I anticipated.
- Other activities: for a comprehensive list of additional activities on board the ship, see the link below.
Day 3: Tracy Arm
Emerging from the inside passage, the ship continues toward Juneau, sailing west of Holkham Bay, where you may choose to jump ship and embark on a high-speed catamaran expedition into Tracy Arm. This 6 to 7 hour long excursion is optional and not cheap, but it is worth every penny and then some. An absolute must do.
The transfer from the cruise ship to the high speed catamaran is routinely practiced, flawlessly executed and can easily accommodate those of us requiring additional assistance, so mobility issues are not an obstacle here. Once aboard the catamaran, you will stay there all day only to re-embark the Volendam in Juneau at the end of the day.
The company chartered for our tour was Allen Marine, a family-owned business based in Sitka, Alaska that has been offering boat excursion since 1970. Operating a fleet of 25 vessels, which they built themselves in their Sitka shipyard, they are the largest day-cruise company in Alaska. Captain Bob Allen was expertly assisted by his daughters and some of their friends who shared informative facts about the region, Holkham Bay, Tracy Arm, and interestingly about life in general in Alaska, including their personal accounts of growing up and going to school in this harsher-than-most environment.
Two Orca Whales in Holkham bay.
The catamaran we were on had two decks.
The lower deck was entirely covered with wraparound windows, plenty of forward-facing seating, and a well assorted snack bar offering free coffee and hot chocolate, a choice of food items (fresh pretzel and cheese, burger, reindeer dog etc.) and alcoholic beverages for purchase.
Also available on board was an array of souvenirs and gift items, some we were told locally produced, and pricing was reasonable so no reason to hold back (many of the same items were also available much anywhere else during the trip).
Completing the amenities on lower deck were three (clean) bathrooms located aft for enhanced comfort.
The upper deck was split with a large viewing platform area and a gangway extending forward on both sides of the bridge. It also featured a covered seating area situated right behind the wheelhouse. Comfortable and sheltered, but not ideal to take pictures facing forward.
As we began our fast-speed journey toward the South Sawyer Glacier, we were fortunate to see a tandem of Orca whales and a few Humpbacks swimming into Holkham Bay.
The captain took ample time to allow our party to fully enjoy the encounter, and explained that while Humpbacks are fairly common in these areas, Orcas are much less so, and only seen once in a number of years. Indeed a treat.
As you make your way into Tracy Arm, be prepared to take more pictures than you know what to do with: changing vegetation, rock formations, waterfalls and wildlife will keep the least enthused photographers riveted to their cameras. But do save some space for when you get to the glacier itself, for those are the pictures you came for. Progressing through the fjord, the number of icebergs increases. Near the glacier wall, the waters are teaming with monk seals and icebergs of all sizes. In fact, Monk Seals seek refuge near glaciers as Orcas aren’t able to distinguish between seals and icebergs using echolocation.
Glacier recession is real, and we witnessed at least 4 occurrences of calving (chunks of ice breaking off the glacier wall) during the 45 or so minutes we enjoyed in front of it. Iceberg colors range from intense white to intense blues to dark turquoise. The bluer and darker the hue, the older the ice. Truly magical to see.
The excursion does include a snack-style box which will only satisfy the lightest eaters, containing two saltine packets, 3 chocolate mint candies, and 1 thin slice of a vegetable tortilla roll. Plan on taking your own snacks with you, or be prepared to purchase food on board. Once you leave the ship and board the catamaran, there will be no other options for food and refreshments.
Owing to our Orca encounter, we only had time to view one of the two glaciers before heading back to Juneau to reconnect with the ship. By all accounts, this was one of the best days and excursions of the trip. Don’t pass up on it.
Day 3 (end): Juneau
We spent most of the day on the high-speed catamaran going up and down Tracy Arm, so we only had a few hours left to experience Juneau. Luckily, downtown Juneau is rather small and can be explored quickly. This picture borrowed from the www.traveljuneau.com website shows the extent of downtown (cruise ships dock to the left of the picture).
Juneau is the state capital of Alaska, somewhat remarkably for a town that is only accessible by sea or air (the only state capital in the US with no road access, as if that was a distinction to strive for).
With less than 33,000 inhabitants (compared to nearly 300,000, 41% of Alaska’s population in Anchorage), and an urban area that barely covers 14 square miles, the focus is clearly on experiencing the outdoors, which we had no time for.
Instead, we visited the Sealaska Heritage Museum featuring a full size Tsimshian house front, behind which hides the replica of a “Clan House” boasting the self proclaimed “largest glass screen in the world made by the Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary. The museum showcases many other exhibits about the history and people of southeast Alaska. Well worth the visit.
Tlingit Clan House Glass Screen.
The ship departed Juneau late evening for an overnight trip to Skagway, our last port of call on the “real” cruise part of the journey.
In preparation for the next day, make sure to fill out the provided US Customs Declaration form and turn it into Guest Services on the ship by 8pm that night.
Day 4 (start): Skagway
The ship docked in Skagway at 7am. We rose early, at around 5am to more fully appreciate the last few moments of morning tranquility gliding into the end of the Lynn Canal and the Chilkoot Inlet into Skagway (early risers beware: this is one of the longest days of the trip, so make sure to get plenty of rest).
A few key points to consider to make day 4 a good day:
- Plan ahead for breakfast as everyone disembarking in Skagway will rush to the Lido Market at the same time (early), and you may be challenged to find a table.
- Holland America will provide you with specific tags to put on your luggage the night before. Your luggage will be picked up from outside your room after midnight and you won’t see them again until the next evening after you arrive in Whitehorse. Practically speaking, this means that you have to minimally keep with you toothbrush, toothpaste and whatever other personal items necessary to spend your last night on the ship, clean up and get dressed the next morning, and a bag to carry whatever items you were wearing before changing. This will happen two or three times during the land part of the journey, so having an additional bag to carry those items will make life much easier.
Old Skagway vs. New Skagway.
- The color and code on your tags DO matter. From this point forward, your group will be referred to by some combination of those characteristics. Make sure to write down the code on your tags or simply memorize it, so you have it top of mind the next morning.
- Holland America suggests ordering a box lunch for day 4 (Skagway and Yukon Pass) from the Skagway Westmark Inn Chilkoot Cafe (or have lunch before you depart at noon, but this will seriously cut into your time in Skagway). You should seriously consider doing it since you will be in the train at lunch time (see next section) and you will only have one chance to purchase food again until you arrive in Whitehorse (only option will be in Carcross, on the way to Whitehorse).
Day 4 starts in the US but crosses over to Canada in Fraser, British Columbia and later into Yukon Territory.
You MUST have your passport with you when stepping off the train and back into the motor-coach at Fraser (see next section).
Before disembarking, all passengers leaving the ship are conveyed to the Main Stage Showroom at 7:30am to be briefed on the next phase of the journey. This is also where you meet your Journey Host (see previous section on this topic). Many different groups are formed at that point, based on tag code and color, so make sure to join the correct one.
We left the ship a little before 9am, and took a motor-coach into Skagway where we had approximately 3 hours to explore the town. We stopped first at the Westmark Inn where it is possible to get coffee and other sundries, and more conveniently, to entrust your personal belongings their concierge for a less encumbered visit. This is also when you should order your lunch (first things first). All practical matters taken care of, we headed into town.
Main street in Skagway.
As the oldest incorporated city in Alaska, Skagway has a distinct Gold Rush feel to it, with history on display at every corner. It is difficult to imagine that much of the area didn’t exist before 1896 when gold was first discovered in the Klondike, whereupon Skagway grew to a lawless metropolis of over 30,000 in merely 2 years and saw more than 100,000 stampeders go through its streets.
The National Park service offers informative ranger led walking tours of Skagway that are a good way to start your visit. Each tour lasts about an hour but can only accommodate a limited number of people (13 if I recall correctly). They start at 9am, 10am and 11am in the morning, so there are only 2 or 3 possibilities before you have to move on to the next stop Be sure to head straight there to reserve your spot if you’re interested (291 Broadway, Skagway, AK 99840).
If you miss the National Park tour, don’t despair. Skagway can easily be visited on your own and there is plenty of available documentation to supplement or replace what Park officials would share.
Key points of interest include: the Moore Homestead Museum and the newly restored Jeff “Soapy” Smith’s Parlor and the Skagway Museum.
We also recommend a pit stop at the Klondike Doughboy for a most unhealthily delicious and massively big disk of fried dough. Interestingly, the owners are originally from Long Beach, CA, but were looking for milder climates. You have to try it – we almost went back for seconds.
After a little less than 3 hours and before noon, we retrieved our personal belongings, claimed our box lunch and walked to our designated bus stop from where the coach drove us to the train depot to catch our ride up the mountain pass to Fraser.
Day 4 (middle): Yukon & White Pass Railway to Fraser
We boarded our vintage passenger rail coach and left Skagway on a uphill climb that retraced one of the original routes followed by Klondike Gold Rush prospectors. They evidently did this in much less comfortable conditions, and by foot, until the railroad was built in 1898.
The 27.7 mile climb to Fraser, BC snakes uphill to 2,885 feet to reach White Pass Summit where US/Canadian mounted police only allowed stampeders with a ton of supplies to carry on (literally, you could not come into Canada unless you had all supplies required, adding up to a ton of foodstuffs and equipment).
The views along the way are fantastic. Each car features an outdoors platform from which mostly civil-mannered passengers take turn snapping unobstructed digital views at every turn.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.
Upon arrival in Fraser, we transferred off the train and back into our motor-coach (same driver) to clear Canadian Customs and Immigrations, and be on our way to Whitehorse. The entire group cleared Canadian customs at once, together.
Please note that Customs Officers take their responsibilities VERY seriously. This is no time for fun and games if you want to make it across the border timely and without embarrassment.
Day 4 (end): Coach ride from Fraser to Whitehorse
After reconnecting with our motor-coach in Fraser, and once the joyful process of clearing Canadian Customs over with, we were on the way to Whitehorse. The seemingly unending drive on what feels like a road to nowhere (actually, Whitehorse is mostly in the middle of nowhere) was in fact rather enjoyable, instructed as we were by our driver’s encyclopedic knowledge of the area and its history, and his more than mildly entertaining delivery. We had plenty of opportunities to stop along the way to take in the view, and begin to more fully appreciate the vastness of the backcountry we were traversing.
Old church in Carcross.
If you chose not to purchase a box lunch, and therefore had nothing to eat during or after the train ride to Fraser, your only option to get some food in your system before dinner is Carcross, one of the only communities you will see between Frazer and Whitehorse.
Originally known as Caribou Crossing, Carcross has a population of 301 and is the charming official hometown of the Tagish and Tlinglit First Nation people.
We arrived in Whitehorse right around dinner time. The Whitehorse Westmark is not the most memorable stop on the journey. The hotel looks and feels like a recent acquisition that has not yet been remodeled to Holland America’s standards.
Somewhat surprisingly, Whitehorse features a number of hip dining options. We wanted to try the Klondike Rib & Salmon, but the line was out the door so we eventually settled for Miner’s Daughter/Dirty Northern, largely on account of there being no wait. The pub style food was decent (smoked salmon pizza, bison burger among other things) and so was the price, once we realized we were dealing in Canadian dollars and not US.
We walked through town after dinner and spotted this interesting Old Log Church which we would have loved to visit, but it was unfortunately closed.
In the end however, Whitehorse was no white unicorn. Whitehorse makes for a logical stop on the journey, being conveniently located about midway through the vast nowhere that leads to Dawson City. But we found the town to be rather drab and unattractive (the weather didn’t help), and the few encounters we had while walking the streets after dinner did nothing to turn our perception around. It is perhaps also why you get there late on night and leave early the next morning.
Day 5: Coach ride to Dawson City and Dawson City
Day 5 was another early start. We left Whitehorse for Dawson City at 7:30am after a slingshot breakfast of Timbits and coffee at the local Tim Horton’s. The 6.5 hour drive on Yukon Highway 2 (also known as the Klondike Highway) loosely parallels the route used by prospectors in the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.
The first stop on this motor-coach marathon comes at the Braeburn Lodge, home of the head-size cinnamon roll. Located on the Dawson Overland trail, Braeburn is also an official check point on the Yukon Quest. This is also where the roadway switches from traditional asphalt to a permafrost adapted road cover that feels very much like compacted gravel.
From there, we drove through Carmacks (crossing the Yukon river), stopped for a picture at Five Finger Rapid, had lunch (provided) at Minto Resorts (a historic First Nations settlement now owned by the Selkirk First Nation), and enjoyed rhubarb and other homemade pastries at Moose Creek Lodge before arriving Dawson City late afternoon.
Klondike Highway en route to Dawson City.
Dawson City is in the heart of modern day Gold Rush. In fact 4 of the mines featured on the Discovery Channels Gold Rush TV show are about 40 miles away from Dawson City. Nearing Dawson City, conspicuous evidence of this can be seen on either side of the road where huge worm shaped dredging deposits fill the landscape. Modern mining activity is alive and well, turning surrounding areas into Swiss cheese. It would be interesting to visit some of these places, but we unfortunately didn’t have enough time to do so.
Dawson City welcomed us with heavy rain followed by near constant drizzle. Nothing one wouldn’t expect, but Dawson City is designed in a way that makes sustained rain profoundly unpleasant: starting just a few feet after turning into town, roads go from paved to clay-like dirt. Perfectly justifiable for a city covered in snow up to 9 months in the year, but we weren’t equipped for extensive mud-hiking and had to constrain our exploring to the more manageable parts of town.
If you have the space, plan to pack at least one outfit that will allow you to comfortably explore in the rain and mud.
Given the circumstances, we directed our attention to the Dawson City Museum before heading to Triple J for dinner (best poutine in a long while found there).
We hear that spending your evening at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest gambling and can-can hall, is all the rage, but having underaged children with us, we weren’t able to validate that claim.
For the more daring voyager, you can even enjoy a sip of Sourtoe Cocktail (yes, the spelling is correct…).
There are plenty of details available online, but suffice it to say that owing to rather gruesome circumstances, one of the protagonists had the brilliant idea to start a club, for which the only membership requirement is to drink a shot of whiskey in which a dehydrated toe is taking a bath.
There is one rule to follow: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe”.
That’s just one more way to experience Dawson City.
Day 6: Flight to Fairbanks and Fairbanks
After a comfortable night at the Dawson City Westmark (by now you will surely have figured out that Holland America owns Westmark), we transferred from the hotel to the Dawson City airfield where we boarded a chartered Boeing 737 for our flight into Fairbanks. Our flight left at 10am, so the morning was a bit less rushed than usual.
The rain traveled with us and redoubled its effort to make our lives miserable in Fairbanks. Undeterred, we dropped our luggage at the- you will have guessed – Fairbanks Westmark hotel, had a quick lunch in the hotel (not recommended), grabbed some courtesy umbrellas and headed into town.
Before enjoying a rather good diner of Thai food at the Thai House (leftovers doubled as an exotic breakfast the next day), we ended up spending most of our time at the headquarters of the Yukon Quest International organization where one of the race’s founders shared everything there is to know about the race, its history, past and current mushers, the dogs and much more.
We even bought a bootie to sponsor one of the dogs for the upcoming quest that will start in February 2019.
Day 7: Coach ride to Healy (Denali National Park)
On the road again, this time on route to Denali National Park through a picturesque 2 hour ride to Healy. Once more, we stayed at a Westmark property, the McKinley Chalet Resort, but this one was decidedly more what you’d expect from a Holland America experience.
Boasting 483 rooms, the hotel looks and feel like a huge log cabin (multiple buildings) and provides great comfort and all amenities less than 2 miles away from the park entrance.
There are some great food options on premises, including Karstens Public House that offers original comfort foods in casual settings.
If you’re in the mood and not too tired, a number of trailheads start right from the hotel. Most are easy to moderate (some strenuous), and range in length from 1 to 9 miles with the majority between 1.5 to 4 miles. Weather notwithstanding, it’s a great way to get closer to nature without over-committing.
We had a quick bite, and headed straight out to our side-by-side ATV adventure booked through HAL with the Black Diamond Resort Company.
Black Diamond picked us up at the Westmark and took us to their base camp. After a short training video, we received our helmets and saddled in pairs in our Polaris ATVs for our 3 ½ hour ride into relative wilderness.
The ATVs are easy to drive and not overpowered, making them quite forgiving. The backcountry trails are mostly flat (ATVs are all set to 2×4) with some occasional bumpy areas to keep up the fun… You should dress with the understanding that there will be mud and water flying around, so some splatter is likely.
Don’t wear your finest attire (a couple from another group showed up in penny loafers and high heels, and ended their tour in a considerably aggravated state of mind).
We saw our first hoofed wildlife of the trip when our lead driver pointed out some moose in the distant wilderness.
About 90 minutes into the trek, we stopped for what had been advertised as a “backcountry meal”. By then we had come to expect fairly minimal snack-like interludes, but this… The meal was over the top.
Had we known, we would have skipped lunch altogether. We were treated to a seemingly unending array of baby back ribs, chicken stew, salmon filets, corn bread, corn on the cob, coleslaw, potato salad and other homemade comfort fares. Having had lunch barely 2 hours before that, we were beyond full when they brought the blueberry cake. Unreal, but totally worth it.
Just be aware so you can prepare accordingly, and enjoy the meal more fully than we did.
Day 8: Denali National Park
The much anticipated “Tundra Wilderness Tour” of Denali National Park started with more rain and dense clouds. The mood was a bit somber as one of the key expectations on this tour is to (finally) get to see Mount McKinley (a.k.a. Denali), and as we drove deeper and deeper into the park it became clear we weren’t going to be so lucky. Mind you, only about ⅓ of visitors to the park are graced with a glimpse of the highest mountain peak in North America.
We packed into one of the converted tour buses, the only vehicles allowed into the park past mile 15, or up to the Savage River Check Station Gate. In order to minimize impact on the park’s roads and wildlife, access to the only road into the park was restricted to buses. Each bus eliminates approximately 20 to 25 cars that would otherwise clog the park, and their trained drivers are much more aware and cautious to minimally disrupt wildlife.
The only road into the park stretches 92 miles, of which our tour covered the first 62 (it takes nearly 8 hours to drive it), all the way to Stony Hill Overlook. This is where pictures of McKinley should be taken. Ours was somewhat hindered by the fog…
But here’s the thing: bad weather isn’t bad for everything. Wildlife is much more likely to be seen in cloudy, drizzly conditions. So our initial disappointment turned into outright elation as our visit slowly turned into a wildlife extravaganza. We saw: moose, caribou, ptarmigans (the state bird of Alaska), Dall sheep, a bear, and…. a wolf cub (which reportedly are extremely rare to see). Our driver described the experience as being a “home run” for seeing all six key species in one trip. Despite the rain and the absence of Denali, we felt content that night.
Day 9: McKinley Explorer to Anchorage
We woke up to a fresh, crisp morning bathed in brilliant sunshine. Still high from our wildlife filled excursion the day before, we boarded our coach at 8:30am for a short ride to the rail depot where we hopped on the McKinley Explorer for our last 8 hour train ride to Anchorage.
The weather graces us with a perfect blue sky with occasional white clouds and plenty of sun.
The views were unbelievable, and yes, we finally got to see Denali in all its splendor. What a sight that was.
The domed rail cars of the Explorer offer exceptional views during the entire journey. Each two-level rail car features a full bar upstairs (where your seat also is), clean, spacious and comfortable restrooms downstairs, as well as a restaurant serving local dishes.
If you’re into taking pictures, the rather spacious outdoor platform at the back of the car is where you want to be. I spent nearly the entire trip on it, with occasional breaks for a drink and a bite to eat.
The majestic views of Denali in the distance were an incredible exclamation point to this final leg of our trip. As a whole, the train ride was a welcome break from the non-stop sequence of coaches rides of the previous few days – and a nice way to slowly ease out of the trip.
We arrived in Anchorage late in the afternoon, and checked in at the Captain Cook hotel, a rather nice way to end the trip, and presumably a nice upgrade from the Westmark other guests are known to be placed in.
We enjoyed the late daylight to stroll downtown. We were going to have dinner at the 49th State Brew co., renowned for its outdoor terrace, but the line was out the door with a 2 hour wait, so we settled instead for the Glacier Brewhouse.
Our kids were tired and a bit on the cranky side as the trip neared its end, so we didn’t get to fully enjoy dinner. But we were surprised at how hopping the place was. We had to wait an hour for our table, and it felt as though we were in the middle of any major city bustling brewery scene.
We ended the day with a leisurely stroll on the west side, near the train tracks and the inlet. The sunset was glorious, lasting a good long while in this latitude.
Day 10: Anchorage
Anchorage proved to be more inviting than we thought it would be. The city feels like any other metropolitan area, but you quickly realize the downtown isn’t as big as it seems.
That said, with over 400,000 people, Anchorage is clearly and by far the largest city in Alaska. In fact, if you extend its reach to include its surrounding wider metropolitan areas, Anchorage is home to more than half of the state’s total population. So why isn’t Anchorage the capital of Alaska, you might astutely ask? Well, unsurprisingly the answer is a mix of history and politics, and you can read more about it here.
We had some time to kill in Anchorage as our flight back home left at 11:30pm that day, so we started with a Trolley tour of the town and its surroundings. The tour lasts about an hour and the information provided is both entertaining and informative.
Totally worth doing, and even better if you start with it as it will likely give you ideas for other things you can do once the tour is over.
We spent significant time the rest of the day on an early Christmas shopping spree, taking advantage of the wide array of souvenirs and gift options Anchorage has to offer.
Nearly everything you find in the backcountry can also be found in Anchorage, so if convenience is your key focus, shopping here is the way to do it. We always try to support local economies during our travels, so we only complemented our shopping while in Anchorage.
We ended the day watching local fishermen stake their position in the Ship Creek river estuary to catch their daily allowance of King Salmon. As the tide was coming in, more and more locals (and a few tourists) showed up to get a piece of the action.
The area is one of the known spots for “combat fishing”, a colorful way to describe extremely crowded fishing conditions as anglers “fight” for limited ideal fishing locations along the banks. As crowding increases, shoulder-to-shoulder fishing inevitably leads to lures and other fishing paraphernalia getting stuck in areas they shouldn’t, leading to temporary overcrowding of the local hospital. We did here that “combat fishing” could turn into actual combat, though all official accounts downplay that possibility.
In the end…
Cruising Alaska, by land, sea, or both, truly is a voyage of epic geographic proportions that you only begin to appreciate once you reflect back on where you’ve been. Plotting the route on a world map (and zooming out) was the moment I realized the magnitude of the terrain we had just covered.
We have no regrets about choosing a land and sea cruise package as a first trip to Alaska. The inside passage offers a perspective that would otherwise simply not be available. Juneau isn’t accessible any other way (except by air) so again, limited options for visiting Alaska’s capital city.
Our only regret was that our package started with the sea part of the journey. The land part of the trip was reasonably fast paced with long days, late nights and early mornings. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the format made it feel like a committed schedule with little room for taking things in, and really appreciating the environment. In retrospect, ending the voyage with the sea portion of the cruise would have allowed everything we’d seen to settle nicely, and would have given us plenty of time to reflect on it in quieter settings.
We recommend finding a package that starts with land and ends with sea for a more gradual exit and a more relaxing overall flow to the vacation plan.
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Thank you, and happy travels!