Saturday, September 5, 2009

Destination Alaska - preparation for the trip of a life time

The Glaciers, Wilderness at Denali, Salmon spawning, Northern Aura ......Every time I heard about Alaska, I was tingled a bit ....... The urge to visit Alaska increased a little. Then at the end of 2007, I read an article in US News and World Report about 100 places to visit in the new year. The article suggested readers to go to Alaska to see glaciers before they disappear. That's when we started seriously thinking about visit Alaska.

Alaska is so far away, there are so many possible places to visit, so many wilderness to explore and the travel expense could be much higher than that for a lower 48 state travel. Many people considered the trip to Alaska - a trip of a life time. As we usually do on any big trip, we started our planning with research on Alaska, talking to colleagues and friends who have been to Alaska, check national park service website, search cruise lines websites etc. A thought about travelling like we usually do at continental United States - i.e. fly to destination, rent a car, stay in hotel or camping, was shot down. Because most glaciers are not accessible by car, lodging at hot spots such as Denali is usually booked a year ahead of time. For the same reason, we also ruled out cruise and then travel on rental car on land. (Note: Some people do travel on their own by flying to Alaska and renting a RV - we will do this if we visit Alaska again)

Expectations were so high, expense were potentially tremendous, to maximize our experience, we decided to take a cruise and cruisetour with a cruise line to cover both tours at sea and on land. Once the decision was made, we started shopping around for a deal on cruise in November 2008. We eventually decided on a '7 day cruise and 2 day Denali' with Holland America Line making reservation and deposit in January 2009 for an end of July cruise. Reservation could be cancelled by end of May for our case. Early reservation helped shopping for good deal on airfare - we would embark our cruise at Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately a discounted airfare is not refundable.

Cruise with children

We heard a lot people saying cruise was not good for kids - they were easily bored. It would be good to go with other families which have kids of similar age... We actively recruited other families but in the end we went by ourselves. We did a few things specifically to counter this potential issue. Early on, we had them involved in excursion planning - let them read guide books and make their suggestions, so at the time of cruise they had something to look forward to. The other thing, which I believe was important, was to let children to have their own digital cameras on the trip if the children are old enough, say 7 years or older. In this way, when the children see something beautiful, they observe more just to take a good picture if nothing else, and gradually they appreciate what nature brings to them more. We also allow children to bring one book and one game each just in case nothing on board interests them sometime. It is essential to not let them to bring a lot of books or games - they could be absorbed in the books or games just as at home and beat the purpose of going on vacation. An intangible about cruise with children is not to dictate or suggest them what to do all the time, let them make some choices, on board in particular.

Personalized Travel Plan

We prepare an detailed plan for each trip we take. We are outdoor type - state parks, national parks are our favorite destinations. Even though the cruise and cruisetoure is a guided tour, one still needs to personalize the itinerary - primarily for excursions and transit. Detailed travel plan helps to maximize travel experience, prevent disappointments. When situation changes, detailed planning also helps travellers make proper decisions on changes. Here is our itinerary for our 12 day trip.

(color code - blue - activities taken as planned, red - added/changed activities, non highlighted activities were not taken)

Day 1, Fly into Vancouver, Canada - arrive in the afternoon
Vancouver Lookout, Canada Place, Stanley Park

Note: We were tired when we arrived at our hotel at Vancouver, we went straight to bed after dinner. The activities were postponed to next day.

Day 2, Embark cruise ship MS Ryndam around 3pm
Suspension bridge state park

Note: we wished we had stayed at Vancouver one more day so we could see the city more - especially visit the suspension bridge park.

Day 3, at sea

Day 4, Ketchican, arrive 7am, depart 3pm
Excursion Options – misty fjords wilderness cruise $$$
Eagle island sea kayak $$
Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary$$

Note: For this first port, we tried our luck to purchase excursions on shore - but the ones we were interested were sold out. After completed an hastily purchased excursion, we purchased the rest of excursions on board. Purchasing excursion on shore can be cheaper, $10-15 per person most of the time, but the risk is that popular tours could be sold out .

Day 5, Haines, arrive 10am, depart 11pm
Excursion Options – Eagle preserve float adventure $$
Eagle preserve wildlife river adventure $$
Glacier point wilderness safari $$$
Glacier fjords by bike $$ **

Day 6, Juneau, arrive 7am, depart 6pm

Excursion Options – Mendenhall glacier and whale quest $$
Historic gold panning adventure $
Douglas island sea kayaking $$
Glacier flightseeing by float plane $$$
Mendenhall glacier by helicopter and guided tour$$$

Day 7, Sitka, arrive 7am, depart 4pm
Excursion Option – Sitka bike and hike $$
Silver bay nature cruise and salmon hatchery $$
Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest $$
Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventures $$

Day 8, Hubbard Glacier, arrive 7am, depart 11am
stay on board - at sea

Day 9, Seaward, 6am, disembark
travel to Denali National Park by coach along scenic highway
Portage Lake and Glaciers ( included in the package)

Day 10, Denali National Park
Horseshoe Lake hiking
8 hours Tundra Wilderness Tour starting at 2pm
Note: we did not know the tour starting at 2pm and thus did not make any plan for the morning. We went to visitor's center to ask a ranger for suggestion - that was how we chose horse shoe lake trail. If we stay at Denali longer, we would have climbed Mt Healy - just to get the feeling of on top of the world as a non mountaineer.

Day 11, Denali National Park - leave for Anchorage by train
Double deck scenic train ride - to arrive Anchorage in the evening
Day 12, Anchorage
Morning: Tour downtown, souvenir shopping
Afternoon: Bike ride at Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Flight home - take off 9:30pm
Note: Our whole family enjoyed the trip tremendously. I will write more about our Alaska experience in this blog.

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