Monday, January 12, 2015

The Coral Princess Northbound Cruise and Land Tour Day 9

The Coral Princess Northbound Cruise and Land Tour
Meeting the Mayor of Talkeetna and Floating Down the Susitna

The next day of our land cruise started with an early morning phone call: the mountain was out! While it sounds a little weird to get a call notifying you a mountain is "out," you'd be right, but the mountain, aka Denali, aka the "great one," aka Mount McKinley, the tallest point in North America, is rarely visible as it's usually covered in clouds 75% of the time. The fact that it was visible more than made up for not having my suitcase when I needed it most.


After the excitement of getting to see Mount McKinley, grabbing breakfast with my folks and seeing them off for their excursion, I decided to take a walk on the foot path that circled the main lodge. The short walk provided a couple of nice vantage points of the Susitna River and had several informational signs to tell you about the plant life that surrounded you. On the walk back up to the lodge, I noticed that the luggage trucks were driving around delivering fresh suitcases, so I eagerly went back to the room to see if my suitcase was waiting for me. It wasn't. 

I went to grab a cup of coffee from the cafe when I notice that more of the clouds that were in front of Denali had lifted. So I took my cup of coffee, sat out on the deck, snapped a couple of photos and took it all in. In a matter of a year I've been fortunate enough to have seen and been to the lowest point on earth in Death Valley National Park in the beginning of the year, and now I was sitting in front of the highest point on North America; it was a little hard to believe.

Not wanting to be late for my own excursion, a river float trip down the Susitna River, I put on the warm fleece I purchased yesterday and went down to the lodge to catch the bus into town. After a full night's sleep I thought I could manage to stay awake for the 40 minute drive... I was wrong, I passed out shortly after the bus drove by Wall-Mike's and woke up when we pulled into the bus parking area.

More of the beautiful flower arrangements that are everywhere in Alaska.

I had about 30 minutes before my excursion started so I met up with my folks at the Denali Brewing Company for a Belgian Bastard and an afternoon snack before embarking on my float trip, which started at the Talkeetna River Guides yurt.

Once I arrived and checked in, I went to the back where I received a pair of boots to put on over my shoes and a heavy waterproof rain jacket. After that we were introduced to our guides and then split up into groups and subsequently into two different 15 passenger vans which towed our floats. It was about a 5 minutes drive down to the boat launch, where we were then given our life jackets and safety speech infused with humor before hopping in our float and going down the Talkeetna River. The float trip was one of the most relaxing excursions I've ever done. We saw American Bald Eagles, a few salmon and got to try watermelon berries and wild grown raspberries. Toward the end of the ride we were greeted by Steve, who sang and played a song on his banjo.

This boat is from another excursion offered by Princess and they came speeding in right after we landed ashore

We ended up "docking" at the very same beach that I dipped my toes in the day before and walked back to the yurt to drop off the boots and rain jacket.

I didn't have too long to wait before the last bus from town left, so I went to the Wildflower Cafe and had a Denali Brewing Company's Single Engine Red beer and delicious crab cake for dinner, before strolling back to the bus stop.

And huzzah, when I returned my suitcase was finally waiting for me in my hotel room!

Oh and meet the Mayor of Talkeetna, the honorary mayor that is, Mayor Stubbs.

Next up, my last day in Talkeetna and my train trip to Denali National Park.

The Coral Princess Northbound Cruise and Land Tour Day 8

The Coral Princess Northbound Cruise and Land Tour
The Train from Whittier to Talkeetna

The next and last day on the Coral Princess was painfully early as we had to be ready to board our train to Talkeetna before the sun even rose. After a quick breakfast in the Horizon Court, I went down to the main dining room to wait for our color (each boarding group is colored coded, my disembarkation/boarding color was yellow) to be called. Once our group was called, I walked down the gang plank and  through a series of tented covered walkways (because surprise, surprise it was raining), before reaching the waiting train, where we were greeted by a friendly conductor who helped my parents and I into the right train car. Once you board you sit at your assigned table, which is signified on your train ticket, and then either promptly take a nap or browse through the reading material that was put on the table for you. Included was a breakfast/lunch menu, a catalog for a gift shop on board (no surprise there), and a fun and easy crossword puzzle.

While my eyes wished for nothing but blackness, my brain yelled to stay awake stupid, and look at that amazing scenery passing you by; so I did. Each train car owned by Princess comes with a staff of two; one to take your food and drink orders if you so chose and another to give you information about arrival in Talkeetna and what exactly you're seeing our your window.

A pretty big fan of the show Mysteries at the Museum, I knew that we would be passing by where the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, which was an earth shattering 9.4 on the Richter scale and brought in a devastating tsunami. And sure enough our train guide pointed out exactly where it happened and the present day evidence. While it may not look like much,it  is an interesting reminder about what happened there 50 years ago. 

These trees sticking up from marshy waters are actually petrified by the sea water brought in from the tsunami in 1964.

The viewing platform on this train was small, so just a friendly reminder, while you want to just stand there and take photos all day in the fresh Alaskan air, don't be a camper and let others enjoy the view from time to time.

It was pretty neat and rather odd to see planes just parked in peoples' yards, but when you live out in the bush, it can be the best way to get from point a to point b.

The dome train car windows were nicely clean, so if you don't want to venture out to the small viewing platform, fear not, you can shoot happily from your seat. About halfway through the trip, my stomach started to yell at me; "Eat some damn lunch!" it growled. I ended up acquiescing and split a sandwich with my mother.  

About 20 minutes before the train pulled into Talkeetna our train guide handed out packets to each table which contained room keys, maps to where your room was, a map of Talkeetna and a print out of excursions that you'll need to have with you to get on the bus to get to your excursion.

A moose spotted from the train. In fact, when we spotted the moose, the engineer slowed the train down for ample viewing time

You also have the option of taking the 40 minute drive directly to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge or taking a 5 minute drive directly into the town of Talkeetna and catching a bus (still a 40 minute drive) later in the day to the lodge. If you chose the latter like we did, and you chose not to lug around the additional bag you brought on the train with you, don't worry, simply ask for an additional tag from your train car's guide, fill it out and that bag will go on ahead to the lodge and meet you in your room. 

I should also mention though, that if you chose to go to the lodge first to rest a bit, that you will have to pay a small fee for the bus back into Talkeetna, unless of course you are on an excursion, then the ride is free (sans tip of course). 

The tiny town of Talkeetna has to be one of, if not my favorite place to visit on the trip. The people are friendly, the food and beer wonderful, and did I mention that it's so small that there isn't even a traffic light? Well there isn't and of course that means that this is just a perfect little walking town, with interesting shops to stop in and beautiful views to take in. 

About a 15 minute walk from where the bus drops you off, you can reach a beach and feel the cool glacial waters that flow into the Susitna River. If that's not your jam and you're into history, fear not. For only a couple of bucks you can stop into the Talkeetna Historic Society Museum and see artifacts from when Talkeetna was an early settlement and all that comes with making a go of it in cold climates in a former US territory (Alaska didn't gain statehood until January 3rd, 1959). 

Interested in learning all about this big ole mountain folks around you call the "great one" or maybe you heard it being called Denali or perhaps you know it as Mount McKinley? Well, the tallest mountain in North America is named all those things, but more on that later. If you are interested, stop by the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station for the Denali National Park and Preserve where a complimentary film is shown several times a day on the Denali. You can also learn about the intrepid mountaineers who try to reach its summit and see some of the equipment used. And depending on what time of the year you go, you might even get to meet some of the daring hikers who have to register at the ranger station before starting their ascent.

Whatever you end up doing here, at the end of the day I can bet you'll enjoy. Just sit back relax and take it all in and enjoy your time in Talkeetna.

I managed to catch a few fish, but I had a sneaking suspicion that someone was hungrier than me. 


And of course, because I was at a beach, the obligatory feet in the sand shot, or in this case, feet in the glacial sand silt. The water was absolutely freezing though, but hey, I got to stick my toes in water that's run off from a glacier! Nerdy neatness.

Some of the exhibits in the Talkeetna Historical Society Musuem.

The Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station

Dipping my feet into glacial waters and walking around in fresh air works up an appetite, so we ended up deciding to go for an early dinner and ice cold brew at the Denali Brewing Company. Depending on what guide or Princess staff member, it's either an okay place for food or a place to avoid. I thought it was absolutely delicious and had some amazing micro brewed beer (that, unfortunately, I cannot find anywhere near me on the east coast). The prices were also not out of this world, so yay for the budget traveler, I'd recommend it and at least try a Belgian Bastard while you're there.

Before you leave though, make sure to stop in at the Alaska Gold Mine Candy Company, not only for the amazingly delicious sweet treats, but also for cheap huge bottles of water that they overcharge you for at any of the lodges. 

After a long nap on the bus we finally made it to the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge (say that 5 times fast), explored the area a little and then when to see our room and meet our, "meet me tonight" luggage. Well, my parents got to see their "meet me tonight" bags, however my suitcase was a little too eager to continue on its journey and was at the Princess Denali Wilderness Lodge. Yep, no warm socks and sneakers (I had decided to wear sandals that day), no warm sweatshirts (it was getting cold) and, of course, no clean clothes for me the next day (thankfully I had my pj's packed from the early morning on the cruise). Princess stepped up to the plate though by apologizing and giving me a $50 certificate that I used to get a warm fleece and a couple of other things in the gift shop for the next day.

While at the gift shop, I went to the front desk to ask to be called if the northern lights or mountain can be seen at any time of day or night. It's a nice service that definitely came in handy the next day.

Our room was in another outbuilding, separate from the main lodge, but a very, very short walk to it.

In the evening you can roast marshmallow and make s'mores from this fire pit.

I think they enjoyed their treat.

And to give you an idea of food prices while on the lodge property, I've added a couple of menus that were on the door outside the Alaska Grill, which are full size so you click to enlarge to read the details. I never ate here though, so I can't really tell you if the food was out of this world or not.

Slightly miffed that I didn't have a fresh pair of clean clothes and warm  socks and sneakers to change into after a long day on the train and walking around, I called it quits early hoping for a view of "the great one" in the morning.

And here's a quick video highlight of my day on the train to Talkeetna in Alaska.

Unfortunately I can't figure out to make this bigger and to display it in the full 1080p on command, so make sure to enlarge and select 1080p!

Next up on the blog, Mt. McKinley, a full day complete day in Talkeetna, complete with an excursion.

If you would like to see more photos from the train ride, click here.

If you would like to see more of photos from Talkeetna and the journey there, then click here.