Most people who visit Alaska do so on a giant cruise ship that floats around the southern shores of Alaska. When we were looking at Alaska, we too were drawn by the charm of sharing oxygen with hundreds of strangers in stuffy cruise ship cabins for a week, but ultimately we decided against it. However, through a cruise company called Princess we organized a rail tour from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
I’ll get into the specifics of what we did in future posts – Alaska is beautiful! – but for now, I’m just going to talk about the tour itself.
Our itinerary was planned in advance with no way of changing anything – no way of cutting a day in Anchorage, adding a day in Fairbanks, etc. It was a strict “private, you’ll be at meeting point A at exactly oh-six-hundred-hours or you’ll drop and give me 20.” Very different from our usual vacations where we often arrange things as we go.
At times, the military precision went a little too far. When we first arrived in Anchorage, we were given a welcome packet and a set of luggage tags. If you tagged your bag correctly, someone would collect it in advance and have it meet you at another point in your journey. Problem was this:
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, listen up. You have six luggage tags in your welcome packet. You’ll notice they’re all different. That’s because they identify where your luggage will meet you. The green tag means you’ll meet the luggage in two days time at the lodge. The blue tag means the luggage will meet you in five days in Fairbanks. However, the blue tag with white stripes on meets you’ll pick up the luggage on the train from the lodge to Fairbanks. And the white tag with blue stripes means the luggage will meet you at the airport for your flight home. Finally, the red tag you should put on the bag you’re carrying around each day, to prevent our staff trying to yank it away from you and sending it to another destination. Does that make sense to everyone?”
See the problem?
For those counting, the sixth tag was plain black and its purpose was never unearthed. Or maybe we just weren’t paying enough attention.
Despite the military schedule, actually leaving on time to do anything was rare. For the journey from the Anchorage hotel to the train station six coaches left, each spaced fifteen minutes apart, but at one point four coaches were vying for the same pickup spot outside the hotel. Allegedly this was due to mechanical failures and buses not able to leave the depot on time, but it was also partly because it’s mathematically impossible to plan for just how slowly 60+ year olds board buses. It’s ponderous. It’s maddening. But it’s also not their fault. Time is the Achilles heel of us all.
In some cruel karma for all our impatience, one day we had to leave at 5.30am and it happened to be the day the bus left exactly on time. It also happened to be the day we’d forgotten to set our alarm. Miraculously we woke up at 5.22am, shoved pants onto our head and t-shirts on our feet and sprinted to the bus. We climbed aboard and sheepishly shuffled to the two empty seats at the back of the bus, past all the 60+ somethings who smirked and whispered things about young people having no appreciation for time. What bastards.
I should talk about the people a little. First, the guides and staff. They were uniformly polite and friendly and informative, if somewhat forgettable. Since coming home, they’ve all pretty much blurred into one person, one vague face who went everywhere we did. They were someone who only works in Alaska in the summer season, spending the rest of the year in Florida or Massachusetts or Kansas, because apparently people do actually live in Topeka. The staff were also generally young, by which I mean they could get on and off the bus without taking a deep breath.
The guests, on the other hand, only wanted to talk about potted plants and property ownership. They weren’t exactly the most culturally diverse group of people. In fact here’s a group photo of them all:
We hung out with our crew for six days: two nights in Anchorage, two in Denali, and two in Fairbanks, seeing glaciers, seeing grizzlies in the wilderness, white water rafting, eating cake in the Arctic Circle, all the usual vacation things.
For anyone interested in what we actually did, here’s our exact itinerary, booked through Princess Cruises.
- Day 1 – fly into Anchorage, night in Anchorage Westmark Hotel.
- Day 2 – free morning that we filled with a walk around Anchorage and a free walking tour from the visitor center. Portage Glacier visit in the afternoon. Night in Anchorage Westmark Hotel.
- Day 3 – 8-hour train ride from Anchorage to Denali. Denali Dinner and Show. Night in Denali.
- Day 4 – wilderness tundra tour in Denali National Park. Free afternoon. Night in Denali.
- Day 5 – free morning. 4-hour train ride from Denali to Fairbanks in the afternoon. Night in Fairbanks.
- Day 6 – this is where we left Princess and booked a separate tour up to the Arctic Circle. Night in Fairbanks at 9th Ave B&B Hostel.
- Day 7 – city tour around Fairbanks, including the visitor center, Museum of the North, and a visit to Santa’s House in a town called North Pole. Fly home.
Check back in future for posts about specific things we did. And if anyone has been to Alaska and wants to share their tips, comment below!