Saturday, 26 July 2014

Alaska, land tour


Rajam and myself went on 11 day Denali discovery cruisetour operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines starting on 27th June 2014 from Anchorage, Alaska .  This tour combined a land tour of Alaska for 3 days and a 7 night cruise across Gulf of Alaska and inside passage to Vancouver, Canada.  We started our tour from San Francisco where we halted for 3 days to visit my nephew, niece and a long-lost friend from Sydney settled there and all their family members.  The photos of our visit to San Francisco I have uploaded in the Flickr Album “San Francisco 2014”:

We landed in Anchorage a day earlier to the start of tour to enjoy the feel of the place and to go round the place on our own.  We stayed in the same hotel, as fixed by our tour operator, Hotel Millennium.  Though it was not in down-town, there was a Subway, McDonald, pizza eatery and a Tesco chain store all within walking distance from the hotel.   As food was not covered in the land portion of the tour, this was important for us, being vegetarians.  The hotel operates a regular shuttle down-town to visitor’s centre from where we can catch shuttles to other locations.  Further the hotel was overlooking Lake Spenard, a big lake which is a sea-plane base and the hotel also was having a sea plane dock.  One can also have a good view of the mountain ranges that surround Anchorage from the hotel premises.  The weather was fine and being summer even at 11 pm. there was daylight, completely disorienting our time-sense.  Anchorage though not the capital of Alaska, is its most populous city having about 40% of the state’s population. 

Next day we went to the city-centre and took a shuttle from there to visit the zoo.  We also spent time going round. There were hot dog stands all around selling the local speciality, the spicy hot reindeer dog.  In the evening we met the tour director, Scott Terry, who briefed us on the programme until embarkation at Whittier, two days later.  The next morning we left by coach to Talkeetna, where we boarded a special glass domed double-decker Gold Star rail-coach for the onward journey to Denali.  The coach has a fine dining restaurant in the lower deck and 3600 viewing, forward looking rotating seats and a viewing portion in the upper deck. This is a scenic route with mountains, glaciers, rivers, Tundra forests all the way. Weather being fine we could enjoy the four hour train journey , munching snacks and sipping coffee while watching the passing rugged Alaska scenery. We reached Denali Park around 4 p.m. and were transported to our lodgings in Denali Park village.

Denali Park village is situated on the banks of the Nenana river and there is also a walking trail hugging the banks.  The rooms were comfortable log cabins, spread over the village in ten single storeyed buildings. The restaurant and coffee shop were in a different building called ‘the Lodge’. As there was no rain and it was all sunshine, and as the village is set in scenic surroundings, walking to & fro for snacks, coffee, dinner and lunch was no problem, but quite enjoyable. A pleasant surprise was meeting Swami Anubhavanandaji in the Lodge on the first day. He was with his host and was staying in a different building. The next morning we were taken deep into the national park on a coach tour called Denali Natural History tour.

We could glimpse the snow covered Mt. Mckinley but did not encounter any wild animal like the bear, wolf or the moose.  We also visited a ranger cabin in use in winter called Savage cabin, as it is by the Savage river, to have a glimpse of the hardships one has to endure in winter.  Even today the Denali park village wears a deserted look in winter with a skeleton maintenance staff only visiting the facilities, we were told.  With temperature plummeting below -25 and daylight lasting for less than 5 hours, it will be all sheets of ice and darkness, we learnt.  The lowest temperature recorded in Alaska was -81 in 1971.  The bus turned round at Primrose Ridge turnaround point beyond the Savage River. Here there was an interesting presentation by an Athabascan Alaskan native of their history and their story of survival braving the harsh winter of Alaska for thousands of years. While returning we heard that there was a mild earthquake previous night in the village, the tremor of which some in the tour group experienced as they were awake at that time and that earthquakes are a common phenomenon in Denali National Park.

The next morning we left by coach for Whittier, to board the cruise ship Norwegian Sun.  On the way there were three stops.  First was in a war memorial, which was a toilet stop.  Here we could take some pictures of the surrounding scenery.  Next was at Anchorage, which was the lunch stop.  We made use of this to go round the J.C Penny mall in 5th Avenue, the main attraction being the Subway and Starbucks in the food court.  The third stop was the wildlife conservation centre at the southern edge of Turnagain Arm. From Anchorage to Whittier it was a most scenic drive and this is called “all-American scenic Highway”, with spectacular views of mountains meeting the sea.  Towards the end to reach Whittier we cross a narrow single lane tunnel, 2.5 miles long, which is shared with the railroad.  This area had been heavily affected by the great earthquake of 1964.  Upto this point the tour was managed by Premier Alaska Tours, who operate tours for many cruise lines including Norwegian Cruise Line. The photos taken in the land tour portion can be seen in the Flickr album “Anchorage and Denali”: 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/sam-sekar/sets/72157645341357769/
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