Courtesy of Alaska Railroad
Courtesy of Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star route takes riders through Anchorage, Wasilla, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks.
Many cruises may be on hold, but from train journeys to cycling trips, beautiful lodges to intimate expedition vessels, there are still ample ways to explore the Last Frontier this year.
More than half of Alaska’s visitors typically arrive aboard cruise ships. But this year, that won’t be the case with the majority of Alaska cruising effectively off the table due to the Canadian government’s cruising ban that lasts through February 2022.
For travelers who are eager to make the journey north this summer in search of sweeping mountain views, varied wildlife, and nature-filled serenity, there are still many enriching ways to experience Alaska, including on trains, bicycles, in lodges, and even on smaller cruise ships.
“Alaska is open for business,” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy enthusiastically declared during a March 22 press conference. Those five words are music to outdoor enthusiasts’ ears, not to mention to the Alaskans who depend upon tourism for their livelihoods, many of whom are eager to welcome visitors back.
Prepandemic, an estimated 2.25 million visitors traveled to Alaska between May and September 2019, but it is likely that Alaska’s visitation numbers will remain drastically lower this year compared to those 2019 figures due to the falloff in cruise visitors and those still staying closer to home because of the pandemic.
That is not to say, however, that interest in traveling to Alaska is waning. It is among the top five states Americans want to visit, according to a February 2021 survey of 4,500 U.S. travelers conducted by travel research firm MMGY Travel Intelligence. (The other four states that topped the list were Hawaii, Florida, California, and Colorado).
Airlines have answered travelers’ renewed interest in Alaska by adding flights to meet the recent uptick in demand. Last month, Delta Air Lines added new flights to Anchorage and Fairbanks from across the United States, and Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United Airlines have all followed suit with added service to Alaska as well.
When travel reopened to Alaska last year in the midst of the pandemic, the state required all inbound travelers to either produce a negative COVID-19 test result procured within 72 hours of departure for Alaska or take a test upon arrival and quarantine (at travelers’ expense) until a negative test result was reported. COVID testing is no longer required for entry into Alaska, but a negative test result prior to arrival in Alaska is still strongly encouraged by Alaska state authorities. Travelers should always check with local public health officials for any requirements or recommendations that could be in place at the community level as well.
In addition, the state advises that all visitors follow the CDC’s recommendations for traveling safely, including wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.
For those who are ready to experience Alaska, we have compiled some truly unique ways to do so, with an emphasis on outfits that support local communities and are dedicated to greener travel initiatives. Companies certified as sustainable by Adventure Green Alaska (AGA) for supporting local communities through employment and sourcing, adopting sustainable use and recycling efforts, and respecting local customs and Alaska Native cultures as a way of doing business have been denoted with an asterisk (*).
Slow travel is the way to go in Alaska in order to truly experience the state’s remarkable landscapes. These travel companies will take you through those landscapes in unique ways, whether by train, on a cycling tour, or with a naturalist-led itinerary.
One slow mode of travel is aboard the Alaska Railroad, which travels from Fairbanks south through Denali to Anchorage and Seward, with additional stops along the way.
Onboard the trains, passengers can choose from the more economical Adventure Class with large picture windows and access to open seating in Vista Dome cars and dining in the Wilderness Café on all Alaska Railroad routes, or the inclusive GoldStar Service that includes seating in a glass-dome ceiling train car and eating in a lower-level, full-service dining car, plus a private bar and narration.
GoldStar Service is available on the Coastal Classic (Anchorage, Girdwood, Seward) and Denali Star (Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna, Denali National Park & Preserve, Fairbanks) routes. Whether day trips, one-way rides, or multi-day packages (no overnights on the train, but rather hotel stays), train passengers can enjoy the passing scenery with the added benefit of knowing they are traveling green—the railroad keeps more than 14,000 motorcoaches off the road annually, based on more than a half million passengers riding on Alaska Railroad trains each year.
Riding the Alaska Railroad offers plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife like bears and moose along the routes and even glimpses of Denali on the Denali Star route if the sky is clear. On the Coastal Classic, passengers should keep an eye out for flashes of white in Turnagain Arm—beluga whales are often seen along this stretch of the coastline when the salmon are running from mid-July through August.
With a reinvigorated focus on domestic trips, REI Adventures (the tour operator arm of the outdoor gear brand) is adding a fourth option to its Alaskan adventures this summer: Alaska Haines-Skagway Weekend Cycling. The four-day bike tour travels through southeast Alaska, taking time to explore the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center, which preserves the history and language of the Tlingit people who have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years; a bald eagle reserve; and the history and impact of the Klondike Gold Rush near Skagway.
“Because we predominantly travel under human power in small groups, our guests enjoy an intimate wilderness and cultural experience, and tread lightly on the landscape,” said Andy Kronen, a travel program manager with REI Adventures. “We work almost exclusively with local Alaskan businesses, ensuring that a significant amount of revenue remains in Alaska.”
Another option is to join Natural Habitat Adventures (aka Nat Hab) and World Wildlife Fund naturalist guides for a 13-day Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari. The agenda includes traveling by train, boat, and plane from Fairbanks to Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, and Katmai National Park for bear viewing.
With its mission of conservation through exploration, Nat Hab endeavors to inspire travelers to protect the planet and support local communities. When guests book their trips, the outfitter encourages them to bring their own toiletries, laundry bags, and refillable water bottles for a more sustainable vacation.
“By getting off the beaten path and keeping our trips small and local, we create ambassadors who then can continue the story about Alaska and all the wondrous things they’ve done and seen,” said Court Whelan, Nat Hab’s director of sustainability and conservation travel.
In addition to their on-the-ground initiatives, REI Adventures and Natural Habitat Adventures offset carbon resulting from travel on all of their trips.
Rather than hurrying from one destination to the next, choose to stay awhile in one spot. Myriad lodges throughout Alaska are considered destinations in their own right.
Once you arrive by boat or floatplane from Homer, Alaska, at the all-inclusive Stillpoint Lodge at the foot of Kachemak Bay State Park, you won’t want to leave.
The lodge’s 11 private cabins, ranging in size from studios to two bedrooms, are set on a private peninsula, and guests can choose from a variety of activities during their stays, including yoga, meditation, hiking, bear viewing, fishing, glacier kayaking, and much more. When it’s time to eat, the lodge’s executive chef prepares a locally sourced Alaskan gourmet menu sourced from local farmers’ markets and farms, fishermen and hunters, and Stillpoint Lodge’s own gardens.
Founded in 1952 near the end of the 92-mile-long road in Denali National Park is Camp Denali, a family-owned and operated wilderness lodge with 19 guest cabins, each with a picture window view of Denali, should it make an appearance. (It’s estimated that just 30 percent of all park visitors catch a glimpse of the 20,310-foot summit—because of where Denali sits in the Alaska Range, weather systems often collide, resulting in clouds that shroud the mountain.)
This summer, Camp Denali is welcoming guest speakers to share their expertise through its Special Emphasis Series. Topics include ornithology; the state’s dinosaur sites, including Denali National Park; Alaska’s wilderness; and renewable energy.
Escape to a private island when you book a stay at Orca Island Cabins in Resurrection Bay, nine miles southeast of Seward, Alaska. Each “ecoglamping” yurt has its own living and dining area, fully equipped kitchen, and private deck for sunset and wildlife viewing.
Owners Dennis and Susan Swiderski chose yurts because the foundations minimize harm to the landscape; they are airy and light-filled with overhead domes; the fabric wrappings allow for the sounds of nature to be easily heard; and the yurts’ locations along the water’s edge allows guests to hear a whale or sea lion surfacing near their cabin and observe other wildlife visiting the cove.
“Because we are located off the grid, we adopted a number of ecofriendly and sustainable practices in order to meet the needs of our guests and provide them with comfortable and safe accommodations in a remote setting,” said Dennis Swiderski.
These sustainable practices include solar power combined with a battery bank, inverter and back-up generator to provide the electricity needed to power water pumps, electrical outlets, and venting fans for each compost toilet. They also use propane for hot water and on-demand heaters, fireplaces, and ranges, and they transport potable water daily from the Seward harbor to the cabins in Resurrection Bay’s Humpy Cove.
Although many larger ships are not cruising in Alaska this year, there are still ways to set sail along the state’s coastlines—on smaller, more intimate vessels.
Sitka-based Alaskan Dream Cruises is sailing six of its all-inclusive, small expedition vessels this year, with capacities ranging from 12 to 76 guests and itineraries of 5 to 10 days. Owned and operated by the Allen family, Alaska Natives of the Tlingit tribe with indigenous roots in southeast Alaska, its itineraries and excursions are designed based upon generations of exploration. Expedition leaders travel aboard each cruise; naturalists focus on biology, geography, and ecology; and true Alaskan guides share knowledge about the lifestyle, legends, and practices of local cultures.
With a commitment to environmental sustainability, Alaskan Dream Cruises’ newest vessel, the Kruzof Explorer, features solar panels to make it more fuel efficient (and offset energy costs). The company is also removing single-use plastics aboard its vessels and ashore, purchasing environmentally conscious towels and linens, and focusing on reducing its fleet’s carbon footprint.
Alaskan Dream Cruises’ 2021 itineraries vary from 6 to 10 days. Guests traveling on the six-day Alaska’s Spring Wilderness & Wildlife Safari will board the 10-passenger M/V Misty Fjord to spot humpback whales, Steller sea lions, sea otters, brown bears, bald eagles, and more, and hike old-growth forests.
For those with more time, the 10-day Remote Alaska Adventure sails aboard the 12-passenger Kruzof Explorer from Sitka to Ketchikan, traveling through Glacier Bay National Park, Frederick Sound, and to Admiralty Island, called Kootznoowoo (“Fortress of the Bear”) by Tlingit Alaska Natives, an area that has the highest density of brown bears in all of North America.
Sustainability has long been a part of the Uncruise Adventures ethos. The cruise line starts sailing its 7-, 12-, and 14-night Alaska adventures in May. By reducing packaging and food waste, buying locally to support Alaskan communities, and carefully planning itineraries to increase fuel efficiency, among many other efforts, Uncruise works to lessen its environmental footprint in all of the destinations its boats visit.
With capacities ranging from 22 to 84 guests on its Alaskan adventures, those traveling with Uncruise have access to an all-inclusive experience and activities like hiking, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding directly from the boat in remote coves. Passengers are also offered presentations about native Alaska cultures and tribes, dining that includes fresh, locally sourced ingredients (like salmon) and the possibility of witnessing the aurora borealis (mostly likely to be visible during April and May voyages on the company’s southeast Alaska cruises).
Known for its land tours, John Hall’s Alaska is charting new territory this summer with the debut of its seven-day Platinum Catamaran itinerary. Guests will set sail during the days on a privately chartered 30-passenger catamaran in search of marine life, glaciers, and more and return to Juneau and Sitka at the end of each day for overnight stays at Juneau Aspen Suites and Sitka Aspen Suites.
“There is an energy, hope, and excitement that comes with seeing travel partners throughout the state back in operations,” said Elizabeth Hall, COO of John Hall’s Alaska. “While the year will look different with less visitors, it is exciting to be operating with a new product like the Platinum Catamaran, as a result of having to think outside the box. By continuing to operate and expand the opportunities in southeast Alaska with the catamaran, John Hall’s Alaska is able to continue to provide revenue and jobs for Alaskans.”
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