The Last Frontier: Alaska By Boat, Plane And Train

By Ed Boitano

I had just put my head down on the hotel room pillow. The day had been fun – but it was also long and taxing, and a good night’s sleep was in order. Suddenly, the blaring sound of a bulldozer burst into the room. I bolted out of bed. I looked at my watch – it was 1 a.m. I charged to the hotel window and pulled open the curtain. Across the river, there was a man actually operating a bulldozer. His family must love this, I thought. Upon closer inspection, I could see he was surrounded by his wife and young children. They almost looked as if they were going to a picnic later after the chore.

I forgot to mention that the time and place was the month of June in Fairbanks, Alaska. The midnight sun was so blinding that I had to squint my eyes to see. I began to understand the real meaning of insomnia and was ready to experience more of Alaska’s unique surprises.

Alyeska – The Great Land

A colleague in the cruise industry once said to me, “First you do all the other cruises, and then you do an Alaska Inside Passage cruise.” She was right. With its pristine fjords, sweeping glaciers and endless snow-capped mountains, the Inside Passage is a tough act to follow.

So what to do after having done that cruise – particularly when the cruise experience only whets your appetite for more Alaskan wonders? Well, an exploration of the state’s interior is the next logical step. With over 3,000 rivers and more than 5,000 glaciers, the state is one fifth the size of the continental United States and 2 1/2 times the size of Texas. Vast expanses of wilderness encompass Alaska, with millions of acres of national parkland and wildlife refuges, many of which are accessible only by boat, train or plane.

Fortunately, many cruise companies now offer extended land packages that are fully escorted, offering a comprehensive overview of many of Alaska’s amazing sights. I opted for Royal Caribbean International’s four-day land package from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Covering over 400 miles through stunning mountains and untouched wilderness would prove to be the ideal way to explore more of what the Aleut Tribal Nation call Alyeska – the Great Land.

Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and the state’s main transportation hub. In a sense, all roads lead to or end in Anchorage. The city boasts all the urban pleasures of fine dining, shopping, night life and world-class museums, along with an endless array of tours and sports packages. My pick: the 26-acre Alaska Native Heritage Center, which provides a fascinating insight into the arts, customs and lifestyles of the five distinct native cultures found in Alaska.

Denali National Park is spread out over six million acres in size. Larger than the state of Massachusetts, it is one of the world’s last great frontiers for wilderness adventure. Established as a national park in 1917, it remains largely wild and unspoiled, just as the native people knew it. At 20,320 feet, Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America and the centerpiece of the park. Named for President William McKinley, it is still called Denali by the Athabasca Tribal Nation. My pick: a seven-hour bus ride on the Tundra Wilderness Tour for undisturbed wildlife viewings.

Based 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is the ideal venue to experience real living history, highlighted by the majestic midnight sun. My pick: an excursion on the Riverboat Discovery Sternwheeler, with a stop at an Athabasca village where you’ll see traditional fishing, hide tanning, dog sledding demonstrations and how the canine is trained to become a human’s best friend in the winter months.

Nestled along the glistening Gastineau Channel, Juneau is the only U.S. capital city inaccessible by road. It’s a pulsating city, buzzing with government workers on its streets. A trip to Mendenhall Glacier is the most popular excursion, but my pick is the 1,800-foot tramway ride to the top of Mount Roberts for wildlife viewing platforms, Juneau Raptor Center and breathtaking views of the channel.

Kodiak is known for its own species of Brown Bear – the Kodiak Bear. CVB pick: a flight-seeing tour to see Kodiak Bears at the Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Fish and Game built a fishing ladder where you’ll witness sows (momma bears) teach their cubs how to fish. There are no fences or no viewing platforms protected by glass.  You literally walk to the side of a river and watch bears fish in the wild.

Ketchikan is billed as the Salmon Capital of the World. If it’s a fishing excursion you want, this is the place for it. My own pick, though, is a tour of the Totem Heritage Center, which features a collection of carved totem poles and carving demonstrations.

The city of Nome is located on the south coast of the Seward Peninsula facing Norton Sound, part of the Bering Sea. The city is the site for the finish of the 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage, the longest sled dog race in the world. My pick: exploring the City of Nome’s 100 years of Gold Rush history.

One of Alaska’s oldest communities, Seward is considered the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. CVB pick: the six-hour National Park Tour is a must-see for visitors. Seeing the glaciers and diverse marine life, particularly the humpback whales and orcas, is an experience of a lifetime.

Sitka is nestled on Baranof Island and offers an amazing mix of Tlingit, Russian and American history and culture. The attractions are endless. My pick: Sitka National Historical Park. The 113-acre coastal park features the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, plus beaches, hiking trails and scores of totem poles.

Located on the northern tip of the Lynn Canal, Skagway was born as the land entryway for thousands of gold-crazed miners to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The town is well-preserved and rich in gold rush history. My pick: a trip aboard the vintage White Pass & Yukon Route railway for a train journey back into the time of the Klondike Gold Rush.

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