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Alaska, naturally
Customized tour revealed wildlife, history, natural beauty
Published: Jan/Feb 2003
By Jean B. Bloom

A totem pole in Ketchikan (above). Passengers are treated to breathtaking natural beauty while cruising through Glacier Bay National Park (below). /Bernie Block photos;
The intermittent drizzle didn't dampen the spirits of 30 vacationers boarding a bus bound for Alaska's crown jewel, Denali National Park and Preserve. They came to see bear and other animals in these richly endowed wilds, and a little rain wouldn't stop them.

Our small group was on a customized seven-day Alaska land and sea itinerary put together solely for us by Holland America Line. We would also experience a slice of Canada's Yukon Territory, as well as four nights on the 1,266-passenger Ryndam.

Seattle-based Holland America has more than 50 years’ experience in Alaska. Next season, from May to September, Holland America will operate seven ships in Alaskan waters.

Exploring our 49th state

Our adventure started the previous morning from Anchorage, the state's largest city, still flavored with a bit of the old frontier. Three hours later, we rolled into Talkeetna for lunch at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, a fresh property with a spectacular view of the Alaska Range.

Talkeetna is the staging area for hundreds of adventurers who annually dare to climb Mount McKinley, North America's highest mountain at 20,320 feet. From Talkeetna, small planes fly climbers to a base camp 7,000 feet up the slope to attempt the rest of the journey up the mountain.

After settling in at McKinley Chalet Resort, one of several lodging properties adjacent to the 6 million-acre park, free time and a dozen activities–including ranger-led hikes and river rafting–were waiting for us. Afternoon excursions included a six-hour “Tundra Wilderness Tour.” Dall sheep, caribou, moose, grizzlies and wolves are among the species at home in the park.

The driver told us to keep our eyes focused and warned to stay quiet when animals were close. We covered more than 100 miles on this round-trip using the park's only road, two lanes of twisting gravel, and reached a height of 2,500 feet.

Twenty minutes into the ride, the driver suddenly stopped and called out, “Dall sheep at nine o’clock.” A tangle of bodies flew out of their seats, trying to spot a dozen or so Dall sheep lolling on a green slope.

Later, another shout, “caribou at two o’clock,” provoked similar reactions. On another sighting, only a pair of moose antlers bobbing and weaving were visible above a roadside thicket. Into the last hour, eight large animal groups had been sighted.
With just a box lunch and drink for nourishment, everyone seemed ready to get back to the lodge to freshen up for a fun evening at the local Cabin Night Theater, where country fare is served family style and servers slip away from chores to stage a rousing musical show.

On to the Yukon

The next day we boarded Holland America's McKinley Explorer to return to Anchorage for an overnight and morning flight to Whitehorse, Canada's Yukon Territory capital. We would also experience another wilderness gem, Kluane National Park, home to Mount Logan, Canada's tallest mountain, the world's largest non-polar ice fields and massive Lowell Glacier.

The McKinley Explorer is a modern, open-domed passenger train that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks. It made for a relaxing change of pace as it swept through black spruce forests, fast-running rivers and creeks, mirror-topped lakes and remote homesteader houses. The attention-catching scenery, bar service, and full lunch and dinner in the diner helped the eight-hour ride pass quickly.

Whitehorse rose from a tent city on the Yukon River, a daunting last-leg water route to the Klondike gold strike. The S.S. Klondike National Historic Site is a restored, authentic sternwheeler that is dry-docked and open for tours.

Kluane, like Denali, is a pristine wilderness. A four-passenger Cessna aircraft skirted peaks and roamed the vast glacial plain. It was a heavenly view and indelible memory.

The narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railway would carry us to the ship waiting in Skagway. Completed in 1890 between Skagway and Whitehorse, the railroad was blasted through the White Pass Trail. We boarded the train at tiny Fraser, British Columbia, after a scenic three-hour drive and a stop in delightful Carcross, where north and south sections of tracks were officially joined. An old railroad engine and visitor center in the wooden station told the century-old story of the hamlet.

The 27-mile trip from Fraser to Skagway took 2-1/2 hours, descending White Pass Summit, then snaking through nearly impossible terrain, with many hairpin turns, long bridges and tunnels.

Alaska by ship

The Ryndam arrived earlier from Juneau, the first port-of-call on its weekly round-trip from Vancouver. While on board, we cruised through Glacier Bay National Park to watch for whales, and past Marjorie Glacier, its jagged, twisted face towering 200 feet above the water. The ship moved close so we could watch for calving (ice chunks falling into the water).

Ketchikan, our final port, featured the Tlinglit Indian's Saxman Village and the once infamous bordello area.

An unfolding picturesque tableau of craggy, white peaks, tiers of evergreens rising along their slopes and meandering waterways mark the peaceful sail through the Inside Passage. Early the next morning, we slid under the landmark Lions Gate Bridge for docking at Canada Place. From glaciers to grizzlies, it had been a memorable Alaskan adventure.

Jean B. Bloom is a contributor from North Miami Beach, Fla.

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