To say that Alaska left me hypnotized is to put it mildly. Yes, I admit it was my first time to the 49th state, so that’s going to happen with most destinations you or your clients visit for the first time, but there’s something about Alaska that resonates with visitors long after they’ve left it behind. No wonder the Iditarod musher we met in Fairbanks visited Alaska only once, and resolutely went back to her hometown of Indianapolis to tell her boyfriend, “I’m moving to Alaska; you come if you want.” She never looked back. There’s just something so captivating about Alaska—the authenticity of its people; the wide, open landscapes; a way of life that seems alien to those living in the lower 48. It’s a destination where you can breathe, where the great outdoors are truly great…and then there’s the mesmerizing peak of Denali, which our group saw not once, not twice, but so many, many times, we were beginning to believe that the saying that only 30 percent of visitors to Alaska see Denali’s peak was a myth (it isn’t…our group just got very, very lucky). And it’s not like John Hall Sr., CEO and founder of John Hall’s Alaska, had anything to do with creating the perfect weather that enabled us to see this majestic peak in all her glory, although he does have everything to do with ensuring that the tour operator’s itineraries show you a slice of Alaska that not every visitor gets to see.
“John Hall’s Alaska is unique to the point that our guests experience a truly worry-free and all-inclusive tour program while sharing in access to parts of the state that most tour providers either do not offer or choose to neglect,” points out Hall. “The included attractions have been carefully selected with Alaska’s culture, history and peoples in mind. We want our guest to know what it feels like to be Alaska, not just see Alaska.”
I found that out when I traveled recently on John Hall’s Alaska’s 15-day Grand Slam Alaska, which combines both a land and a cruise portion, although I only traveled on the pre-cruise 8-day land portion. It was an average tour group size—maximum is 42—and John Hall’s target demographic is baby boomers+ (for 2017, the operator is debuting the Junior Explorer’s Club, which will be offered as part of select Denali Explorer Tours). With that demographic in mind, let your clients know that on the Grand Slam Alaska tour, there’s plenty of time spent on the quite comfortable motor coach driving through this large state and that all the activities are suitable for all activity levels.
This itinerary delivers—it’s definitely a “grand slam.” It encompasses everything from seeing glaciers up-close while sailing Prince William Sound to taking a 4-hour hike in the far reaches of Denali National Park, not to mention superb local tour guides, including Bill, our guide, who weaved state facts and personal accounts into fascinating stories that had us immersed in Alaska’s culture, its singular customs and habits, and was one of the main reasons this tour proved to be an extraordinary one. Highlights? I’ve got quite a few.
Riding the Alaska Railroad: One of the best ways to view the stunning Alaska scenery is by taking a ride on the rails. Along the way, passengers learn about the history of the railroad in the state, and get an insider’s peek into the local way of life. The very first day of the tour includes a scenic ride along Turnagain Arm, through the famous Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, to the port city of Whittier (and what a picturesque town it is). At the back end of the tour, after the visit to Denali National Park, the group once again hops on the Alaska Railroad for a 4-hour ride that takes passengers along some of the state’s most inspiring vistas. The group then gets off in Talkeetna, a quirky town that’s homebase for Denali climbing expeditions and the starting point of the Hurricane Turn Train, which provides year-round access to off-grid residents.
Sailing Prince William Sound: Sailing along stunning Columbia Bay on Prince William Sound is spellbinding, embraced by an otherworldly landscape composed of looming cliffs, celestial-like glaciers and tiny islands that were once inhabited. During our sailing, we had the opportunity to get quite intimate with a 300-ft.-high ice-blue glacier wall, and on our approach a hush fell over the passengers as we all stood there in complete awe. Accompanying this imposing sight was the thunderous sound of the ice calving. All that was complemented with an adorable display of sea otters sunbathing on drifting glacier ice.
Denali National Park: It’s a 6-hour journey on a school bus—except for a limited few exceptions, it’s the only mode of transportation through Denali—to reach the end of Denali Park Road, the only road in this national park, and arrive at the Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna. For those who truly want to get away from it all, this is the place. As Hall points out, “of the 425,000 annual visitors to the park, only about 20,000 will experience this part of Denali each summer.” The tour spends two nights in this secluded and lovely lodge—my window had a view of a scenic creek and the beautiful natural wonders beyond. Here, guests learn about the folks who once inhabited this remote gold mining town, including the very determined 4’-11” Fannie Quigley—she’d learned to kill the wildlife in the area and even made a mean blueberry pie with bear lard. They’ll also have ample time to hike or bike the terrain.
Playing with Puppies: In Fairbanks, the tour includes a visit to Trail Breaker Kennels, once the home training ground of the 4-time Iditarod champion, Susan Butcher. Here, not only did we get to play with puppies that in a few years would possibly take part in the world-famous Iditarod race, but we also gained a bit of knowledge on what it takes to participate in the race and how the Iditarod mushers train the race dogs.
Pioneer Park in Fairbanks: Charming Pioneer Park is home to original Alaska log cabins that have been converted into shops selling all manner of souvenirs. The onsite comical saloon-style show that tells the history of Fairbanks is also a must-see.
Anchorage Museum: This museum offers an extraordinary exhibit of the Alaska
native peoples via hundreds of indigenous Alaska artifacts and a video installation about contemporary Alaska native life. It’s a great way to cap off the land tour through Alaska.
The 15-day Grand Slam Alaska tour, which begins in Anchorage, Alaska, and ends in Vancouver, Canada, includes visits to Anchorage, Valdez, Fairbanks, Denali National Park, and Talkeetna during the land portion. Once on the cruise, your clients will visit Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan. The June 2, 2017 departure starts at $6,589 and the cruise for this departure is on board Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas.
John Hall’s Alaska: kissalaska.com