Princess Wilderness Lodges

Exploring Alaska by land and sea

By: Mary Ann Treger

Warning, bear sighted on hotel grounds,” read the big black letters on the sign taped to the entry doors of the Princess Copper River Wilderness Lodge. My first day exploring three of five Princess Wilderness Lodges in the Alaskan interior was off to an adventurous (if slightly unnerving) start.

Immersing myself in the last frontier is one of the goals of this trip. But, I wasn’t ready for a face to face encounter with a bear just yet. My worries faded away once I stepped into the soaring two-story Great Room framing an expansive view of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The vista encompasses some 200 miles, and there’s not one power line, highway or (heaven forbid) fast-food joint in sight. A crackling fire sets off a glow in a stone and copper fireplace as fellow guests a mix of retirees, seniors, a few honeymooners and adventure seekers curl up in oversized chairs or congregate at the piano. With just 86 rooms, the Copper River Wilderness Lodge is the line’s smallest, though it boasts the same creature comforts found at all Princess Lodges. My cozy room is decorated with “log” furnishings, and a comfortable king-size bed that I sink into for an afternoon nap.

Later on, I scout for bears from the elegant dining room, a stark contrast to the dramatic wilderness visible from massive windows ringed with vibrant blooms. The depth of color is an unexpected perk of Alaska’s 15 hours of summer daylight.

“The Copper River red salmon and halibut we serve in our dining room haven’t been out of the water for more than 24 hours,” boasts Steve Heinle, the general manager.

And I could tell.

The next day, a scenic motorcoach trip to Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is punctuated with sightings of moose and bald eagles. I also encounter a “Bear,” in the guise of an appropriately- nicknamed burly fly-fishing guide. Princess Cruisetours offers 92 optional land excursions, ranging from helicopter glacier landings to seaplane flights. My choices were on the tame side (scenic rafting and dog-sled demonstration). The fly-fishing excursion left time for something this big, bustling lodge offers that the others don’t: great shopping for everything from elegant furs to funky T-shirts. The lodge’s 661 rooms are clustered in multi-level buildings along the Nenana River where a pleasant walkway provides easy exercise as well as verdant beauty beyond words. Shuttle service links guestrooms to a full service spa, deli, pizzeria, bistro and fine dining plus the frequently sold out Music of Denali Dinner Theatre that features a show plus family-style feast of Alaskan Salmon and Smokehouse Baby Back Ribs.

Alaskan weather is unpredictable, even during the peak of summer. And it is raining as we arrive at the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge, shrouding the highest peak in North America under heavy mist. Like Denali, the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge’s 334 rooms are spread out in two-story buildings with shuttle buses linking rooms to restaurants, complimentary Internet access on five computers and a Great Room where dozens toast “The Great One” (Mt. McKinley) when it finally decides to peek though the clouds.

On the last day of our land adventure we board a plush glass-topped train with full-service bar and dining car and head to Whittier to meet our ship. After traveling through pitch-black tunnels alongside plummeting cliffs sporting feathery waterfalls, the Sapphire Princess comes into view. We’re excited at the opportunity to relax and be pampered onboard, after all the miles we’ve covered on our land-based sojourn. It’s certainly easy to understand why the state’s nickname is The Great Land. It almost makes the ocean seem small in comparison. Our adventure on land may have come to an end, but on sea, it is only beginning.


VPrincess Cruises will have a record eight ships in Alaska in 2007, and offer 22 Cruisetour land packages ranging in duration from three to nine nights. The land portion can be experienced either before or after a seven-night cruise.

The five Princess Wilderness Lodges at Copper River, Denali, Mt. McKinley, Kenai and Fairbanks are all linked via luxury rail or motorcoach. Travel time from lodge to lodge takes from 2½ hours to 8 hours, depending on itinerary. All lodges are open May through September except Fairbanks which is open year-round.