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
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.