Royal Treatment 3-29-2005

Princess’ Denali Wilderness Lodge is a home base for adventure

By: Christopher Batin

FAIRBANKS, Alaska History has eagerly embraced royalty who were best able to recognize and serve the needs and dreams of the people. Likewise, in the world of travel, vacationers have embraced one of its ruling monarchs, Princess Tours, for consistently providing royal treatment on its cruises throughout the world. Among the company’s crown jewels of tours, few shine brighter than Princess’ tours of Alaska’s 6-million-acre Denali National Park. And for good reason.

As I arrived at the train depot at Denali National Park, the outgoing Denali Princess groups seemed boisterous and energetic. There was nonstop talk of seeing “The Mountain” for the first time, getting soaked from a Class III whitewater rapid or standing face to face with a huge bull caribou.

Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is the town square of this kingdom, a hub where vacationers discuss tours, relax and anticipate their experiences at the beloved national park. The only uprising in this kingdom is when patrons answer their wake-up calls each morning to prepare for the day’s adventure. Formalities in this kingdom are prohibited. The only bowing authorized is to pick blueberries growing on the alpine tundra.

Perhaps no one knows the Denali tour market better than Princess Tour President Charlie Ball. I visited with Ball during the remodeled lodge’s grand opening last summer. After the obligatory fishing talk, we turned to the bigger catch of the day: The Denali Experience.

“Princess’ cruise-tour product is the marquee product of Alaska, and we will continue to grow it as the market will allow,” he said. “Our Alaska customers today are considering more than a seven-day cruise. They want to spend more time enjoying the Denali experience. In 1997, the average stay at Denali was one night. Now it is two nights.”

Ball explained that due to a growing interest in Alaska, the Denali tour infrastructure has grown exponentially, with an increase in tour variety and the ability of park concessionaires to handle more people efficiently and comfortably.

“Princess doesn’t operate any land excursions, yet we do offer 19 major Denali day-trip activities,” Ball said. “We like to work with the local people and tour operators because they do such a great job and are experts in their field.

“The Denali Princess is strategically located to maximize the best opportunities available to showcase these tours and adventures,” Ball said. “We work with 300 Alaska Travel Industry Association members to place our 2005 two-night tours. The two-night option helps grow the industry and gives more time to the customer to better enjoy Alaska.” Ball indicated that Denali is and will likely continue to be increasingly popular as a destination. Princess has anticipated this surge, and recently invested $26 million in their Denali properties to expand by 75 percent the number of its tour-based guests who visit Denali each year.

Princess properties include Talkeetna-based Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, located near the entrance to Denali National Park.

The Denali Princess Lodge features a new 16,000-square-foot main lodge and the addition of more than 500 trees and 50 large flower boxes lining newly paved walking paths on the lodge grounds. The facility added 80 new guestrooms, expanded the main dining area and added five new shops to create a Main Street walking village. Shopping, evening shows, interpretive displays, a huge checkerboard and an ice cream parlor in the lower main lobby can keep anyone busy for an afternoon and evening. “We’re starting to see more kids on our tours, which is prompting us to change what we offer, especially in the third-party tours,” Ball said.

One of the most popular with families is the Husky Homestead Tour, which introduces clients to Iditarod Sled Dog Champion Jeff King’s Alaska dog-sledding kennels. There are plenty of lovable sled dog puppies to pet, which is always a big hit with kids of all ages. While the youngsters in my group were elsewhere, I snuck back to pet the puppies before taking in the history and background of Iditarod sled racing.

Backcountry Options For those who prefer to sample a dose of Alaska backcountry, Denali Horse Trail Adventures provides an off-road, overland tour via horseback over alpine tundra and to the fringes of river gorges and rocky hilltops. Few vistas are as impressive as an August horseback ride along the autumn-colored ridges near Healy. Remote hiking trails and ATV adventures are available for those who prefer something besides a hay burner for propulsion through the wilds.

The Tundra Wilderness Tour and Natural History Tour are two of the most popular tours within Denali Park and offer the best chances of seeing wildlife that include grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, sheep, lynx and an abundance of small game and mammals.

Getting up close and personal is important for some veteran travelers, and few tours are better for this than boarding a bushplane for some flightseeing and a landing on the Yanert Glacier in the heart of the Alaska Range. Tourists can expect to walk to crevasses, see cascading ice falls, photograph the various types of moraines and learn the features that make glaciers so wildly beautiful and humbling to behold. But it’s not a tour for the frail of spirit. The grinding, earth-shaking movement of a glacier surging a few inches can trigger a minor panic attack or adrenaline rush, depending on your client’s personality.

Whitewater rafting the Nenana Gorge is fabulous half-day fun. Clients can expect to get tossed around in Class III and IV whitewater rapids, and float through deep canyons that were once part of a prehistoric inland lake. Some operators allow passengers to row through the quiet sections. All safety procedures are strictly followed. When the weather is clear, I found a flightseeing tour is the best way to tour Mount McKinley. These narrated tours provide a magnificent overview of Denali unlike anything seen from the road system. Expensive at $250 per person, I consider it the best-spent money on any Denali vacation. Take plenty of film or memory cards. I burned 186 images on my flight.

A Wealth of Choices Most people who visit Denali do so to experience Mount McKinley or the wildlife. The park, which is the size of the state of Massachusetts, offers so much more, from backcountry tours, mountain climbing to week-long photography seminars.

Too much of a good thing can be difficult for the client shopping for a Denali tour, and Ball offers a tip for travel agents.

“A cruise is a relatively difficult product to shop for on the Internet,” he said. “Because of the complexities of an Alaska cruise, this package is sold more than bought. An agent who wants to know more about our cruises is a valuable resource to us. We strongly support and encourage participation in our fam trip program because it can produce a great return on investment for the agents who enter this market.”