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