Vacationers cruising in either direction from Seattle/Vancouver to Whittier/Anchorage often choose to take a pre- or post-cruise land tour of Alaska. It's a great way to experience all of the scenic beauty Alaska has to offer.
Gray Line of Alaska's 9-day, 8-night car and train itinerary allows cruise passengers to arrive in Anchorage, pick up a car the next morning and drive south along the Kenai Peninsula to Seward. Guests spend one night in Seward and then continue on to Talkeetna and Fairbanks where they turn in the car. A two-day glass domed-railcar train ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage, including an overnight stay in Denali, completes the trip. Gray Line is operated by Holland America Line, which can make it easy for cruise guests.
We left the Westmark Anchorage Hotel early for our drive down the stunning Kenai Peninsula. The two-lane Seward Highway has been named a National Scenic Byway for good reason. The abundant wildlife and spectacular views of Turnagain Arm, Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains had us constantly stopping for closer looks and photos as we drove. Making our way along Turnagain Arm, a large body of water extending into Cook Inlet, we stopped to see pods of beluga whales, take pictures of Dall sheep posing on the rocks next to the highway, and watch sea otters frolicking in the water.
In Girdwood, we stopped for breakfast at The Bake Shop and went on to visit the nearby Alyeska Resort, a year-round retreat capped by Alyeska Mountain. The Alyeska Resort Aerial Tramway operates during the summer and the ride to the observation deck on Mt. Alyeska is not to be missed. This is an excellent spot for hiking and taking family photos, not to mention taking in the breathtaking views of the majestic mountains and hanging glaciers.
Next, it was on to view the blue ice of Portage Glacier on the mv Ptarmigan. Gray Line of Alaska included this tour in our package and we found it to be an excellent addition to our trip. This small boat tour on Portage Lake is a good excursion, as it offers a quick cruise to a close-up encounter with a huge glacier. The blue ice is particularly captivating. On our exit from Portage Lake, we made a u-turn at the Williwaw Fish Viewing Platform to see salmon traveling up the creek to spawn. We lingered there for quite a while, watching the bright red fish splash, jump and fight the current on their way upstream.
Just one mile from Portage Glacier is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a must-visit attraction. This Center provides a permanent home for orphaned and displaced animals that cannot be released into the wild, including black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears, moose, elk, musk ox, coyotes, bison, and caribou. At the Wildlife Center, visitors can view Alaskan wildlife up close and amateur photographers have the chance to take exceptional pictures of the animals in natural surroundings. As at Williwaw, this was one of the many places that we were happy to have our car, as we could stay as long as we liked. It was hard to tear ourselves away from watching the brown bears cavorting and wrestling with each other in the water.
Our drive down the Kenai Peninsula was filled with stops to take in Alaska's mind-numbing vistas. Glacier capped mountains reflected in crystal clear lakes, roadsides lined with fireweed, and occasional waterfalls surprised us at every turn. Our drive ended in Seward, a small fishing village located on Alaska's Resurrection Bay. We turned off to hike to Exit Glacier before checking in to the Edgewater Hotel, a conveniently located property near the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Seward is a popular port of call for cruise ships, and the attractions here could easily fill several days of an Alaska vacation. Our six-hour early morning Kenai Fjords National Park cruise was easily one of the highlights of our Alaska trip. On our journey into the 580,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park, we saw more marine life than we could have imagined including humpback whales, orca whales, Dall porpoises, bald eagles, Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, puffins, and an incredible variety of sea birds. The up-close views of calving glaciers and the Harding Icefield, the largest icefield on the North American continent, were incredible.
When we returned from our morning tour, we stopped in to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center before continuing on our drive. The SeaLife Center, a well-executed combination of an aquarium and a science museum, was partially funded from the proceeds of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Settlement Fund. The Center allows visitors to supplement their Kenai Fjords trip with close-up views and interactions with Alaskan marine wildlife. Kids will enjoy watching Stellar sea lions and diving sea birds glide past underwater viewing windows, getting close to comically-colored puffins, and seeing Alaskan king crab, deep sea fish and Giant Pacific octopus.