Sunday, April 30, 2017

Pre-trip Planning: Day 13: Girdwood area

This is our last full day in Alaska.  Our flight does not leave Anchorage on Day 14 until after dinner, so we have a lot of hours on Day 14 as well;we could stay in Girdwood or just go back to Anchorage--it might come down to doing something that we filed away for "later".  There are a LOT of activities in the Girdwood area that I think my family would enjoy.  We probably won't have time for all of them, but I'm going to put them all here (and probably add to them) and it might help me get my priorities set.

  • Crow Creek--I mentioned this earlier, and this is where we'll probably mine for gold, if we haven't already.
  •  Alyeska Tram--If we can fit it in...this might be something we all enjoy
  • Alaska  Wildlife Conservation Center--Earnest really wants to see bears, and if we haven't seen them in the wild yet, this might be our last/only chance.  I'm viewing this as a must do.
  • Byron Glacier
  • Portage Glacier--I don't know if either of these are a must, after all the other things we'll have seen. 
  •  Williwaw Fish Platform--Might be interesting, even though we will have already watched fish.  This is close to Portage and Byron Glaciers 
  • Begich Boggs Visitor Center
  •  Bird Point--heard this was fun for kids.  Maybe good views? 
  •  Winner Creek Hand Tram--Although this sounds cool and I know some of my family would like it, I'm not sure if we all would...and would we be able to fit one parent with two kids?  Edited to add:  I have done a little more research and watched a few videos.  I'm not sure that this would actually work with my family of 5, since I doubt the kids would actually help at all, and I don't know if I am strong enough to cart two of us across...and would Chretien have to go twice to get two of the kids across?  I've moved this to the end of my list, and think I might just let it go.  We'll see.  Maybe sticking to Alyeska Tram might be better for us.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 12--Seward --> Girdwood

We have the 7.5 hour Major Marine tour today.  I am very much looking forward to this.

I debated back and forth about Kenai Fjords and Major Marine.  I was all set to book a 6 hour tour with Kenai Fjords, because that tour leaves around 8 AM and it would free up our day to be done around 2 PM.  The 7.5 hour MM tour doesn't depart until 10 AM, so we won't be back on land until 5:30 PM.  It pretty much eats up the entire day.

However, I kept hearing that "longer is better", so that affected my decision.

And, when the 40% off Cyber Monday sale rolled around for Major Marine, the decision was made...especially since one of our kids is considered an adult on this cruise.

There is an optional lunch which is available.  We will likely add that to our fare, since that can be our big meal for the day.

So...when we are done, we need to get to Girdwood.  It would be nice if we could swing by Exit Glacier on the way out of town, but we'll have to see.  There are a lot of activities to pursue in the Girdwood area, and like I said, Seward is hosting a special event and the hotel prices were crazy high for the night of our Major Marine trip.  It's about a 2 hour drive, but that won't be too bad.  I don't think we are going to be up for much more touring at that point.

Our last two nights will be in a motel which has two full beds and a rollaway.  No kitchen facilities, no breakfast, but we'll make do.  We've already paid for this lodging, so that helps with the final bill.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 11--Mat-Su Valley to Seward

This day I am still uncertain about.  There are a lot of activities we could potentially do as we drive to Seward.  Because there are so many activities, doing the glacier hike on Day 10 would be preferable.

The things I've noted, and I'll probably add to this, include the following:

  • Reindeer Farm in Palmer
  • Musk Ox Farm in Palmer

Both of these sound interesting.  If we go to the Large Animal Research Facility in Fairbanks, we might skip these.  But we'll see.

  • Knik Glacier--I have this on our list, but I doubt we'll do it, given the limitations on our time and the additional expense when we have other somewhat pricey activities
  •   Cooper Landing--This would be a bit of a detour, but the Russian River Falls sound like they have the potential to be really cool.  Depending on how we feel on Day 12, this could get bumped to that day...but I doubt it
  • Exit Glacier--I am not sure if we can fit this in or not, but I'm putting it here as well as on Day 12.  
  • Alaska Sea Life Center--I am thinking of this as a "must see".  It's open until 9 PM, so we should be good to get a few hours in after dinner.  

 Typing this out has helped me sort my priorities.  After I had booked our plane tickets, I learned that there are two major events in Seward during our time frame.  One I knew about already, but the second one was a complete I had to rearrange a few things in order to get a hotel room that would not break the bank.  Because I could only get one night in Seward at that hotel, we will only be in Seward that one night.  That hotel does have a full kitchen, so again, we might be eating in.   We've paid for half of the lodging costs for this hotel.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 10--Valdez--> Mat-Su Valley

This day is essentially a travel day.  We have nothing planned, so we can visit some of the things we missed on the way down.  We have reservations at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier.  The cabin will have a full kitchen, so we could re-stock groceries in Glenallen and eat in the cabin.  We have a $50 deposit paid for this lodging.

I am not certain if we will pay for a walk on Matanuska Glacier.  I have read such terrific things about it.  However, the price is a concern, as well as the condition of the road to access the glacier.   I think if we do it, I would probably want to hire a guide to be safe, so that compounds my concerns.  Imp is not the most coordinated kid to begin with, and I don't think I want to have to worry about him (or me!) on this...but we'll see.

If we decide to do Matanuska, it would probably be better to do it on this day, rather than Day 11. 

Pre-trip Planning: Day 9--Valdez

We have a reservation on the Stan Stephens Columbia Glacier tour.  This tour is 6 hours long, and takes you out into Prince William Sound as far as the Columbia Glacier.  There is a longer one, to Meares Glacier, but I figured that 6 hours would be long enough for this first ride.  A light lunch is provided, so we won't have to bring our sandwiches this day.  

I waited and watched for discounts for this trip, but none came around.  I hurriedly booked it one night when I visited the site and noticed that there were only five spots left on the one date that we could do this trip. 

I have subscribed to all sorts of Alaska newsletters, and in an ironic twist, about a month after I booked it I noticed a discount code in one of them to save 15% off of all the cruises.  I called and received a credit for that amount. 

This tour will take up most of the day.  I would like to pay a visit to the Solomon Gulch Hatchery as well.  Hopefully, we'll also see some bears, sea otters, sea lions, and other wildlife along Dayville Road.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 8: Delta Junction--> Valdez

This day will be a day of driving.  From Delta Junction to Valdez.  Google Maps says it's about 270 miles and 5 hours.  I figure, it'll take all day because I've read that Google Maps underestimates time and who knows how long we'll stop at the various sites.

I've read over and over that this drive is one of the most scenic ones in Alaska.   Bring it on!

  • Tangle Lakes Campground--This is at the end of the paved portion of the Denali Highway.  I've mentioned that you can only drive the entirety of the highway if your rental company allows it (or you break the contract), but you can drive the paved part with no issues.  
  •  Wrangell St. Elias Visitors' Center--I debated actually visiting McCarthy and Kenecott for a good long time.  I mentioned our decision about the gravel roads.  Shuttles and flying into McCarthy isn't in the cards for us, either.   However, it would be nice to visit the easily accessible Visitors' Center and learn a little bit more about this park...and probably get Chretien to say that we're coming back some day.  :-)
  •   Worthington Glacier--who can pass up an easily accessible glacier?
  •  Keystone Canyon--want to see Horsetail Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.  

The nice thing is if we don't see this all on Day 8, we can see some of it on Day 10 when we leave Valdez.

We have reservations for two nights in Valdez.  We have a double room with a king and two twins.  I think we asked for a rollaway, or we'll just put the kids in the king and we'll take the two twins.  This lodging provides continental breakfast and I think there is laundry, which will be helpful.

Pre-trip planning: Days 6 and 7: Fairbanks

So, we have two days in Fairbanks.  These are the possible activities that I have as possibilities:

  • Riverboat Discovery--this is probably a likely activity.  I haven't made reservations yet, but I need to call because I bought the TourSavers coupon book on Cyber Monday for a discount and there is a coupon in it to get a tour free when you buy one.  I've heard great things about this, and you figure--outdoors and culture.  Since I posted this, I booked the 9 AM tour on our second day (Day 7). 
  •  Gold Dredge #8--I had thought all along that this might be an activity, and it still might.  However, we might save our gold panning for Crow Creek Mine, so this is not a definite.
  •  Gold Daughters is another option to pan for gold.  Still, though, I'm learning toward Crow Creek for now.
  • Pipeline Visitors Center--for whatever reason, there is a pull for me to see the pipeline.  So we will likely swing by.
  •  University of Alaska/Museum of the North--culture again, you know?  I haven't tortured the kids with a lot of museums yet, so it might be time.
  •  University of Alaska/Large Animal Research Facility--This might be interesting as they give tours.  
  • Creamer's Field for a hike
  •  Pioneer Park--maybe the Big Stampede Show?  Or the Golden Theater Review?  Salmon Bake?  

I am looking forward to seeing Fairbanks.  There sounds like there is a lot to do there, so I don't know why many say to "skip it".  Maybe because the scenery pales in comparison to some of the other scenery in Alaska?  Because the possible activities sound comparable to other places folks visit in the Lower 48.

Update on 5/2--We now have a dinner reservation at the Salmon Bake and then reservation to see the Golden Theater Show at Pioneer Park after that on Day 6.  There is a TourSaver coupon for the show.  This will allow us to see Pioneer Park for a bit as well.  There might be time between the dinner and the show, or maybe we'll get to the park a bit earlier.

On Day 7, we need to leave in enough time to visit the Santa Claus House in North Pole.  I think we'll be OK, since they are open until 8 every day in the summer.  Under the advice of some Alaska pros on Trip Advisor, we are staying in Delta Junction this night and not Fairbanks.  Delta Junction puts us 1 hour and 45 minutes closer to our next destination...not to mention, we won't have to spend time at the Santa Claus house on Day 8.  I hear that there is a lot to see as we drive toward our next destination.  We have a room reserved in Delta Junction that has 2 queen beds and a pull out couch, so we should be OK.

There is no breakfast served here, but there is an IGA grocery store close by...and they open at 6:30 AM, so we can probably get something from the bakery.  An IGA is probably a good place to restock our snacks/food supplies.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 5--Denali--> Fairbanks

We have an early-ish morning raft trip planned for this day.  It's the earliest reservation we've had scheduled yet, but that should be OK as it will give us time to do other activities once it's complete.  Again, this was part of the package we got with the cabin reservation. It's the calmest trip they have, which should be fine for us.

We should be done around lunch time.  At that point, we can do anything we might have missed in Denali, or more likely, we'll start heading toward Fairbanks.  Since we are staying in Healy, it might make more sense to just move on, since Denali is the opposite direction.  We have nothing planned in Fairbanks for this day, so if we get there early enough, we can do something which I'll outline on the next days.

We are staying in another Choice brand hotel.  I had looked at another hotel which was cheaper, but it did not include breakfast.  After doing some math, Chretien and I decided that we probably couldn't feed everyone breakfast for two days with just the $57 difference between the two nights lodging at the two hotels, so we stuck with the Choice hotel.  We have two nights in Fairbanks, and I have a list of possible activities for us.

Pre-trip planning: Day 4--Denali

This is an easy day to write about.  We're taking a shuttle bus into Denali to Eielson.  If it were just up to me, we'd go all the way to the end, but knowing that my kids might not make it that long, we compromised to take the 8 hour round trip ride.  I think they'll be OK on that length, since the promised of seeing wildlife will hold interest for awhile, and then they'll have activities to keep them busy.

We are on a morning shuttle...not too early, but it should be early enough to get us to Eielson to take a ranger hike or the stroll, if we want one.  I booked this on December 1, which is the first day that reservations could be made.  I figured, we had our dates locked in, why bother to wait?  The kids are free, and we'll get a $20 refund when we pick up our tickets because we have a National Parks pass.

One thing that we still need for this is a better zoom lens for my DSLR.  The best zoom I have right now isn't going to be enough (only 200mm).  We were hoping that the prices would come down a bit for the 300mm Pentax lens, but it hasn't happened.  I'm looking at renting the lens, because I don't know how often I'd use such a big zoom after this trip.

Pre-trip planning Day 3: Talkeetna --> Healy (Denali)

This day we are planning on doing a flightseeing trip to get a better view of Denali--weather permitting, of course.  Chretien and I have done a helicopter trip around Mt. St. Helen's many years ago, and we also did a small plane trip to Orpheus Island on our honeymoon in Australia, so at least the parents have experience with flying in a small plane.  The flight is scheduled for 9 AM.  We are not doing a glacier landing, because we are trying to keep the expenses in mind and there are many other adventures we have planned.

The plan after the flight is to head out of Talkeetna and head towards Denali.  Depending on the time, we might try to get there to see the dog demonstration (maybe the one at 4 PM?)  We need to stop at the Wilderness Access Center and pick up our shuttle tickets for the next day.  Perhaps we'll do the Visitors' Center, or drive the first 15 miles with the minivan.  Again, we aren't going to rush when we don't have to, so if we miss out on something, it's probably because we were having fun where we were.

We have plans to stay in cabins again in Healy.  This time, we have two cabins, because they only each sleep four and it would be a squeeze to get a fifth kid in there, even sleeping on the floor.  We got a decent rate on the two cabins (early booking plus discount on package on rafting), so it turns out that we really aren't paying more than we would have for just one room elsewhere.  The cabins have access to a kitchen, so again, we can take advantage of that, if we want, to save $$ on dining.    This is the first reservation that I paid for entirely up front, and I sort of like that, so we won't have such a large credit card bill when we return in July.

Pre-Trip Planning: Day 2--Anchorage --> Talkeetna

I am amused to wonder about what time we will all wake up the first day.  Both Imp and I are naturally early risers, although I'm hoping that we are tired and sleep in to a normal waking time for Alaska.  Chretien, on the other hand, will probably be psyched.

The plan for this day is as follows:

  • Hit the road fairly early.  Again, I don't know how long we are going to sleep, but my guess is that we can probably be on the road by 7 or 8.  At some point either yesterday or today, we'll need to get some groceries.  When we travel, we often make sandwiches, fruit, chips for lunch to cut down on meal costs.  Given that feeding five folks in Alaska is going to get pricey anyway, this is the plan for Alaska.  
  • First stop--Eklutna Spirit Houses.  I only recently put this on our possible list.  I do like the kids (and grown ups!) to get a little bit of culture wherever we go, and this sounds like it would be unique and nothing like we've ever seen.  I'm not sure if the timing will work, since they don't open until 10
  •  Next up--Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Museum in Wasilla.  This also falls under the "Alaska culture" category.  And who can resist cute puppies?  Imp, in particular, loves dogs, so this should be a hit.  Perhaps we'll get a dog 'sled' ride as well.  The kids would probably get a huge kick out of that.
  •  Onward, to Independence Mine!  When I was first planning this trip, I debated getting a car to drive on gravel (not just for Hatcher Pass, but also Denali Highway and also the McCarthy Road).  The more I thought about it, though, I decided that things were started to get logistically complicated, and we would still have a great time without the extra worry/possible expense of limiting ourselves to only vendors who allow driving on gravel roads.  So, we'll just go as far as Independence Mine and poke around there, and retrace our steps after we are done.  Retracing our steps to head toward Talkeetna isn't going to really add any time to our journey, since driving the gravel road would be much slower.   I figure, a picnic here will be fun and beautiful.
  •  Our final stop today is Talkeetna.  We have nothing planned in Talkeetna this evening, so we can enjoy the places we have planned and not have to worry about arriving at a certain time.  I have learned our travel style and know that this will make for a more relaxing vacation.   We are staying in a cabin which has a queen bed below an a loft for the kids to sleep.  I'm sure that my boys at least will get a kick out of that.  This cabin also has a kitchen, so we should try to take advantage of that...if not for dinner, but breakfast for sure.  A continental breakfast is served as well. 

Alaska Pre-Trip: Anchorage

We are flying into Anchorage, as many do.  We'll get the rental minivan at the airport (see last post--actually was cheaper at airport).  I have one of the Choice Hotel brand hotels booked--we use them a lot when we travel.  They aren't luxury by any means, but many of them in the chain aren't a bad place to spend a night or two.  They often have rooms which accommodate all five of us easily, with an extra sofa or something of that sort.  The best perk is that they offer free hot breakfast and for this trip, we'll take a free breakfast wherever we can.  I will say that food is the one thing that is concerning me the most for my family of five.

This first day is one of the few days where I don't have a clear idea of what will happen after we get the minivan and go to the hotel.  I have no idea how tired we will be, since it will probably be around 2 PM before we drop everything off (and that translates to our already traveling for more than 12 hours).  I suppose lunch of some sort will be in order.

I think if we are feeling up to it, what is on top of my list of what to do this first day is the Tony Knowles Trail.  I have this vision of renting bikes, but in reality, we'd probably just walk it for a little bit.  Another option might be the Alaska Native Heritage Center.  We will also have time at the end of our trip to check out Anchorage, so this isn't the only day we can do anything here.  There is also the zoo, the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery, or Flat Top Mountain.  I have learned with my family that we never get to all the options, but we usually have a good time and enjoy what we do see...and there is always the hotel's pool, if we just want to chill out this first day.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Alaska--A bunch of other plans made

Once I purchased the plane tickets, it was time to air out the itinerary and start making some reservations.  One thing I had read on Trip Advisor is that in many cases, it is good to make some reservations early, because that often translates to better prices--especially if they are either refundable or don't require a deposit.  I found that to be the case in several instances, in that when I'd call or email, the owner would often say that they'd give me an "early bird" price or honor 2016 prices because they hadn't figured out those for 2017 yet.   I would say that making the reservations early is probably the best money saving tip I would least for now.

So what did I book?

Car--Cretien and I talked briefly about renting an RV, because it gives more flexibility and you always have a place to spread out, a bathroom to use, etc.  I know the kids would have enjoyed it.  The cons against renting an RV is that our flexibility would be somewhat limited anyway, since we were going to book and pay for certain activities ahead of time, so we'd need to be where we had planned to be on time.  Also, although I kept reading how easy it would be to drive an RV, I wasn't sold on doing it.  And I know that Cretien doesn't want to have to be the only driver for 2 weeks in Alaska.

With that said, I knew we'd need a decent sized vehicle with the itinerary we had planned, so we booked a minivan.  Although I kept reading how the prices are cheaper off-site, the airport counter gave us a better price for the few weeks I monitored the prices.   My only regret is that I didn't book it in August, because I have to wonder if the prices were better 11 months out than 10, but I console myself with the fact that I reserved the minivan as soon as I could.

More to come...

Alaska--first plans made!

So there I sat, the second week in September, with a draft of an itinerary just itching to see the light of day.  I was doing a search for flights and lo and behold, I stumbled across a set of flights which met my criteria of:

1.  Being below $500 per ticket
2.  Be available as a reward flight so I could use some miles
3.  Flights over the weekend to maximize our time

Other things that I hoped for, and saw with these tickets, included:

4.  Decent time of day/arrival--> I had thought we'd arrive late afternoon or early evening, but we arrive in Anchorage around 12:45 PM.   That will give us the option to do a little sight-seeing the first day, if we aren't too tired from our early morning flight.  Our connecting flight is pretty short.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there is nothing to mess up that connection.

5.  Red eye for the return-->  This is what I expected and this is what we got.  I think it'll be nice to have a full last day before we head home.

I consulted with Cretien and he told me to go ahead and book the tickets!

Unfortunately for us, I only had enough miles to get one ticket paid for.  I debated waiting another few weeks until the next credit card cycle posted enough miles to get two tickets, but I was concerned that these very good tickets would no longer be available.  I figure, we'll have more miles for another trip down the road.

It almost seemed surreal...We were going to Alaska!!

Granted, the trip was about 10 months away, but who cares?

Alaska in 2017!!

Alaska--More Pre-trip musings

After I had my rough itinerary of towns, I put it aside for a bit.  We still had our vacation for 2016, and while most of the planning had been set since January, I wanted to spend some time refining and getting psyched for that trip, which was in August.  All the while, though, I knew that if we were going to visit Alaska during the summer of 2017, I'd need to start making real plans once we returned.

During the spring, I had stalked air fare, which is a bit of a Catch-22, in that our possible flights wouldn't be published for a few months and who knows if 2017 would match up with what was being offered in 2016.  Still, though, I studied the fares and learned about Google Flights and ITA Matrix, which proved to be a lot of fun in their own right.  ;-)  We would be able to use some credit card miles, but I had almost depleted our miles for our flights for our 2016 trip, so I knew we'd be purchasing some of the five tickets we needed.  With this research, I concluded that we'd probably be arriving in Alaska early evening and leaving on a red-eye.  I also decided that when the time came, if I ever saw round trip flights for less than $500 from our home airport, to snatch them up.

So, we went on our vacation in August.  It was very different from what I envision Alaska to be.


Sure, we saw beautiful scenery and wildlife on that trip, but of a completely different sort.

When we returned, the kids went back to school (the very next day!  One day we were having breakfast in San Juan, and the next, they were on the bus to school.  Literally.)

Once I unpacked and got settled in, I started thinking about Alaska again and knew it was just about time to actually pull the trigger.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


The main reason for the rebirth of this journal is because I'd like to share my thoughts and planning for our vacation this year.  I do have other places I journal, but I figure that eventually, I would like to do a real trip report with photos and the like, and when I've read others' trip reports, it's on their own blog.  Ergo...

Essentially, I have wanted to go to Alaska for decades.  One of my best friends from college did a year in Juneau right after college, and I toyed with visiting her then.  At the time, the logistics to get to Juneau seemed overwhelming.   Looking back, I'm not sure what it was about the logisitcs.  Long flights?  It couldn't be the "no direct flight" thing, because I wound up flying to San Francisco that summer to visit another friend instead, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't a direct flight since I was a poor grad student and didn't have a ton of money to pony up for direct flights.  Anyway, in this case I sort of proved the idea that "youth is wasted on the young".  Almost 30 years later, and I still sort of kick myself for not going to Alaska then.

Why go now?  Well, this year is a milestone birthday year for me, and Chretien asked me how I wanted to celebrate this birthday.  The answer was easy.  Alaska, finally.

However, even with this trip, we aren't going to Juneau.  I started doing some serious research on Alaska in January or February of 2016, and for five of us, it didn't take me long to rule out a cruise with an extra week in south central Alaska.  The price of flights, plus cruise, plus another week in Alaska was way over the budget I set in my mind...and what complicated matters was that there was just too much to see in south central that one week to devote to it, after a cruise, would never be enough.  So, I scrapped the idea of the cruise/land combo and decided to concentrate our two weeks on a land-based vacation.  I figure, Chretien and I can go back when the kids are all off in college in 10 years or so and do the cruise without them.  They should be more than happy with the land-based Alaska trip, right?

Once that decision was made, I started doing all sorts of research...the Alaska boards on Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic became nightly reading, and I started keeping notes and shaping itineraries based on all the fabulous reviews I'd read.  Can you tell I enjoy this sort of thing anyway?  

I had all sorts of options--RV or rental car?  McCarthy or no?  Homer?  Seward?  It was a big puzzle and I was having a lot of fun trying to shape a trip that would allow us to see the highlights of Alaska while taking into account the ages of my kids and not breaking the bank or running us too ragged.  

By late spring, I had an itinerary of towns that I think would work.  With two weeks, we could not fit everything in, but we could cover a decent amount of territory.   I had to keep reminding myself that just because Alaska is one state, I wouldn't expect to go on a two week vacation in the Lower 48 and drive through numerous states all in that time.  Everything I read kept reminding me of the distances between places, so I tried to honor that.

Dusting this thing off

Wow, almost three years since I've posted.  I had pretty much forgotten about this blog, but not quite.

So odd to go back to my first post here, all the way back in May 2010.  Trust was 6, Earnest was just about 4 and Imp had just turned 2.

Now we're at Trust getting ready to start high school in the fall, Earnest ready to jump up to middle school, and Imp almost 9.  Yes, we've come a long way.