Just returned from an AMAZING 10 day bus tour of Alaska to celebrate my husband’s recent retirement. What a trip! Normally, we are cruise fans, but as we all know, cruises are mostly a no-go these days, so we opted for a bus tour with Grayline Alaska instead. So settle in and I’ll tell you all about it – some of it was wonderful, but some of it was not that great, so I’ll give you the full run down.
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t just about the bus travel, we were also on several different trains, a riverboat, a barge, and even a horse-drawn wagon and we could’ve chosen to ride a dog sled. Alaska is all about variety!
Our tour started with a flight into Fairbanks Alaska. We got in right at midnight and it was our first view of Alaska. This was on the 1st of July so they are right in the midst of their famous “White Nights”. It was about 75 degrees out and looked like this:
Here’s a hint – the blackout curtains in the hotels are not all they’re cracked up to be, so bring some clothespins to pinch them shut a little better and maybe think about a sleep mask! It’s very disconcerting to get up for a bathroom visit at 4 AM and see it’s full daylight outside!
The hotel they put us up in was the best one in Fairbanks. Sounds good, but it’s a small town and there aren’t many hotels in Fairbanks. So it was clean and comfortable, but not especially plush or deluxe. Luxury travel is pretty thin on the ground here. But we had a very nice time there and it was just fine for us – we aren’t fancy!
Here’s my one complaint about Grayline. The tour was pretty pricey – roughly $3K per person (not including airfare) for an “8-day tour”, but there were gaps in the scheduled activities you could drive a truck through, so we ended up spending about another thousand dollars on “optional” excursions. Or we would’ve been sitting around for a lot of the time twiddling our thumbs.
It really worked out to be a 6-day tour because there was nothing at all scheduled for the first day and the last day and many of the other days had big open blocks of time. So, that was my one pet peeve about the whole thing. Compared to a cruise, I didn’t think it offered as much value for the price.
So, for the first day in Fairbanks, we booked a Gold Dredge Tour, which was marvelous! We got to see the pipeline, we got to ride on an antique train (my husband is a train nut, so he was delighted!), we got to pan for gold, and see a fascinating bit of history. A gold dredge is a big antique machine for digging gold out of the ground. I came away with $21 in real gold, but spent probably that much for the locket to put it in – ha! But I didn’t care. We had an absolute ball on this excursion.
Alaska tourism is way down because people can’t drive up through Canada and the cruise lines are still shuttered, so everyone was very grateful for our presence and our tourist dollars. But beware – like many areas of the country, they are critically short on labor, so many of the resorts, restaurants and gift shops are either manned by high school kids or their grandmas! So bring a big store of patience.
For dinner, we opted for a visit to the famous Alaska Salmon Bake. I actually opted for the prime rib, but Tony got the salmon and they were both WONDERFUL. Probably the BEST prime rib I’ve ever tasted!
And it was set in an old-style pioneer village with old style cabins and shops to wander through after dinner. Very cute! If you are in Fairbanks, this definitely needs to be on your MUST DO list! Come hungry because you’ll leave stuffed!
Riverboat Tour of the Chena River
This was our second day in Fairbanks and our first official day of the tour. Stunning scenery and the riverboat crew was all from one big family and very friendly and informative. We got a little bush plane demonstration, a sled dog demonstration (including some adorable pupplies!), and a tour of a typical Athabascan Village. Perfectly delightful!
One thing I noticed was as we cruised down the river, there were lovely houses on both sides and even though these people probably see this boat several times each day, every single person who was outside, waved to us. I thought that was very sweet and very hospitable.
See – not everyone in Alaska lives in bark huts and igloos. Actually, most of the homes we saw around town were pretty nice, but this was a real showstopper! I believe someone mentioned a median home price of $200K-$300K for an average home. You can barely get a tiny little home in Salt Lake for those prices.
Traditional trapper cabins that were common at the turn of the century. Some are still in use today. Everything is built on permafrost ground, so basements aren’t really a thing there.
Would you believe this ceremonial outfit would sell for about $20,000! It is beautiful though. Our tour guides were all local High School and College kids from various First Nation tribes.
Bush planes are an extremely common sight as there is still not a whole lot of paved road. In fact, to get to Juneau, the Capitol city, you can either go by water, by plane, or dog sled! No major highway goes there.
Next stop on our trip was Denali National Park. All of Alaska is beautiful, particularly in the green and blooming summer – 20 hours a day of sunlight can make anything grow like MAD. But Denali is just stunning. We had a half day train ride to get the in one of those cool trains with the observation domes and a private dining car below. We even had our own personal bartender for our group.
Breakfast on the train – scrambled eggs with caribou sausage – yum!
We had about 35 folks in our group – mostly family members traveling in pairs and a guide to help us keep everyone organized and tell us lots of interesting facts. We had a couple of very well-behaved teens with their grandparents, but no little kids. We even had this darling lady who was turning 94 on the tour. She was traveling with her 70-something daughters and they were just as cute as could be. These trips are a bit strenuous, so make sure you are up to lots of stairs, climbing in and out of buses, trains, shuttles, and on and off boats.
We had a lovely 6 hour nature photography tour that was really cool. We had a couple of our members who were hunters, so they were unusually good at spotting the most hidden wildlife. We saw moose, caribou, a number of Dall sheep, and 3 different sets of bears, including a mama bear with a cub. We love wildlife, so that was super cool.
We even caught a glimpse of the legendary mountain, but it was pretty cloudy to see it clearly. The accommodations and food were definitely a step up from Fairbanks. This was the view from our balcony. My husband also went white water rafting in Denali, but we didn’t get any pictures because he didn’t want to ruin his phone. He went down a 20 foot stretch of river in class 3-4 rapids – pretty fun!
We also went on a covered wagon tour and dinner in the park. We had about a 4 mile round trip in a wagon pulled by two enormous horses and they took us to a little cabin back in the woods where they FED US – a LOT of food. Moose chili, steaks, salmon, ribs, chicken, all the sides, plus blueberry cobbler with ice cream for dessert. You can also take ATV’s if you don’t have the patience for the horses.
Things you Do and Don’t Want to Bring
Bug life in Alaska is fierce, so I was very worried about mosquitos. They’re said to be the state bird of Alaska! I’m very allergic to insect bites. This Para-quito bracelet was a lifesaver! It’s on a velcro band and has an all-natural pellet in it that is good for up to two weeks. I wore it all day long and didn’t get bit even once. My husband didn’t have one and he got pretty chewed up, although he spent more time near the water than I did. They have a mild Citronella smell that is noticeable, but very pleasant.
I also brought along some of these Skin-So-Soft bug repellent towelettes. They were nice-smelling and the reviews indicated that they performed better than the traditional bug sprays. Considering that the regular bug sprays can peel off my nail polish, I don’t think I want those chemicals anywhere near my skin! And I could fit them in my fanny pack to keep them handy. They were a bit cheaper direct from Avon, but they are available from Amazon if you need them FAST.
Speaking of Fanny Packs, this one was super helpful. When you are traveling for 10 days and lugging all your gear around to multiple locations, you want to travel very light. This was absolutely perfect to keep my money and credit cards safe, my bug wipes, my phone, and a few basic items like mints, Chapstick, and Kleenex.
Binoculars are definitely a must-have. We just had some regular binoculars, a small portable size, but a couple of the people on the trip had these phone mounted monoculars and they were able to get way better pictures than we were.
Speaking of traveling light – I always bring my trusty Nikon Coolpix on trips like these. We do have a DSLR, but I don’t care much for lugging something that hefty around. This little baby is about twice the size of a cell phone and the telephoto on it is amazing. Plus mine has a feature where I can upload my photos directly to my phone over Bluetooth.
Comfortable and sturdy shoes are definitely a MUST. Something with some grip action because you might be in mud, water, or snow. You want a good waterproof coat with a hood. It rains quite a bit up here, but don’t go too heavy. I brought a mid-weight winter coat and only wore it one time – during our glacier tour. Most of the time, I was quite comfortable in a t-shirt or long sleeved shirt with a light hoody.
Kenai was both the best and the worst part of the tour. Best because Kenai was the most beautiful part of the tour and the nicest accommodations and food, but worst because it took a 9 hour bus trip to get there. Not Grayline’s fault, Alaska is just a HUGE place and it takes a while to get from here to there, but that was a grueling time to be on a bus all.day.long.
We had a lunch break in Talkeetna, which is a small city in Alaska that is famous for having a CAT for a MAYOR. In fact, there have been two cat mayors in this small town. We didn’t get to meet Mr. Mayor because it was raining cats and dogs – ha! But apparently, you can pop into the general store and meet him any time.
The Kenai Princess was a spectacular property. We had lovely ground-floor rooms with balconies and the staff said, they saw moose walking right behind our rooms and occasionally a few bears around, so we were cautioned to be very careful walking around the property. The food was cruise-level quality – prime rib, fresh salmon, creme brulee french toast, crab benedict, bacon-wrapped crab stuffed shrimp – yum!
From Kenai, we took a quick optional tour of nearby historic Seward with a few of the other participants. It’s a pretty cool town with lots to see. We did take a quick tour of their local aquarium, which was a bit disappointing. At $30 a head, it was a little pricey for a basic small-town aquarium, but they had some seals, sea lions, and a selection of local fish. No otters though, which I really love.
We also happened upon a lot of excitement about their annual Seward Mount Marathon. It’s billed as the MOST grueling 5K in the world and they generally do it on the 4th of July every year, but for some reason, they had moved it to the 7th this year. It is 1.5 miles straight up the mountainside and then another 1.5 miles straight down, and the goal is to do it in less than ONE HOUR!
We heard that the winning man did it in 42 minutes, the top woman in 53 minutes, and the top teen in 28 minutes. How crazy is that?? But it’s a HUGE big deal on a small town like this. We saw lots of runners covered in mud from sliding down the muddy mountain butt-first.
Anchorage – End of Tour
Our last stop was the historic city of Anchorage. On the way, we had our glacier tour. We actually saw 3 different glaciers while we were there, but I wasn’t as excited about them as I’d thought. It was basically a big mountain of dirty snow and ice. I was kind of like that with Yellowstone – after about the third pot of bubbling mud, I was kind of over it…
I was surprised it was kind of a small town, although it’s one of the largest in Alaska. I’d say it’s about 1/4 as large as Salt Lake City, where we are. Kind of surprisingly, we had our best wildlife sighting of the whole trip in Anchorage on the city-wide Trolley tour that we picked. We saw a Momma Moose and her baby just munching leaves right by the side of the road near the airport. They were supremely uninterested in us, even though we were less than 10 feet from them.
Our accommodation was the Captain Cook Hotel, which was the largest and oldest hotel in Anchorage. It was a little dated and a bit cramped, but we were so tired by then, we didn’t really care. The food was really great though and the shopping was pretty awesome. Got an ULU knife for our youngest son. They are literally shown in every single gift shop in the state, I think!
Do I recommend a tour of Alaska? Definitely! Anyway you can get here and anything you choose to do, you will have a great time. And it is really beautiful and crammed with wildlife and so many unique things to do.
Do I recommend Grayline for your tour? Yes, pretty much. They took good care of us, provided nice accommodations and most of our meals (most lunches were on our own dime) and did their best to show us a good time.
We did choose to supplement the tour with several optional excursions – the Gold Dredge, the Salmon Bake, the Whitewater Rafting, the Seward tour, and the Anchorage Trolley. Some were booked through Grayline and some through Viators.com. But we could also have chosen to do hikes or other lower-budget activities if we’ve wanted to.