Denali to Anchorage

By the time we were up and looking out the window a little before sunrise the northern lights had disappeared. There were hints of frost outside and the weather app indicated another -3ºC morning. 

We brewed coffee in our room, ate our cereal with yoghurt, and packed our bags. They were to be placed outside our room by 7:00 am for pick up and transfer. We relaxed for a bit and soon after 8:00 walked up to the hotel reception to catch our 8:45 bus to the train. Our bags were still outside our room but there were signs of activity with bags downstairs.

The hotel lobby area was chaotic. As was the case yesterday, there were buses for various excursions, coaches transporting people north and south, and buses going to the rail depot. Signage was minimal and there was no apparent record being taken of which rail passengers had boarded buses. After a week of being diligently recorded each time we moved on or off ship it seemed that the system was less interested in those nearing the end of their journey.

Our train south had a mix of carriages owned by the cruise lines but pulled by Alaskan railways locomotives. The coach we rode in had 2 levels. Upstairs was 2 x 2 seating under a domed roof that allowed us to see in most directions. Downstairs was kitchen, dining, and other functions. We sat and listened to briefings from the guide looking after our coach, the bartender, the tour director selling extras in Anchorage, and the dining people. Information overload ensured that there were people with questions still after all that. Around 9:30 the train pulled out.

The train journey, especially in the first stages through the mountains and hills, was splendidly scenic. Early morning sun lit up the distant mountain tops that were white with snow or ice and the brilliant yellows of the fall foliage on the hillsides. As the day went on the angle of the sun shifted but it continued to shine and the landscape was bright. Occasionally the rail line ran alongside or across streams that were sometimes greyish blue with glacial silt and sometimes crystal clear, their banks lined with a mix of dark green conifers and brilliantly yellow aspens and birch. As we went south the fall colours were less intense because trees were in earlier stages of the change. 

At several points along the way we had views of Denali from different directions. It was shrouded in cloud to varying degrees today but still a clearer view than many visitors are able to enjoy. Our last sighting was as we approached Anchorage by which time the mountain was more than 100 miles (160 km) distant but still visible above the surrounding country when there was a clear line of sight.

Lunch, or the near lack of it, was a blot on an otherwise very enjoyable day. Early on the rail trip somebody came around seats and asked if people wanted lunch. We said ‘yes’ as did almost everybody else when faced with the prospect of 8 hours in a train. Soon after 11:00 am the young man managing food downstairs started inviting people down in groups for lunch. The dining space would not accommodate all at once so as some finished and a table was cleared others would be invited down. At some point while I was downstairs taking photos without intervening glass he came by our seat and took the people in front and behind. When I returned Majella was wondering why we were not called but it was still early and we expected the call would come. It didn’t. After 1:00 pm, Majella went down to ask and was told there would be a ‘last call’. We waited and that did not come. She went down again about 2:00 pm to find the staff eating and the dining area otherwise empty. When she asked we were told to come down. Having eaten a light breakfast at 6.30, we were getting quite hungry.

The young man was convinced that it was entirely our fault and not a fault in their system. I was equally emphatic that it was a fault in their system, or rather lack of system. He checked and found we had not been recorded as wanting lunch but would still not accept that the fault was theirs. His behaviour flew in the face of fundamentals of customer service. Don’t blame the customer, even if you think they are to blame. Their system is evidently lacking and it is also inefficient in that they have to determine which passengers will eat and then manage charging them for meals. It would be simpler and more efficient to assume that anyone, especially cruisers who have grazed for a week, will want to eat lunch on an 8 hour trip. Including lunch would add an immaterial amount to the cost of the cruise package and simplify their operations.

We arrived in Anchorage a little after 5:30 pm making it an 8 hour journey with a short pause at Talkeetna where some of the other carriages were loaded and unloaded as passengers transferred between train and motor coach. We collected our hotel package with keys and other information as we boarded the coach for transfer to the hotel at Anchorage so once we reached the hotel we were able to go straight to our room. Our bags were waiting there so we freshened up and headed out to catch the 7:00 pm city tour that we had booked during the train journey south.

Our trolley driver/guide, Jody, began by introducing herself and telling her life story. Majella has become fixated on the propensity of guides here to disclose large amounts of personal information and the reciprocal inclination of some passengers to ask what we would consider impertinently personal questions of guides. Whether it is about establishing Alaskan credibility or something else we have not yet worked out but it seems a peculiar habit of sharing sometimes interesting but mostly irrelevant information.

Soon we were on our way around the city and its outskirts with an informative and sometimes amusing stream of commentary. We paused at the earthquake memorial park above the city and, while explaining how the land near the bus had dropped several metres in the quake, Jody asked who among the passengers would walk down the track to demonstrate the height. Sizing up the other passengers, I quickly decided that I was probably the fittest candidate and volunteered. Off I went down the hill and back up. Majella told me on my return that it was probably a rhetorical question and that Jody had been surprised to get a volunteer. I needed the exercise after sitting in a train all day.

Another interesting stop was in the area adjacent to the main airport used by light aircraft. There were hundreds of light aircraft. In one area adjacent to a gravel runway they were equipped with special wide tyres for landing on tundra. In another they were float planes moored for access to two lakes used for take off and landing. It is the largest seaplane assembly in the world with about 1000 planes. One in 10 Alaskans has a pilot licence and about 20% of families own a plane. There are few roads through much of the state and thousands of lakes so access by air is often the only way to reach many areas.

After our tour we went looking for dinner. Majella was determined to eat halibut and after some searching we found the 49th State Brewery where she enjoyed a halibut burger. I had a more common burger with fried jalapeños and other spicy ingredients. We both enjoyed Spruce Force beers, brewed with a touch of spruce for added flavour.

After all that a comfortable bed at the Captain Cook hotel was welcome. Tomorrow we fly back to Seattle.