Have you always wanted to experience the beauty of Alaska and the Yukon? Our Travel Expert Sylvie Castonguay shares her experience onboard Holland Amercia’s MS Volendam, and why you should add this trip to your bucketlist!
Before heading off for my two week adventure, I hadn’t had a chance to shape much of an expectation of what Alaska and the Yukon was going to be like; and even if I had, it would have been blown out of the water. The experiences I had in this obscure, stunning part of the world was like no other, and I highly recommend you take the opportunity to visit this special part of the world.
Firstly, Holland America has proven themselves to be experts on both of these locations and mastered the must see’s and the must do’s every leg of the way. They made every step flawless and seemingly effortless and I was so impressed with the attention to detail the Sea & Land Tour had to offer. If you’re looking for a very laid back way of seeing some of the most beautiful parts of the world in a very comfortable fashion, Holland America is the way to do it.
It would be next to impossible to choose one category to discuss, whether it be the food scene, the adventure hiking and wildlife sightings, the indescribable, ever changing landscape; the list goes on. Both of these places offered everything you’d want out of adventure travel, so I would like to share with you my favourite little gems from most of the cities we got the opportunity to explore.
We were aboard the Holland America Ms Volendam which is a gorgeous, mid-sized ship. There is a significant difference cruising with Holland America up North rather then down South. The ship has a lot more attention to detail, lots of fresh cut flowers, wooden beams – more of an elegant yet rustic feel which puts you right in to the Alaskan feel.
The staff were terrific, the food was impeccable and even the buffet was the best I’d ever had. Given all the great things about this ship, my favourite thing about it was the serenity it offered. The cruise is very calm, very quiet and very relaxing. In the back of the ship they have piles of plaid blankets to wrap yourself in to curl up by the railing with an Alaskan Amber or a hot chocolate and watch the whales and dolphins jump amidst the icebergs and jaw dropping, ever changing mountain landscape as a backdrop – absolute perfection.
Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier
At our first port of call, Juneau, the capital of Alaska, we disembarked and headed straight for the Mendenhall Glacier. After a 15 minute bus ride from the heart of Juneau to Mendenhall Valley, I was in complete shock and awe of the sheer size and beauty of the glacier. I have never seen anything like it.
Upon arrival you can enter the park free of charge and make your way through the path of your choosing (ranging in intensity) and make your way to the foot of the glacier; which also boasts a running waterfall at the end of your path. For our first day setting foot on Alaskan soil, we were sold.
This historical Western town tucked amidst the Coast Mountains is one of a kind. It consists of not much more then one main road and a couple of quaint side streets. If you’re looking to start your day with a hearty brunch I would recommend checking out The Morning Wood Hotels restaurant – they have a great menu with plenty of delicious breakfast options and a really neat, local atmosphere (it also turns in to a great hot spot come nightfall). Otherwise, since Skagway is so quaint, all you need to do is wander down the main street in and out of the many shops, museums and cafes – and that alone will fill your day. A huge bonus is the constant stunning scenery of the mountain line surrounding you.
White Pass Trail
Whether you’re doing a land tour or just cruising, you can still take the White Pass Train tour from Skagway up to Fraser B.C. and back – just don’t forget your passports! The landscape is remarkable, and the views from the train is rated one of the top ten most scenic in the world.
The adorable vintage little train cars are very comfortable and also offer a small landing in the back of the train where you can stand outside – so I highly recommend boarding at the very back to gain access to the outdoor platform. Be sure to pre book this as it is extremely popular and depending on the season has a pretty good chance of selling out. The White Pass Trail is a must do!
Dawson City, Yukon was such a treat; it is definitely a special little treasure of weirdness. All the roads are dirt with boardwalks along the side, half the buildings are abandoned and slanted from the permafrost, while the others are painted bright beautiful colours and grandly renovated. Dawson offers a surprising amount of activity, being as it is such a tiny little town with a small population.
The first thing you need to do when in Dawson, is the Dawson City Sourtoe Shot. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s like a rite of passage into the Dawson community. You’ll need to head to The Downtown Hotel bar, choose your poison (needs to be 80 proof, whiskey or tequila) and get in line. When it’s your turn, you sit down in front of a crowd of people and have the barkeep drop a severed human toe in to your rocks glass… and you need to shoot it. Once the toe touches your lips – you’ve earned your certificate and everyone appreciation. It’s not for everyone, but I’m number 36,798! That’s a must do (or at least a must see) in Dawson!
There is also the Top of the Dome hike, be wary of bears and make yourself known to them. Climbing to the top of the mountain will leave you with some breathtaking views of the Yukon River.
The nightlife in Dawson is also very interesting, you can head to the Casino to watch the show girls and play some black jack with other tourists, or you can make your way to The Pit. The Pit is where you’ll find all the locals, and the brave tourists. It’s been rated one of the top 10 dive bars in all of Canada.
If you’re looking for more of a low-key stay in Dawson, check out the Alchemy Café for proper coffee and health conscious pastries, or one of Dawson’s many restaurants which proved to impress any foodie – I highly recommend Sourdough Joe’s. A nice quiet ride on the historic SS Klondike along the Yukon River is also a great way to relax and explore the edges of the city. Lastly, the shopping is very unique in Dawson offering many gorgeous gifts for yourself or others back at home, and they also have a pretty great yoga scene – just make sure to sign up a.s.a.p. as classes fill up quick.
Fair Banks (Gold Dredge 8)
If you’re going to do one thing in Fairbanks, it has got to be to head to Golf Dredge 8, about 20 minutes outside the city centre. You’ll get to tour around the historic grounds and see some of the mighty machinery used back during the gold rush.
You even get a bag of dirt along with a pan to pan for your own gold, everyone is guaranteed to get a little something; and I got $14 worth! You’ll also get to walk right under part of the Alaska Pipeline. A day at Gold Dredge 8 is definitely a must do.
They say Denali is an experience of a lifetime, and now I understand why. There is so much adventure, wildlife and untouched beauty; it’s truly profound. You’ll want to stay at The McKinley Chalet which has gorgeous views and access to all of the tours you’re going to want to do. It is located only about 10km outside of the 6 million acre park that boasts dall sheep, grizzly bear, caribou and so many other treasures. You’ll need to take a bus tour in to Denali, making your way down the one major road that exists in the park. Here you’ll spot so much wildlife and you’ll get many opportunities to get out and explore on your own. When you reach the end of the major road, you’ll have the potential to see the newly renamed Denali Mountain which can only be seen on the clearest of days. If you happen to be lucky enough to see it on the day you explore the Park you’re truly lucky as it’s the second highest peak in the world and the landscape surrounding it is a sight you’ll never forget.
Other then exploring the park and going on adventures within Denali, like ATV-ing, white water rafting etc., hopping on the McKinley Explorer train is an experience like no other. It is by far the most glamorous, upscale train I have ever been on, the food is to die for, and the massive window dome ceiling lets you take in all of the views for the comfortable 8-hour ride to Anchorage. You’ll get to see some parts of the world that have truly never been touched and you’ll pass through so many different landscapes – it is all so breathtaking.
Choosing just a small handful of activities and experiences I had while in Alaska and The Yukon was extremely difficult, as it seemed every part of my day was filled with an event worthy of writing about. I’ve chosen some of my fondest and most memorable, but there are still so many more, and I would be more then happy to share with you the beauty that is Alaska and the Yukon and all they have to offer!