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A cross-countries adventure

Careful planners can align rail and ferry schedules to create a scenery-filled trip from Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies to Alaska.

By STANTON H. PATTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


Travelers with a little time and some curiosity can fashion a two-nation vacation that samples great scenery in western Canada and Alaska.

The plan: Travel by rail through British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. Catch a ferry to Alaska. In Alaska, board northbound trains for Anchorage, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Fly home from Fairbanks.

Pick two weeks or so between mid May and mid September. But book early to ensure accommodations.

We spent several weeks last year charting such a trip, trying to synchronize rail and ferry segments to save money on meals and lodging. Our choice was mid May, a mostly mosquito-free season in the north.

It went like this:

First we flew to Vancouver, British Columbia. This delightful city offers attractions ranging from waterfront hikes to first-rate theater. We spent most of a day at the Vancouver Aquarium, watching playful sea otters from Alaska and belugas (white whales) from the Canadian Arctic.

In Vancouver we boarded a Rocky Mountaineer train bound for Jasper, Alberta, in the Rockies. The Rocky Mountaineer travels only during daylight hours so passengers won't miss any of the scenery. This makes for a two-day trip, with an overnight stay in Kamloops, in British Columbia's heartland.

In Jasper, one of Alberta's gems, we spent two nights so we could make connections with our next train, VIA Rail Canada's every-other-day Skeena. Besides, mountain-cuddled Jasper deserves more than a quick stop.

The westbound Skeena took us to Prince Rupert, British Columbia's crossroads seaport. This was also a two-day, all-daylight journey, with an overnight stay in Prince George, British Columbia. The Skeena, traveling from the Rockies to a rain forest, follows one of North America's most scenic rail routes.

We planned an extra day for Prince Rupert. The town is a charmer, with bald eagles and Indian totem poles forming fascinating backdrops.

Alaska's acclaimed state ferries call at Prince Rupert to load passengers for northbound voyages through the Inside Passage. Prince Rupert also is a pivot point for British Columbia ferries sailing south to Vancouver Island or west to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

At Prince Rupert, we boarded the Kennicott, the newest vessel of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet. We took it to Juneau and across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, in south-central Alaska.

(Cross-gulf service is offered once a month from May to September.)

The journey takes 23 hours from Prince Rupert to Juneau, then 32 hours to Seward. That means four nights aboard the ferry. Be sure to reserve a cabin well in advance: The reclining chairs in the lounges are comfortable but not suited for several nights' sleep.

Many budget passengers spread sleeping bags on the deck for fresh-air shut-eye.

From Seward, we traveled to Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, aboard the Alaska Railroad.

An option: Anchorage-based Affordable New Car Rental offers one-way rentals between Seward and Anchorage. This is a tempting alternative because the 127-mile route of the Seward Highway is a visual treat.

We arranged two days in Anchorage for sightseeing and shopping. Worthy attractions are the Alyeska Resort (world-class skiing in winter; dazzling mountain views by tram in summer), the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Heritage Center showcases Alaska's many native cultures.

From Anchorage, we rolled north with the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park. Because we were on our own instead of tied to a tour group, we were able to book three nights at Denali. This improved our chance of seeing Mount McKinley, which hides in the clouds for days at a time. We also wanted to join an all-day wildlife tour in hope of seeing grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose and other critters.

The last leg of the trip was Anchorage to Fairbanks, on the Alaska Railroad. Cruise lines attach fancy dome cars to the state-owned railroad for their passengers. We were satisfied with service in the Alaska Railroad cars, and we met interesting Alaskans on the way.

Fairbanks' top attractions are river cruises aboard the stern-wheeler Discovery III, the El Dorado Gold Mine (finding at least gold flakes is guaranteed for gold panners), get-togethers with Mary Shields, a veteran sled-dog musher, and the University of Alaska Museum.

Fairbanks is a winter destination, too, with the northern lights blazing overhead.

We flew back to our Seattle departure point on Alaska Airlines.

Regrets? Yep

After the trip, we realized we had made a few mistakes in planning. For instance, we should have allowed more time for the fjords of southeastern Alaska.

And instead of hurrying through the Inside Passage, we could have gone ashore to explore Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg, all in Alaska, on the way north from Prince Rupert: Ketchikan for its dramatic totem parks and sea kayaking, Wrangell for ancient petroglyphs and tall totems, and Petersburg for its postcard-pretty harbor and fresh seafood.

We could have caught other Alaska ferries between those picturesque ports and, with careful planning, still have reached Juneau in time to board the Kennicott for its once-a-month summer service across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward. Next time.

Visitors can enjoy Alaska on their own terms when traveling by ferry, especially if not burdened with vehicles. Short-notice reservations for vehicle space on the ferries are dicey in the summer. But foot passengers get off and on the ferries as they wish.

We also should have scheduled a full day in Prince George instead of a short night while traveling on the Skeena train to Prince Rupert. Prince George has ample attractions, including art galleries and an excellent railway museum. But because the Skeena is on an every-other-day schedule, we pressed on to Prince Rupert, with about seven hours in Prince George.

And maybe we should have driven the Seward Highway to Anchorage. There was plenty of train time north from Anchorage to Denali and to Fairbanks.

Memorable moments:

Showtime. Five miles from Jasper, aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, a mother black bear and her two cubs were roaming by the rails. Snow-crowned Rockies were shining like jewels in the afternoon sunshine.

Wakeup call. "There are elk in our front yard!" another guest called at daybreak at Jasper Park Lodge. Four elk were grazing nonchalantly outside our cabin. Other early risers tracked the animals for closeup photographs. A gaggle of Canada geese cruised the jade-green waters of Lac Beauvert.

In command. Jonathan Ward, skipper of the Kennicott, guided the 382-foot ferry though the tight turns of Wrangell Narrows, a channel between Wrangell and Petersburg. This is a challenge for any navigator: a shallow, saltwater slalom course with 69 buoys and other navigational aids scattered over 20 miles.

Big cruise ships can't travel that way. Depth at mean low water is 19 feet. The Kennicott draws about 17 feet. We were almost halfway through the narrows when there was a happy distraction. An angler, in a fishing skiff we were passing, held up a 30-pound king salmon. Ferry passengers applauded.

"I wouldn't have missed any of this," said Margaret Costa, a visitor from Pawcatuck, Conn.

"I've been wanting to see Alaska since the third grade. I was the only one to write down 'Alaska' when the teacher asked us where we wanted to go someday. This is a present to myself on my 50th birthday."

Happy birthday, Margaret.

-- Stanton H. Patty, born and reared in Alaska, is a retired assistant travel editor of the Seattle Times.

If you go

To plan your version of this trip, or to sample parts of it, consult these sources:

Rocky Mountaineer, Vancouver, British Columbia, to Jasper, Alberta. There are two classes of service: RedLeaf, or economy, and GoldLeaf, or first class. Fares: $475 per person one way in RedLeaf, $922 in GoldLeaf.

Fares include all meals aboard the train and overnight accommodations in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Details: Rocky Mountaineer Railtours, toll-free 1-800-665-7245; the Web site is www.rockymountaineer.com. VIA Rail Canada's Skeena train, Jasper, Alberta, to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. There are two classes of service: economy and Totem, or first class. Adult fares: $80.38 in economy, $311.13 in Totem. Senior fares for two: $97.02 economy, with a companion traveling free, $357.74 Totem, with a companion traveling for 75 percent off.

Totem fares include all meals aboard during the two-day journey. Passengers are responsible for making their hotel reservations in Prince George, British Columbia, where the Skeena stops for the night.

Details: VIA Rail Canada, toll-free 1-888-842-7245; www.viarail.ca. Alaska Marine Highway ferry, Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Seward, Alaska, with a Gulf of Alaska crossing from Juneau, Alaska. Adult fare $288 per person. A two-berth cabin without bath facilities is $250 for the four-night voyage. A two-berth roomette without bath facilities is $125.

Details: Alaska Marine Highway, toll-free 1-800-642-0066; www.alaska.gov/ferry. Alaska Railroad. From Seward to Anchorage, $55 per person. From Anchorage to Fairbanks by way of Denali National Park, $175.

Details: toll-free 1-800-544-0552; www.alaskarailroad.com.

For more information: Contact Tourism Vancouver, (604) 682-2222; www.tourismvancouver.com.

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