Not many cruise ships call in Chicken, a tiny landlocked hamlet on a bumpy, unpaved road in northeastern Alaska about 250 miles from the nearest navigable water as the crow flies. But Alaska Highway Cruises does.
This new Seattle-based company has come up with such a fresh but obvious idea, it's a wonder nobody did it before. The packages combine a Holland America Line Alaska cruise with an Alaska overland journey in a recreational vehicle. The RVs can be picked up in Washington or Canada for the trip to Alaska and turned in at the port for a cruise back. You can also reverse the trip and begin with the cruise.
One itinerary, the Glacier Route, sails between Vancouver, B.C., and Seward, Alaska, calling at Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Valdez. Passengers sail aboard the Noordam or Nieuw Amsterdam, and may choose between a seven-night drive from Seward to Anchorage that includes visits to Denali National Park and Fairbanks, or a 14-night overland excursion between Seward and Vancouver via the Alaska Highway with an option to detour up to the Klondike or cross the scenic Cassiar Highway into the Yukon's remote Kluane National Park.
Passengers can opt to take either the cruise or the land portion first, but we would suggest getting the more strenuous land adventure over first, then settling into the lap of luxury on a cruise back.
Alaska Highway Cruises provides 1994-model RVs that sleep two to six, along with a book of coupon vouchers for reserved campground spaces every night; passengers buy their own gasoline and food.
For our 3,100-mile journey, we spent roughly $600 on gas and oil and $400 on food and beverages on an accelerated nine-night version of the 14-night itinerary along the Alaska and Klondike Highways. We did not take the cruise portion.
We started our trip in Seattle where an AHC representative met us at the airport and drove us to Anacortes, where the RVs for northbound travelers are parked in an attractive, wooded private campground called Scimitar Ridge. After learning how to handle the vehicle, program participants usually spend their first night here with vouchers for dinner and breakfast at a nearby restaurant, then set out for Kamloops, British Columbia, along the dramatic Coquihalla Highway.
By getting up and out early every morning, we spotted a fair amount of wildlife along the roadsides--moose, caribou, white-tail deer, black bear, a lone wolf, snowshoe hares, porcupines, great blue heron, geese and bald eagles.
We tried to reach our destination for the night by mid-afternoon, but found it hard to go to sleep at 10 or 11 at night when the sun was still shining.
For two people, the standard issue is a 1994-model 21-foot Fleetwood Jamboree Searcher, a Class C motor home, which means the camper is built atop a pickup truck (in this case a Ford) with sleeping accommodations for two in a windowed extension over the vehicle cab.
Four or six adult passengers get a 27-foot vehicle with cab-over bed.
Our favorite campground along the way was on the outskirts of Prince George, B.C., at Tabor Lake, where our closest neighbors were a pair of geese and two nesting pairs of horned grebes. The proprietor of the RV park, who also runs the elegant Log Cabin Restaurant on the hill, buzzed down to the campground on his moped, attired in his maitre d'hotel tuxedo and bow tie, to make sure we were comfortably settled in.
Top of the World Highway, a white-knuckle drive above tree line on a dirt road along a narrow ridge between Dawson City and Chicken, was the most exciting part of the trip, especially where the snowpack encroached on at least half the roadway and there were no guardrails.
In Chicken, a guided historic tour is available at 1 p.m. daily in the summer. The Chicken Saloon, Restaurant and Gift Shop also presents sled dog demonstrations in the snow season.
When we drove in about 10 a.m., plumes of red dust trailing behind us, the sled dogs perched atop their wooden posts perked up as if it were show time, while a thin, bearded man who could have sprung from 1968 hippie days shuffled out to our RV and murmured through the open window, "Welcome to Chicken. Only the gift shop and the saloon are open this morning."
Another option is the Inside Passage, a seven-day round trip sailing from Vancouver with port calls at Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka and a daylong cruise through Glacier Bay. A seven-night RV driving loop from Vancouver to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper complements the Inside Passage sailing aboard the Westerdam or Maasdam. Prices begin at $1,995 per person, double occupancy, for a seven-night RV journey into the Canadian Rockies and a seven-day cruise on the Inside Passage, or $2,995 for a 14-night RV trip along the Alaska Highway with a seven-day cruise on the Glacier Route. A seven-night RV program around Denali with the seven-day Glacier Route cruise starts at $2,495 per person, double occupancy.
These starting prices are for early season sailings and minimum-category inside (windowless) cabins on board ship. Upgrade supplements range from $50 to $4,050 per person additional for more expensive accommodations aboard ship. Children 2 and older sharing the shipboard stateroom with their parents only pay an additional $895-$1,595 for the package, depending on the length of the RV portion of the trip.
For a brochure, contact a travel agent or call Alaska Highway Cruises at (800) 323-5757.
Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month.