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THE TOUR GUIDE

Alaska: All of it by bus, or bust

On this budget trip, see the Last Frontier through the window -- if you can stay awake.

July 23, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Fairbanks, Alaska — HEADS are nodding, bodies are limp, soft snoring sounds are escaping from the throat of the man across the aisle from me. Later, he will describe this drive -- 11 hours on a bus -- as "the ride from hell." It's not. It's just infernally boring.

We're trapped in a motor coach heading north on an Alaskan Adventure Tour, seven days and nights that will take us from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Denali National Park, site of North America's highest peak, 20,320-foot-tall Mt. McKinley.

The tour is being run by Cosmos, one of the world's largest budget travel companies. The big plus is that it's relatively inexpensive. The big minus: It's a yawner.

I have joined a group of 45 travelers from 7 years old to more than 70 and hailing from the U.S., Australia, India and New Zealand. I'm traveling anonymously as sort of a consumer scout, testing the waters of some of the world's premier tour companies. I plan to write about this trip's pluses and minuses, but I also want to have fun: see grizzlies, moose and other wildlife and learn about this larger-than-life place called Alaska.

Instead, I doze constantly. I see almost no wildlife; I have no fun.

My Alaskan Adventure is in danger of morphing into Alaskan Inertia. Many of my fellow travelers feel the same way.

"Everybody's complaining about this tour," Rose Woodward, of Sydney, Australia, says on the fourth day.

A Cosmos spokesman acknowledges that the tour has special challenges, primarily the great distances involved in Alaskan travel. But the bottom line is the bottom line: "You get a lot for the money," says Steve Born, marketing vice president.

"Cosmos tours are known for being a good value. How do you move a group of 45 people from one place to another as inexpensively as possible? That's what we do. That's how we stay true to the value promise we make."

I'd been looking forward to seeing Alaska for months: crystal glaciers, misty fiords, majestic mountains.

Finally, on a rainy Sunday morning in mid-June, the adventure gets underway. My fellow travelers and I have each paid $1,429, double occupancy. (Single travelers are assessed an additional $450.) The price covers only the tour; airfare is extra. Mine cost about $800 from LAX to Anchorage.

We pile on the bus and pull out of town at 9 a.m. Tour director Bridget Broderick, perky and enthusiastic, begins an orientation, sketching out our itinerary and sketching in all the optional tours.

The tour we purchased is pretty basic: transportation, no-frills hotel accommodations, guide and two short boat rides. But there is leisure time in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Denali. We can fill these voids by buying special optional tours. About $2,000 worth of leisure-time activities is available, including a helicopter ride over Mt. McKinley ($284), a bear-viewing tour southwest of Anchorage ($489), a drive-fly combo that will take us from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle ($399). Less pricey options include rafting ($75) and a Denali bus tour ($99).While Broderick collects sign-up sheets, our bus snakes its way south along Seward Highway. To the right of us are the rolling waters of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, to the left, jagged mountain cliffs that are part of the Chugach Range.

We're on our way to Portage Glacier, one of 10,000 in Chugach National Forest. The glacier's proximity to Anchorage -- only a 55-mile drive -- has helped make it one of the state's top visitor attractions. The showers that have bedeviled our sightseeing this morning turn to hard rain just as we leave the bus to board a boat for an hourlong ride to the glacier. Everyone runs for cover.

"You should have been here last week," the captain says. "It was sunny and in the 70s."

Today it's hovering in the 40s and the misty fiord is so socked in that the glacier is hard to see. But everyone is in a good mood nonetheless. It can't rain every day, we guess, not knowing that it will. In fact, it will even snow.

We leave the glacier and realize we're just a few miles from Whittier and Prince William Sound, which has the greatest concentration of tidewater glaciers in Alaska. But our bus returns to Anchorage, where "the afternoon and evening are free for independent activities," according to our itinerary.

Broderick, an elementary-school teacher by winter, tour leader by summer, apologizes for the city as we roll into town. "It's not real attractive," she says. "The first thing you see is a lot of bars. But that's what you get in a boom-and-bust city like this."

Half the state's population -- about 300,000 people -- lives in Anchorage. Its lack of planning is the first thing most visitors notice, along with urban sprawl, mini-malls, trailer parks and fast-food restaurants. In many ways, it's just like cities in the Lower 48, although you rarely see moose wandering through towns down south.

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