8/22/19. Home Sweet Home, Questa, NM
Given the scale and duration of Alaskan Odyssey, it is a bit surprising that we didn’t have any major logistical problems. Despite a fairly tight schedule, we never had to drastically change our plans. The only change to the itinerary was at the very end when we cut the Kotzebue stay short and hopped over to Nome. It was almost a natural thing to do since it seems like lots of people make that hop – the flight was full. Other than that, though we kept to the trip plan down to the day.
Part of that was, I think, the result of building in two buffer days between each trip segment. Using Anchorage as our home base was a good idea as nearly every city and town in Alaska has some sort of transportation connection with Anchorage. So spending a day repacking and shopping for each leg of the trip was a good idea. We also got to spend some time exploring Anchorage which, as the largest city in Alaska, deserves some time. We also ended up adopting The Mooses Tooth, a terrific pizza and beer and wine spot as our favorite restaurant. I think we ate there at least six times, trying six different pizzas, and they were all really good – including an apricot, cream cheese that sounds weird, but was terrific.
Mooses Tooth has a notable reputation in Anchorage, but we probably wouldn’t have ended up there so often except that, when in Anchorage, we stayed at the My Place Hotel. There were good things about this place and one big problem. The good things are that it was quiet, the rooms were very comfortable, and the shuttle service took us to and from the airport, as well as some sightseeing locations, regularly and efficiently. My Place is an extended stay hotel with a mini-kitchen in each room. They sell food items, like frozen breakfast burritos, which you can nuke in your room making for relatively cheap breakfasts. One weekend we went to a nearby grocery store and bought some breakfast stuff but, in the end, it didn’t save us all that much money. When you are on vacation, cooking your own meals isn’t first on your agenda – eating out is more likely. So I’m not sure the ‘extended stay’ feature of the hotel was worth it, given that we only stayed there two nights at a time.
The main reason we stayed at My Place was because they agreed, before we even arrived, to store bags for us while we were out and about on any of the various travel segments. That went very well until we got back from the ‘road trip’ section of the trip and found that the bags we had left in their care were missing. It isn’t clear exactly what happened. I don’t know if someone stole them or if they got mixed up with someone else’s bags, or what. We know that the maintenance room where they were stored got cleaned up during our absence, but no-one involved seems to remember the two bags we had left there. So it is a mystery where they went. It is also clear that the hotel procedures for recording and handling bags for storage weren’t followed exactly.
Anyway, we lost some things that were in those two bags, in addition to the bags themselves. There were a few items of clothing, including a very nice ski parka that Joan had bought in Taos a couple years ago. We also were keeping a supply of toiletries in those bags so that if we ran out of shampoo, for example, we wouldn’t have to spend time shopping for it at a store, we’d have a backup supply. And we had our prescription pill supplies in those bags which we drew on for each leg of the trip. More importantly, though, were the souvenir and gift items we had bought on the first two legs of the trip. (I had purchased a cute little wooden Russian doll set for my step-granddaughter Annabelle and that was lost.). And there were several books and souvenir items we had purchased at the several parks we had already been to.
Fortunately, at least so far, the hotel is bending over backward to compensate us for the loss. The general manager virtually cried over the items as she is also a grandmother. And, as a result of our experience, they are totally revamping their procedures for storing bags. They’ve been in touch with corporate headquarters and are in the process of issuing us a check for the full replacement value of everything we think we lost. Since it is going to amount to more than $1000, that isn’t an idle offer. We haven’t received the check yet, so the final verdict on the hotel’s response isn’t in, but the promise is positive – it seems they are making an honest effort.
Another minor loss occurred on the flight from Nome to Anchorage. I managed to forget that I had put my windbreaker jacket up in the storage bin and walked off the plane without it. I didn’t remember it until a day later. I filed a loss report with Alaska Airlines, but they haven’t found it and, at this point, I think it is probably gone. The jacket itself was part of a coat/jacket combination from Columbia that was really nice. I still have the outer shell, but it isn’t worth a whole lot without the inner jacket. More importantly, my prescription sun glasses were inside the jacket pocket. You’d think someone would return those, since they are probably useless to them, but no…
Another problem had to do with the rent-a-wreck that we used for the road trip portion of the trip. If you recall from my earlier posts, we had some mechanical issues with the pickup I had rented and had to replace an alternator and two tires on this thirteen year old truck. Stan, the owner of A1 Rentals, kept telling me ‘I got you covered!’. So I felt comfortable having him issue a credit to my credit card for the full amount, well over $600. He was so carefree about issuing the credit that I just assumed it was good. However, after nearly a week it still hadn’t appeared on the credit card, even though the original charge for the truck rental appeared the next day. So we ended up engaging in some not-very-pleasant exchanges and I ended up disputing the original charge on my credit card, which reversed the charge and took the money away from him.
Whether that did the trick or, as his banker insisted, ‘it just takes time to issue a credit’, but the credit finally came through. I released my dispute and, in the end, everything cleared. Needless to say, though, neither of us trusted each other after that.
Aside from these problems, I can’t really think of what I would have done differently. The trip was horrendously expensive and I suspect that with more diligent bargain hunting we MIGHT have been able to save some money. But it isn’t real clear how. The most expensive items on our itinerary involved flightsees. (The one from Kotzebue to see the three parks above the Arctic Circle cost over $3000 for a five hour trip, including a generous tip for the pilot.). I have no idea how they could have been done cheaper. Maybe if you don’t land in the parks you could shave a few hundred off in pilot time. But, to me, if you don’t actually touch the ground inside a park, can you really say that you were there?
In the Alaskan peninsula portion of the trip we stayed in some very expensive lodges. Brooks Lodge, in Katmai NP, is expensive and is available only by lottery. Yes, you can fly into the camp and see the bears just for a day. But ‘a day’ ends up being just a couple of hours and there is too much to see there to spend that short a time. Although we loved our stay at Gold Creek Inn in King Salmon, waiting for the flightsee to Aniakchak NM, it was the most expensive stop on our trip. We might have been able to find a less expensive place, but I have to admit it was nice staying in a yurt, being pampered, and the food was terrific. Are you entitled to that kind of treatment once in a big trip?
Other lodging arrangements weren’t nearly as expensive, until, of course, we traveled to the real extremes, like Kotzebue or Nome. There lodging is expensive and/or borderline liveable. But that is exactly what its like for non-natives, so just suck-it-up!
Another lodging issue, for us, is the problem of B&B’s (Bed and Breakfasts). We stayed in three of them (Gustavus, Port Alsworth, and Tok). And, unfortunately, we have to report that we don’t like them. Part of the problem is that we don’t like trying to figure out exactly what the host’s rules are and how to make sure we don’t infringe on them. The uncertainty about where our rights end and theirs begins is just too difficult and uncomfortable. Of course, that might be just an issue for us, but it is something that others planning a similar Odyssey might want to consider.
Joan and I do like our food and drink. We enjoyed some pretty amazing meals along the way, like reindeer, bison, lots of king crab, halibut, and, of course, salmon. We are working on putting out a review of our better restaurant meals. Frequently, though, a good meal also costs a fair amount. And, because getting lots of food items into Alaska is intrinsically expensive, be prepared to spend some money for a restaurant meal. (A really skimpy salad bar in Nome cost $14.50 for a single trip at an otherwise inexpensive restaurant.)
Another planning question is how to arrange transportation. We think that we did a fairly good job on that end by trying to tailor the transportation methods to the area we were visiting. For example, we flew to Juneau, but for the rest of our visit to the panhandle, we tried to use the ferry system, which is relatively inexpensive and is actually kind of like a poor man’s cruise ship! Unfortunately, the ferry doesn’t operate between locations at exactly the times you might want, so we ended up flying one leg of the trip (from Skagway to Gustavus) on an air taxi. While not horrendously expensive, it is more than the ferry would have been, but the ferry just wasn’t possible with our schedule.
The trips to the Alaskan peninsula were all by air and were not at all cheap. I don’t know how else that could have been done since there are simply no roads and the places we wanted to see were not on the coast. We also enjoyed the railroad between Anchorage and Seward and would definitely recommend the train for that trip to anyone else planning on going to Kenai Fjords.
Although we had issues with our rental truck, I wouldn’t have done our ‘road trip’ portion of the Odyssey any different. We drove most of the Alaskan highway system and it was definitely worth the trip. We saw Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias Parks from the ground (with a flightsee of Wrangell out of McCarthy). And the whole experience was terrific. You can’t see all of Alaska by car, but definitely see what you can that way.
So, could we have done the Alaskan Odyssey cheaper? Well, yeah, probably. If you weren’t interested in food and drink as much as we are and if you were willing to compromise on your national parks bucket list, which we weren’t, then, yes, you could have spent less money. But the nature of Alaska is going to demand that you spend some money, just because it is so big and so remote that it costs money just getting you to the points you want to see.
I don’t want to suggest that you absolutely have to do Alaska the way we did. But I would suggest that we saw a huge portion of a huge state, crossed off all of our bucket list items in the state, and did so in a way that maximizes our experience with the people and the geography of a complex part of our country. For us, the Alaskan Odyssey is a wonderful success.