Even the most jaded of travelers will find themselves speechless in attempting to describe Alaska’s bountiful and unspoiled majestic beauty. This state is huge in size and scope with a landmass of over 663,000 square miles, including more than 33,000 miles of coastline on three different seas and 222 million acres of unspoiled federal land of which 57.5 million acres are designated as protected wilderness acreage.
So, how is one to approach a destination as huge and intimidating as Alaska? The conventional traveler might find one of a host of cruise experiences to be the best approach and in fact when most clients think of an Alaskan vacation, this is usually assumed. But for those who desire a more intimate and up close introduction to the Alaskan wilderness experience and want to feel billion-year-old tundra under their feet without having to give up luxury creature comforts, then an expert opinion becomes necessary. Entrée Destinations (formerly Entrée Alaska) provides exclusive personalized travel programs with a true insider’s touch. Our custom-crafted Alaskan experience consists of two well-choreographed chapters beginning with stays at two charming wilderness lodges and finishing aboard the luxurious yacht, Crystal, on the scenic Inner Passage.
Our expedition takes off from Anchorage aboard a de Havilland Beaver floatplane operated by Rust’s Flying Service. We are headed to Winterlake Lodge, approximately 45 minutes to the northwest. Our pilot gave us a running commentary on the landmarks below taking frequent detours when a wildlife sighting is apparent. We bank over an enormous moose foraging along a riverbank of the Skwentna River as a selection of country western music fills our headsets. There are no roads below us. Winterlake Lodge is only accessible by floatplane and in fact every bit of the material involved in its construction and its eventual furnishings were ferried to its remote location by bush plane, including the lodge’s formidable dining table, which was delivered latched to the pontoons!
As we wing our way along the scenic snow-covered ridges of the Tordrillo Mountains, the lodge comes into view. It sits overlooking the banks of Winterlake on 15 pristine acres of Alaskan wilderness and consists of a Main Lodge with great room and dining area and five individual guest cabins. As we land on the lake and the dock area, we are greeted by Carl Dixon. Carl and wife Kirsten are the driving force behind Within the Wild Adventure Lodges, a family-owned and operated adventure travel business. The couple operates three remote full-service lodges—Winterlake, Tutka Bay and Redoubt Bay. They specialize in a gamut of wilderness experiences within South-central Alaska, including backcountry hiking, kayaking, sport fishing, white-water rafting and float trips. The Winterlake Lodge also has year-round programs, including winter packages with cross-country skiing, snow machine excursions and dog sled tours. It is on the famous Iditarod Trail and serves as the finger lake checkpoint during the yearly 1,100-mile dog sled competition. As such, Winterlake maintains a kennel of 25 Alaskan Husky sled dogs and organizes a four-day mushing school program each winter.
From the deck of our Trapper’s cabin, we look over a pristine view of the lake framed by distant mountains. Our accommodation is the log homestead of Gene Leonard, the original owner of the property, and is representative of most old Alaskan bush homes. Our cabin accommodation is simple and rustic but comfortable consisting of handmade furnishings, including an Alaskan-style queen bed. It is heated with a free-standing wood stove. Four additional cabins have similar amenities with the Red Lake Trail Cabin sleeping up to a family of seven in three separate bedrooms.
Of note, Winterlake has its own Robinson R44 helicopter allowing guests the opportunity to experience a wide array of off-property activities. With Carl as our guide, we take a chopper ride to the spectacular Wolverine ridge where we hike and take in the panoramic views of the surrounding valleys and vistas north of the Alaskan Mountain range. The next day, the helicopter takes us on a 10-minute flight up the Hayes Valley for an afternoon of trekking on the snowfield of the Hayes Glacier, one of two glaciers accessible to the lodge by air. We explore ice fields, crevasses and enormous icefalls along the way.
Perhaps Winterlake’s greatest attraction lies in its Main Lodge kitchen, where Kirsten, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and her daughter Mandy prepare meals of distinction for the weary wilderness explorer. Kirsten prides herself in the creation of gourmet fare making use of only the freshest of local ingredients. Over dinner, Winterlake’s guests recount their experiences of the day as they enjoy superb food and wine in the lodge’s convivial dining room. Internet is available in the Main Lodge and Winterlake also has a wellness center with an on-site Yoga instructor leading morning classes for early risers before breakfast.
Following our stay at Winterlake, we head to Tutka Bay Lodge, the Dixons’ newest acquisition. Tutka is 9 miles from the seaside-fishing village of Homer where Halibut is king. The lodge sits on a remote and picturesque fjord along the Kachemak Bay. A local water taxi ferries guests to the lodge from Homer. Playful sea otters can be seen on the 20-minute trip, comically paddling along on their backs while Bald Eagles screech and circle overhead. Tutka Bay Lodge has six guest accommodations. These rooms are also simple but comfortable and a full-service staff provides guide services and serves excellent local seafood specialties. Guests can partake in hiking, deep-sea fishing as well as ocean kayaking to observe local wildlife or they may try their hand at fly-fishing with the Dixons’ daughter Carly, who is an expert angler and runs the property on her parents’ behalf.
After leaving Tutka Bay, we depart from Homer Airport to catch a short flight to Juneau where we are to begin the second chapter of our vacation, a luxury cruise into the Alaskan Inside Passage on the Crystal.
The Inside Passage represents a series of pristine coastal waterways extending along the Alaskan Panhandle. It extends some 500 miles north to south and over 100 miles east to west and comprises over 1,000 scenic islands rich in local culture and fjords. It is a region that has been carved by glaciers and is blanketed by dense forests of Western hemlock and Sitka spruce. This is a pure habitat for bald eagles, sea lions, orcas and humpback whales best viewed from the water either while cruising or paddling. The Crystal gives opportunity for both.
The Crystal is a luxurious 112 feet in length accommodating up to 10 guests in five exquisite staterooms plus a sixth stateroom with bunk beds. Each cabin has private facilities and the Deluxe Master Stateroom has an entertainment center and in-suite Jacuzzi tub. The friendly crew with Captain Michael Bennett in charge includes an engineer/expedition leader, a gourmet chef and two naturalists. The Crystal’s small size allows it to make its way into some of the narrowest of waters where guests can experience unspoiled natural vistas, including wildlife, glaciers and astounding waterfalls, all at close range.
Our cruise itinerary starts with a leisurely trip up the winding Tracey Arm Fjord where we stop to kayak among the glacial ice-flows before continuing onward to visit the Sawyer Glacier. Then we pass Sunset Island with its hundreds of huge, snorting Steller sea lions and eventually experience the thrill of observing a passel of Humpback whales at close range. Our cruise takes us to the quaint fishing village of Baranof Warm Springs where we enjoy a hot spring bath. We move onward to the amazing marble grotto where enormous brown bear can be observed along the shore as we explore the narrowest of waters aboard Crystal’s Zodiacs.
Finally, we return home having experienced Alaska up close, as it ought to be. ?