Recently Travel Agent got a chance to attend a press trip to Alaska as the state's tourism climbed to record heights following the Great Recession. All week we'll be running a special report on selling the state, from top sales tips and trends to what's new for the upcoming winter season. Here we offer a firsthand report on two major fly- and boat-in wilderness lodges for clients looking to get far off the beaten path.
Alaska is coming off a banner year. According to the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program VI Interim Visitor Volume Report, Fall/Winter 2013-14, this past tourism year marked the largest number of visitors to Alaska in history, beating the previous record set in 2007-2008. 2013-2014 also marked the third consecutive year of growth in the state since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 sparked a three-year slump in tourism.
With this in mind, Travel Agent headed to the state as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, to visit fly- and boat-in wilderness lodges and gather tips on how to sell this adventure-filled destination to your clients.
Kodiak Brown Bear Center
Our first stop was the Kodiak Brown Bear Center on Kodiak Island. The unique environment of this island has led to a population of massive grizzly bears—eight of the 10 largest grizzlies ever recorded were seen here. Consisting of four private cabins, the property offers a tightly focused bear-viewing experience on 112,000 acres of pristine bear habitat privately owned by the Koniag, Inc., a regional Native corporation.
“We want to keep it small—just a maximum of six guests,” says General Manager Ed Ward. “This way there’s no negative impact on the bears and [we can] maintain a high-quality viewing experience.”
That dedication to sustainability is present throughout the property. The cabin complex runs on approximately 50 percent solar power, and one day Ward hopes to add a wind and upgraded battery system to get the property to a point where it runs off 90 percent sustainable energy.
Getting to the property is an adventure in itself. After flying into Anchorage from Seattle and overnighting there, we flew on a Ravn Alaska flight to Kodiak, where we were met by Kodiak Brown Bear Center staff and taken on a private floatplane to the Center, which sits on Camp Island in the middle of Karluk Lake. The floatplane flight offers clients a great chance to see Kodiak Island, as the flight will often stay near or below the ridgeline and follow the island’s interior valleys, affording spectacular views of the landscape below.
We also got to see other wildlife in the area, such as black-tailed deer and red foxes—sometimes right outside the main dining cabin. One playful fox even followed our guide for a short distance on the trail as we were walking back to the cabins near dusk.
Outside of wildlife viewing, guests can also relax around the property and take in the scenery. Additionally, there is a cedar-lined banya, or Russian sauna, that can accommodate eight. Each of the four identical cabins sleeps two, although, as previously noted, the maximum occupancy of the Center is capped at six. All four cabins have balconies that look out over Karluk Lake.
Other important points to bear in mind—the Center does not serve alcohol, as it does not have a bar. Instead, Center staff will bring guests by a liquor store during the transfer from Kodiak Airport to the floatplane so that guets can bring their own. Alternatively, agents can call ahead with requests to set up a guest’s alcohol in advance.
Additionally, Ward advised us that agents should be careful about recommending the property to families with young children. Bear viewing can involve long hours of being still and quiet, waiting for the bears to come, and after the bears have arrived, it is still important to remain quiet in order to avoid scaring them away. Agents should be sure that any children going on a bear-viewing itinerary have the maturity to handle keeping still for long periods of time, as the Center reserves the right to bar any traveler who may provoke a dangerous situation.
Looking ahead, the Center plans to remodel the main dining cabin into a larger facility with a separate dining area overlooking the lake and a combination lounge and common area, as well as a museum with Alaskan Native artifacts. The new main cabin is still in the planning stages, aiming for completion in 2015 or 2016.
Commission rates range from 10 to 20 percent, depending on the size of the company. Agents with special requests can reach out to Ward ([email protected], 907-433-7900).
Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge
If your clients can manage the drive, we highly recommend it—for much of the way the highway parallels the Tracy Arm, a dramatic fjord dotted with scenic lookouts and the occasional chance to spot a beluga whale. Additionally, transfers between Anchorage and Seward are available from Luxury Limousines.
In Seward, we overnighted in the Seward Windsong Lodge. After that, a boat ride took us to the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, during which we got a chance to tour the fjords of the area and take in the local wildlife, including sea lions, puffins, sea otters and even far-off mountain goats.
That subtle design is part of the Lodge’s “leave no trace” philosophy, which emphasizes minimizing the impact of travel on the environment. Nightly lectures from the staff are available on environmental topics—we attended two on “leave no trace” hiking and ocean acidification.
As the only lodge in the Kenai Fjords National Park, much of the activity revolves around exploring the surrounding area: twice-daily hiking, kayak and canoe trips visit nearby glaciers, lakes and Pederson Lagoon, offering the chance to watch the scenery and local wildlife. Our personal favorite trip—only available when the tides are right—involved navigating the passage between the lower and upper Pedersen Lagoon, which is at the foot of the Pedersen Glacier. The narrow tidal passage traps glacial ice in the upper lagoon, and in a canoe guests can get up close with the otherworldly ice formations.
Meals are served family-style in the main lodge, and features locally sourced fish, chicken, pork or beef entrees. There is also a bar in the main lounge with a small selection of local Alaskan wines and beers available for purchase.
One last nice touch? The Lodge has its own drying room, where guests can hang their clothes to be dried by the waste heat channeled from the complex’s generator. Given that during the summer season, when the Lodge is open, it can rain about half the time (the area is a temperate rainforest), this was greatly appreciated.
Agents with special requests can reach out to Chad Carter ([email protected], 800-334-8730), sales manager.
Alaska Railroad’s GoldStar Service
When it was time to head home, we took the Alaska Railroad back from Seward to Anchorage. We traveled on the Railroad’s new GoldStar service.
GoldStar guests ride in the first passenger cars, in double-decker cars with a glass-domed upper level that offers panoramic views of the surrounding area. There is also a private bar with a full-time attendant and an outdoor viewing deck. Reclining seats in the dome level can swivel to accommodate groups of four—good for families traveling together. Complimentary coffee, soda or tea is served at the guest’s seat.
On the lower level is a 36-seat dining room with views through picture windows. GoldStar guests are given priority seating.
While we took the GoldStar service on the Coastal Classic train, which runs from Seward to Anchorage, it is also available on the Denali Star, which runs from Anchorage through the interior of the state up into Fairbanks.