A 'lodge-ical' trip to Princess' Alaska properties

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o what the heck is a story about hotel lodges doing in a cruise guide?

Many agents already know the answer. When booking a Princess cruise to Alaska, they sell their customers on a land package that includes staying at one or more of the five Princess lodges in Alaska's wilderness, creating what Princess and other lines call a cruise tour. Agents get a bigger payday, while helping their clients see more of a state they may visit only once in their lifetime.

The land tours are proving so popular that Princess is spending about $20 million to add a combined 176 rooms, as well as other enhancements, at its Denali and Mt. McKinley lodges.

After eight days visiting all five lodges and trying various excursions, I found it easy to understand the appeal of the land tour. My trip also suggested several selling points an agent can stress to clients:

Selling point No. 1: Interior motives.

Clients might not fully appreciate how vast the Alaskan wilderness is until they're actually there. Alaska is equal in size to about one-fifth of the rest of the U.S., yet most of the state is parkland or wildlife preserve. Cruises skirt the shore of Alaska, but only the land tour takes tourists to the interior.

Just traveling to and between the lodges can be awe-inspiring.

Selling point No. 2: Be Lodge-ical.

Remote could also mean "rustic," but that's not the case with the Princess Wilderness Lodges. There's not a bad one in the bunch, though some have more-limited appeal.

Many of the lodges are in remote places by continental U.S. standards. But they are still beside roadways (not remote for Alaska) and offer plenty of upscale perks, including fine dining on Alaskan specialties such as salmon and king crab legs.

The properties are well-maintained, with colorful flowers livening up many common areas. Outdoor decks and patios and rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows provide spectacular views of mountains and rivers .

Each lodge has its own distinct appeal.

• The 85-room Copper River, at the junction of the Klutina and Copper rivers, looks out over the largest national park in the country: Wrangell-St. Elias. This is the most remote lodge, which is part of its appeal, but also a potential obstacle. Many visitors opt for a two-night stay, usually at the start or end of the land tour.

Princess' decision to move its port next season from Seward to Whittier could provide a boost for this lodge, because Whittier is one-and-a-half hours closer to Copper River.

• The Kenai Lodge overlooks Kenai River, most famous for its fishing, especially for salmon. Each of its 86 rooms include a wood-burning stove and a porch. The premium and deluxe rooms have separate dens.

The deck of the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge overlooks the Nenana River. • The Denali Lodge is about a mile from the Denali National Park entrance, providing easy access to a site that has been a huge draw for photographers and nature and wildlife lovers.

Denali also is getting an overhaul. The goal of the construction project is not just to add 80 rooms to the 352 already there, but also to "change the dynamics of the whole property," said Carole Halverson, the lodge's rooms division manager.

There also will be more places to walk on the grounds, a covered outdoor dining area, and a new scenic viewing room with a vaulted ceiling.

• The 238-room McKinley Lodge, just a few miles south of Denali National Park, provides the upscale atmosphere Denali is seeking to match.

The lodge includes "The Great Room" -- an expansive, comfortable space with seating areas, card tables, a stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows, designed for a relaxing view of the Alaska Range, including Mount McKinley.

The expansions at McKinley and Denali are due in part to the increasing popularity of Maximum McKinley, a cruise tour with stays in both lodges to maximize the chance to see North America's tallest mountain.

In fact, only 20% of McKinley lodge guests actually see Mount McKinley, general manager Steve Zadra said. McKinley is so high it creates its own weather system, keeping it obscured by clouds most of the time.

Visitors can increase their odds by asking the lodge to call them at any time (including overnight) to alert them if the mountain appears.

• Fairbanks Lodge, located along the banks of the Chena River but close to the city, is near Fairbanks airport and touted by Princess as a gateway to Alaska's rugged frontier.

Selling Point No. 3: A Tour de Force.

"You really sell yourself short if you don't sell both the Alaska cruise and land product," said Dean Brown, Princess' executive vice president of sales. To that end, Princess again will offer a series of seminars for agents this fall, visiting nearly 200 cities from September through early November, to explain its cruise tours and lodges.

Check out the travel agent area on www.princess.com for seminar schedules.

To contact reporter Andrew Compart, send e-mail to [email protected].

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