Cruisetours highlight lodge stays near Denali

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Heavy hitters in the Alaska cruisetour market are putting the final touches on renovations and additions to their lodges and hotels.

Holland America Line spent $34 million on subsidiary Westmark Hotels to expand its Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks.

The renovation enlarged the property to 401 rooms, expanded the restaurant and added a lounge, meetings rooms and a health and fitness center -- as well as special bathtubs that use lights and air jets to provide a soothing bath.

HAL said other Westmark hotels are being renovated for the upcoming season, including the Westmark Anchorage, the Westmark Tok and the Westmark Whitehorse.

The line also added eight rail cars, and Gray Line of Alaska invested $6.5 million for new Holland America coaches.

At elevations above 2,700 feet, tundra supplants the forests in Denali National Park. Mount McKinley, part of the Alaska Range and the highest mountain in North America, is visible in the background. Princess Tours, meanwhile, will unveil two renovated wilderness lodges near Denali National Park in May after completing a $26 million renovation of the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Mount McKinley Wilderness Lodge.

Princess Tours president Charlie Ball said Princess upgrades were completed in response to consumer demand for visits to the park's interior and longer stays within the park's grounds.

"For the past several years, the top-selling cruisetours in our lineup have been those that spend more time in the wilderness near Alaska's national parks; and the Denali region, one of the state's top two attractions, was particularly desirable to our guests," Ball said.

The guest room count increase is small, from 352 to 440 at Denali and from 238 to 334 at McKinley. Princess operates a total of 1,270 guest rooms statewide, Ball said.

The company also increased inventory of its Maximum McKinley two- and three-night programs in 2004 -- in keeping with demand for stays of two nights or more in the park -- and reduced its offering of one-night Denali inventory, he said.

As a result of these changes, the company projects that visitorship will increase this year by 25% at the Denali Princess and 30% at the Mount McKinley lodge. The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge will host an anticipated 65,000 guests during the summer, and the McKinley lodge will count some 40,000 visitors, Ball said.

In addition to the room count increase, the Denali Princess lodge now offers a new, 16,000-square-foot main lodge building.

The lodge's great room features vaulted ceilings with exposed timbers, 30-foot-high windows to take in the view of the park and nearby Mount Healy as well as a two-story stone fireplace.

A new deli and espresso bar round out the facilities in the lodge building.

Seating has increased at the Summit, the lodge's top restaurant. The upgrade also transformed the exterior and grounds of the property, with new walking paths and plantings. Five new shops have been added, as well.

In addition to its room count increase, the McKinley project added a dining venue, Expedition Pizza, with a casual atmosphere and indoor and outdoor seating.

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