Mountain's Majesty Is Evident at Princess' McKinley Lodge

By Laura Del Rosso

TALKEETNA, Alaska -- There are a lot of reasons to choose Princess Tours' new Mount McKinley Princess Lodge as part of an Alaska land tour, but, in the final analysis, there really is one that stands out -- the mountain. The new, $20 million hotel has the best views of North America's highest peak of any property in Alaska.

When Mount McKinley is visible -- and common wisdom is that it occurs only between 15% and 20% of the time -- there is nothing like this view. The lodge's main building was designed so that an expansive lobby, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and outdoor deck both face north, straight at McKinley. Rows of comfortable chairs in the lobby and on the deck all point north, and there is no better place to be when the mountain is visible.

On an early season trip that showcased the then month-old hotel, visitors got one of the biggest thrills available here -- a spectacular, gradually unfolding view of the mountain in the late afternoon. A cloudy day turned into a brilliant evening as layers of clouds slowly slipped away from the peak, revealing, bit by bit, its towering white-capped dome. Those gathered on the deck watched in awe and many found it hard to turn in for the night, even after sunset at 11:30 p.m., when McKinley's outline loomed large against the clear, still-light sky.

Even the lodge's dining room was designed with views of McKinley in mind; its tables and booths each face large northward windows; at breakfast the next morning our weather luck continued and we again enjoyed the mountain on a picture-perfect, cloudless day.

Nature put on quite a show for guests at Princess' newest hotel early in its maiden season. In the first 30 days after its opening in mid-May, McKinley, or Denali, as many locals know it, was visible on 20 days. Those not fortunate enough to get a glimpse of McKinley during their stay still have a panorama of the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Alaska Range surrounding it.

The 164-room hotel is part of Princess' long-anticipated expansion of wilderness lodging facilities in Alaska's interior. Since 1988, the company has operated the Denali Princess Lodge, a 220-room hotel at the entrance of the park on the north side of Mount McKinley. Mount McKinley lodge, the first major hotel built in the south Denali area, is an hour by motorcoach from the rail station at Talkeetna, a small town known for its colorful characters and as a staging area for mountain climbers headed for McKinley.

Most of Princess' post-cruise tours now offer a choice of either a two-night stay at the Denali Princess or McKinley Princess lodge. The stays are between overnights in Fairbanks and Anchorage and are a midpoint on the rail trip on Princess' Midnight Sun Express.

Guests at the new Princess property are offered an array of activities, including flightseeing around McKinley, jetboat and rafting trips on the nearby Chulitna River, kayaking, nature hikes, horseback riding or historical walking tours of the town of Talkeetna. The 51,000-square-foot main lounge of the 17-acre lodge features a dining room, a more casual coffee shop, a cocktail lounge and a small espresso bar in the lobby that serves bagels and pastries for breakfast. There also is a large gift shop, several meeting rooms and a tour desk.

The dining room food naturally leans toward Alaskan favorites, such as salmon and halibut, and breakfast treats include sourdough pancakes with a choice of Alaskan syrups and accompanied by optional reindeer sausage. Fruits of the Forest pie, made from a delicious assortment of local berries, was a favorite.

The 160 guest rooms are spread over 13 one-story buildings connected by winding walkways to the lodge. The rooms are similar in style to Princess' other Alaskan wilderness lodges, although some guests found the bathroom vanity areas to be small. In-room televisions receive CNN, ESPN and two movie channels. Clients who have trouble walking might want to ask for rooms close to the lodge: The farthest rooms from the lodge are about a five-minute walk away, and there is a bit of a hill. The hotel includes six rooms for travelers with disabilities and four suites over the main lodge building, which are the hotel's only rooms that have views of Mount McKinley.

The hotel is currently open from mid-May to mid-September, but Princess officials said they hope to eventually keep it open year-round to accommodate visitors who want to view the Northern Lights in February and March or try their hand at snowmobiling, which is growing in popularity around Talkeetna.

This summer, 40% of the hotel's guests were independent and not associated with a Princess cruise-tour. The remaining 60% were some of the estimated 64,000 passengers Princess expected to host on Alaskan land tours.

Rates start at $99 for a standard room for May and September (low season) and climb to $175 for the June 16 to Aug. 31 (high season). The four one-bedroom suites range from $199 in low season to $275 in high season. For information, contact Princess Tours at (800) 426-0500 or (206) 728-4202.

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