Keeping it 'real' with John Hall's Alaska

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John Hall Alaska Denali National Park
John Hall’s Alaska guests on a hike at Denali National Park.

According to John Hall Sr., the founder of tour operator John Hall's Alaska, "In order to really see Alaska, you have to do both the land and the cruise. … That gives [visitors] the best of both worlds."

These days, partners Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Alaskan Dream Cruises take care of the latter. Meanwhile, Hall's family-owned, Minnesota-based operation has been doing the former for three decades.

With a maximum group size of 42 aboard its WiFi-equipped, leather-upholstered motorcoaches, John Hall's Alaska boasts that it enables guests to experience "the real Alaska," with tours that offer surprising luxury and go where some larger-capacity cruise-tour groups can't.

Itineraries visiting Denali National Park, for instance, include dinner at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, whose chef-owner, Laura Cole, has been nominated for a 2016 James Beard Award. 

Breakfast is at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, a favorite haunt for Denali hikers. "The portions are gigantic," Hall said. "To get 42 people in there is hard, but they do it for us."

Guests stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge, about 95 miles past the park's entrance. And although Denali sees over a half-million visitors annually, "there are only approximately 20,000 people each year who go that far out," according to Hall.

John Hall Alaska Denali Backcountry Lodge
John Hall’s Alaska guests stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge.

But for postcard-worthy views of Denali with Wonder Lake in the foreground, it's a necessary trek. "The beautiful view of Denali with the water in front of it? That's taken from Wonder Lake," Hall said. "Most people think they're going to see that when they go into Denali, and, unfortunately, they're not."

Denali, of course, figures heavily into the company's National Parks of Alaska itinerary (12 days land, seven days cruise), which for 2016 offers the option of visiting six of the state's eight national parks.

Guests spend two nights at Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest park in the national parks system. "And it's probably the least known of any national park we have," Hall said.

Among other activities, visitors will explore the one-time mining towns of Kennecott and McCarthy, which prospered in the early 20th century but were largely abandoned when the price of copper plummeted after World War II.

The National Parks of Alaska itinerary also includes bear-viewing at Katmai National Park's Brooks Falls and whale-watching at Kenai Fjords National Park. Rates start at $9,579, based on double occupancy.

Katmai also plays a central role in 2016's Three Bears of Alaska tour.

John Hall Sr Alaska
John Hall Sr.

"We do this in July, and that's when the sockeye salmon are running," Hall said. "They get a chance to get close up to the Kodiak bears."

On the 17-day itinerary (10 days land, seven days cruise), guests will also visit Denali National Park, where they'll watch for grizzly bears, and the village of Kaktovik, where guests will seek out polar bears. Rates start at $8,889, double.

Another tour highlight for 2016, the 11-day, land-only Alaska Iditarod & Aurora Adventure, takes in the "Last Great Race on Earth" and more.

John Hall's guests "not only experience the start of the Iditarod, they also are able to partake in the Fur Rendezvous, which is a winter celebration that Anchorage has to celebrate the end of winter," Hall said. "They experience the official start of the Iditarod in Willow … they stay two nights in Talkeetna, then they go up to Fairbanks."

In Fairbanks, Dave Monson, who was the husband of the late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod winner, hosts a dinner at his home.

"Then he takes all the guests out and actually gives them dog sled rides, which is really a great experience," Hall said. "The next day they fly out to one of the checkpoints. … They get a chance to really experience what happens with the Iditarod." Rates start at $3,849, double.

For more information, visit the John Hall's Alaska website at www.kissalaska.com.

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