December 15, 2013

A Whale of a Good Time at Dana Point

I live in northern California, but travel regularly to Anaheim for my son’s hockey games.  While we usually have a tight schedule, we always try to fit in at least one fun family activity for my daughter’s benefit.  Last year, we visited the Long Beach aquarium, which was really fun despite being much smaller than my beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Southern California sunset
SoCal sunset 
Since the Thanksgiving tournament fell late in the month this year, it overlapped with the beginning of the gray whale migration. I have been hearing that marine mammal sightings along the California coast have been exceptional this year, they’re having a feeding frenzy due to unusually high numbers of anchovies.  Passengers on whale watch cruises are being treated to some of the best shows in decades, amazing even experienced marine biologists.

While everyone else headed out shopping on Black Friday, we headed to Dana Pointonly a half hour drive from our Anaheim hotel, which took us through San Juan Capistrano, with its famous mission and sparrows.  We booked a 2 hour whale watch tour with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, and I was a little concerned as we woke to a pretty good rain.  But by the time we arrived for our mid-afternoon cruise, the showers had stopped.  It was still cloudy, but I consider these perfect conditions for being on the water, as overcast skies make for more dramatic pictures, and there’s less glare off the water. 
SUP at Dana Point
Paddleboarder at Dana Point
Whale watching tours are available year round, as different types of whales have different migration seasons. And many marine animals including dolphins, sea lions, and the elusive orcas can be spotted year-round.  I even saw a great white shark on Dana Wharf’s sighting log for October!  Gray and humpback whales migrate between December and March, traveling south to Mexico in winter, then heading back north in the spring. We heard that the migration had started early this year, and in fact Dana Wharf had spotted their first gray whale a few days earlier, so we were optimistic as we headed out. 

The boat was very comfortable, with plenty of seating at tables on the top deck, and even more indoor seating below.  The main deck also had space to walk entirely around the ship, so there was always a good vantage point. A small galley offered grill items such as hot dogs and hamburgers, hot and cold drinks, and a good variety of snacks including popcorn, chips and fruit roll-ups.   The water was very calm so the ride was smooth, and the captain kept up an interesting and educational conversation.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whalewatching
Ready to cruise with Dana Wharf
Our first stop was a buoy loaded with sea lions, and nearby a large bull entertained us with water acrobatics.  I am always amazed how these creatures can hurl themselves several feet out of the water to get on solid ground (or metal, in this case).

sea lions on buoy at dana point
Catching some rays
It wasn’t long before the captain announced that he spotted a gray whale, and he quickly turned the boat to follow it.  We cruised slowly as the whale swam parallel to the coast, dipping in and out of the water and giving us a good look at the barnacles on its back. Fortunately for us, it was a “fluker.”  Each time it went into a deep dive, it gave us a nice flip of its fluke before disappearing for 5-10 minutes.  
gray whale fluke
A whale watching highlight
It went on like this for over an hour, until it was time to head back to the marina.  While we enjoyed the views of the coastline and snacked on warm popcorn, one of the crew members came by with a chart of marine mammals, so we could learn more about the whale we had been watching and ask questions.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Laguna Niguel shoreline
(Ritz Carlton on the bluff)
I am eager to go whale watching again soon, as every trip is different and you’ll never know what you might see. As we get further in the season there will be more whales, and they’ll be traveling closer to shore with their babies as they had back north.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching is located at Dana Point Harbor, which has plenty of free parking plus many shops and restaurants. Tickets for the Catalina Express can also be purchased there, which I hope to try out on another visit.  The Catalina Islands are just a 90 min boat ride away, making it an easy day trip or weekend getaway.

Just a few miles north of the harbor is the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, a fantastic resort for families any time of year.  It’s perched on a cliff, so it offers stunning ocean views, and quick access to a nice beach.  The hotel was decorated for the holidays, including an elaborate gingerbread display.  

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel gingerbread display
Huge gingerbread display!
Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel Holiday Surfboard Auction
Surfboard Auction
We also enjoyed looking at the custom-painted surfboards lined up for their annual holiday auction to benefit Surfers Healingan organization that helps people with autism experience surfing.  Virtuoso amenities for my clients are daily breakfast, an upgrade based on availability, and a $100 resort credit.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Gorgeous full ocean views
Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel beach
View of beach from the resort
This Ritz Carlton was one of the first resorts to offer the award winning Eco Adventure Program, created by Jean-Michel Cousteau, which offers unique excursions for children and families to showcase the area's natural wonders and promote environmental responsibility.  In fact, on our whale watch cruise, two Eco Adventure staff members were escorting a family as part of their whale education program.  The program is being expanded to more resorts, including Dorado Beach (Puerto Rico), St. Thomas, and Grand Cayman.

For help with planning a fun family getaway, just send a note to suzette@family-treks.com.

November 19, 2013

Jackson Hole: The Best Ski Resort in the US

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming has been rated the top US Ski Resort for 2014 by Forbes magazine.  The award was based on its $30 million tram, "the greatest ski lift in North America," its mountain, its gorgeous new airport, its copious snowfall and even for having the best bagels outside of New York.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
Fours Seasons at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

The ski village has a nice variety of slopeside accommodations at different price points.  The FourSeasons Jackson Hole offers a beautiful guest rooms and suites as well as luxury residences.  All are warmly detailed with natural wood and stone and a gas-burning fireplace, and most open to a private balcony or terrace.  Two- to five-bedroom private residences each include a completely equipped kitchen and dining area, as well as laundry facilities.
Four Seasons Jackson Hole
Four Seasons Jackson Hole One Bedroom Suite
One Bedroom Suite

Four Seasons Preferred Partner amenities for my clients include   daily breakfast for two people per bedroom, $100 food and beverage credit, upgrade based on availability, and complimentary high speed internet in suites.

Four Seasons Jackson Hole dining room
Dining room

Four Seasons Jackson Hole ice bar
Ice bar

Jackson Hole also offers smaller boutique hotels and spacious condos, all within Teton Village offering convenient ski –in/ski-out access.   You can also head over to picturesque Jackson for more shopping and dining.  No car is needed, shuttles run the approximately 12 mile trip regularly between the ski resort and downtown.

Hotel Terra, Jackson  Hole
Hotel Terra

If stunning scenery, exceptional skiing, and a family-friendly self-contained village is not enough to convince you to visit Jackson Hole, how about this:  You can take a sleigh ride on the wildlife refuge to see herds of elk!

Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge
National Elk Refuge

There is a Kids Fly Free offer for travel January 6 to February 14.  One child age 2-11 receives a free ticket with each paid adult when booked by November 30.

For more information and assistance with planning a great ski trip this winter, contact suzette@family-treks.com.

October 29, 2013

A Day in Denali in Pictures

Pictures do a much better job than words to explain what an amazing place this is.

Denali National Park shuttle bus
Getting ready to board the bus.
Caribou in in Denali National Park
The first wildlife sighting of many to come.
Denali National Park road
Beautiful Polychrome Pass
Mountain goats in Denali National Park
It took sharp eyes to spot these mountain goats.
Alaska Range in Denali National Park
The mountain teased us all day,
but wouldn't reveal herself completely.
Caribou in Denali National Park
Lots of caribou along (and in) the road.

Grizzly bear in Denali National Park
And lots of bears!
Grizzly bear in Denali National Park
They are used to the buses
 so up close encounters are common.
Denali National Park
A gorgeous day, and gorgeous scenery.

Mountain goat in Denali National Park
A mountain goat peeks out at us.
Who's watching who?

Brown bear in Denali National Park
Looking for food, winter will come quickly.

Bull caribou in Denali National Park
What a rack!

Wolf in Denali National Park
A unexpected surprise,
 wolves were hard to find this year.

Denali National Park
A hiker's paradise.  You can hop on and off the bus
anytime to explore on your own.

Brown bear in Denali National Park
We saw six grizzlies on the trip. 
I am sure many more than that saw us!

Fireweed at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park
Fireweed at Wonder Lake, 
 85 miles inside the park

I have traveled all over the state of Alaska.  It's one of the most amazing destinations in the world, but one of the most challenging to navigate.  If you'd like help planning a memorable vacation to the Great Land, just send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

October 4, 2013

What You Miss in Denali If You Don’t Have a Car (Our Alaska Adventure Part 5)

The last leg our Alaska journey was three nights at Denali National Park.  Most visitors arrive by train or motor coach, but if you have an independent spirit, I highly recommend renting a car.  It’s a 4-5 hour drive from Anchorage, but allow a full day because there are lots of stops and spectacular Denali views along the way (weather permitting).  If you have time, I recommend spending a few nights in Talkeetna.  You can also drive south from Fairbanks, which is only 2 hours away.

Here’s what you miss if you choose to rely on the park and hotel shuttle systems:

1)   A stay at Tonglen Lake Lodge – This is the newest and most luxurious lodging near Denali, in a beautiful and serene lakeside setting.  It was perfect for our family, but as I always recommend when selecting vacation accommodations, do your homework to make sure it’s the best fit for you. 

Tonglen Lake Lodge, AlaskaTonglen Lake, Alaska

2)   Avoiding busloads of people – Since most visitors are using shuttle buses, they travel in groups from place to place.  Often we were in a cafĂ© or the visitor center with only a few other people, until a bus pulled up, and then all tables were filled and lines went out the door.  If you can work your stops around the bus schedule, you can have some of the exhibits to yourself.

3)   Leisurely scenic drives- The 15 miles of park road out to the Savage Creek checkpoint are open to private vehicles.  You can drive it at a leisurely pace any time of day.  You never know what you might see!

Denali National Park

Moose in Denali National Park 

4)   Going on an impromptu hike – There are several trails that lead out of the park entrance area.  But if you drive out to Savage Creek you’ll find not only a parking area with picnic tables and restrooms, but two trails that can be covered in just a few hours:  an easy loop trail along a pretty braided creek, and more strenuous hike up to a panoramic view.
Hiking in Denali National Park
Trail in Denali National Park

5)   Eating at 229 Parks, the best restaurant in the area – This is a hidden gem, and since it’s 8 miles south of the park entrance, you won’t get there without your own car, as there are no taxis.   The menu is full of interesting dishes made with fresh local ingredients, ranging from their own handcrafted lemonade to homemade pasta and pastries, and of course salmon, halibut, and king crab dishes.

6)   Visiting the 49th State Brewing Company– This is a local favorite 10 miles north of the park in Healy.   They have good food in huge portions at reasonable prices, and of course, good beer (and homemade root beer for the kids).  You can also see the infamous bus used in the film Into the Wild, based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

"Into The Wild" bus in Alaska

7)   Spending quality time with the sled dogs – The kennels are always open to guests, and demonstrations are offered several times a day.  Visitors are encouraged to take a shuttle from the visitor center, however there is limited parking within walking distance.   If you can arrive before the shuttle, then you have the dogs and their trainers to yourselves.  You can also stay after the demonstration if you have additional questions, and watch the dogs get unhitched, which was surprisingly entertaining, as well.
Alaskan sled dog

To view more pictures of Denali Park, visit my Flickr album.  And stay tuned for an upcoming post about our trip deep into the park on the NPS shuttle bus. (Update:  here is the post.)

I have traveled all over the state, so I am happy to help you plan an amazing Alaska adventure for your family.  Just contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

September 17, 2013

Timeless Talkeetna (Our Alaska Adventure Part 4)

I love Talkeetna because it’s an interesting and historic town.   But also because, despite having lots of tourists, it does not feel as touristy as other popular Alaska destinations.    Sure, there are signs hawking souvenirs and sightseeing tours, but most of the buildings haven’t changed for decades, and it’s a hub of activity for bush pilots and mountaineers, as this is the jumping off point for Mt. McKinley treks and flightseeing tours.  (Talkeetna is closer to Mt. McKinley than the Denali National Park entrance, and has spectactular views on clear days.)

Talkeetna, Alaska

Downtown Talkeetna

Our home for 3 nights was the charming Fireweed Station Inn, a historic homestead carefully restored and modernized, and now recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.  We thoroughly enjoyed the company of our hosts, Hobbs and Tom, who shared stories of their life in Alaska, and cooked up delicious breakfasts incorporating fresh vegetables and herbs from their garden.  And they will cook a private dinner on request as well!

Talkeetna Bed & Breakfast
Hobbs & Tom
FIreweed Station Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska
Fireweed Station Inn
The inn is small so it’s imperative to book early.  Two rooms on the main floor are comfortable and spacious, and families will find lots of space in the suite which takes up the whole second floor.  A cabin is also available for guests who want more privacy.

Fireweed Station Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska
Suite at Fireweed Station Inn
Talkeetna is not a large town, but it does offer several other accommodation options,.  They range from the large modern Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, favored by cruise passengers and escorted tour groups, to rustic cabins along the river.   Princess’s Mt. McKinley Lodge is about an hour away, but it has a spectacular mountainside setting facing the Alaska Range, and they run regular shuttles to Talkeetna.

Alaska Range
Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge back deck view

Though I am not much more than an avid day hiker, I am fascinated with the sport of mountaineering.   So I found the Historical Society Museum especially interesting, as one building is dedicated to the history of Denali climbing.  It contained an impressive scale model of Mt McKinley which filled an entire room, each layer cut by hand, using a topo map for reference.  The museum is worth a visit for anyone, to learn about the history of the area and what life was like for early settlers.

Model of Mt. McKinley
Photos on the wall show the actual view from each angle.
We followed that up with a visit to the NPS station, where all climbers have to register and get briefed on mountain procedures.  They have a very good film that details the route to the summit and the preparation required.   I would imagine this is a fascinating place to be during climbing season (April through June), seeing both the climbers who are heading out, and the ones who’ve just got back.

There are a lot of fun activities available, another good reason to spend a few days here.  Most popular are the flightseeing tours, for close up views of the mountain and optional glacier landings.  Mountain weather is fickle, however, so travelers have to be prepared for last minute cancellations.

Talkeetna is located at the confluence of three rivers:  the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna, so travelers have many opportunities to get out on the water.  Because the rivers are wide and braided, you’ll find float trips rather than whitewater rafting, which is available further north near Denali N.P.  

Float trip on the Big Su
Looking for wildlife on the Susitna River

 Jet boat tours are an option if you aren’t comfortable sitting on the edge of an inflated raft for a few hours, and want more protection from the elements.   And of course, there’s fishing, probably one of the most popular activities in the state.  Off the river, travelers can visit a dog sled kennel, go zip-lining, hiking, or take an ATV tour (note minimum age is 16, per state law).

Jet boat tour
Small jet boat departing the dock.
If you have a car, check out Kahiltna Birchworks.  It's on the Spur Road just off the Parks Hwy, so a quick and easy stop on the drive between Denali and Anchorage.  Every gift shop in the state seems to sell birch syrup products, and this is where they all come from.  The presentation lasts about 10-15 min, and then you get to taste the different grades of syrup which have different uses, some of which can only be purchased here.

Birch syrup processing
Getting to Talkeetna is easy - you can arrive by train, bus, car, or plane.  But once you get there, if you don’t have your own vehicle, you have to rely on shuttles, as there are no rental cars or taxis in town.  If you are independent and like to explore off the beaten path (and if you want to stay at Fireweed Station), then you need a car. 
It’s easy, interesting, and fun to drive through interior Alaska.  I am happy to help other adventurous families plan their own itinerary through the Great Land, just send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.