Alaska custom tour

By Nili Olay
This item appears on page 26 of the February 2022 issue.

My husband, Jerry Vetowich, and I took a custom tour to Alaska, July 19-Aug. 1, 2021. As our travel agent, we chose ITN advertiser Varini de Silva of Ceylon Express International (Huntington Beach, CA; 800/423-9566, She had previously arranged trips for us in Sri Lanka and China and was great at following up, when necessary.

Varini used Alaska Tours (Anchorage, AK; 866/317-3325, to arrange the details of our tour, and they did an excellent job. (We had actually booked a similar trip for June 2020 but had to cancel due to the COVID-19 travel shutdown. Varini and Alaska Tours refunded all but $200 of what we had paid for that trip.)

Covering all accommodations, some breakfasts and sightseeing, we were to pay $12,578 for 14 nights. One expensive adventure had to be scratched, though. Instead of a 6-hour “Chinitna Bay Bear Viewing” flight, we went on a one-hour glacier flight. We were given a credit of $1,234, bringing our total cost down to $11,344.

We chose to travel on our own by land rather than on a cruise. We started out in Fairbanks and were shuttled by van to the entrance of Denali National Park & Preserve. From there, we traveled by bus to the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna. The 6-hour bus ride was like a safari; we saw grizzlies, caribou, moose and Dall sheep.

It’s possible to enter the park on a day trip, but I recommend staying inside the park for a few days in order to do some hiking.

We went by train from Denali to Anchorage, again by train to Seward, by coach to Talkeetna and then back to Fairbanks by train. We were in a dome car for each train segment, which allowed us to enjoy the magnificent scenery. Each dome car also has a small outdoor space at the back to step out and take a quick picture.

The dome cars are well worth the higher price. An example of the fares — Anchorage to Seward cost $113 in a regular Adventure Class car but $224 for the GoldStar Service dome car, which included meal service.

On two of our train trips, Alaska Tours put us in cars run by Wilderness Express (; that company tags a couple cars onto the Alaska Railroad train. Those cars are supposed to be even better than GoldStar, but I’m not sure they were. For one thing, food was included on GoldStar cars, but we had to buy our own food on the Wilderness Express cars. The food was excellent, though!

All of our hotels were excellent. In the Denali park, we stayed at the Denali Backcountry Lodge ( for two nights. (We wanted a third night, but they were sold out.) In Fairbanks, we stayed at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge (, which had a convenient shuttle to the airport and into town. In Anchorage, we stayed at Hotel Captain Cook (, which was nicely located.

Harbor 360 Hotel ( in Seward was very convenient, and in Talkeetna, Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge ( had a lovely terrace from which we might have seen Mt. Denali if it had not been cloudy. It also had a very comfortable lobby with a fireplace plus convenient shuttle service to town.

A boat trip in Seward rewarded us with killer whales.

Our only transfers during our Alaska visit were hotel shuttles. In Anchorage, we couldn’t get a taxi from the train, so we walked a half mile uphill. It was good exercise, and I was glad we could still do it!

I wouldn’t change a thing about this tour’s arrangements.

Naples, FL