I am standing on the open-air viewing platform of Alaska’s Gold Star Dome railcar, a mimosa in one hand, camera in the other, and the view is spectacular. We are passing by Kenai Lake, and the scenery, a reflection of mountain and sky on water, is one of God’s masterpieces.
I started out this morning from Anchorage while it was still dark. My plan is to make a roundtrip to Seward from Anchorage in one day using the train in the morning and a bus at night. If that sounds crazy, it might help to know that I’ve already seen much of what I came to Alaska to see, so I reason that spending more time on one more glacier or whale while in Seward isn’t going to matter much to me now. But I haven’t yet experienced one of those famous Alaskan train rides I’ve heard so much about, and the route to Seward on the Coastal Classic is supposed to be the most scenic in the state. Jaded, I know, but there you have it.
We are ushered into the train by uniformed attendants and find our seats beneath a giant wrap of glass that extends from the car’s belt line all the way overhead. There is polished wood and chrome everywhere you look, and bartenders are on staff to cater to the needs of the passengers. I like it a lot already.
Once under way, we’re called to an excellent made-to-order breakfast downstairs. White table linens and excellent service are the order of the day. We still have huge picture windows to look through, so we miss nothing while we dine with another couple from Portland.
Later, up on the observation deck, the narrator calls our attention to several important sites: a couple of glaciers, a moose, a bald eagle nest, and Turnagain Arm, a body of water which sports the 2nd highest tidal change on earth at 30 feet. So we have snow-capped mountains across the broad blue water of the inlet on one side, and spruce forests on the other. That is, until we reach the Grandview Mountain pass, which snakes through a spectacular series of tunnels, past cascading waterfalls and over perilous-looking trestle bridges, and even manages an “S” turn loop that allows some great pictures of the front and back of the train while it chugs up and over the pass before we finally descend into Seward four hours after leaving Anchorage.
The Seward depot is pretty far from town but very convenient to the cruise ships. I take the city’s free (tip expected) shuttle bus into “downtown” Seward. It’s not devoid of charm, but of course it’s mostly given over to tourism and/or fishing out at the docks. The city actually sits in Kenai Fjords National Park and the Chugach National Forest, so a great way to enjoy the scenery is to take the walkway that hugs the shoreline of beautiful Resurrection Bay. Make sure to see the sign dedicated to the start of the Iditarod while on the walk, and keep your eyes out for the playful sea otters that love to hang out near the aquarium.
The aquarium is called the Alaska Sea Life Center, and it’s worth going to. The main attractions are the energetic harbor seals and monstrous sea lions, but there are plenty of smaller fish and strange marine life to see, and even touch as well, if you’re so inclined. I’d say it’s definitely a great place for kids and adults. Educational and fun.
I eat at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant (recommended) and enjoy a great view while dining before catching the express bus back to Anchorage. I’m exhausted by now, and sleep much of the way, so am glad I didn’t take the train back. It would have been a waste of money and the bus got me “home” an hour and a half earlier.
I’m thrilled with the train ride. I’ve never had such a luxurious experience outside of the private cabin I had while traveling to Lviv, Ukraine, but in many ways Alaska Railroad’s Coastal Classic was even better because it allowed far more interaction with your fellow passengers, the dome afforded a better view, and the meal experience was exquisite. And while making a round trip to Seward in one day is exhausting, I was able to get a feel for the own and had time left over for other activities, I could have even opted to take a short sightseeing cruise/tour if I so desired. So yes, this was a worthwhile experience, and I’m glad I did it.
Cost: The Gold Star price is $181 pp, which is admittedly expensive, but trust me, it’s worth it. The Sea Life Center is $21 pp, also worth it.
Time: This is a long day. You’re expected to be at the train station at 6:15AM. The express bus doesn’t get you back until 9PM, and you need a cab to your hotel at both ends of the trip.
What else can you do on a day trip to Seward? Lots. Flightseeing, sightseeing, kayaking, fishing, boating, whale watching, hiking, biking…anything you can do anywhere else in Alaska is available here, and generally the trips are short enough too accommodate a half day schedule. Why? Because of the cruise ships! The passengers come in just like I did on the train, and the ship is leaving that night. So the tour operators are geared to that schedule.