Upscale touches at McKinley Chalet Resort

When Holland America Line (HAL) held a grand opening ceremony for a new accommodations building at the McKinley Chalet Resort in June 2019, the company had no idea that many of the rooms would still be brand-new two years later, in summer 2021.

I arrived at McKinley on a sunny evening in June following an eight-hour Alaska Railroad ride from Anchorage.

The resort usually caters to HAL’s Land+Sea Journey clients, but HAL and sister brand Princess Cruises took the bold step in early spring this year of deciding to open some of their Alaska lodges at reduced capacity despite the uncertainty of a cruise season.

The risk was rewarded with higher-than-expected demand for the McKinley Chalet, the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel & Conference Center. At McKinley, HAL said it achieved 90% occupancy of the lower capacity it made available. 

New upscale option

The 99-room Ridge View addition is a step above the resort’s older product and a true upscale option in an area not known to have many. All Ridge View rooms have large balconies with beautiful views of both Mount Healy and Denali National Park and Preserve. The complex also has the resort’s first junior suites, 54 rooms with larger living areas and enhanced amenities, including heated bathroom floors. 

I knew I was in cruise line territory when my son and I arrived in our room to find a towel animal on the bed. The back wall of the junior suites are adorned with floor-to-ceiling maps of Denali National Park, a nice touch that complements black-and-white photographs of the area on the side walls. The rooms are modern yet cozy, with a beautiful wood-paneled wall and bright bathrooms. I also appreciated the Alaska-centric touches, such as bronze coat hooks with moose heads on them. 

When it was raining, the three-story facility’s inviting fireplaces in the two open-air “lobbies” on the first two levels drew guests reading or drinking wine by the flames.

The new wing is an extension of a full resort renovation that included the creation of Denali Square in 2016, another example of what happens when a cruise line is behind the design of an Alaskan resort, creating what it calls the “heart” of the resort and a central area that provided everything we’d need during our stay.

When we arrived for dinner, the main restaurant, Karstens, was bustling, and we had to wait a short time for an outdoor table. We didn’t mind, given that the guitarist playing ’70s rock favorites combined with the bright Alaskan night — we were close to the solstice, and the sun would barely set sometime near 3 a.m. — added to a laid-back and fun vibe.

Perfect for the pandemic world, the center of Denali Square has fire pits and plenty of outdoor seating. In the morning, Karstens has a sit-down breakfast and a coffee bar with to-go items, convenient ahead of a day of tours.
The Square is ringed by a couple of retail shops that offer local goods and an artist-in-residence cabin where native and local artists display and are on hand to discuss their work. The Square also has a guest services desk, saving me a long walk or shuttle ride to the main building when I misplaced my room key.

A breadth of excursions

Alaska checks a lot of the boxes as people in the U.S. emerge from a pandemic travel pause: It’s a bucket-list destination that doesn’t require going abroad, and there’s a focus on wide-open spaces, nature and outdoor activities.

Also cruiselike was how easy the McKinley staff made it to book tours, even the day before, and the breadth of options to choose from. Quite a few were age-appropriate for my 8-year-old traveling companion. All we had to do was be at the front of the resort at the assigned time for pickups.

Both excursions were terrific, with enthusiastic and friendly guides who were great with children. Lathan, our Nenana River rafting excursion guide, let all three kids on our raft take turns rowing through the rapids, which were mostly Class I and II with a small section of Class III. 

Charlie, our guide on the Black Diamond ATV Treasure Hunt backcountry adventure, tailored our experience for a kid who loves geology and climbing. And he also had a keen eye for moose hiding in the trees. Black Diamond excursions includes an all-you-can-eat meal of barbecued ribs, salmon, chicken, chili and both potato and pasta salad. As well as plenty of adult drinks. 

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