Wrap your head around this: There are 14 species of whales in Alaskan waters; residents of Fairbanks can see the Northern Lights an average of 240 nights per year; approximately 1 in 66 Alaskans is an active pilot; and Alaska is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. This is NOT your average vacation spot. With over 650,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, and glaciers, the 49th state is open for adventure.
This year, trade the city break for the Last Frontier faster than you can say ‘former governor’ and discover Alaska beyond the cruise ports - there’s plenty of it.
Earlier this summer, my husband, Hank, and I piggy-backed a wilderness voyage with Un-Cruise Adventures in southeast Alaska with a tour of the southwest and southcentral regions. Here are our recommendations for making the most of your explorations.
photography by Ellen and Hank Barone
[before you go]
What NOT to Wear: Forget dress to impress. In Alaska, the focus is not on fashion, but rather the outdoors. Local wisdom has it that “there is no bad weather, just bad gear.” Key items should include fleece, waterproof rain gear, good walking shoes, a hat, lightweight gloves and quick-dry everything. Other items you’ll want to bring: sunglasses, sun block (yes, even in Alaska, especially on the water and ice), a swimsuit (many lodges feature hot tubs and/or saunas), camera, and lots of memory cards!
For guaranteed wildlife sightings, load up your camera and make the scenic drive south to Portage for a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. With consent from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the center takes in orphaned or injured animals for treatment and rehabilitation. We could easily have spent the day there watching the resident bears romp and swim, but bring bug spray. The June day we visited the mosquitoes were fierce.
While you’re in the neighborhood, swing by Girdwood and take the Aleyska tramway to lunch at Seven Glaciers Restaurant, Alyeska Resort’s AAA Four Diamond mountain-top eatery. The tram ticket comes free with advance reservations. For something a little more down-home, you can’t go wrong with the sourdough pancakes at the Aleyeska Bake Shop
Afterwards, stop at Potter Marsh, home to bald eagles, arctic terns and some of the most accessible bird viewing in Alaska. Or drop by the Ship Creek viewing platform to see if the salmon are running.
Back in the city, immerse yourself in the history of northern peoples, cultures, environments, and the issues that matter to northern residents today through the mesmerizing multi-media displays at the Anchorage Museum’s new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center.
For farm fresh produce, unique Alaska gifts, live music and global arts & crafts, drop by the weekend (May to September) Anchorage Market & Festival, boasting more than 300 artists, musicians and food merchants on seven acres of downtown Anchorage. My favorite find: the hand-painted Dansko clogs by Alaskan artist Romney Dodd.
Dining out in Anchorage is a land-lubbers dream, featuring local halibut, salmon, king-crab legs, scallops, and oysters. If it’s 360-degree views and fine dining you’re looking for, you won’t find better than the Crows Nest restaurant at the top of the Hotel Captain Cook. Or follow the locals to the Glacier Brewhouse, where the selection of homemade beers are given equal billing with an innovative surf and turf menu. Pair the Bourbon BBQ Alaskan Salmon with the Imperial Blonde (a.k.a Ice Axe Ale), and see if it doesn’t rock your world. If it’s breakfast you’re after, the Snow City Cafe is a vibrant hotspot you won’t want to miss. Colorful and buzzing with the din of happy regulars, the cafe serves up a hearty menu of delicious breakfasts and lunches seven-days-a-week.
For more information on Anchorage, visit the Anchorage Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website.
In a state whose capital city has no road access and is accessible only by boat or plane, visitors soon learn that part of the fun of an Alaska vacation is getting from one place to the next. Boarding our Era Aviation flight to Kodiak was a pleasant blast-from-the-friendly-skies-past: Simple (no security, free luggage), hospitable (gate agents greeted regulars like family) and even enjoyable (boasting amble leg room and comfortable seats). Yes, really.
Kodiak is home to the world’s largest bears - the Kodiak brown bear - along with 200 species of birds, Sitka Blacktail deer, Dall sheep, bald eagles, sea lions, sea otters, whales, and more. In addition, the island boasts a rich Alutiiq Native heritage, with 8,000 years of history and culture. Sights worth a visit include the Baranov Museum and Russian Orthodox Church. We explored the island with Memory Maker Tour & Guide Service. Owner Dake Schmidt offers a variety of day trips catered to your specific interest, be it history, birding, photography, or fishing.
Tipple samples of locally brewed beer at the Kodiak Island Brewing Company. This island institution serves up some tasty organic ales, ambers, and stouts that keep the locals coming back for more (Literally. KIBC brews are sold in-house only). And don’t miss the beer that put them on the map in the lower 48 - the Sarah Pale Ale, with a buxom depiction of the infamous former governor and the cheeky moniker “You Betcha It’s Good.” Too fun.
Good microbrew aside, the highlight of our Kodiak visit was a stay at the Kodiak Raspberry Island Remote Lodge. Second generation owners Birch and Tiffany Robbins extended the kind of warm welcome and gracious hospitality that reminded us why we crave remote places. Remote? Yes. The lodge is nearly 20 miles from the nearest community. Roughing it? Not much. The lodge boasts private guest cabins with indoor bathrooms, delicious catch-of-the-day Alaskan seafood, complimentary beer and wine, hydroelectric power, hot tub and sauna and wireless internet. Not to worry though, you won’t forget you’re in the middle of the Last Frontier when Alaska wildness saturates every minute of your stay. The lodge is only accessible by boat or floatplane, but once you settle in, you can hike, sea kayak, fish, or go whale watching or bear viewing.
I can always tell when we stumble upon someplace special by the number of times I find myself telling the same story to everyone and anyone who makes the fatal mistake of asking ‘how was your trip?” In this instance it was Birch and Tiffany’s young family - daughter, Sage, age 3 and son, Fischer, age 5 - who were the stars of my storytelling. And can you blame me? There are few places on this planet, after all, where curious three-year-old girls can explore the exotic world of their backyard wilderness chaperoned by two black labs? Or where, for example, a boy of five can tell you - the out-of-their-element tourist - that their marine radio frequency is channel 88 and call name, Iron Creek, or remind said tourist not to be standing downwind if/when you use bear spray. Seeing the freedom and intelligence of the Robbins family was enough to send me home wanting more.
For more information on Kodiak Island, visit the Kodiak Island Official Visitor’s Guide website.
Our transfer from Kodiak to Homer was an overnight ferry voyage aboard the M/V Kennicott via the nation’s only scenic byway that isn’t a road - The Alaska Marine Highway. Alaska’s well-developed state-owned ferry system serves 33 communities and over 3,500 miles of scenic coastal routes. Cruising into the scenic Kachemak Bay, surrounded by the Kenai Mountains, on a beautiful morning was a spectacular arrival we won’t forget.
Thanks to a tip from a Homerite at the ferry terminal, we fueled-up at the fabulous Fresh Sourdough Express Bakery & Cafe. But unless you’re packin’ an Alaska-sized appetite, consider ordering one Saint Augustine - a mountain of homegrown Alaskan spuds, sauteed veggies, organic cheeses, homemade salsa and reindeer sausage (optional) - for two. Or, ask for a half-portion (something we found ourselves doing often in Alaska).
Homer is drop-dead gorgeous thanks to GPS coordinates that plant it smack-dab at the edge of paradise with stunning mountain scenery anywhere you look. One of the best ways to see the Big Picture is to get above it all on a scenic flight with Homer Air. Cruising at altitude above snow drenched mountains, neon green grassy meadows, turquoise glacial lakes and snaking tidal rivers is a treat in itself. But the pilots also do their best to locate a bear - or a dozen on a good day - for you to photograph. End the flight tour at the remote tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Seldovia - a picture-perfect Native village (pop. 282) - and take the new high-speed Seldovia Bay Ferry (45-minutes one-way) back to Homer. As of May 2010, the ferry offers three trips daily between Seldovia and Homer.
Back in town, toast the fine Alaska day with a Homer Brewing Company microbrew and a hand-tossed pizza at Fat Olives restaurant. Or take it to-go, as we did, if you’re lucky enough to be staying at one of the Alaska Adventure Cabins, just a few miles up the Sterling Highway from Homer. From quirky to high-end luxury, this eclectic collection of unique accommodations boast killer views of sea and mountain from every window and room.
For more information on Homer, visit Homer Chamber of Commerce web site.
If you had to limit your Alaska vacation to only one region, you couldn’t go wrong with the Kenai. The scenic peninsula offers up more then 15,000 square miles of iconic Alaskan wildness. Promoted as ‘Alaska’ Playground’ the Kenai is the kind of place you can check-off three Bucket List adventures in one day. Our June visit at the height of summer - thanks to nearly 24-hours of daylight - provided us with plenty of time to play.
Float along the Upper Kenai River with Alaska Wildland Adventures on a two-hour guided viewing tour of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Have your camera ready and an eye out for moose, eagles, Dall sheep, salmon, waterfowl, beaver and bears while your guide navigates you through the snowcapped mountain wilderness.
Make the centrally located Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge your adventure base camp while you’re there. Their Outfitter Tour Desk can arrange fishing tours on the Kenai River — famous for its trophy-sized fish — plus flightseeing, nature hikes, wildlife viewing cruises through Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, or anything your adventurous heart desires.
Meet a few of the true Kenai adventurers at the Soldotna Historical Museum, a fabulous volunteer organization and fascinating Kenai attraction where, if you’re lucky, the welcoming committee will come in the form of the delightful Marge Mullen, a spry 90-yr-old Kenai homesteader bubbling with energy, enthusiasm and pioneer stories. (461 Centennial Park Road, Soldotna; (907) 262-3832).
Today’s Soldotna pioneers swing by the Kenai River Brewing Company where Breakfast Beer is on tap and local tradition dictates: “get some for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow.”
Discover the rich and fascinating history of the Russian Orthodox culture in Kenai through the “Sacred Space, Sacred Time” exhibit at the Kenai Visitors and Culture Center (April 23 - September 6, 2010) while the nearby 1895 Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church undergoes a historic restoration. Afterwards, drop by Veronica’s Old Town Cafe as much for the delicious homemade soups, sandwiches, quiches and desserts as its cozy, cheerful ambiance. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the local favorite offers live music Thursday thru Saturday nights.
Experience the Native culture of the Kenai Peninsula first hand at the K’Beq’ Interpretive Site in the Cooper Landing area, where visitors explore the Dena’ina culture through interpretative walks featuring archaeological sites and artifacts over 500 years old, as told by the descendants of those who made and used them.
In Seward, summer or winter, grab a seat on a dog sled and mush a two-mile trail through the Alaskan wilderness to the base of Resurrection Mountain and along Box Canyon Creek with Ididaride Sled Dog Tours. Bring home a copy of the delightful book A Dog Team Lives In The House by Alaska artist/author Beverly Stevens, a tender story of an adopted dog, “spirit”, who must learn how to belong in her new very friendly family. The author’s life is captured in the illustrations.
If marine life is your focus, you won’t want to miss the Alaska SeaLife Center, a public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center where you’ll get up-close and personal with puffins, octopus, sea lions and other sea life while peeking over the shoulders of ocean scientists studying Alaska’s rich seas and diverse sea life.
For more information on the Kenai, visit www.KenaiPeninsula.org
[The Last Frontier]
For complete Alaska travel and vacation information, visit www.TravelAlaska.com