We didn’t know what the $400 would bring us, but we thought with the midnight sun, the bears, the salmon, the glaciers, the orcas and humpbacks and sea otters and jungle-thick forests and soaring mountains and tide pools and bald eagles … well, we thought we had a shot at satisfaction.
So we booked our flights to Anchorage, $400 each round-trip from Denver, leaving shortly after dinnertime and arriving in Alaska in broad daylight, but deep into the evening.
And thus commenced the best $400 I’ve ever spent on travel.
Alaska vacations, at least those often trumpeted in travel brochures, revolve around cruises, flights on small planes into the interior and far-flung excursions ( spend a day on a glacier, on a dog sled!). In other words: Ladies and gentlemen, open your wallets!
It doesn’t have to be that way. Most Alaskans live in Anchorage. Few of them spend much time on cruise ships, or flying over the Brooks Range in single-props. But a lot settle down in the Last Frontier because of the nearby (read: ability to get there in a Subaru) wilderness: the blue-gray rivers swollen with melted glacier, the miles and miles (and miles) of mountain trails, the bays and inlets loud with birds and busy with sea mammals and speckled with kayakers, the campgrounds beside lakes ghosted by loon calls and home to moose.
Guess what? You too can do summer in Alaska like a local. How does this Boulderite know? Because my friends Courtney Cox and Harry Brod, longtime Alaskans and ambitious outdoorspeople, gave my family of four the grand tour of the Kenai Peninsula, the great hunk of mountains, glaciers and rivers extending about
150 miles south of Anchorage and surrounded by the Gulf of Alaska and Cook Inlet.So you need that ticket. A car rental. Some camping gear would be nice, and if you aren’t up for hauling it all on the plane, places in Anchorage like the city’s pleasant REI will rent it to you.
How should you do Alaska? Here’s how.
If you have a day for Anchorage, rent a bike and hit the trails. We spent a superb one plying the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which hugs Anchorage’s coastline for 11 miles. We encountered plenty of bald eagles and an array of gulls and other sea birds (and just missed two moose). We marveled over the enormous changes in tide on Knik Arm and Cook Inlet (the difference between low tide and high tide, all over Alaska, is magnificent). The ride introduces the lush Alaskan vegetation, including fields of ferns that my 9-year-old daughter Ruby described as “blurs” because they never really appeared to be in focus.
Downtown Anchorage isn’t exactly a vortex of culture — in places, it felt like 1986, frozen for future generations to examine — but I
found that lack of “with-it-ness” part of its charm. For lunch, skip the overpriced tourist traps and go to Kumagoro Sushi Bar and Japanese Restaurant .Before taking off for the wilderness — the reason you are here — stop at the Costco in Anchorage and load up on provisions, including a cheap cooler. Then head southeast along the Seward Highway, one of the most spectacular drives in America. To the south, Turnagain Arm, a brackish finger of water connected, eventually, to the North Pacific. Among other things, it is famous for its bore tides, walls of water up to 6 feet high and traveling 15 miles per hour with the incoming tide. To the north, the Chugach Mountains, which truly loom over the road. The road offers plenty of places to stop, including Beluga Point, where you might see white beluga whales chase spawning salmon.
At about the 50-mile mark, Turnagain Arm ends, the Seward Highway dips south and west, and you are officially on the Kenai Peninsula. The town of Seward, a gateway to a wealth of sea-related activities, is an ultimate destination. But take a detour and pitch a tent in the town of Hope, established in 1896, a funky little spot anchored by a bar in a vest-pocket cabin, a few restaurants, and a smattering of galleries and historic buildings.
We camped beside a rushing river just a quick walk from the undulating landscape of sea grasses and mud flats leading to Turnagain Arm’s waters. One of the highlights: the Seaview Café and Bar. We happened upon a rowdy open-mike night, complete with bearded dudes playing Queen — you read that right — on acoustic guitars and an African drum. The lively scene included what our friends assured us was a true Alaska character: a 70-something guy wearing a leopardskin vest and leopardskin leggings; taped to his back, a large photograph of scantily clad women and the words, “The Cougars.” The Seaview was the first bar experience for my daughters, ages 9 and 13. I don’t think they are soon to forget it.
The 72-mile drive south to Seward rewards with more up-close views of mountains so green they seem plucked from Ireland, yet snowcapped. Stop at Exit Glacier, just 15 minutes from Seward. Here, a short hike brings visitors just feet from the slope of the glacier.
Waterways and way-out food
Whether you camp or stay in a hotel, plan on taking a guided sea kayak tour. Some involve rides to remote parts of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park, others start just outside of town.
Courtney and Harry urged us to book with Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking — even locals, they said, use guides a good bit — and we took a day-long tour of Resurrection Bay, complete with lunch along a beach and a few hiking stops (cost: $130 per person). John and Kat Page, the owners of the business, were superb guides, full of knowledge about the water, the surrounding forests and mountains and rivers, the wildlife.
The next day we played tourist and took an 8-hour boat ride with Kenai Fjords Tours, a fleet of larger boats that lead groups deep into Kenai Fjords National Park. We watched orcas roam and humpback whales breach, the kids laughed at the sight of hundreds of puffins flapping their wings like mad, we found it difficult to ignore the sea lions sunning on rocks, and then there were the calving glaciers.
The final destination, 170 miles west and south, is Homer, a combination fishing village, artist colony, tourist mecca and hippie hangout.
This drive, on the Sterling Highway, has its moments. As you head west, though, the mountains disappear, and billboarded, fast-food-laden towns pop up. A recommendation: Leave Sterling Highway at Skilak Lake Road, and head to Hidden Lake, a gorgeous jewel of water with loons, moose, bear and more. With the sun shining past midnight, we lounged around the light-dappled lake, and clambered on cliffs and boulders for hours.
The first thing you should do, because you will be hungry, is head straight to the small, historic downtown, called Old Town, and order a meal at Two Sisters Bakery. This place, filling the downstairs of a large house, nailed hippie cuisine — Moosewood Cookbook, soups with big hunks of vegetable, sturdy quiches — better than most. This is not faint praise. My bowl of curried seafood chowder was ambrosial, and the pastries surpassed nearly all I have tried in Denver.
Post-pastry, hit Bishops Beach, a long swath of dark sand, driftwood, seaweed, cobbles, and washed-up things. The experience at lowtide is astounding — you won’t believe the expanse of wet sand and all that lies atop it.
Then visit “The Spit,” a skinny, five-mile long tail of land pointing like a fallen stick into Kachemak Bay. The Spit is tourist central, a whorl of RV parks and tchotchke shops. One potential positive: Lots of beach to pitch a tent (plenty of options, too, in the hills behind Homer). Fuel up at Coal Town Coffee and Tea, which is startlingly charming and excellent (read: non-touristy).
The Spit does hold Coal Point Seafood Company, which for three consecutive days sold us some of the finest fresh oysters I ever have tasted, as well as Kachemak Shellfish Growers, where the mussels were so sweet they could (almost) have been berries. The Spit, too, is a jumping-off spot for fishing trips (the halibut fishing from Homer is some of the best in the world) and rides to the other side of Kachemak Bay, a remote land of high peaks and sprawling glaciers. We took an hour-long boat ride — more sea mammals, tons of birds — to Halibut Cove, an almost ridiculously photogenic town of old fishing homes perched on cliffs, connected to one another via a raised boardwalk.
If you are in Homer on a Saturday, visit the Homer Farmer’s Market, a charming eruption of flowers, greens, seafood, music, and, of course, espresso — Alaskans are nuts for java.
The Farmer’s Market is about as local as it gets — and given your Alaska-like-a-local trip, you will feel right at home.
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/douglasjbrown
Anchorage insider’s guide
Stay: Hidden Lake is an excellent park and campground between Seward and Homer. hiddenlakealaska.com
Dine/Drink: Kumagoro Sushi Bar and Japanese Restaurant. 533 W. Fourth Ave., Anchorage, 907-272-9905. yelp.com/biz/kumagoro-anchorage
Seaview Cafe and Bar. End of Main Street past B Street, Hope, 907-782-3300. seaviewcafealaska.com. You can also camp here.
The Saltry Restaurant. 1 W. Ismilof, Halibut Cove, 907-226-2424. halibut-cove-alaska.com/saltry.htm
Homer Farmer’s Market. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, May 26 through October. homerfarmersmarket.org/home.html
Coal Point Seafood Company. 4306 Homer Spit Road, 800-325-3877. welovefish.com
Two Sisters Bakery. 233 East Bunnell Avenue, Home, 907-235-2280. twosistersbakery.net/home.html
Coal Town Coffee and Tea. 4306 Homer Spit Road, Coal Point Boardwalk, Homer, 907-235-4771. coaltowncoffee.com/CoalTown/Home.html
Do: Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aktrails/ats/anc/knowlsct.htm
Seward Highway. alaska.gov/stwdplng/scenic/byways-seward.shtml
Potter Marsh, a bird-watching sanctuary along the highway. adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewinglocations.pottermarsh
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a wildlife sanctuary with bears, moose, elk, bison and more, near the eastern point of Turnagain Arm. Mile 79, Seward Highway, 907-783-2025. alaskawildlife.org
Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is an excellent break during the drive from Hope to Seward. The glacier is the only part of the park accessible by road. nps.gov/kefj/planyourvisit/exit-glacier.htm
Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking in Seward, which features a highly regarded team of guides who can lead you on trips from a few-hours paddle to a multiday overnighter. sunnycove.com
Kenai Fjords Tours, an excellent fleet of ships in Seward to take you on longer trips in Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska, including glacier tours. kenaifjords.com
Kachemak Shellfish Growers. 3851 Homer Spit Road, 866-978-3762. alaskaoyster.com
The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. 708 Smokey Bay Way, Homer. 907-235-6667. akcoastalstudies.org
The Carl E. Wynn Nature Center, dedicated to the upland environment of the Homer area. The center occupies the top of a bluff that overlooks Homer and provides fantastic views of the rugged Kenai Mountains, across Kachemak Bay. Call for directions. 907-235-5266. akcoastalstudies.org/wynn-nature-center.html
More info: Alaska SealLife Center, an extensive marine-education center in Seward. alaskasealife.org
Map of art galleries in Homer. homerartgalleries.com/downtown.html
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