Ever since I was a boy I wanted to visit Alaska and although I traveled quite extensively over the years, I never made the journey to the magnificent northwest, until now. Getting to Alaska is easier than ever before. Many air carriers operate flights from the west coast to either Anchorage or Fairbanks. As my plane began its descent into Anchorage I noticed something quite odd, it was still bright outside even at 10:00 pm. One of the most difficult things to get used to while visiting during the summer is the 24 hours of daylight. At first it came as a burden, having traveled for 10 hours, I was seeking some much needed rest. But then you get used to it and it becomes something you love. Imagine walking out of a bar at 3:00 in the morning and it being bright out.
Being this was my first time visiting Alaska, I really wanted to experience its natural wonders and I felt the best way to do so was by car. I woke up early the following morning and drove north on the wooded highway to Denali National Park, a four hour trip from Anchorage. One of the best places to stay is Denali Park Village (www.denaliparkvillage.com, a riverfront property which offers standard rooms as well as quaint cabins. Everything you need for your stay is located on property, including a full-service restaurant, convenience store, dinner show, ice cream parlor and of course the obligatory gift shop. The complex is located in close proximity to numerous nature trails, so I would recommend going for a hike during your stay. Adventure seekers can partake in white water rafting, while animal lovers should opt for Jeff King’s Husky Homestead Iditarod training camp (www.huskyhomestead.com). The four-time race champion shows guests how he trains his world class team of huskies, which he breeds on the land. I had the opportunity to hold a 3-week old husky, who will one day run the most iconic and physically draining dog sled race in the world which stretches over 1,000 miles in the roughest weather conditions known to man.
And what would a trip to Denali National Park be without a visit to see the majestic mountain. Now many of us have been trained to call it Mt. McKinley. However, the original name given to the mountain by the native people is actually Denali. So for now on, I will refer to the mountain by its original name out of respect. Private vehicles are not allowed in the park, so the only way to visit is on foot or via tour bus. This mandate ensures the park remains in its purest form and is not spoiled too much by human interaction. It also prevents the long lines of vehicles one may experience at other national parks. Once inside, keep an eye out for caribou, moose, dall sheep and of course black and brown bear. You may also spot the illusive lynx if you’re lucky.
Luck and timing is everything when visiting Denali. Many times, visitors are unable to see Denali because of weather surrounding the mountain. Although it may be clear and sunny where you are in the park, Denali is so large, it may be experiencing different weather. I was fortune and was able to view the peak on two days of my trip. It’s truly a magical mountain. Even with breathtaking vistas all around, I found it impossible to take my eyes off Denali. A more costly, although possibly even more breathtaking option, is to see it by air. Private charters operate daily from the local airport at a cost of around $1,000 per ticket.
The next day I visited Seward, a coastal town located on the Kenai Peninsula home to quaint shops, restaurants and the Alaskan sea life center. Although you can see much of the town in a day, you will want to book an overnight stay so you can view the glow of the morning sun as it shimmers off the water. Board one of the many Kenai National Parks cruises for optimal viewing of whales, porpoises, and numerous birds.
While in Seward, it would be a shame not to try some seafood, especially since most of the menu items come directly from the bay outside. Chinooks (www.chinooksbar.com) is a waterfront restaurant with trendy sushi bar upstairs. I knew I was in for a unique experience when the sushi chef behind the bar was a hipster who relocated to Seward from Portland, Oregon. Many of the selections are not your typical sushi rolls. Those expecting a basic California roll will have a difficult time here. The menu consists of rolls with funky names and funkier ingredients, for sushi anyway. A little turned off by the menu, I chose the simple yet delicious nigiri flight but the chef misunderstood me and began making what they call an Improv Roll, chef’s choice. I told him I would try both and what I got, shocked me. The roll, which consisted of fresh crabmeat, beet sprouts, nectarine and halibut was incredible. The thought of beet sprouts in sushi scared me a bit but it worked. The chef has been making sushi for over 15 years and has learned to combine flavors to create unique masterpieces. I also got to try oyster sushi for the first time. If you are a fan of raw oysters, then you’ll definitely enjoy this selection.
The drive between Seward and Anchorage is one of the most beautiful drives you can take in that part of Alaska. Camera-ready moments appear around just about every corner of the winding road. There are many places to pull over to capture the view of the bay on one side and mountains on the other.
Back in Anchorage, make sure to check in at the Copper Whale Inn (www.copperwhale.com). Located just a block from the water, this beautifully appointed bed and breakfast is an ideal place to stay if you want to meet other like-minded travelers and share stories of your adventures. Guests enjoy a private room, some with en-suite bathroom. A complimentary breakfast is included with your stay and consists of a selection of cereals, fresh fruit, yogurt and coffee. If you prefer a more standard hotel but still with local flair, try the Historic Anchorage Hotel (www.historicanchoragehotel.com). The hotel is the only hotel in Anchorage on the National Register of Historic Places. It was Alaska's central meeting and gathering place when it was established in 1916 and was restored to its original grandeur in 1989.
There’s no shortage of local restaurants in downtown Anchorage. Even the ale houses offer a selection of freshly caught fish in addition to a wide selection of local beer. On every trip I go on, I like to visit the local Hard Rock Café (www.hardrock.com/cafes/anchorage) if not to dine, just to check out the memorabilia. I noticed this location had a separate menu of local selections so I decided to give it a try. One of the most unique menu items was the Reindeer Sausage Sliders. This was definitely a first for me and I enjoyed the appetizer very much. I was expecting a gamey flavor from the sausage, but it was not overwhelming and quite good. Another of my favorites here was the Blackened Halibut. Executive Chef Victor Irizarry cooked the fish to perfection and served it over a bed of rice and steamed broccoli. It was nothing fancy, but when you have fresh fish at your fingertips, you let the fish speak for itself.
The Anchorage Museum (www.anchoragemuseum.org) is the perfect place to learn about the history of Alaska and view native and contemporary works of art created throughout the past 100 years. If time permits, catch a show in their planetarium.
Anchorage is home to the only two LGBT bars in the state, Mad Myrna’s (www.madmyrnas.com) and Raven. A guest at Myrna’s mentioned the community is not very large, but extremely tight knit. Just like bars in other cities, all are welcome, and some nights Myrna’s gay/straight ratio is close to 50/50. Raven is located across the street and looks like you took a step back into the 1980s. Most importantly, the patrons at both bars are very friendly and welcoming.
With only 5 days to explore Alaska, I barely had time to scratch the surface. There are so many towns and destinations left to explore, not to mention visiting during the winter to view the incredible northern lights or in early March for the start of the Iditarod race.
In all, you will not be disappointed with Alaska’s beauty. It is a destination that you can do on a budget if you choose, yet there are many luxurious ways to travel the state as well. For more information visit www.visitanchorage.com.