Alaska is huge – much bigger than Texas. The sooner we, as Texans, accept this and move beyond it, the better our experience and appreciation of the vast wilderness state will be. At 663,288 square miles, Alaska is almost 2.5 times larger than Texas. With a total population of more than 710,000, the largest state is the least densely populated, with one person for every 1.26 miles. The rest? Almost unfathomable extents of mountains, lakes, hills, tundra, and such. For a working-class kid from small-town England who still doesn’t fully comprehend the extent of Texas, this wide-open wonderland in prospect was awe-inspiring.
During the 2018 holiday season, my partner and I began planning in earnest our first trip to Alaska. After several days of internet research and gawking at physical maps – yes, the analog fold-out-but-cannot-fold-back-in version – we came to the realization that we were biting off way more than was reasonably chewable. Texas is big. That is a large part of our identity. We define ourselves in many ways by the triumph of man over nature that is contemporary Texas. We have tamed the desert, the plains, the piney woods, and more. From nature, we have hewn the 10th largest economy in the world. And still we have state and national parks containing natural wonders to behold. I figured I had a good sense of large scale when planning travel. A couple inches on a map between Fort Worth and Austin or thereabouts equates to just less than 200 miles or a four-hour drive without traffic. Not the case with Alaska. Plotting our time in Alaska while sipping on festive beverages, it soon became evident that we were failing to scale up. Those two-inch map journeys are 400-500 miles. The drive would take 10 hours. What is this? Our intended arrival point is not accessible by road? Oh! There is no road. Driving and then taking a ferryboat is the only option? Only a chartered light aircraft can get us there? All exciting options but with limited time and without a limitless budget, a rethink was clearly necessary.
We kept open the physical maps. With a new appreciation for the scale of Alaska, we plotted a realistic route, identified the “must-do” sites, activities, and excursions, and I tucked in to one of my favorite pastimes – researching places to stay, eat, and drink. Possibly the best advice we garnered, from a friend of a friend who visits Alaska every year, was to book smart. Be aware of the rhythm of the cruise ships. First off, try to get in and out of the state before late June, when cruise ship traffic all but consumes the smaller towns. Also, do the light research required to figure out which days of the week the ships dock in the various tourist spots. If you do not like slaloming through crowds of slow-moving older folks, you are likely going to want to book for late May into June 2020. In doing so, you will also avoid the significant price hikes for accommodation, car rental, and such that kick in come late June through July and August.
American Airlines operates one direct flight to Anchorage daily out of DFW Airport. The 3 p.m. flight takes just shy of seven hours, landing at just before 7 p.m. local time. Alaska is three hours behind us, so you make up a little time, giving you the opportunity to explore Anchorage on your first evening. In the spirit of my bar-hopping columns these past few months, the opportunity was not wasted. After checking in to our downtown hotel, we indulged in a walking tour of what central Anchorage offers. Two things are immediately noticeable and forever inescapable when negotiating Alaska’s most populous city. While the architecture is low rise and utilitarian, its backdrop is snow-covered mountains to the north and east. The light plays on the peaks as they bound and stretch to the skies. South and west, the waters of the Cook Inlet provide shelter from the Gulf of Alaska. I have never traveled so far north and west. The cityscape is reminiscent of a Soviet-era newsreel. The backdrop feels almost too dreamy to be real. Surely someone painted a huge canvas and dropped it behind the buildings.
Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse is an institution and as such merited our first stop on a bright Monday night. Hitting the bar around 8 p.m., we took up a seat in the back patio that still blasted its heaters, though locals seemed happy to be shedding layers to sport mainly tees and jeans, often with sandals. The temperature hovered around 60 degrees, causing us to belly up to a heater to augment the warming hug of the layers we would not shed. Humpy’s is a big, sprawling neighborhood-style bar/restaurant with a Flying Saucer-worthy beer selection and a large food menu. There was a mix of young folks outside –– with a surprising, to me, ethnic diversity. It was like being back in Europe or a more ginger version of the Near Southside. Inside, cruise ship seniors in booths sat apart from businesspeople at the bar listening to a two-piece sing folk tunes.
Next, at the Glacier Brewhouse, we sat at the bar shared by a couple other tourists and a well-dressed businessman. Our server, John, was hipster-skeptical ’til we proved our beer and liquor stripes. He introduced me to the New York Sour – a cocktail very similar to the Boston Sour I have long enjoyed. The Big Apple version adds a dash of merlot to the bourbon, lemon juice, cherry, and egg whites. Surprisingly delicious.
On the east side of the building clings Darwin’s Theory, a gloriously unannounced dive bar. The front portion is dominated by the square bar at which sits a band of intractable locals, all guys, all pretty gnarly and grizzled looking. Nobody wanted to give an inch for me to be served. Available leaning against the wall space was taken, too. I somehow was served and noticed an anteroom through a narrow doorway. It contained four high tables with stools. Empty pizza boxes were strewn about. Table service was on offer, and we duly took advantage. Our server was Anchorage born and bred. The bar’s regular homeless interloper popped in every so often offering stolen goods. My hometwon of Liverpool has a not entirely undeserved reputation for being the epicenter of “scally” culture – the ducking and diving of people living on the edge of legality to survive in the pit of poverty. The homeless kid could have been a Scouser save for their lack of tattered tracksuit. On the next table sat our cabin crew from the flight up. On a one-night layover, they were, reassuringly, not drinking much. The highlight of the local beers offered in cans or bottles was Alaska Brewing’s Freeride, an excellent American pale ale. With a big day ahead Tuesday and feeling just beyond pleasantly drunk, I ordered a vodka-tonic, necked it, and called it a night.
Next morning, the Clarion Inn and Suites offered a free buffet breakfast that was sub-La Quinta in quality. We dawdled the eight blocks from our hotel to 4th Street, which is billed as an independent shopping district. What we found were some dive bars, gift stores, and an indoor strip mall. I had scoped out Biscuit Betty’s for some hangover-friendly coffee and eats. The stodgy biscuits warmed in the microwave were dreadful and made more so by the Heinz jam lolloping in its plastic jacket. Coffee was average. Everything was served in non-recyclables, and the lone server had customer service skills that could best be described as “entirely British.”
Four blocks southeast sits the Anchorage Museum, whose approach has a well thought-out garden in front. Once through the plants and trees, the museum, whose angular glass structure is at odds with the utilitarian buildings of most of downtown, gleamed before me. The reception area shared the same bright yellow paint as the bizarre mall housing Bastard Betty’s, my partner’s one and only moniker for the abominable biscuit place. My best guess is that this super-sunny color cheers the winter residents on dark days. Out-of-state adults under the age of 65 pay $18 for entry. This bestows unlimited entry and exit for a single day, freedom to roam, and access to multiple guided tours of the exhibits. My partner is an international senior-level gallery and museum professional. We visit a lot of museums. This place is very evidently of the highest quality and standards and whose overarching theme is the indigenous populations of Alaska. From first to last, the exhibits get right to the point in showing the misrepresentations of indigenous people and their lives, history, and potential future. Imaginative presentations mixed with traditional glass case exhibits and interactive learning created a holistic view of Alaska’s heritage, landscape, and ecology. The Rasmussen Wing offers a new 25,000 square feet of gallery space showcasing “Art of the North” with a focus on “reflections, perceptions and storytelling” around the Alaskan landscape with the aim of breaking the “frontier myth.” While it is tempting to exoticize the unfamiliar or the new, the museum did an excellent job of splicing together objects with people and their life stories. The result is a wide-ranging exhibit that brings to life the indigenous tribes of Alaska.
By now, it was late lunch o’clock, and we had a couple of hours until our scheduled flightseeing tour. A James Beard Award nominee, Chef Laura Cole helms the museum’s restaurant, Muse. That was more than enough encouragement for this hungry tourist. From the warm in-house baked bread with lemon butter through the sexy-dark reindeer ragu to the mellifluous zing of passion fruit tart washed down with rich bitter coffee, this place exceeded my high expectations. Go eat there. Thank me later.
Our server was an older lady. I mention this only because throughout the trip, we encountered servers significantly more mature than one encounters in our part of the country outside of a greasy spoon. I wondered why this was the case.
An unnecessary Uber took us from the museum out near the international airport to the home of Rust’s Flying Service. Turns out these good people would have picked us up from anywhere in town. We checked in good and early, were weighed, and met Captain Matt and the other couple who would share our six-seater McDonnell Douglas twin-prop plane. Matt talked us through the short flight, then undertook a thorough safety check of the bright red plane. Immediately we felt in safe hands. Rather than head into the ominous gray clouds cloaking the mountains, we headed southwest to the Knik Arm Inlet, then due west over open country before landing on Figure Eight Lake. Throughout the flight, Matt proved himself to be a knowledgeable and passionate guide. He knew exactly where to find moose roaming through the marshlands, eagles nesting in tall trees, and beluga whales coming up for air. Growing up on BBC wildlife documentaries voiced by the inimitable David Attenborough, this kid of factory workers never dared to dream of being in the same seas viewing the same glorious beasts. Along the route, we gained a sense of the outdoor life as we spied hunting cabins and remote homesteads, some with makeshift runways. Outside tourist season, Matt and many of his colleagues spend their days ferrying folks to places only accessible by light aircraft. Oftentimes their planes are laden with essential food supplies and one hardy passenger set to hunker down for the long winter. It felt very much like Northerm Exposure, with New Yorker Dr. Joel Fleischman in small town Alaska trying not to fall for tomboy Maggie O’Connell as she flits in and out of the fictional Cicely between light aircraft trips to the bush.
Taking off from the lake, we headed back over new ground and back toward Anchorage, spotting more moose as we went. Touching down on Lake Hood, we taxied back to the seaplane base – the busiest such base in the world. The sticker price for flightseeing looks high. It is worth it. We took the basic 30-minute tour but covered a lot of ground and learned much. If you want to splash out farther, Rust’s offers an array of options. Land and walk on a glacier? Check. Scope out bears catching spawning salmon? Check. Fly fishing in the wilderness? Check.
We had Rust’s bus driver drop us off at a downtown café only to discover it was closed. No problem. He took us back to the hotel, where we chilled and changed before scoping out dinner and beer options for a gloriously sunny Tuesday night.
The land of the midnight sun is not a poetic term. Sunset times in late-May Anchorage are around 11:30 p.m. In fact, it never gets fully dark before the sun rises around 4:30 a.m. As a result, patios and beer gardens are full of folks decked in sunglasses ’til past 11p.m. most nights. The never-quite-dark thing is simultaneously liberating and disorienting. It is freeing not to be scheduled by sunrise and sunset, especially when on vacation. The lack of real darkness leads to a sense of never quite knowing what time it is while all the while seeking not to care.
To take advantage of this opportunity, we selected 49th State Brewing Company for our nighttime festivities. This place can teach some of Fort Worth’s brewers a thing or two. With the brewpub/restaurant housed on three floors, the first-floor reception area features ample waiting space and a gift shop. Floors one and two receive guests at tables and substantial bar areas. Up top is a huge south-facing patio. We were shown to a table after a short wait and duly turned our chairs to the late night sun. Basking in the sun, from a seat overlooking the inlet, all while breathing clean air, thousands of miles from home, these are the ingredients of an intoxicating cocktail named Chillax. The food menu was extensive and typified the Alaska price point, which is to say that everything was a few dollars more than you would pay for something similar in the Fort. None of the in-house beers featured strawberry shortcake. Nowhere did I spy a beer with chilies and lime. Nor was the porter a ball-busting alcohol-by-volume overload of cookies and cream. If you like that kind of stuff, have at it. Throughout the trip, Alaska consistently served up classic beer styles done well, taking advantage of the abundance of crisp, clear glacial water at its disposal. The beer menu at 49th State featured Kölsch, blond, porter, dunkelweizen, IPA, and a lager backboning a further selection of rotators. All beers happy in their own skin, not feeling the need for frills. Every beer I tried was excellent, and with standard pours coming in at 24 ounces for $6, then color me delighted.
My spinach and artichoke dip with fresh crab was delicious, while the giant meatball in marinara was merely decent. On the other side of the table, the halibut and chips went down as a treat. Content from a couple rounds of beer and a good feed, we whiled away a further hour or so gazing out over Knik Arm and soaking up the post-10 p.m. vitamin D. Heady days, my friends, heady days.
Wednesday was driving and cruising day. We left the hotel after another “I’m glad it’s free” breakfast. After we waited longer than expected outside the hotel for our ride, Enterprise Rent-A-Car showed up to fulfill their promise to “pick you up.” Southbound, we were up for a long day of scenic driving with an eight-hour boat excursion through Kenai Fjords National Park. The tour blurb promised we’d get up close and personal with wildlife and a glacier, followed by a dinner of prime rib and salmon on a remote island. It would have been rude not to book such an enticing-sounding day out.
The two-hour drive was truly stunning, with rolling scenes of fjords and mountains on your west side the whole time. The road rises and dips through high hills unspoiled by signs and life. The vertiginous drop from hills to the port of Seward is reminiscent of many a northern England fishing village. The tour company setup is very well-organized and efficient. Arrive a little early to pick up tickets booked online, take some photos, and re-caffeinate as you will have to hit the road by 7 a.m. The tour leaves port around 9:30 a.m., lazily lilting though the glacial depths. It was not long before the captain was “booking it,” and we tore through the initial 40 minutes of cruising to the introductory verbal meanderings of Captain Steve. Our vessel wove its way through a series of vertical islands and dark coves akin to those seen in the South Pacific. Steve was at pains throughout his commentaries to drive home the point that we are all guests in someone else’s living home. This habitat belongs to the sea creatures and birds we paid to hope to spot. And spot we did. Before clearing the inlet, we spotted Orcas. We were extremely fortunate to be piloted to a prime whale spot by a small vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which shared deep-water whale sounds with us. This was surely an unscripted moment of VIP treatment, truly a confluence of serendipity and the power of collective will.
Once in the open sea, from where next landfall can be made in Hawaii, we had multiple sightings of humpback whales, sea lions, sea otters, puffins, and other creatures. Captain Steve was highly adept at spotting and cruising up to large sea mammals. The outside seating of the boat is bow and stern open plan. To wit: It is very cold when traveling at 30 knots. As a northern European, I was prepared for cold, both constitutionally and sartorially. I was still cold. Good news comes in the form of the plentiful indoor seating, which is highly comfortable and well situated for the bar serving adult and non-adult beverages. Warm up with a cocktail or a cocoa, nobody is judging.
The goal for the day – the big kahuna, the motherlode – was to meet the face of the 700-square-mile Harding Ice Field. Said face is in the form of a 300-foot-high glacier. A half-mile out, Steve killed the engines, and all that could be heard above the gasps and clamor was the ka-dum-thud, ka-dum-thud of the boat’s hull running atop small icebergs. Within 100 feet of the glacier, we came to a halt. A venerating silence befell the 150 or so passengers. Steve observed radio silence. The blue-white ice filled my field of vision –– a sheer, craggy, crackling, rolling, thundering wall of pure nature. As we stared in silent wonder, the ship of parties having become one, a one-story high piece of glacier calved off, parts of which resurfaced minutes later as iceberg-lets close to the boat’s port side. In real world terms, we likely spent 45 minutes gripped by the timelessness of sheer natural wonder.
As we turned toward home, the boat sped toward Fox Island, our remote dinner spot some 40 minutes from port. On offer was a very high standard prime rib and salmon all-you-can-eat dinner with fabulous carbs and veggie sides. Dinner was served in a giant log cabin dining room with views of the fjords. An optional Park Ranger talk about the ecology of the National Park was on offer to use up half of the 30 minutes before re-boarding. There was time enough for this and to skim stones on the beach. On heading back to Seward, we were waved “goodbye” by a pair of humpbacks frolicking within 500 yards of port. The whole day was phenomenal. I am not one for organized fun, but this trip disabused me of the notion that such fun is always terrible. In fact, if you do one thing mentioned in this article, do this tour.
Thursday was leaving day. The return flight to DFW leaves Anchorage at 8 p.m., affording you the opportunity for a full day before thinking about spending six hours aboard a cramped aircraft. The night flight will deposit you, dazed and confused, at DFW just before 6 a.m. To make full use of the day, we chose a road trip north to the mountainside town of Talkeetna. The Glenn Highway opens out into two lanes and open country very soon after heading out of downtown Anchorage. The scene is vast and majestic. To the fore, lush trees in a dark green impossible to attain at our southern latitude. The mid- and background remains filled with one vista after another, snow-kissed mountains after mountains reaching for and beyond the clouds. It is as though we were on an old time Hollywood film set, stationary in a vehicle as laboring off camera the scenery was turned and turned then turned again such was its relentless scope and scale.
Never once did our eyes rest in the 110 miles to Talkeetna. Those miles contained very little in the way of amenities once past Wasilla, 40 miles outside Anchorage and the rest stop town of Houston 15 miles farther along.
Talkeetna is more than a convenient stopping point for travelers en route to Denali National Park and Preserve. The quirky town is an attraction in and of itself. A 15-mile stretch of road off Parks Highway takes you past the Denali Brewing Company up to the small mountain community-cum-tourist trap. A small main street features a couple dive bars, pizza joints, gift stores, a weed shop (legal in Alaska, just saying), and the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Featuring a bakery, cafe, hostel, and utterly inaccessible dartboard, it is famed for its breakfasts and handheld savory pies and pasties that are doubtless a gift of the British miners who came to Alaska many moons ago. Sitting at communal tables, you share menus and water. I ordered more reindeer in the form of a patty melt and accompanying cup of chili. It was good, hearty cold-weather food of the type I grew up with. The lunch entree cost $19. That seemed steep but included a tip as all staff is paid a living wage and, as such, tips are discouraged.
A walk among the trite and the true burned off a few lunch calories until we doubled back past the Roadhouse down to the river. The raging silt water stretched a good half-mile across. Looking to the opposite bank reminded me of gazing across the River Mersey as a child while I waited for the famed ferryboat to arrive. Alaska releases the wonder of the inner child, giving permission to once again be giddy at the sheer bloody awesomeness of nature. Here, I was returned to a time when the big city, half a mile across the estuary, seemed impossible to reach, its secrets to be forever kept as I stood dockside dreaming of one day boarding the ferryboat. No human traffic on this hyperactive stretch of water. The fresh, clear air was a joy, and we gulped it in greedily before taking the car back to Anchorage and heading to the airport.
The wonders of Alaska have no quit in them. I traveled with very high expectations, which were exceeded at every turn. Yes, we scratched the surface of but one small area of what remains a vast wilderness we were privileged to be invited to for a few days. The next trip is already planned – Denali and the Inside Passage, here we come. Third time out, it will be Kodiak and Katmai National Park and Preserve. And then …