I went to Anchorage to speak at a travel event and I tacked a few days on to my stay — here are the things I really enjoyed during my short visit.
Scott McMurren (of the Alaska Tour Saver) arranged for my travel and two nights stay, Visit Anchorage covered the rest. In the interest of full disclosure, anything I didn’t pay for myself is marked with an asterisk.
Where to Stay
The Copper Whale B&B*: I’ve stayed in a handful of Anchorage hotels; they are shockingly mediocre on all counts, service, room layout and decor, whether or not I had a decent night’s sleep… The Sheraton had food well past the sell-by date in their in-house market, Marriott housekeeping pounded on my door to make up my room at 6 am, and the Inlet Tower seemed to be actively avoiding the details — I had an ironing board but no iron, no hair dryer, and the upholstery on the chairs in my room was literally falling apart at the seams. All of them were clean, the beds were fine, and some of them have beautiful views but but the apathy, the apathy. I hate being critical when I’m in a comped room, but it’s not a good room just because I didn’t pay for it.
None of this happened at the Copper Whale. What a swell little place. Just stay there. The breakfast isn’t fancy, but there was fresh bread and plenty of snacky things. The beds are quality, my room was quiet and had a nice view, and the folks that run it are super helpful. Rooms start at 189 in high season — that’s about the same as hotel room, plus you get breakfast, though you may not get a private bath at that rate. There’s good stuff to walk to right nearby, too.
Where to Eat
The Rustic Goat*: This place, opened by the folks that run Kaladi Coffee, looks like it got lost on the way to Portland. It’s a beautiful open floor plan with an upstairs loft, big windows, real coffee, and honestly, the s’mores chocolate mousse parfait served in a jam jar? Hoo boy. I had lunch — a righteous sandwich on chewy bread, big enough to feed two people and house made potato chips. Yum.
Weird location, you’ll never get here without a car and the parking situation is awful. Worth it though, so worth it. About $15 for lunch, but you’re probably going to spend more because there are other things on the menu you want.
Muse: I love museum restaurants, the food is (almost) always excellent, not as expensive as you think it’s going to be, and no one looks at you sideways if you’re solo. Muse is terrific — I’ve had breakfast and lunch here, both were top notch. There’s a nice nod towards local, but keep in mind it’s Alaska, so it’s not like local ingredients are easy to get year round. I had a smoked halibut omelet with pine nuts and now I want pine nuts in everything. Good coffee. About $15 for breakfast, you’ll probably spend a bit more on lunch. Yes, they do dinner. I’d go.
The Bake Shop*: “Breakfast all day” are three of my favorite words. Just because it’s 1:30 doesn’t mean you don’t want an omelet, am I right? This place has sourdough pancakes that are crazy sour and they serve them with a pile of butter and there’s real maple syrup on the table and actually, I want some right now. They make enormous cinnamon rolls that I know nothing about because I was too full. The coffee is diner coffee, but whatever, did I mention the pancakes? In Girdwood at the base of the ski resort. About $10 for a classic breakfast that seems like too much food but you’ll eat it all because, oh boy, sourdough pancakes. Cash only. (Thanks for the tip, Scott.)
Wheel Good Food: The travel event had a food truck rodeo out back. I had been feeling fragile, I got food poisoning 24 hours early (that can happen anywhere in the world) but I was finally ready to eat again. I’m so grateful that there was Wheel Good deliciousness on hand. I had the quinoa bowl, which I know sounds like dull hippie chow, but it was bright and fresh and full of flavor. I was sorry I didn’t have a more adventurous belly at the time, because it all looked tempting. I don’t think there’s anything over $10 on the menu, I spent $5 and was very happy.
Where to Go
Tony Knowles Coastal Trail: I walked from Earth to Jupiter because there’s a planet trail, but also, I walked past a hockey pond with awkward skaters on it, past a guy on XC skis, past some ducks sleeping in a thawing pond, one up on one red leg, past a lot of people walking sweater wearing dogs, past breaking ice and over there, some odd flat barge ships, and it was so sunny and gorgeous and the sky was blue and almost everyone said hello.
Anchorage Art Museum*: The Smithsonian collection of Native Alaskan art on display here is staggering. If you’re in Anchorage and you don’t go see it, you’re missing out on something spectacular. The multimedia stuff they have is lovely, video of places and people, story telling, music, it is as good as anything I’ve seen in New York or London. The rest of the museum is a mixed bag depending on what’s on — I saw an exhibit called Gyre about plastics in the ocean, that was compelling — but the Alaska history stuff is a bit dated. I checked with the museum and am pleased to report back that the history section, which was set up in the early 80s, is due for a major overhaul. I’m eager to see what they do with it. I do like the big romantic landscape paintings in the permanent collection, but that’s because I’m a sucker for the art of American Manifest Destiny, even if I don’t sit easy with the history and politics behind that stuff. Admission? $15.00, less for kids, more for special events.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center*: I wanted to visit Snickers the Porcupine, the AWCC’s resident celebrity, but we arrived early in the day and Snickers had a “Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee” attitude on. No matter. Media perks being what they are, I got an early morning private tour of the place with Scott Michaelis, a former intern and now staffer who knows the animals very well. I could not believe the way the moose walked up to the fence to say hello, as domestic as horses. Seeing penned in wildlife always leaves me fraught with ambivalence but the center is up to some interesting things, including an attempt to reintroduce the near extinct wood bison into the wild. Some of their critters — like Snickers — are former pets, others were rescued from fires or other incidents. Without human intercession, they’d likely have died in the wild, with it, well, they live at the conservation center. It’s complicated, and also, I got to watch an enormous bear roll around on the ice and I petted a moose on the nose. $12.50, less for kids.
The Seward Highway: Lord, this is a spectacular stretch of road. Anchorage is possible to visit without a car if you stick close to downtown, but you have to do this drive down Turnagain Arm for the jaw-dropping views. I’ve done the trip in summer and now, in spring –both times the sky was blue and the water was like a mirror. In summer, I got to see beluga whales in the water off Beluga Point, as though they know where the sign is for their playground. Or maybe there’s a sign in written in whalespeak, in the water, that says “Human Point” and the whales gather here for people spotting. Get a car for the day, if nothing else, to make this drive.
Eklutna: There’s a visitor’s center and a tour you can take that covers the history of this Russian settlement village, but they’re not open year round. Don’t let that stop you from making the 45 minute drive to see the onion domed Orthodox church and the spirit houses in the graveyard. If you go on Sunday, you are welcome to join the services, should you be so inclined. I didn’t feel like crashing in mid-service, and the people I talked to after church got out not quite scolded me for waiting politely instead of going inside. If you’re there in open season, I have it on authority that you should absolutely pay the $5 for the tour. Sidebar: I rented a car, it averaged about $25 day including fees.
Anchorage Airport: Seriously, this airport is lovely. It’s not crowded, there’s fast free wifi, there are big windows with gorgeous views… I wish they had a few more local businesses inside, but it looks like they’re working on that. A likeable airport warrants a mention as there are so many bad ones.
Books to read
The Eskimo and The Oil Man: The Battle at the Top of the World for America’s Future: An enlightening look at the tension between Native Alaskans, oil companies, the very real effects of global warming, and the battle to profit from drilling in the far north. I was delightfully surprised by how not oversimplified this study of oil politics was. I thought I’d hate the Oil Man but it’s just not that easy. Also, Barrow sounds like a really weird place.
Kabloona: Among the Inuit: French rich kid Gontran de Poncins decides he wants to go live with the Eskimos in the early 1930s. I thought I’d roll my eyes at the story, I mean, another entitled traveler? But it’s great, and the translation is good too, there’s some amazing language. Unsurprisingly, there’s 30s racism, but you see de Poncins come to great respect for the people he travels with. I wish there was an Inuit written companion book from the other side — “What’s with the crazy white guy?!” — but this will have to do, and it does nicely. I’m surprised I’ve not heard of this book before; it’s a travelogue worthy of shelf space next to Muir or Twain or any of the classics.
A Note on Weather and Packing
Anchorage is fairly temperate as Alaska goes, though I haven’t been in deep winter. I visited in late summer once and it was just above freezing and pouring rain. In spring temps were a bit below freezing early in the day but it warmed up into the mid-50s, such that my down jacket was too warm. In most cases, if you dress to stay dry, you’ll stay warm. Bring sturdy shoes that are waterproof, extra socks, and if you get cold (I do), pack long underwear. Alaska is casual, you’re unlikely to be under-dressed. And it’s better to be casual and warm and dry than fancy and cold and wet.