State Forty Six – Alaska

The two non-contiguous States – Alaska and Hawaii were always going to be two of the more challenging to visit, but also two of the most exciting. We were super excited to make the trip to the Frozen North in August and September of 2018, and let us tell you – it did not disappoint.

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Although we were undoubtedly excited to see what Alaska had to offer, we were also a little uncertain as to what one of the most reliably Republican states in the Union (only once has the State voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 15 elections) would be like. Surprisingly though, we need not have worried. Although it is a conservative (and Conservative) state, Alaskans are not outwardly hostile to “difference”. We found rainbow flags abound and a real openness which we guessed came from it genuinely being “the last frontier”. Alaska welcomes you with open arms. We were also a little concerned at the scale – Alaska is vast. From the eastern extremity  of the State to the west its about as wide as the lower 48 States put together. Anchorage is about as close to Moscow as it is to Miami. Mind boggling!

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We flew into Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city (and the biggest city by area in the entire United States) but our first night was three hours north in Talkeetna. We were headed for Denali National Park but the drive from Anchorage was too much in one go, so we stopped for one night half way between the two – exactly where Talkeetna lies. The tiny town is off the main road between Anchorage and Denali, through beautiful pine forests with seaplane lodges to the side of the road. As you come up the rise into Talkeetna you get a fabulous view (on rare clear days as we were lucky to  have) of Mount Denali – truly a behemoth on the horizon. North America’s highest peak and one of the highest peaks above sea level on Earth, dominates the skyline for much of the State, such is its size.

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Our lodgings for the night were the Meandering Moose cabins, about a mile outside of the town in the forest. Appropriately enough we had in fact just seen a moose meandering along the road. We dropped our bags in our impossibly cute Snoozin’ Moose cabin, received our Northern Lights briefing from the helpful manager and then headed back into town. Talkeetna really is a one street town – but at the end of one of the streets is the meeting of the Talkeetna and (much bigger) Susitna rivers. We were lucky enough to arrive at sunset and it was absolutely stunning. Having taken in the beautiful views we went off for our dinner appointment at the Denali Brewing Company, home to some delicious beers and a great Asian-inspired vegan meal option for Hannah. After stuffing our faces we stopped for one more drink at the very beery Wildflower Cafe before the jetlag started to kick in and we had to head to bed.

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We had an early start the next morning in order to maximise our time in Denali, but we loved the night we spent in quirky Talkeetna. Back on the road and the Alaskan weather had turned – some fearsome rain made the drive up to Denali treacherous, but fortunately the weather cleared up by the time we made it to the park. In any case we sat out the worst of the weather during lunch at the McKinley Creekside Cafe – Josh had one of his all time top ten burgers at this tiny roadside restaurant, and Hannah ordered a delicious veggie skillet which reassured her that veggie eating in Alaska was going to be better than expected!

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We carried on to the park – our first stop at Denali wasn’t quite in the park though. In a mapping quirk caused by the presence of a mine, a small corner of Denali is accessible by something other than a tour bus. We elected to sample it with Denali ATV Adventures and their super-fun miniature 4x4s. For a couple of hours they take you on a (very cold!) guided tour of some of the rivers and bluffs on the very edge of the park. The views are stunning and the off roading is exhilarating!

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We got back to the car and turned the heat up before hitting the road again. Our destination was Healy – about 20 minutes north of Denali and home to more reasonably priced lodgings! We had booked two nights at the Aspen Haus cabins on the edge of town (if you can call Healy a town – it really is tiny). Our cabin – the Willow – was small but perfectly formed. It really felt like we were staying among the trees and the welcome from Ted the owner was wonderful. The bunny rabbits running about the place were an added bonus! For dinner we made the short drive to 49th State Brewing – another brewpub which surprised us with its vegan options (as well as great beer and plentiful non-vegan offerings).

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As one of Alaska’s – possibly North America’s – major highlights, we knew we had to set aside at least a full day for Denali National Park. Because of restrictions on entries the only option for short-term visitors is to take one of the bus tours through the park. We opted for the early morning Tundra Wilderness tour – an EIGHT hour monster of a bus tour, but it really does fly by.

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The tour is spectacular even if you get a cloudy and drizzly day, as we did. About five minutes into the tour we got a great close up sighting of a moose, and another five minutes later we saw a grizzly up a hillside. We thought we’d been lucky even though another hour went by before we saw much more wildlife. That was before the bus came to an abrupt halt for a family of grizzlies to wander within feet of us, right next to the tour bus. The Denali bus tour is long and very expensive but it was unquestionably one of the absolute highlights of our 50 States adventure.

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As the tour bus wound its way slowly back to the visitors centre we had plenty more time to take in the scenery and some more bears eating blueberries and scratching their backs on trees. Having only grazed through the day on the small but tasty snack box you get on the tour we were ready for dinner when we got back to the main entrance to the park. A short drive from the Wilderness Access Center are some hotels and restaurants (and a panoply of – very cheap – gift shops). We stopped for a pizza at Prospectors Pizza – yet again home to superb beer and impressive vegan options for great pizzas.

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Two nights in Denali is nowhere near enough, but it was all we had before we headed back down south. Our drive back to Anchorage was made in beautiful sunshine and the views of Denali and the other mountains in the Alaskan range were spectacular. Alaska was really getting into its stride now!

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On arrival in Anchorage the contrast is quite stark – this is not one of America’s most beautiful cities. Not only is it spread out over a vast area, its also mostly grey and all told just not very striking at all. However, appearances can be deceptive and while Anchorage won’t go down as one of our favourite cities, it is a nice place to spend an evening and get an appreciation of another side of the State. We stopped off at the fabulous Anchorage Brewing Company (watch out for them!) before heading to our hotel for the night – the Historic Anchorage Hotel. It definitely is historic – when we got into our room the noise from the road and the other rooms was very noticeable. Its a nice enough stop though, and in a good location in a city where hotel prices are ridiculously high.

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Because Anchorage is so spread out, we had trouble finding dinner and drinks locations where both were walkable. So we decided to go for an early-ish dinner at Tommy’s Burger Stop which was a good ten minute drive from the hotel. Its a tiny, pretty anonymous looking place which is famous for its burgers, and it was a fun place to visit. For post-dinner drinks we swung by Humpy’s Great Alaskan Ale House (brilliant range of local and North Western beers) and took in the sunset at 49th State (more excellent Alaskan beer), before finishing the evening at Glacier Brewhouse. Along the way Anchorage charmed us with its downtown “Lightspeed Planet Walk” – where the size of the solar system is scaled down to walking speed – so it takes eight minutes to walk from the Sun to the Earth, as it would take eight minutes for light to reach Earth from the Sun. Its a pretty neat educational walk!

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Since we had a long-ish drive to our next destination – Homer – we decided a picnic lunch was in order and we picked ours up from Urban Greens Subs and Salads. They boxed up a couple of absolutely vast salads topped with delicious croutons. That was not before we’d experienced the highlight of our Historic Anchorage Hotel – the one button push waffle maker – push one button and a couple of minutes later tasty waffles plop out the other end! Magic! While our breakfast went down we had a quick walk around Earthquake Park – we wouldn’t call it a must-do but its a nice wooded walk with views of the bay, and a reminder that Alaska experienced the second most powerful earthquake in recorded human history!

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Along the drive from Anchorage to Homer, as you wind around the edge of the Kenai Peninsula, there are any number of stunning sights to gawp at. First you might get lucky and glimpse a whale at Turnagain Arm (we didn’t), then as you round the corner there’s Portage Glacier, then you come to Cooper’s Landing and the dazzling blue glacial rivers that run to and from it. And then, when you reach the edge of the water on the Western side of the Peninsula you have the mountains on the other side of the Cook Inlet to stare at. It really is one thing after another!

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Once you’ve feasted your eyes on all of that and you finally make it to Homer, right on the tip of the Peninsula, there’s another treat for the eyes waiting for you! Our B&B in Homer – which is an odd little town split between a small downtown area of sorts and a four mile long split which reaches out into the sea – was the Aloha Inn, up on the hillside ten minutes or so out of town. The major advantage of this is the superb view this position affords you of Grewingk Glacier, across the Kachemak Bay. The tiny (but massive) tankers slowly making their way through the Bay in front of the glacier give you an idea of the scale of this state. Everything is huge.

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We headed down onto Homer Split after settling into our room. An absolute must-do for any tourist to Homer is the Salty Dawg Saloon in a 19th Century cabin. Dollar bills left by guests line the walls of this Alaskan institution and it has the dive bar feel of a real local boozer.

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The best beer we found however was at the Homer Brewing Company back towards the town. This tiny brewery specialises in traditional styles, many of them English, and they do them superbly. Their Extra Special Bitter was the equal of anything us Brits have brewed, and the atmosphere was really lovely. After a beer we had dinner at Vida’s Thai Food, a delicious break from some of the heavier meals we’d had.

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After a fantastic night’s sleep at the Aloha – and coffee marveling at the view across the bay again, we had to drive all the way back around the Peninsula to our next stop – Seward. It was another special drive – the views are no less spectacular in the other direction. As we approached Seward we stopped off for a peek at Exit Glacier – about as close as you can get to an Alaskan glacier without a gruelling hike. The sight of this giant block of ice slowly carving its way into the earth is really something to behold. There were signs dotted about the place telling of a black bear sighting, so we were a little apprehensive walking around the beautiful woodland – but we survived intact. The delicious lunch we had at the Resurrection Roadhouse on the way there made it all the better too!

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After lunch we made a quick stop at Bear Creek Weir, hoping to catch the salmon run. We were in luck! It was gripping, and surprisingly emotional, watching the little guys will themselves up stream. Josh felt extremely bad about having eaten salmon earlier that day and resolved not to do so for the rest of the trip.

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In Seward we parked up on the shoreline and took in the view of the mountains and the pastel blue bay (complete with more jumping salmon), before the arduous task of finding our World War Two era hut that was our home for two nights. We got there in the end and on arrival we knew we’d picked the best lodgings in Seward. Alaska’s Point of View Suites is a bit more rough and ready than it sounds – they are 70+ year old huts, but they’re big and comfortable and fun! It also comes complete with a massage chair, and the domed roof really makes you feel like you’re somewhere different. We absolutely loved it there.

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We had planned to have another Thai meal at Woody’s Thai Kitchen, only to find it was closed (presumably due to the proximity to the end of the tourist season). In the end we ate dinner at the Seward Brewing Company which was decent enough – and accompanied by fresh local brews. On the short walk back through Seward’s compact downtown we stopped by Thorn’s Showcase Lounge for a cocktail. Thorn’s is a brilliantly dated old cocktail bar which now is an authentic version of what so many big city places try to re-create. We loved it there so much that we decided to come back the following night for dinner and drinks!

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The next day we had a boat trip scheduled around the Kenai Peninsula. We opted for the half day tour with lunch at Fox Island because while the full day gives you more chance to see wildlife, we only had one full day in Seward and we didn’t want to spend all of it on the water. Although we weren’t lucky enough to see any whales, we did see some incredible glaciers and mountains, plus a smattering of puffins, bald eagles, seat otters and seals. Its definitely a worthwhile trip if you’re in Seward.

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After we’d recovered from a day on the high seas (although impressively it was more from sunburn than frostbite in Alaska) we made tracks for the Seward Ale House. For once the highlight of a pub was not the beer, but the pub dog. Although the beer was excellent as well. Penny the chihuahua was an absolute delight, even if she did deposit some fluff in our drinks.

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Our time in Alaska was almost done. Before the drive back to Anchorage and the airport we had a coffee in the beautiful Resurrect Art Coffee House – built in an old church. We sipped our coffee while taking in one last view of the bay, before jumping in the Kia and heading back to the city.

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We cannot speak highly enough of Alaska. Visually it is stunning, perhaps not as beautiful as Hawaii but every bit as spectacular, maybe even more so. The people are friendly but not too friendly, the food is good, the beer is great and varied, and there are a million different things to do to suit all budgets. The only problem is it is a long way from anywhere else. One day we hope to go back to the 49th State to experience more of what the Last Frontier has to offer.

Rate the State: 10/10

Good for: Spectacular scenery at every turn, amazing wildlife.

Bad for: Its a long way away, but that really is about it for the negatives…

 

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