One of the first things first-time vacationers notice about Alaska is the state's enormous size, roughly three times the area of Texas. Geographical hindrances and the state's limited highway and road system make access to desirable activities difficult--or impossible--without air or boat travel. If you've never been to Alaska before and have limited time and finances, it's best to purchase an all-inclusive vacation package that takes you to Alaska's top tourist's destinations. However, if time and money are no object, consider renting a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle in Anchorage and exploring this great state at your leisure. However, be aware: you'll still have to travel by boat or air to get to some of the state's more remote locations. Because the state of Alaska has so many activities to offer, vacationers find themselves coming back again and again to see the sites they missed during previous sojourns.
Anchorage Shopping and Dining
Anchorage is the dropping-off point for the majority of Alaska vacationers. Located near the Chugach Mountains on the coast of Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska, Anchorage is Alaska's largest city and is composed of roughly 277,000 people--around half the state's total population. The city is easy to navigate by car, and downtown Anchorage is especially pedestrian-friendly. Expect to see an abundance of locally owned specialty shops--hunting and fishing suppliers, souvenir boutiques and numerous furriers--as well as an abundance of galleries that display and sell pictures and photographs as well as Inuit arts and crafts.
The many restaurants in Anchorage reflect the state's dedication to providing vacationers with the best food it has to offer. Upscale dining establishments such as Marx Brothers, Cafe Paris and the Crow's Nest give you an indication of how lovingly area chefs prepare salmon, crab and halibut. But don't neglect the local favorites such as the White Spot downtown, which serves some of the best hamburgers, salmon burgers and halibut burgers the city has to offer.
While in Anchorage, don't neglect the spots of interest that hold resident appeal. Take a long walk around the Pacific Coastal Trail, or make a jaunt to Earthquake Park, where you'll see eerie remains of the "Good Friday Earthquake" of March 27, 1964, which devastated Anchorage and surrounding townships. Last night in Anchorage before you hit the trails? The Bear's Tooth Theatre provides a nifty union of the latest flicks and in-theater dining and is fun for the entire family.
Kenai Fjords National Park
First-time Alaska vacationers won't want to miss an excursion to Kenai Fjords National Park, located on the southeast coast of the Kenai Peninsula adjacent to the small town of Seward. The park is composed of the coastal area, Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield, which is some 700 square miles and one of only four icefields remaining in the United States. Exit Glacier is easiest for day hikers to access; you'll marvel at the luminous, opalescent blue-tinged color of the mountains of ice around you, so this is one time when you want to have your camera ready to go. This lovely area of Alaska can be explored and enjoyed in many different ways, be it through hiking, fishing, camping, mountain climbing or cross-country skiing. Cabins are available for public use during the summer.
An easier way to experience the fjords is to book an all-day boat cruise out of Seward, which is located on Resurrection Bay. Boat travel provides a stunning visual of the coastline by sea. You'll see glaciers the size of small houses crashing into the ocean, but you'll also see a plethora of Alaska's natural wildlife. Sea lions loll in the sun on inlets; families of puffins take flight overhead. Pods of white Beluga whales cruise by, and the occasional frisky sea otter may even taunt you from a arm's-reach distance.
If you're driving, the easiest way to experience Kenai Fjords National Park is to use Seward as your starting point. Seward is located 130 miles south of Anchorage, can be accessed driving down the Seward Highway or by train service provided by Alaska Railroad during the summer months. Seward is accessible by ferry year-round. You can book day-trips and overnight guided expeditions out of Seward that include camping, fishing and kayaking.
The temperature in the Kenai Peninsula is unpredictable--ranging between 40 and 70 degrees during the summer--and can drop precipitously on a whim. Make sure to wear long pants and take a jacket, but bring sunscreen and sunglasses, too. If you're sightseeing by boat, keep in mind that as you enter the Gulf of Alaska, waters get rough. Bring along your anti-motion sick pills just in case.
Kodiak Island, with its lush vegetation and proliferation of inlets, is a haven for Alaska wildlife of all stripes, including brown bears, sea birds, and three distinct types of salmon. Although distinctly mountainous, Kodiak Island is peppered with lakes, marshes and meadows teaming with wildflowers, making it one of Alaska's most stunning visual attractions. The vacationer will find Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge a veritable smorgasbord of outdoor activities, including fishing, kayaking, rafting and camping.
Although Kodiak Island is typically considered an outdoor destination, the city of Kodiak has several points of interest. Make sure to visit the Baranov Museum, which houses numerous relics dating back to the time when Alaska was under Russian domain, as well as the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository, Kodiak Tribal Council's Barabara Sod House and the stunning Holy Resurrection Church, which dates back to 1794.
Kodiak Island is an extremely desirable vacation spot, and accommodations are limited (there are only four hotels/motels on the island). There are also a small number of public cabins available, but you can reserve these only through a lottery system. To get to Kodiak, you can either charter a plane or travel by ferry.
Ski birds and snowboarders flock to the small community of Girdwood, located 35 miles southwest from Anchorage in the Turnagain Arm. Girdwood is largely encompassed by the majestic Chugach State Park and Chugach National Forest, which make for a great side trip. However, Girdwood's prime attraction is the Alyeska Ski Resort, the best place in Alaska to hit the slopes in the winter. But hang-gliding and paragliding are also available in the warmer months, so don't write Girdwood off as a winter haven. The area blooms with colorful wildflowers in high summer, and late-night autumn sunsets turn the sky sherbet shades of pink, gold and orange. Practically any time of year is the perfect time to visit Girdwood.
Alyeska Ski Resort keeps two passenger trams operational year-round that escort you up Mount Alyeska for a full view of Turnagain Arm and its seven resident glaciers. Girdwood's location is optimal for those who want easy access to the Portage Glacier (via boat trip) or the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a refuge for injured and "orphaned" critters. Aside from the Alyeska Ski Resort, there are also cabins for rent as well as a limited number of bed and breakfasts and small motels.
Kachemak Bay State Park & State Wilderness Park
Make the small, quaint town of Homer your jumping-off point if you want to explore the unspoiled terrain of Kachemak Bay State Park, one of Alaska's largest parks, and State Wilderness Park, which comprises almost 300,000 square miles of adjacent designated wilderness perfect for wildlife-watching. This area is a beautiful mix of dense forest, glaciers, mountains and endless miles of coastline. Activities include boating, kayaking, camping, hiking and mountain climbing.
Homer itself is a haven for the avid fishermen. Most anglers come to Homer with dreams of reeling in the perfect halibut, but reeling in a salmon, rockfish, cod or trout from one of the area's freshwater streams is also likely. Although Homer has a population of less than 6,000, it features a variety of local restaurants and cafes, as well as boutiques and art galleries. Accommodations include more than 100 privately owned bed and breakfasts and more than 60 motels, lodges and cabins. Camping areas are also available for public use. Homer is easily accessible from Anchorage and is located around 227 miles south off the Sterling Highway, but it can also be reached by air or by ferry.
Some Alaska vacation activities happen only once a year, and the most popular of these is the Iditarod, an international dog race composed of some 70 sled teams and their "mushers" that takes place over 10 to 17 days. The Iditarod, which starts in early March, commences at the the corner of 4th Street and Avenue D in downtown Anchorage. Resident Alaskans and tourists alike pack the sidewalks to cheer on their favorite teams off as they embark on their 1,150-mile journey to Nome. The Iditarod is accompanied by scheduled festivities in Anchorage that include pancake breakfasts, children's carnivals, fireworks displays and arts and crafts vendors--to name only a few. Scheduling your skiing vacation around the Iditarod makes for even greater off-slope fun. The 2010 Iditarod begins on March 7.
Tips and Warnings
Alaska can be an outdoor aficionado's paradise, but for the unexperienced outdoorsman, it is fraught with peril. Because you're likely to spot any number of the state's dominant inhabitants on your hiking adventure--brown and black bears--make sure you are thoroughly knowledgeable about all park rules and regulations. Keep food properly stored and dispose of waste responsibly to avoid undesirable confrontations with one of these furry folk. Although moose may appear as docile as your average deer, they should never be approached. If you're exploring Alaska for the first time, consider going on guided outdoor tours.