One of my moist favorite travel destinations is Anchorage, Alaska (thank you, autocorrect). Whether it’s to experience the boundless scenery, savor the minutes-old seafood, or just to warm up from a Minnesota winter, going to Anchorage makes those who claim they are going “up north” for the weekend look like whiney bed-wetting pansies.
As public schools used to teach, Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 at a price of $7 million, which translates to roughly two cents per acre, or one minute of today’s Federal spending. Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the deal, was initially criticized for purchasing the “useless land” and was incessantly berated as if he were a Justin Beiber song—that is until gold was discovered, at which time he suddenly became a super-genius and got a Podunk town named after him. He was praised even more when black gold, i.e. oil, i.e. Texas Tea was discovered, which later became the premise for the short-lived TV sit-com, “The Beverly Inuits.”
Anchorage itself was founded as a railroad work camp in the 19teens and is named for a hardware store on a boat that was anchored offshore but went out of business after it tragically lost its inventory during an ill-fated experiment with sidewalk-sales. Today it is a town of roughly 300,000 people where the men still significantly outnumber the women. (And ladies, if you’re going there to look for a husband, be advised that there is an old saying: “Your odds are good, but the goods are odd.”) In 1964, Anchorage lost over 100 residents in world’s second largest earthquake on record, the largest being Tom and Roseanne Arnold’s wedding night.
Anchorage is surrounded by mountains and, as my title indicates, is literally located in an armpit. It is wedged snugly between the two arms of Cook Inlet: Turnagain Arm, named for Lombard Street in San Francisco, and Knik Arm, which is only properly pronounced in Khoisan. And while it is true that Alaska residents get an annual oil dividend, it doesn’t go very far as the cost of living there is higher than Snoop Dog at a Pink Floyd concert.
The typical trip to Anchorage begins as one steps off an airplane at Ted Stevens Guilty But Not Really Anchorage International Airport. The first thing you notice is the sweet smell of The North—a combination of sea water, birches and evergreens all rolled into a giant candy jaw-breaker of sensual olfactory overload that makes your head spin like a Tilt-A-Whirl on Nyquil.
Downtown is touristy but quaint, and it is virtually impossible to get lost as the streets are named in numerical and alphabetical sequence. They are largely lined with picturesque cafes, tacky souvenir shops and of course, reindeer sausage stands. A sidewalk reindeer sausage, incidentally, is a must in order to properly complete any Anchorage visit. While which is the best is often debated, my favorite is Tia’s with the yellow awning (I suspect the others make the mistake of cleaning their grill). For the full Alaska experience, get one for yourself and one for a homeless local who will undoubtedly be hanging around the lawn of city hall; the stories you hear will be well worth the extra $5. The best deal for souvenirs is the basement of Polar Bear Gifts across the street where you will find a great assortment of sweats and Ts in XXXL and girls size 4 and nothing in between.
If you’re too snooty for street food, there are any number of high-fallutin’ options. My favorite place for breakfast is Snow City Café on 4th and L where you can get an omelet the size of your head while you watch the world’s second highest tides of Cook Inlet. Or, if you’ve never had sourdough pancakes before, order them up at the Downtown Deli a couple of blocks down 4th street and carbo-load for that Biggest Loser audition.
If you go out to dinner and get a steak or a chicken sandwich, I will personally seek you out, come to your home, and boo you. The halibut, salmon, cod, shrimp and crab are taken off the boat the same day just blocks away from a number of excellent eateries. For the record, I will say that F Street Station has the best calamari in the world, which I get often (much to The Queen Mother’s chagrin as calamari does things to me that no other human should have to live through). The best restaurant in town (and most expensive) is The Crow’s Nest which sits atop the Hotel Captain Cook. It offers sweeping mountain views and heaping good food at bleeping high prices.
For nearly the same view but for a price that is slightly lower than ridiculous, I like to sit outdoors on the roof of The Snow Goose across the street and freeze my Wasilla. The food is typical pub fare with the exception of your caribou burgers and reindeer meatloaf. On a clear day you can see Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America, but don’t count on it. As often as I’ve been to Anchorage, I can count on my elbows the number of times I have seen the mountain as it is more often than not obscured by clouds or my lack of motivation to go outdoors or both. On a politically-correct day you can see Denali.
What tourists typically do in Anchorage is walk around town, get a reindeer sausage, and buy some authentic Chinese-made Aleut trinkets. Bah. If you’re only going to be there once, I say rent a motorcycle and ride up to Independence Mine, about 40 minutes north of town. The scenery is remarkable and if you’re particularly observant you might be able to see Sarah Palin’s house, and from there, Russia. The mine itself is nestled in a majestic valley with more green and purple than a Jets-Vikings game. The mine is now defunct but you can still pan for gold there and at $1600 an ounce, you just might get lucky.
What I like to do is rent a bicycle from Downtown Bicycle Rental and get lost on one of the many biking trails that entwine the city. There are other rental places, but I like Downtown because the guy entertainingly equates Republicans with Rednecks and no matter how long it’s been since I’ve been there, he always recognizes me (perhaps I need to rotate my travel clothes more often). If he’s busy he says, “You know where everything is. Help yourself.”
The most popular bike trail is the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, named I think for Tony Knowles. It runs along the coast of Cook Inlet and around the airport for about 11 miles to Kincaid Park, named I think for Reuben Kincaid and rife with death-defying mountain-biking/ski trails. I have yet to ride the Coastal Trail and not see a moose, much like I have yet to go to Costco for milk and not come out with less than $107 in purchases. I usually start out with big plans of riding to Kincaid Park along the Coastal trail then doing a mountain bike trail or two but almost always succumb to eating a Snickers, taking a short nap, then riding back.
To the east is the fairly new Ship’s Creek trail which goes out toward the very large and undulating Bicentennial Park, which also has numerous mountain biking trails but is more isolated and tends to creep me out a bit when I see giant creaturely footprints that I don’t recognize. If you’re a radical traditionalist and like to stick to paved trails there are a couple of options: the Chester Creek trail and the Campbell Creek trail both span the city from east to west. I prefer the Campbell Creek because about half way there is Alaska Wild Berry Products, a victual vendor that houses “the world’s largest chocolate falls” and other assorted fat-maintaining foodstuffs. Across the street is The Sourdough Mining Company which is the epitome of Alaskan tourist-trap décor but I don’t go there because its name doesn’t make any sense and it’s generally agreed upon to be highly mediocre for any of its intended uses.
Another somewhat physically and spiritually rewarding activity is climbing Flattop Mountain, which is just southeast of town and offers the most panoramic views of the city. This can be done on your own for free or on a tour from any number of cash vacuums for roughly $35. The hike itself ascends about 2200 feet over a mile and a half and is fairly bear-free. There are higher peaks further along for the more ambitious, but you may need more than one Snickers/nap to get you to the top.
Wide open spaces, northern charm, astounding scenery, and ludicrously fresh seafood; this sums up Anchorage. And here’s a final tip: to be the hit of the barbeque, be sure to take some of that ludicrously fresh seafood home. The place to go for it is 10th and M Seafoods. Unfortunately the location escapes me.
Update: Sadly, the Downtown Deli & Cafe has closed. You can still go there, but it is now a cheesy night club that doesn’t even have pancakes, let alone sourdough.