By Andrew Collins
Out of Town
I spent 15 days touring Alaska with a friend earlier this summer, my second extended trip to the country’s largest state in the past three years. My previous trip included a memorable Holland America Line http://www.hollandamerica.com cruise through the Inside Passage, followed by a four-day land trip north through Anchorage and Talkeetna. On this most recent adventure, I overnighted in eight different towns, from Juneau and Skagway in the southeast to Fairbanks in the east-central section of the state.
Even having jumped around the state a bit, I’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of getting to know this state nearly four times the size of California. But I have at least come up with a good list of must-see activities or places I strongly recommend experiencing. Here, in no particular order, are eight essential Alaska highlights.
Drink your share of Alaska craft beer
What Alaska lacks in gay nightlife, it more than makes up for in quirky, offbeat bars with diverse, generally gay-friendly followings. Some of the best of these hangouts are craft-beer pubs, of which Anchorage has the greatest number. A few blocks apart in the city’s downtown, Glacier Brew House and Humpy’s both serve first-rate beer and great food, and in Midtown, the Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill, and nearby Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria are popular with the gay community and serve outstanding food and distinctive beers.
In Juneau, the venerable Alaska Brewing Co. is one of the foremost craft-beer makers in the country, and although there’s no brewpub on site, you can stop by for a tour and tastings, and the company’s beer is widely available at bars all over Alaska. Also in southeast Alaska, the funky and friendly Skagway Brewing Co. is a great place to sip Spruce Tip Blonde (a locally distinctive beer flavored with hand-picked Sitka spruce tips) and munch on tasty bar food. Fairbanks is home to another terrific brewpub, the Silver Gulch, which is as well-regarded for its malty Pick Axe Porter as for such delicious fare as beer-braised pork ribs and IPA fish-and-chips.
Take the bus into Denali
Visitors to Alaska’s iconic national park, Denali, are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of this 6-million-acre wilderness crowned by North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet). The park is ideally explored over the course of a few days, but even with one full day, it’s possible to cover a remarkable amount of ground. There’s one road into the park, and beyond the first 15 miles, only official park school buses are permitted.
Options for touring the park by bus include guided tours and more flexible and less expensive “hop-on/hop-off” shuttles. A practical one-day strategy is taking a shuttle bus to the stunning and relatively new Eielson Visitor Center, which is 66 miles into the park and access two short but very scenic hikes with Denali peak views. The trip here takes a minimum of eight hours round-trip, but the ride itself is part of the fun – guides frequently comment on the scenery and stop to allow passengers to snap photos of wildlife, which can include caribou, Dall sheep, golden eagles, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears.
Explore the Kenai Peninsula
With relatively easy access to Anchorage, a slew of engaging towns and attractions, and rugged, spectacular scenery that takes in everything from massive glaciers to icy fjords to dense forests, this peninsula about half the size of South Carolina is ideal for road-tripping. The top towns for visitors are the artsy and progressive fishing town of Homer (the farthest from Anchorage, at 220 miles); scenic Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park; and secluded Whittier, situated at the end of Passage Canal, which links to Prince William Sound. You can also forego driving and take the Alaska Scenic Railroad from Anchorage to Seward or Whittier, enjoying some close-up glacier views along the way.
On your way to the peninsula, consider tacking on a night or two in tiny Girdwood, just 40 miles from Anchorage, spending the night at the elegant Alyeska Resort http://www.alyeskaresort.com. This upscale hotel and ski resort has beautiful rooms, a full spa, and one of the top destination restaurants in the state, Seven Glaciers, which is reached via aerial tram. From Girdwood, it’s a short drive to one of the peninsula’s most fascinating attractions, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center – others musts include the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, and the Alaska Islands & Oceans Visitor Center in Homer.
If you’d prefer an all-inclusive touring approach to the Kenai Peninsula, with some incredible outdoor recreational opportunities, book a trip with Alaska Wildland Adventures http://www.alaskawildland.com, which has three one-of-a-kind accommodations on the peninsula, the Kenai Riverside Lodge, Kenai Backcountry Lodge, and Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. AWA’s trips include everything from adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting and sea-kayaking to more easygoing hikes, float trips, and fishing outings. These tours are ideal for families or groups of friends traveling together.
Trek on a glacier
Opportunities to view these glaciers abound from Juneau north into Denali National Park. One of the most amazing ways to experience one of these hulking masses of slow-moving ice is to hike directly onto one. In the historic gold-rush town of Skagway, at the northern end of the Inside Passage, Packer Expeditions http://www.packerexpeditions.com offers wilderness and snowshoe hikes onto Laughton Glacier. These full-day adventures involve riding the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway to a mountain trailhead, and then trekking about 4 miles through verdant woodland and then onto the glacier.
In Juneau, Above & Beyond Alaska http://www.beyondak.com has developed an amazing glacier trek on which you’ll hike 3.5 miles through rainforest alongside Mendenhall Lake, then don crampons and ice axes and walk for more than an hour atop Mendenhall Glacier. If conditions permit, you may also hike inside one of the surreal, blue-walled ice caves that have formed beneath the glacier.
See Alaska from the air
Alaska is home to more licensed airline pilots per capita than any other state. This is hardly surprising given the remote terrain, and that many communities can’t be reached by road. Even commercial flights around the state can – depending on the weather – yield some tremendous views. A number of smaller airlines offer regularly scheduled service through the Inside Passage, with the trips from Juneau up to Skagway or Haines, or down to Ketchikan especially magnificent.
Flight trips are also a favorite way to view Denali National Park. Offering flights over McKinley’s summit as well as actual glacier landings in Denali, McKinley Flight Tours http://www.talkeetnaaero.com is one of that area’s best air-tour companies, flying out of a small airport just north of the park, in Healy. In the funky town of Talkeetna, about midway between Anchorage and Denali, you can also book a variety of air excursions over the park with such reliable outfitters as K2 Aviation http://www.flyk2.com and Talkeetna Air Taxi http://www.talkeetnaair.com.
Hide out at one of Within the Wild’s secluded lodges
Renowned chef and cookbook author Kirsten Dixon and her husband Carl operate three of the most enchanting wilderness lodges in the state, each with just a handful of warmly appointed guest cabins, and all of them serving artful, locally sourced food. Winterlake Lodge is about 200 miles northwest of Anchorage (reached by float- or ski plane depending on the season) on the Iditarod Trail; and Redoubt Bay Lodge lies about an hour by floatplane southwest of Anchorage in one of the state’s densest bear-habitats.
The easiest of the properties to reach, Tutka Bay Lodge, still requires a spectacular water-taxi ride from Homer across Kachemak Bay. Once here you’ll discover a splendid retreat at the mouth of a fjord, nestled beneath Sitka spruce trees, and complete with its own cooking school, which has been built ingeniously inside a former crabbing boat. Spend at least three or four days at any of these secluded hideaways – once you get here, you’ll have a difficult time pulling yourself away.
Stay at a small, atmospheric inn
Most of the state’s key communities have at least a few gay-friendly inns, which typically have distinctive settings and offer guests the chance to gain a better sense of what it’s actually like to live in Alaska. Anchorage has a number of terrific options, including the affordable Copper Whale Inn http://www.copperwhale.com, which is within walking distance of downtown attractions. Also centrally located are such gay-owned options as the Wildflower Inn http://www.alaska-wildflower-inn.com and the City Garden B&B http://www.citygarden.biz.
Dale and Jo View Suites http://www.daleandjo.com is a luxurious, cozy spot with wonderful views in Fairbanks, while Juneau’s renowned Pearson’s Pond http://www.pearsonspond.com is one of the most sumptuous places to stay in Juneau. Funky Homer is home to such welcoming B&Bs as Brigitte’s Bavarian B&B http://www.akms.com/brigitte, which is set on a birch-shaded hillside, and the sunny and contemporary Bay Avenue B&B http://www.bayavebb.com, which overlooks rippling Kachemak Bay. And in Skagway, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming, reasonably priced accommodation than the centrally located White House B&B http://www.atthewhitehouse.com.
A great LGBT resource
Finally, if you’re looking for an excellent, gay-friendly resource to help plan or even guide you on your trip to the Last Frontier, get in touch with GLBT-owned Out in Alaska http://www.outinalaska.com, which offers an impressive variety of relatively intimate (usually four to eight people) trips throughout the state, from multiday cruises and overland adventures to quick day trips around Anchorage, where the company is based. These tours range from rafting and camping adventures in the wilderness to hotel-based trips, and Out in Alaska can also customize guided trips or help you plan your own independent tour.