The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word “Alyeska”, meaning “great land”. Very fitting for this land in terms of size but also the majestic mountains, glacial streams and miles of forested hills. Any time you set foot on this land, you can truly get swept away with the beauty here. Almost every Alaskan adventure starts with a flight to Anchorage. Anchorage is the most populous city in Alaska: of the approximately 710,000 Alaska inhabitants, half live in Anchorage and the surrounding areas.
So the minute you land at the Anchorage Airport, you know you are not in any typical airport. The airport is filled with examples of animals that are readily seen throughout the state: bear, moose, wolves and a variety of water birds. Also on display is a variety of beautiful Native Alaskan artwork. Of course, included are several shops you can purchase the “usual” souvenirs from mugs to t-shirts and gourmet chocolates. However, I want to emphasize again…this is not your typical airport. I happen to see a vending machine that sells mittens and gloves. (Are you prepared for being “up North”?) That alone is unique, but it was pretty cool that they were made from Bison hair. I just thought it was pretty amazing to see gloves sold in a vending machine. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
After descending the escalator to go to luggage claim, on display you will see another characteristic example highlighting the fishing industry in the state (both commercial and recreational) : a HUGE Halibut. This is the record holding Halibut at 9′ 5″ long and weighing in at 459 lbs. That must have been an exhilarating catch to watch them bring it in. (perhaps he was thinking: My name is Ishmael) Our family did go Halibut fishing a few years ago in Homer and had a very successful trip with several impressive catches. Then we had them fillet, frozen and shipped back home. It was exciting to have a whole freezer overflowing with Halibut. Halibut are sooooo delicious even though most people will admit, they are pretty creepy looking.
Once arriving, a very good start to getting familiar with the area and what’s available for the type of adventure you want to pursue, stop in at the Visitor’s Center. In the heart of downtown Anchorage, amidst the office buildings is a little log cabin with grass growing on the roof. This is the Anchorage Visitors Center. The building itself is so quaint and photo worthy and very easy to find: at the corner of Fourth Ave. and F street. The staff is so helpful there and can fill in the details of any questions you may have and they are also able to provide several different brochures about anything and everything within the state of Alaska. A definite place to stop by when in Anchorage and also a good starting point. The growing season in Alaska may be a little shorter, but they make up for it with beautiful displays of flowers all over the city. From block to block in Anchorage there are hanging pots with cascades of flowers. One of my favorite flowers, the Fireweed, gets its name because it is the first vegetation to appear after newly cleaned and burned areas. It is a perennial wildflower that is found in Canada, parts of Minnesota and of course Alaska. The purple and pink flowers light up the hillsides with color. Then in the autumn, they change to a soft, white fluff looking like lambs wool.
Depending on the time of year you are visiting Anchorage, there are a few summer time activities you really should check out. Alaska is known for its abundance of wild salmon. Near the heart of downtown Anchorage is Ship Creek: an amazing place to watch the “salmon runs” and watch the anglers try their luck. There is also a nearby fish hatchery. Not only do the local fisherman go to the shores, but the shorebird viewing in this area is amazing. When the locals say “the Kings are in”, you know the King Salmon have started to run. King Salmon are present in late May, then Coho Salmon run from August to mid- September. The best place for information is found on this link: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewinglocations.shipcreek
Another fun summer festival and Farmers Market that includes great food, music and an abundance of arts and crafts is the Saturday Market, held on Saturdays outside near 3rd Ave. by Buttress Park. (summer months only) The craftsmen there provide many authentic Alaskan made products that are very unique and provide a wonderful remembrance of your Alaska trip. I remember when my boys were young we found some wooden toy frogs with washboard backs that made a “Ribbitt…Ribbitt” sound when the small dowel was racked across them. So cool! I believe they still have those. Also, at Saturday Market was the first time ever I had eaten a reindeer corn dog….Yum! Don’t knock it till you try it, and I actually like them better than the traditional Frankfurter dog.
Of course there is a whole diversity of fantastic dining in Anchorage besides corn dogs, with a diversity of price ranges. Simon & Seaforts boasts a beautiful view of Cook inlet and a great selection of Alaskan seafood. Beautiful restaurant with wonderful food, a bit pricey but worth it as a treat. For a little less formal restaurant, and a place that is known for their wood -fired pizza try the Fat Ptarmigan. They are located in downtown Anchorage at W. 5th Ave. Great food in a casual, but very nice atmosphere. The Ptarmigan is Alaska’s state bird. Whenever I hear that, I think of a funny quip about the town of Chicken, Alaska (SE Alaska near the Canadian border). The founders wanted to name it after the state bird, but remembering how to spell Ptarmigan was a pain so they settled on Chicken…Ha. Probably not true, but a cute story. Last restaurant I want to mention is NOT known for Alaskan seafood, but surprisingly enough is a fantastic Mexican restaurant: Hacienda. I guess when I think of good Mexican cuisine, I thought one needed to head south (not north to Alaska?),…but this particular restaurant is really good and most of the locals are familiar with it. Not really on the beaten path of the tourists. And the Margaritas were perfect! Highly recommended fantastic Mexican food.
I know it’s “touristy” but one of my favorite places to go in Anchorage is the Alaska Wild Berry Products store. Not only does it have a wonderful array of “wild berry” products like jellies, candies and specialty teas…they have jewelry, clothing and just about any type of sought after souvenir you might like. AND….they have the World’s Largest Chocolate “waterfall”!(but it’s chocolate….Mmmmmm) It is a 20 foot fall with 3,400 pounds of real liquid chocolate cascading down several buckets and ending up in a glistening pool of chocolate. Wow, you gotta love that. Here’s a picture, it really is neat and makes you crave a trip to the candy counter. Just for show, it’s really chocolate, but you can’t dip your pinkies in for a sample.
Well, this just scratches the surface of all the experiences that await in Anchorage. There are also two awesome museums that really warrant looking into: the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Anchorage Museum. Additionally, exploring nature is easily accessible to the city with fantastic wildlife and bird watching at Potter Marsh. A hike up Flattop Mountain, in Chugach State Park, brings you to a dramatic, skyline view of Anchorage. For more information on these features and much more about Anchorage, be sure to check out this helpful site: http://www.VisitAnchorage.com
So I hope I have whet your appetite for an Alaskan Adventure and don’t forget: Put your traveling shoes on. JES