The Final Last Frontier

Alaska’s state motto always reminds me of Star Trek. Or maybe Star Trek’s mission statement reminds me of Alaska. Either way, this web log entry is all about our recent trip to The Last Frontier.

Phil and I originally envisioned a trip to someplace warm (Costa Rica, Barbados, Jamaica) for our anniversary in November, combining frequent flyer miles from last year’s trip to Vietnam. Quickly learning that it would require many more miles to fly to the Caribbean, we regrouped to brainstorm about places in the United States that we would like to visit. Alaska was at the top of the list for both of us. An internet search showed that rail tours were discounted at the end of the season in September, then a quick calendar check miraculously revealed six days tucked in between can’t-miss school, work, volunteer, child and parent responsibilities. The trip was on!

It took three flights and nearly fifteen hours to travel to Anchorage from Columbia, Missouri. We gained three hours in time zone changes, however, and arrived in the early evening. We elected to stay at the Anchorage Grand Hotel for its downtown location and proximity to the train station. Excellent choice! It’s a charming older hotel with a sitting area and kitchenette in each suite. Highly recommended.

Downtown Anchorage scenery.

The first evening we strolled around the shops in downtown Anchorage and asked locals for a recommendation for a light dinner. We were directed to the F Street Station. (No web site, but you can see reviews and menu here.) It turned out to be an Irish pub with a bush pilot theme, and the food was great – I will never enjoy the manager’s special salmon from Gerbes quite as much ever again.

The only bear we saw in Alaska.

Thursday we enjoyed a full day in Anchorage. The hotel offers a continental breakfast, which turned out to be a bag hung on the doorknob filled with bagels and cream cheese, granola bars, instant oatmeal and apple juice. Aside from being all carbs, it’s really rather brilliant – nothing that needs to be refrigerated and everything except the oatmeal can be eaten on the go. We were out and about early and enjoyed a stroll through a very quiet downtown before heading to the Anchorage Museum. Part art, part cultural, part history, part children’s and totally enjoyable. Smithsonian has an extremely well-done permanent Arctic Studies Center at the museum with thousands of tribal artifacts, including waterproof parkas constructed from marine mammal bladders.

Decorative bladder parka.

In one of the current exhibits, Finding My Song, artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner combines his heritage with music and art to explore efforts to retain native Alaskan languages. One wall presented a series of faces molded into rawhide drum heads. I’m not sure what activated the display, but as we perused the drum heads they unexpectedly illuminated and projected the images and sounds of chanting natives. (Yes, I jumped.)

Singing drumhead.

We also took in paintings by Alaska artists, the story of scaling Mount McKinley, the history of the Alaskan pipeline, the heritage of whaling, and so much more that it is hard to keep it all straight. We could have stayed all day and not absorbed it all, but we had another activity planned for the afternoon.

A Taste of Anchorage combines Alaskan history and cuisine in a walking tour of downtown Anchorage eateries. We turned out to be the only ones on the tour that day and spent a couple of diverting hours with our host, Damon. He did an outstanding job accommodating my no-caffeine no-blue-cheese dietary restrictions. We sampled truffles (dark chocolate with salmon, cayenne and cinnamon for Phil; white chocolate with black cherries for me), Philadelphia beefsteak egg rolls, soup (caribou vegetable and creamy chicken), savory tea, salmon and artichoke pizza, caribou sausage, and crepes (chocolate and strawberry for Phil; lemon creme for me) – prepared with locally grown ingredients. Somewhere along the line we asked about Alaskan wines, and Damon graciously added an extra stop to sample local berry vintages. I am a huge proponent of local businesses and niche marketing, so kudos to Damon. I hope he is back next season.

Following our culinary tour, we strolled around downtown a bit longer and visited a few more shops, including the Anchorage edition of the Apple Store and the Oomingmak musk ox producers co-op in the tiniest store ever. Then we returned to the hotel to finish our pizza and turn in early for our 8am train ride to Mount McKinley.

Tune in next week for our Denali National Park adventures.

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