Alaska Magnificent!

My friend Donna and I traveled to Alaska to visit her brother Michael, by way of Seattle, The Emerald City.The moment we entered the terminal of Anchorage International Airport we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. There was a palpable energy of adventure and the outdoors that we had never experienced in the “Lower 48″, as the Alaskan’s call them.

As a resident of Alaska for three years, Michael embraces everything the last frontier has to offer. As our host and tour guide, he gave us the inside scoop that few visitors ever get. Alaska, in a word, is magnificent!!! The scenery is a stunning mix of snow-capped mountains, aquamarine glaciers, vibrant wild lands, and icy, blue waters. Wildlife is bountiful and awe inspiring. World-class recreation is everywhere—fishing, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting. Although it wasn’t snowing in August, a drive through Girdwood provided a sneak peek at Alyeska Resort. It is evident why it is rated as one of the world’s premier ski towns.

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Our journey began in South Central Alaska in Anchorage and the surrounding area, where the midnight sun allowed us to sightsee well into the late evening.

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Michael tossed what I thought was a fire extinguisher in the backseat of the car.When we questioned why we needed it, he told us it was bear spray. After getting a tutorial on how to use it, we were fine with not seeing any bears. A moose, however, was at the top of our list.

Having just been in the coffee capital of the world, I looked forward to a nice cup of joe and Alaska did not disappoint. Unique to the state are tiny drive-thru coffee huts. Just as there is a Starbucks on every corner in Seattle, there is a coffee hut in every parking lot in Alaska. These huts come in all shapes (coffee mug, coffee pot) but not sizes. They are tiny! They do, however, have witty names like Java the Hut and Common Grounds. Each one is different and offers an endless variety of drinks. Some even have bikini-clad barristas, which was a bonus for Michael who isn’t a coffee drinker.

The Anchorage Museum showcases the state’s history and heritage. The most interesting exhibits were of the Alaska Native cultures, the Alaskan Pipeline, the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, and the devastating Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound in 1989.

The Alaska Zoo provides a home for orphaned, injured, and captive-born animals. The zoo promotes the conservation of Arctic and sub-Arctic animals and is home to polar bears, foxes, black bears, wolves, tigers, moose, snow leopards, lynx, musk ox, camels, caribou, alpaca and a large array of birds including eagles, owls, hawks, and ravens.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is the place to go for outdoor activities such as running, cycling, and roller blading. High school students will roller ski through Kincaid Park as part of their cross-country ski team training.

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The Mat-Su Valley, which draws its name from the two largest rivers—the Matanuska (Mat) and the Sustina (Su),—was spectacular.

Independence Mine Historical Park in Palmer provided a fascinating account of what it was like to live and work in a gold mining camp. We drove through scenic Hatcher Pass through the Talkeetna Mountains, while learning about the joys of backcountry skiing and riding snow machines. We toured Wasilla and saw a glimpse of what we thought was a brown bear, but did not see Russia or Sarah Palin for that matter.

We watched the sunset from Flattop Mountain, which stands 3,510 feet high in Chugach State Park. We took in the panoramic views of Anchorage and the surrounding area including Mount McKinley (Denali), Mount Foraker, Mount Spurr, and Mount Sustina (also known as Sleeping Lady for its resemblance to…you guessed it…a sleeping lady).

We had perfect conditions for our flightseeing excursion to Prince William Sound and Columbia Glacier.

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For weight distribution purposes, I sat in the co-pilot’s seat of the four-passenger floatplane. For the first time in a long time I was somewhat pleased that my weight worked to my advantage. We flew over the Chugach Mountain Range, witnessed blue glaciers, and viewed the alpine valleys before landing at a secluded cove in Prince William Sound. The seals and sea lions sunning themselves on the rocky coastline appeared to greet us as we flew overhead. The two-way headset allowed for interesting information to be conveyed from our bush pilot. I wanted to say “10-4 Roger that” on numerous occasions, but exercised restraint as to not put a damper on the experience of the other passengers, which included two 90-year-old Japanese tourists whose English was basically limited to the word “whale.”

Driving along the Seward Highway was awesome. Potter Marsh, at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, provided great viewing for a variety of migratory birds including yellow legs, northern pintails, sandhill cranes, and trumpeter swans. Further down the road we saw a mountain goat . Near Mile Post 109 we drank from the waterspout coming out of the mountain’s rock face. The source is likely an artesian well and attracts dozens of visitors each week with jugs in hand to bottle the freshest water in Alaska. Witnessing the beauty of Kenai Mountains reflected in the glimmering water of Turnagain Arm was amazing.

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We departed from Seward for a six-hour cruise of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park where we saw calving alpine and tidewater glaciers in addition to puffins, otters, seals, sea lions, an eagle, and a pod of orcas (killer whales).

We drove south along the 13-mile Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula. It was as blue as the Caribbean Sea. White water rapids provided perfect conditions for anglers, rafters, and kayakers.

Homer, the Halibut Capital of the World, is known as “the end of the road.” Located on Kachemak Bay, 250 miles south of Anchorage, Homer is surrounded by wilderness and ocean. The Homer Spit is the second longest spit in the world stretching 4.5 miles. It recently was named one of the best 100 beaches in the United States for its incredible views and variety of wildlife. We wandered the shops and had excellent pizza at Fat Olive’s restaurant. We loved staying at Alaskan Suites. Since Donna and I are known for our penchant for creature comforts, the modern log cabin—complete with surround sound home theater, a hot tub, and a million-dollar view from the hilltop—suited us perfectly.

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Snow City Cafe in Anchorage features breakfast, lunch, and espresso. Their pecan sticky bun is world famous for a reason; it is sinfully delicious and big enough to share. We had amazingly fresh seafood everywhere we dined—herb-crusted halibut in Glacier Brewhouse, fish and chips at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Ale House, and coho (silver) salmon at Suite 100. The catch of the day really is the catch of the day in Alaska.

Alaska has many microbreweries to enjoy including Midnight Sun Brewing Company, Moose’s Tooth, Silver Gulch, and Alaskan Brewing. Yeah, I like locally brewed beer….a lot.

Like the captains in the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” I had as my last cocktail, the quintessential Alaskan drink, the Duck Fart. It’s a layered drink made with Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and Crown Royal. I will remake this libation at home to remind me of this wonderful trip.

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On our way to the airport we saw what we hoped to see all along—a moose and her two calves! I absolutely loved Alaska and hope to return one day for another visit. But for now, as Dorothy said to Oz, there’s no place like home.