Friday, 29 August 2014

Ten things to do (and eat) in and around Anchorage, Alaska

Alaska number plate, The Last Frontier

Grizzlys in Anchorage, Alaska

in Anchorage, Alaska

Alaska is part of the United States of America.

But no part of it touches the United States, it's completely separate, above Canada. It is by far the largest 'state' in the United States, approximately 40% of the size. It's also the most sparsely populated. Much of it is unreachable except by plane. Alaskans consider the rest of America as 'the Lower 48', joking  'We are going on holiday to America' and 'This isn't America, it's Russia'. Alaska only became an American state in 1959. It's name means 'Great land' in Aleut, a native language, and the Yu'pik Native Alaskans consider themselves 'The Real People'. Less than 15% of the population are Native Alaskans.
Many people move to Alaska because they get a yearly bursary, called a Pfd, a Permanent Fund Dividend, paid in September, normally 1 and 2000 dollars. When you have a big family, that can add up to a good amount. This money is paid out to people who have lived in Alaska for a full calendar year and is derived from oil revenues and land leasing. It's also recognition no doubt, that living in Alaska is expensive. 

 When you arrive: 

Anchorage is a typical American city in that it is built on a grid with lettered and numbered streets  On one side you have the sea (which boasts a huge bore tide) and on the other you have the mountains. As a result, navigation is fairly easy.  It is a wide open sprawling modern city, but in the surrounding area you will see cabins, woods, streams. The wild starts close by.

Time to go:

Most tourism takes place in the short but intense Alaskan summer, June to mid-September. Prices triple at this time so it's not a budget option. I would love to visit in winter, when you have a chance to see moose wandering around Anchorage, but the days are short and dull, four hours from 11 till 3pm.  Not unlike a British winter really, but temperatures drop to minus 45ºc. Their winters last 6 to 9 months.


Hotels are $350 a night minimum. Don't go to the Alaskan Backpackers Inn. It's not a proper backpackers, it's a doss house for impoverished locals. (I'm an experienced budget traveller and would not recommend that anybody goes there). Even Airbnb is expensive, and only a good deal for large families. Probably the best option is to hire an RV, a large camper van (small ones are around $150 a night) which means you have your accommodation, a hire car and a place to cook, all in the same deal. But book this far in advance, through Great Alaskan Holidays. There is another option, maybe even cheaper, but it has poor reviews and many complaints. You can park your RV around Anchorage. Here is a great post on how to pack food for an RV.
The expense of Alaska is why many Americans save it for 'the end of their bucket list'. It's the trip of a lifetime.


If you are mostly staying within Anchorage, you don't need to hire a car. You can walk most places, hire a bike plus there are buses, trams, trains and taxis. Many hotels provide shuttles to the airport and train station.


Dress in layers. In summer there are warm days where you can dress in T shirts, rainy days where you will need a raincoat, chillier days when you will need a sweater or two. Alaskans don't appear to dress up: sports gear, fleeces, trainers, rubber boots, jeans, padded waistcoats seem to be the order of the day.  In winter, you'll need proper cold weather gear, thermals, thick socks, boots and most essential, hats.
White Spot cafe menu, in Anchorage, Alaska

Pacific salmon, in Anchorage, Alaska

1. Eat fish

"We are fish people. Fish defines us." said one of the representatives of Alaskan Seafood (ASMI). The cold waters of Alaska is home to huge quantities of wild Pacific fish such as sockeye salmon. Sustainability is key; fishing is part of the traditional lifestyle, part of their culture.
'Butt' sandwich: Yes the halibut sandwich is a thing. As you will have seen in my Billingsgate post, Halibut is incredibly expensive.
Recommended places for a 'butt' sandwich: Mamma O's and Glacier brewhouse or the White Spot café which is very reasonably priced.
Other food experiences include the pizza at Fat Ptarmigan, named after the state bird which does  chic fusion pizzas at reasonable prices or Mooses Tooth which has more traditional pizza and great Alaskan beers. There are always lines and this place is top rated on Trip Advisor.
Food truck carnival, in Anchorage, Alaska
Food truck carnival 
Salmon sliders, Food Truck Festival, in Anchorage, Alaska
Salmon sliders at the Food Truck Carnival
The Food Truck carnival takes place every Thursday during the summer.
A indoor Farmers market happens Wednesdays at Northway mall again only in summer.
Do buy some food at the supermarket if you want to save money. Typically Alaskan things to buy: strips of hickory smoked salmon, birch syrup, reindeer sausage, cedar wood 'wraps' for cooking fish.
Berry picking: like Scandinavia, Alaska has a vast selection of wild berries. The standard berries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, are all sold in the supermarkets. Some, like salmonberries, cloudberries, huckleberries, you'll need to pick your own in the surrounding countryside.
The growing season in Alaska is unusual: because of the long days, their vegetables grow to an enormous size. But fresh fruit and vegetables are very expensive in the stores. Everything has to be imported for the rest of the year.
Do check out the beer, there are many microbreweries and Alaskan beer is excellent.
Fishing at Bird Creek, in Anchorage, Alaska

2. Go fishing: 

Most Alaskans don't go out to eat and spend $40 to $60 dollars for a fish dinner. 'Hell I got 40 pounds of fresh caught salmon in my freezer' said one Anchoragite. This is an outdoorsy place, they don't go to the shop to buy their fish, they fish it themselves. Same for meat. They hunt it, they don't buy it.
Bird Creek is a 15 minute drive south of Anchorage. I went fishing in Sitka, a three hour plane ride further south.
If you are going out to the ocean in a boat, to catch deep water fish like halibut, then be prepared for sea sickness.
Things to help with seasickness: motion sickness is hormone (oestrogen) related for women: worse coming up to puberty and menopause, also during certain times of your cycle.
Eat salty potato crisps and saltines.
Drink Ginger beer.
Keep your eyes on the horizon.
Breathe through your nose.
Homeopathic remedies such as Cocculus Indicus.
Allopathic medicines needs to be taken far in enough in advance to work. I tried one and actually felt worse.
Acupressure bands work quite well.
Cable car up to 7 Glaciers restaurant, Alaska

View from my window, Alyeska Resort hotel, Alaska
View from my window, Alyeska Resort hotel, Alaska
Cable car, wind surfer, Alaska
On the cable car, Alyeska resort. I'm sorry this picture of a good looking man doesn't really have anything to do with Alaska. He's not even Alaskan. But he was in Alaska and therefore fair game. And no, I didn't find a husband within five days. The Alaska male to female ratio is pretty much 50:50 now. I was told that I should have visited in the 70s. 
View from Alyeska Resort, Alaska

3. Go visit Alyeska resort: 

Even if you don't stay at the hotel (it has a salt water pool), go hiking, take the cable car up to the 7 glaciers restaurant. It is possible to see bears on the hike, and bears are likely to be seen on any trip out of Anchorage. Wear a bear bell to keep them away.
Advice on dealing with bears:
Brown bears: play dead, lay flat on the ground.  You don't want to look like a threat. However the bears claws are long and sharp, so even a light mauling will scalp you.
Grizzly bears: play dead
Black bears: yell at them, fight them.
Alaskans know the difference between all the different bears, but it can be confusing, brown bears can be black and vice versa. Anyway you are going to be too frightened to notice. If you see one and you aren't in your vehicle, lay flat on the ground. (Lets be realistic, this isn't going to happen, but if you run, you become food. There are 'best practices' when it comes to bears, and there is reality).  Be careful with your food, they will come after it.
Other advice: make yourself big, stand still and talk to the bear.
Bears don't really eat humans unless they are very hungry. They live on grass early season then salmon then berries. By the way, they can swim, run extremely fast and climb trees.
Reading the local newspaper, a good third of the stories are about bears: bears breaking into remote cabins by punching holes through the walls to get at tins of spam, bears smashing all the windows for the sheer fun of it.

4. See the Northern Lights: 

You are less likely to see them in the summer, but check out the Aurora forecast on this website.
The Alyeska resort hotel even has an Aurora Borealis alert. They wake you up if it happens. It did happen one night when I was in Anchorage, but at a different hotel, so I missed it. The lights normally occur between 2 and 4 am. If you are coming from the UK/Europe, you will find yourself naturally waking up around this time, so go look out the window!
Glacier margarita made with glacier ice, Alaska
Glacier Margarita made with glacier ice
Glacier in Seward, Alaska
Glacier in Seward, Alaska

5. Go see the glaciers!

I took a glacier tour from Seward with Major Marine tours, which had a commentary by a National park ranger, an opportunity to stroke the inside of a whales' mouth (a bit like draft excluder), and drink a cocktail made from calved off glacier ice. The reason that glaciers are such an incredible turquoise blue colour is because they are created by eons of compacted airless snowfall and the warmer colours on the spectrum are squeezed out. Listen also for the sound of a glacier, it's as if you can hear the earth groaning and creaking in it's sleep.
You will also see sea lions, puffins, sea otters, whales, humpbacks throwing up a shower through their blowholes and orcas breaching, depending on the season.
Just outside Anchorage, there is Beluga point, where you can spot whales from the land.
View from Alaskan railways train carriage

The Alaskan Railway train on the way to Seward, Alaska

View from the window, Alaskan Railways train, Alaska

6. Take the train

If you can possibly afford it, take the 'gold star' carriages with the domed windowed roof, so you can sit high up in the train, above the treeline. I took the train down to Seward, a seven hour trip, but you can also go to Denali National Park and Fairbanks, right into the interior. You can get breakfast, lunch and dinner in a stylish dining compartment on the train. Refreshments are free.
On the Seward journey, tracks running along the coastline, you will be treated to mind-blowing views of ultramarine glaciers spilling through valleys, low clouds hovering above the water, moose in the distance, wooden cabins amongst the spruce forests.
Native Alaskan woman, Anchorage, Alaska
Native Alaskan woman. She has chin tattoos to represent that she is a mother.
Native Alaskan girl, Anchorage, Alaska

Native Alaskan man, Anchorage, Alaska
Native Alaskan craftsman, Anchorage. Most Native Alaskans are mixed race now, as the gene pool amongst natives was getting too small. The girl below told me she was discouraged by her parents to date within her village as most people were too closely related.
Native Alaskan girl, Anchorage, Alaska
Native Alaskan girl explaining how men and women lived in separate houses. 

Native Alaskan girl with traditional nose ring, Anchorage, Alaska
Native Alaskan girl with traditional nose ring, Anchorage, Alaska

7. Go to the Native Alaskan Heritage Centre:

You'll see dancing, storytelling, native houses (Alaskan natives never lived in igloos, but their underground homes are interesting nonetheless) arts and crafts. In each house is a Native Alaskan, explaining the rites and traditions of their traditional lifestyle.
You might also want to check out the Ulu factory, which is a native knife, similar to a crescent knife.

8. Visit a State Fair.

This takes place every year in August just north of Anchorage. Virtually all of Alaska 750,000 population attend. You might get lucky and see Sarah Palin eating a corn dog. See pictures from the state fair here.
Float plane, Anchorage, Alaska

9. Take a plane ride or a float plane ride. 

Alaskans take a plane how we might take a bus. Children get to school by plane. As America's largest state, with much of it inaccessible by road, Alaskans are sixteen times more likely to have their own plane. Many are single engine, tiny things. Single engine. That means if things go wrong, there is no back-up. I spoke to one lady, an Anchoragite who said she'd lost a few friends to plane crashes recently.
This again is quite pricey, but do-able if you share with others. I didn't do this but I stayed at the Millennium hotel which is located on a lake where you can have a drink while watching private float planes take off.
Baked Alaska at the 7 Glaciers restaurant, Alaska
Baked Alaska, 7 glaciers restaurant, Alyeska Resort. There will be a terrific Baked Alaska recipe in my forthcoming book. 

10. Before you get here:

Watch Northern Exposure, the TV series, Into the Wild, the story of a young man who rejects modern life and sets up camp in Alaska; Grizzly Man, the story of a young man who decided he had a special relationship with grizzly bears, The Proposal (set in Sitka), enjoyable lightweight romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds; Frozen Ground featuring Anchorage's most notorious serial killer. The real killer, Robert Hansen, died in jail while I was there. Good riddance.
Read The Call of the Wild by Jack London, set in Yukon but about an Alaskan huskie, an allegory for the Alaskan dream, the idea that you can live a freer, more natural life there, away from the corruptive pressure of the modern lifestyle. More reading recommendations here.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Alaska State Fair in pictures

The State Fair is the equivalent of the British agricultural show or county fair. Most US states have them, generally in late August or in the autumn. It's a mix of fun fair, country fair, and food festival. In Britain fun fairs tend to have very limited food, maybe a candy floss stall, some toffee apples, a pedestrian burger and hot dog stall. Country/county fairs may have cakes and jams to add to that mix. The US State Fair has a glorious selection of food stalls, enough to shame any food truck/street food festival in Britain. This state fair in Palmer, Alaska, an hour north of Anchorage, is visited by virtually the entire population of Alaska, all 750,000 of them. You may even get to see Sarah Palin, she makes an annual visit. (But she's mostly resident in Arizona nowadays). As well as at least 100 different food stalls, there are crafts and music, dog trials, a carousel powered by real horses and things that look odd to the British eye. For instance, the anti-abortion stall, sometimes with graphic pictures, political candidates stalls, and a stand hosted by the NRA, the National Rifle Association where I could have entered a ten dollar lottery to win a gun. But if any state remains true to the original pioneering American grit, it's Alaska. Hunting, shooting and fishing is a way of life. Alaskans are outliers.
Giant Alaskan vegetables such as a 100 pound cabbage
Although the Alaskan growing season is short, about three months, the long summer days, with the midnight sun, means that the growing is intense. Sometimes the vegetables are enormous, such as this prize winning giant 100 pound cabbage.
Alaskan berries, State Fair, Alaska
 Alaskan berries. Like Scandinavia, they have a huge variety of berries; blueberries, salmon berries, cranberries, huckleberries, blackberries, cloudberries, rose hips.
Different varieties of Alaskan apples
 Different varieties of Alaskan apples
Geese breeders, Alaska, Muslims in Alaska
 This couple breed geese. I stroked them, so soft. I also found out that the word for 'duvet' in American is 'comforter'.
Judging the Alaskan seafood competition, Alaska state fair
 Judging the Alaskan seafood competition with Alaskan Olympic cross country skier Kikkan Randall next to me, chef Naomi Everett, chef Jason Porter of the 7 Glaciers restaurant. Chef Kevin Lane won with his incredible skill with Alaskan seafood, particularly the outstanding Black cod with black garlic aoili. 
Birch syrup, Alaska State Fair
 Birch syrup comes in different grades. It is even rarer and more costly than Maple syrup.
Rhubarb lemonade and peanut potato fries, Alaska State Fair
 Tart but sweet rhubarb lemonade and 'peanut' potato fries. One of the best things I ate.
Elephants ear, Alaska State Fair
 Elephants ear snack, a crispy sopalilla type fried dough, sprinkled with sugar. 
Funnel cake, Alaska State Fair
 Funnel cake.
Funnel cake, Alaska State Fair
 Funnel cake, sprinkled with sugar.
White rat roulette, Alaska State Fair
 White rat roulette; a white rat is underneath the cushion. The table is spun. You place your your bets on the colour down which hole the rat will run down. 
White rat roulette, Alaska State Fair
 Here's the rat! The rat wouldn't move so they cheated a bit by tapping on a colour, which the rat responded to. Still, people are only betting a quarter.
Deep fried prawns, popcorn shrimps, Alaska State Fair
Popcorn shrimp, deep fried battered prawns
Popcorn shrimp stall, Alaska State Fair

chowder in a bread bowl, Alaska State Fair
 Clam chowder in a bread bowl.
Fried halibut, halibut sandwich stall, Alaska State Fair
 One of the most popular foods is the halibut sandwich, at this stall.
Halibut and chips, Alaska State Fair
Halibut and chips. So fresh, so crisp.
Corn dogs, Alaska State Fair
 Corn dogs, hotdogs covered with a cornmeal batter, eaten on a stick. A typical State Fair food.
Baked potatoes with icecream scoops of cream cheese and whipped butter, Alaska State Fair
 Baked potatoes with icecream scoops of cream cheese and whipped butter. Moan.

Dog trials, Alaska State Fair
Sheep dog trials, they also had huskies.
Right to life stand, Alaska State Fair
 Right to life stand.
Blacksmiths, Alaska State Fair
 Blacksmiths stall.
Cowgirl, Alaska State Fair
 Alaskan Cowgirl.
Cream puffs, Alaska State Fair
 Outrageous cream puffs. 
Shucking oysters, Alaska State Fair
 Shucking oysters. 
Oysters, Alaska State Fair
 Oysters with hot sauce, jalapeños. 
Reindeer sausage stall, Alaska State Fair
 Reindeer sausages, Reindeer hot dog, Buffalo bratwurst.
Huskie training, Alaska State Fair
 Huskie training.
Pork chop on a stick, Alaska State Fair
 This was one of the most popular food stands, pork chop on a stick. I don't eat meat, but I appreciate any food on a stick. I did a whole supper club called 'On a stick'.
Fried cheese curds, Alaska State Fair
 Fried cheese curds. This is very popular in Canada too.
Corn on a cob, Alaska State Fair

Food signs, Alaska State Fair

Wild hair, girl with pink hair, Alaska State Fair
There were stalls where you could get 'wild hair', sprayed into shapes and coloured. 

Funnel cake stall, Alaska State Fair
 Funnel cakes, root beer floats.
Waffle fries, Alaska State Fair
 Waffle fries.
Horse drawn carousel, Alaska State Fair
 A carousel drawn by actual horses.
Guns for charity sign, NRA stand, Alaska State Fair
Donate your gun to a good cause! NRA stand.
wine bar in a chapel, Alaska State Fair
 Wine bar in a chapel.
Donut burger, Alaska State Fair
 Donut burger! 
Cheese fries, Alaska State Fair
 I come here every year for the cheese fries, said this guy.
wax hands, Alaska State Fair
 Couples have their clasped hands enrobed in wax for posterity.
Dipping a wax hand in coloured wax, Alaska State Fair
 Dipping the wax hands in coloured wax.
Wax hand stand, Alaska State Fair

Child with 'wild hair', Alaska State Fair

Wild hair and face painting, Alaska State Fair
Wild hair and face painting. All the fun of the fair.