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. Its 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 between a 1000 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 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 yet 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, although temperatures drop to minus 45ºc. Their winters last 6 to 9 months.
Money: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.
Transport:If you are 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.
Clothes: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.
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|
|Salmon sliders at the Food Truck Carnival|
An 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.
2. Go fishing:Most Alaskans don't go out to eat as they'd have to spend $40 to $60 dollars for a restaurant 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. You can also book this guided fishing trip.
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 or eat pickled ginger.
- 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.
|View from my window, Alyeska Resort hotel, 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 bear's 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. (Let's 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. There are around 3 or 4 'major maulings' a year.
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 I was staying at a different hotel so I missed it. The lights normally occur between 2 and 4am. 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|
|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 whale's 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 its 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.
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. She has chin tattoos to represent that she is a mother.|
|Native Alaskan girl explaining how men and women lived in separate houses.|
|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) 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.
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. Here is a recommended air taxi.
|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.