Read an Excerpt
Frommer's Alaska 2004
By Charles P. Wohlforth
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-3891-8
Chapter OneThe Best of Alaska
As a child, when my family traveled outside Alaska for vacations, I often met other children who asked, "Wow, you live in Alaska? What's it like?" I never did well with that question. To me, the place I was visiting was far simpler and easier to describe than the one I was from. The Lower 48 seemed a fairly homogeneous land of freeways and fast food, a well-mapped network of established places. Alaska, on the other hand, wasn't-and isn't-even completely explored. Natural forces of vast scale and subtlety still shape the land in their own way, inscribing a different story on each of an infinite number of places. As a child, each region, whether populated or not, was unique far beyond my ability to explain. Alaska was so large and new, so unconquered and exquisitely real, as to defy summation.
In contrast to many places you might choose to visit, it's Alaska's unformed newness that makes it so interesting and fun. Despite the best efforts of tour planners, the most memorable parts of a visit are unpredictable and often unexpected: a humpback whale leaping clear of the water, the face of a glacier releasing huge ice chunks, a bear feasting on salmon in a river, a huge salmon chomping onto your line. You'll have the opportunity to gaze at totem poles and see Alaska Native cultural demonstrations, and you can also get to know indigenous people who still live bytraditional ways. And sometimes grand, quiet moments come, and those are the ones that endure most deeply.
As the writer of this guidebook, I aim to help you get to places where you may encounter what's new, real, and unexpected. Opening yourself to those experiences is your job, but it's an effort that's likely to pay off. Although I have lived here all my life, I often envy the stories visitors tell me about the Alaskan places they have gone to and what happened there. No one owns Alaska, and most of us are newcomers here. In all this immensity, a visitor fresh off the boat is just as likely as a lifelong resident to see or do something amazing.
1 The Best Views
A First Sight of Alaska: Flying north from Seattle, you're in clouds, so you concentrate on a book. When you look up, the light from the window has changed. Down below, the clouds are gone, and under the wing, where you're used to seeing roads, cities, and farms on most flights, you see instead only high, snowy mountain peaks, without the slightest mark of human presence, stretching as far as the horizon. Welcome to Alaska.
Punchbowl Cove (Misty Fjords National Monument): A sheer granite cliff rises smooth and implacable 3,150 feet straight up from the water. A pair of bald eagles wheels and soars across its face, providing the only sense of scale. They look the size of gnats. See p. 107. From the Chugach Mountains Over Anchorage, at Sunset: The city sparkles below, on the edge of an orange-reflecting Cook Inlet, far below the mountainside where you stand. Beyond the pink and purple silhouettes of mountains on the other side of the inlet, the sun is spraying warm, dying light into puffs of clouds. And yet it's midnight. See "Getting Outside" in chapter 6.
Mount McKinley From the Air (Denali National Park): Your bush pilot guides his plane up from the flatlands of Talkeetna into a realm of eternal white, where a profusion of insanely rugged peaks rises in higher relief than any other spot on earth. After circling a 3-mile-high wall and slipping through a mile-deep canyon, you land on a glacier, get out of the plane, and for the first time realize the overwhelming scale of it all. See "Attractions & Activities Outside the Park" and "Talkeetna: Back Door to Denali" in chapter 8.
The Northern Lights (Alaska's Interior): Blue, purple, green, and red lines spin from the center of the sky, draping long tendrils of slow-moving light. Bright, flashing, sky-covering waves wash across the dome of stars like ripples driven by a gust of wind on a pond. Looking around, you see that your companions' faces are rosy in a silver, snowy night, and all are gazing straight up with their mouths open. See p. 367.
2 The Best Alaska Cruises
Cruises provide comfortable, leisurely access to the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska. Here are some of the best bets. See chapter 4 for details.
Best Up-Close Alaska Experience: Glacier Bay Cruiseline's Wilderness Adventurer and Wilderness Explorer sail itineraries that shun overcrowded port towns in favor of wilderness areas and small fishing villages. Both carry sea kayaks for off-ship exploration, and both feature naturalist-led hikes as central features of the experience. The line is owned by an Alaska Native corporation and the ships are small (carrying 74 and 36 passengers, respectively) and very casual. They're not fancy, but that's the point-it's where they take you that counts.
Best Itinerary: World Explorer Cruises' Universe Explorer is unmatched, offering a 14-day round-trip itinerary from Vancouver that includes all the major ports of call and a few others, too. They also offer a 9-night roundtrip out of Vancouver, featuring the best of the Inside Passage. The ship is large, though not huge, and stresses education rather than the typical big-ship cruise diversions.
Most Comfortable Small Ships: Cruise West's Spirit of Endeavor and Spirit of '98 (a 19th-c. coastal steamer re-creation) and Clipper's Yorktown Clipper offer a higher level of comfort than the other small ships in Alaska while still giving you an intimate, casual, up-close small-ship experience.
Most Luxurious Big Ships: Crystal Harmony is the top-of-the-line ship in the Alaska market, with superb cuisine, elegant service, lovely surroundings, great cabins, and sparkling entertainment. If you want a more casual kind of luxury, Radisson Seven Seas' Seven Seas Mariner (which is slightly smaller than the Harmony) offers just that. Among the mainstream cruise ships, Celebrity's Mercury, Infinity, and Summit are the big winners, offering cutting-edge modern ships with great service, dining, and design.
Best Cruisetours: Holland America Line and Princess are the leaders in linking cruises with land tours into the Interior, either before or after your cruise. They own their own hotels, deluxe motor coaches, and railcars, and after many years in the business, they both really know what they're doing. Princess concentrates more on the Anchorage/ Denali/Fairbanks routes, while Holland America has many itineraries that get you to the Yukon Territory's Dawson City and Whitehorse.
3 The Best Glaciers
More of Alaska-more than 100 times more-is covered by glacier ice than is settled by human beings.
Grand Pacific Glacier (Glacier Bay National Park): Two vast glaciers of deep blue meet at the top of an utterly barren fjord. They rubbed and creased the gray rock below for thousands of years before just recently releasing it to the air again. Three intimidating walls of ice surround boats that pull close to the glaciers. See "Glacier Bay National Park" in chapter 5.
Childs Glacier (Cordova): Out on the Copper River Highway from Cordova, this is a participatory glacier-viewing experience. The glacier is cut by the Copper River, which is 1/4 mile broad; standing on the opposite shore (unless you're up in the viewing tower), you have to be ready to run like hell when the creaking, popping ice gives way and a huge berg falls into the river, potentially swamping the picnic area. Even when the glacier isn't calving, you can feel the ice groaning in your gut. See "Cordova: Hidden Treasure" in chapter 7.
Exit Glacier (Seward): You can drive near the glacier and walk the rest of the way up to the glacier on a gravel path. It towers above like a huge blue sculpture. The spires of broken ice are close enough to breathe a freezer-door chill down on visitors. See "Exit Glacier" in chapter 7.
Western Prince William Sound: On a boat from Whittier, you can see a couple dozen glaciers in a day. Some of these are the amazing tidewater glaciers that dump huge, office-building-size spires of ice into the ocean, each setting off a terrific splash and outward-radiating sea wave. See "Whittier: Dock on the Sound" in chapter 7.
4 The Most Beautiful Drives & Train Rides
Here are some highlights of Alaska's road and railway systems:
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway (Skagway to Summit): This narrow-gauge excursion train, sometimes pulled by vintage steam engines, climbs the steep grade that was chiseled into the granite mountains by stampeders to the Klondike gold rush. The train is a sort of mechanical mountain goat, balancing on trestles and steep rock walls far above deep gorges. See p. 190.
Seward Highway/Alaska Railroad (Anchorage to Seward): Just south of Anchorage, the highway and rail line have been chipped into the side of the Chugach Mountains over the surging gray water of Turnagain Arm. Above, Dall sheep and mountain goats pick their way along the cliffs, within easy sight. Below, white beluga whales chase salmon through the turbid water. Farther south, the route splits and climbs through the mountain passes of the Kenai Peninsula See "The Seward Highway: A Road Guide" in Chapter 7 for information on the highway, and p. 200 for information on this Alaska Railroad route.
Denali Highway: Leading east-west through the Alaska Range, this highway crosses terrain that could be another Denali National Park, full of wildlife and with views so huge and grand they seem impossible. See p. 321.
Richardson Highway: Just out of Valdez heading north, the Richardson Highway rises quickly from sea level to more than 2,600 feet, switching back and forth on the side of a mountain. With each turn, the drop down the impassable slope becomes more amazing. North of Glennallen, the highway rises again, bursting through the tree line between a series of mountains and tracing the edges of long alpine lakes, before descending, parallel with the silver skein of the Alaska pipeline, to Delta Junction. See p. 360.
The Roads Around Nome: You can't drive to Nome, but 250 miles of gravel roads radiate from the Arctic community into tundra that's populated only by musk oxen, bear, reindeer, birds, and other wildlife. See p. 426.
The Dalton Highway: When you're ready for an expedition-a real wilderness trip by road-the Dalton Highway leads from Fairbanks across northern Alaska to the Arctic Ocean, a mind-blowing drive through 500 miles of spectacular virgin country. See p. 361.
5 The Best Fishing
The quality of salmon fishing in Alaska isn't so much a function of place as of time. See p. 41 for information on how to find the fish when you arrive.
Bristol Bay: This is the world's richest salmon fishery; lodges on the remote rivers of the region are an angler's paradise. See p. 408.
Copper River Delta, Cordova: The Copper itself is silty with glacial runoff, but feeder streams and rivers are rich with trout, Dolly Varden, and salmon, with few other anglers in evidence. See p. 317.
The Kenai River: The biggest king salmon-up to 98 pounds-come from the swift Kenai River. Big fish are so common in the second run of kings that there's a special, higher standard for what makes a trophy. Silvers and reds add to a mad, summer-long fishing frenzy. See p. 275.
Homer: Alaska's largest charter-fishing fleet goes for halibut ranging into the hundreds of pounds. See p. 295.
Unalaska: Beyond the road system, Unalaska has the biggest halibut. See p. 421.
Kodiak Island: The bears are so big here because they live on an island that's crammed with spawning salmon in the summer. Kodiak has the best roadside salmon fishing in Alaska, and the remote fishing, at lodges or fly-in stream banks, is legendary. See p. 413.
6 The Best Tips for Cooking Salmon
Now that you've caught a Pacific salmon, you need to know how to cook it-or order it in a restaurant-to avoid spoiling the rich flavor. Tips for getting your fish home are on p. 296.
Freeze As Little As Possible: It's a sad fact that salmon loses some of its richness and gets more "fishy" as soon as it's frozen. Eat as much as you can fresh, because it'll never be better. Ask if the salmon is fresh when you order it in a restaurant. Don't overlook smoking, the traditional Native way of preserving fish for the winter. See p. 296 for information on where to get your salmon frozen and smoked.
Choose the Best Fish: The best restaurants advertise where their salmon comes from on the menu. In early summer, Copper River kings and reds are the richest in flavor; later in the summer, Yukon River salmon are best. The oil in the salmon gives it the rich, meaty flavor; the fish from the Copper and Yukon are high in oil content. King, red, and silver salmon are the only species you should find in a restaurant. Avoid farm-reared salmon, which is mushy and flavorless compared with wild Alaska salmon.
Excerpted from Frommer's Alaska 2004 by Charles P. Wohlforth Excerpted by permission.
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