An August 2004 trip
to Fairbanks by ssullivan
Quote: Fairbanks is Alaska's second largest city and the gateway to the state's interior and Denali National Park. While my visit to Fairbanks was very short (less than 24 hours), I found it to be a very interesting small city.
Fairbanks, with a population between 30,000 and 40,000 people, is Alaska's second largest city. Located in the state's interior region, the city experiences frigid winters as well as some of the state's warmest temperatures in the summer months (it was 85 degrees the day I was there). The city grew rapidly during the gold rush years of the early twentieth century, and when the Alaska Railroad designated Fairbanks as its northern terminus in the 1920s, the city's future as a major economic center was set.
Today Fairbanks serves as a gateway to Denali National Park (about 85 miles away via the Parks Highway) and the state's Arctic. Additionally, a number of tourists visit Fairbanks as a destination in and of itself. The city's prosperous and attractive downtown is centered along First and Second Avenues, near the intersection with Cushman Street. Just north of First Avenue is the scenic Chena River and the riverfront park area, with the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center (550 First Ave.), an excellent resource for information on local attractions, restaurants, and accommodations. Near the airport, the Pioneer Park theme park offers a variety of museums and attractions related to pioneer life in Alaska. Also located in the park is the popular Alaska Salmon Bake restaurant and a nightly musical show during the summer months. Additionally, Fairbanks is the home of the University of Alaska, the state's primary institution of higher learning. Other popular activities include rafting on the Chena River, viewing the Northern Lights, and day trips up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle and back.
Hotel | "Marriott Springhill Suites"
This downtown hotel is one of the first hotels in Fairbanks affiliated with a major hotel chain. Like all other locations in the Springhill Suites chain, the hotel offers all-suite rooms, each with either two double beds or one king size bed, a sitting area with sofabed, arm chair, and coffee table, and a kitchenette with mini-refrigerator and microwave. Other amenities include a work area with desk, two televisions with satellite and pay-per-view films, iron and ironing board, hair dryer, multiple phones, and a spacious bathroom. An exercise room and indoor pool and hot tub are located on the ground floor. Complimentary continental breakfast is included, and the hotel has a small convenience store area with beverages and light snacks available. Unlike most Springhill Suites locations, this hotel was built with space for ground-level retail businesses to lease. A local restaurant, Lavelle's, has located in one of these, providing full-service dining to hotel guests and local residents alike. Room service from Lavelle's is available for dinner.
I chose this hotel based on the fact that I was looking to redeem a free night from either Hilton or Marriott while in Fairbanks, and this was the only property operated by one of those two companies in town. It turned out to be a very good choice. The downtown location has several advantages, as there are a number of good restaurants, bars, and shops within walking distance. Additionally, the Chena River is directly across the street, along with the Fairbanks visitors center and a lovely park area that people were using late into the evening (the locals really do take advantage of the famed "midnight sun"). Additionally, if you arriving or departing Fairbanks via the Alaska Railroad, the depot is just a few blocks away and the hotel's shuttle will provide complimentary transportation. Shuttle service is also available to and from the Fairbanks airport, saving you about $18 in cab fare if you do not have a rental car. Be sure to call in advance to schedule a pickup at the airport or rail depot, as the shuttle operates on an on demand basis, not a fixed schedule. I should have thought to call the hotel and schedule a shuttle pickup at the airport before departing on my flight up from Anchorage, saving the cab fare and a harrowing ride in a cab that I could not believe had actually passed the state inspection (yes, it did have a current sticker).
Overall, you can't beat this hotel. Yes, it's a little off the beaten path, as most Fairbanks accommodations are along a commercial strip outside of downtown, but I'd much rather stay downtown along the scenic riverfront and near the local restaurants and shops as opposed to the strip where all of the chain places are.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 11, 2004
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Fairbanks Alaska
575 1ST AVENUE
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
Gambardella's has become something of a Fairbanks institution, and I could see why. This ranks up there as one of the best Italian restaurants I have visited in any city. The restaurant is family owned and operated and has a lot of the charm of similar places in larger cities, and none of the manufactured "plastic" atmosphere of the national chains. Over the years as the restaurant has expanded, they have added dining rooms in buildings adjoining the original space. This has resulted in each of the dining rooms being somewhat unique in appearance, and all of them having a small, quaint feeling. Even when the restaurant is quite busy (as it was on the Friday night I dined there), you never lose the feeling of being in a small Italian cafe. The decor and lighting creates a nice atmosphere, appropriate for a family dinner out, romantic date, or just a relaxing vacation evening as I was enjoying. The menu features of wide variety of traditional Italian favorites, including pastas, chicken and veal entrees, and pizzas.
For my entree I ordered the lasagna, arguably the restaurant's signature dish. Several years ago the Seattle Times named this the "mother of all lasagnas," and when it arrived, I quickly realized why. Ten layers of delicious, tender homemade pasta layered with Italian cheeses and meats, seasoned with a blend of herbs, and all topped with a delicious sauce. Entrees are generally served with a soup or salad with your choice of dressings and a loaf of the restaurant's yummy homemade Italian bread. The salad was one of the better ones I had on the trip (salad greens and tomatoes at their peak of freshness are somewhat hard to come by in Alaska). For dessert, I selected the delicious bourbon pecan pie, which I was too full to eat, but the tray filled with homemade desserts looked too good to pass up. My waitress gladly obliged when I asked for my pie to be served in a to-go box, to be consumed later in the evening as I relaxed with a pay-per-view movie at the hotel. The pie was quite good, and the other dessert selections (including carrot cake, cheesecake, tiramisu, peanut butter pie, and Snickers pie) also looked excellent. Service was very prompt and friendly.
Overall, Gambardella's is an excellent dining choice in Fairbanks for its fabulous food, service, and atmosphere, not to mention its convenient location to the downtown hotels.
Gambardella's Pasta Bella
706 Second Avenue
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
The Alaska Railroad's dining car offers a full-service menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks and Anchorage and Seward. While passengers are free to bring their own snacks and food and eat it on board the train, the dining car offers a unique experience reminiscent of the grand passenger trains of years ago. All of the food is cooked on board, and while the menu does not offer a huge variety of options, there are enough different items available that anybody should be able to find something to his or her liking. Seating in the dining car is unreserved and handled on a first come, first served basis. Travelers by themselves may be asked to sit with a stranger during busy periods, but rather than being awkward, this provides the unique opportunity to share a meal with an interesting person from another part of the world and discuss your individual experiences during your trip.
My two rail segments on the Denali Star afforded me the opportunity to enjoy all three meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, aboard the train. For breakfast I selected the excellent cinnamon-battered French toast, which was served with a choice of bacon or reindeer sausage (I chose the delicious reindeer sausage), fresh fruit, and coffee and orange juice. The railroad dining service is generous in its portions and breakfast entrees include coffee or a large juice in the price. However, if you desire both, they will gladly bring both a small juice (still a nice serving) and a mug of coffee without an extra charge. For lunch I had the cheeseburger (it's listed on the menu as a hamburger but cheese is available at no extra charge) and a nice serving of very good potato salad. Chips were also available as an alternate side item choice. Finally, for dinner I had the 12 oz. steak topped with a Jack Daniels mushroom sauce. It was served with a choice of soup or salad, garlic mashed potatoes, and grilled vegetables. I opted for the soup, which was a delicious salmon and corn chowder. The huge steak was cooked to perfection and was too big for me to finish. The vegetables and potatoes were good as well. For dessert I had a slice of cheesecake topped with strawberry sauce and a cup of coffee.
Overall prices are not cheap, but they are reasonable for the large portions and good quality of the food. Sample menus are available on the railroad website, and dinner specials are frequently offered in addition to the regular menu items. Additionally, Denali Star trains feature a bistro car, with light snacks and sandwiches, ice cream, cookies, and a wide selection of beverages available throughout the entire trip. Occasionally some items may not be available, especially if you dine near the end of a meal period. Service is always fast and very friendly, as the railroad tends to hire people who are truly excellent in delivering top notch customer service.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 12, 2004
Alaska Railroad Dining Car
Seward to Fairbanks
Attraction | "Arctic Traveler's Gift Shop"
Unfortunately for those looking for nice souvenirs to take home from Alaska, the primary tourist areas are full of shops selling pure junk. Half of the stuff is not even made in Alaska, but imported from Asian sweatshops. And much of what you find is not even available only in Alaska, but can be found in any gift shop in any city in the US. Fortunately there are a few exceptions, but sometimes you have to look hard to find them. One such place is the Arctic Traveler's Gift Shop in Fairbanks. Yes, they have the usual assortment of Alaska and Denali t-shirts, but those are all in a separate room in the back. The front section of the store showcases a fine selection of gift items made in Alaska and only available there, including some very nice native crafts. Overall, the prices are very reasonable and there are items available to suit any budget. I saw several items in this shop that I later saw in shops at Denali for several dollars more.
Additionally, for those of us used to living in a place with sales tax (in my home city of Houston, TX, we pay an additional 8.25%), the lack of sales tax in Alaska makes gift shopping more affordable here. And if you buy more than you can carry home, or fragile items you do not want to trust the airline baggage handlers with, the helpful staff of this shop will ship your purchases home for you at very fair rates. Overall, this was one of the best gift shops I saw in Alaska, probably in part because it's not in a major tourist area.
Arctic Travelers Gift Shop
201 Cushman Street
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
"All aboard the Denali Star southbound for Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Wasilla, and Anchorage!" Thus began my first journey by full-service rail passenger car in my life. And what a great journey it was! The Alaska Railroad is a true gem in this state of many unique features. The last full-service railroad in the US, the state-owned Alaska Railroad provides Alaska's most populated area between Fairbanks and Seward with a lifeline of freight and passenger services year-round. In the summer, passenger service is increased to handle the many tourists who relish the opportunity to experience an old-fashioned train ride while viewing some of the world's most amazing scenery. And the locals like the train too, as it provides passenger and freight service to locations in the state that would otherwise be impossible to get to.
During my Alaska vacation I actually took two segments on the Alaska Railroad. Both were on the southbound Denali Star, which provides daily service between Anchorage and Fairbanks during the summer. My first trip, a four-hour run from Fairbanks to Denali National Park, took me through the forests and lakes of the Alaskan interior, through the unusual and remote village of Ferry, and on to the town of Nenana before finally hugging the edge of the steep Nenana River canyon the rest of the way to Denali National Park. For the second segment, I continued my trip southward on the Denali Star from the park to Anchorage, via stops in Talkeetna and Wasilla, and the remote areas between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gorge where the train provides the only access to the outside world.
The railroad operates a variety of passenger cars, many of which are vintage cars from the 1950s that have been restored. The Denali Star train typically features two vintage double-level cars, with assigned seating on the lower level and a scenic dome with unassigned seating on the upper level. The rules for the dome cars are simple -- give everyone a chance for the great experience of seeing the Alaskan wilderness from the dome by not spending more than 20 minutes in the dome car in one sitting if others are waiting and no seats are available. Of course, if nobody is waiting and there are open seats, you are free to stay longer. I found that passengers are very respectful of this rule and there was never a problem getting to sit in one of the domes when you wanted to. Additionally, some trains may feature a vintage single-level passenger car, seating up to 60 passengers in the original, roomy reclining seats. I am well over six feet tall and had no problem with being comfortable in either of the vintage cars I was assigned to on my two rail segments; in both cases I was able to stretch out as much as I wanted with no chance of my knees banging into the seat in front of me. In fact, I had more legroom on the railroad than I do in a domestic first class airline seat!
In addition to the vintage cars, the railroad operates a number of single-level cars built for it in the late 1980s in Korea by Daewoo. While these cars are nice, they lack the charm of the vintage cars and resemble a modern commuter train on the inside. They do have larger windows than the older equipment, but these cars seat 78 passengers in the same space that the older cars seat 60, resulting in reduced leg space. While tall passengers would still be comfortable in these cars, the seats are much closer together than they are in the older cars. Also on board you will find a gift shop under the dome in one of the dome cars, featuring a variety of Alaska Railroad items. And to make the trip more interesting, the cars are attended by a crew of high school students working as tour guides. These carefully selected and well-trained guides can answer any questions you have about the train and make occasional announcements describing the communities and areas you pass through on the train. They will also make announcements of wildlife sightings if they are able to get to the PA microphone in time after a sighting is made.
Besides the passenger cars, the Denali Star features a full-service dining car and usually a lighter service bistro car. Dining service is provided for almost the entire route, with a few breaks of about 45 minutes to one hour between meals for the kitchen to change over to the next meal's menu. The bistro car is open virtually all of the time, and is the place to go for light snacks, beverages (alcoholic beverages and bar service is available), deli sandwiches, ice cream, cookies, brownies, jumbo hot pretzels, and personal-size pizzas. Service is provided at a counter in the center of the car, and you are free to take your purchases back to your seat or consume them in the tables in the bistro car. The full service dining car, located at the front of the train just behind the baggage car, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (see my separate review of the dining service). Like the grand passenger trains of year's past, during busy times you may be seated with a stranger if you are traveling alone, giving you the unique opportunity to share a meal with interesting people from all over the US and the world. And like the rest of the train, both dining cars feature large windows so you will not miss the fabulous scenery and opportunities to see wildlife along the rail route.
The Alaska Railroad is not the cheapest or fastest way to travel within the state. A one-way ticket for the full length of the Denali Star between Anchorage and Fairbanks will currently set you back $175, about the same price as a one-way flight between the two cities on Alaska Airlines. And unlike the 45-minute flight, the trip by rail takes twelve hours. Bus service on the Parks Highway costs a fraction of the railroad's ticket price and makes the trip in a much shorter timeframe. However, the Alaska Railroad offers travelers the most relaxing, comfortable, and scenic way to travel within the central part of the state, and is an experience not to be missed.
District of Columbia County, District of Columbia