I was determined to outsmart the misconceptions. I knew better than to expect fur-coat swaddled inhabitants riding through Anchorage on dog sleds or wagons pulled by reindeer. Surely the image of bush pilot renegades and lumberjacks was limited. Shopping malls, office buildings, highways, hotels and restaurants were more realistic sights in Alaska’s largest city.
Surely Anchorage was just another metropolis ringed by mountains bordered by the sea, like Seattle or L.A., right?
In truth, Anchorage aptly fits its stereotype, and more. Anchorage is well equipped with modern amenities. The Fifth Street Mall offers access to fashions, necessities and indulgences in fine dining. But it’s also true that at any moment you may indeed spot a moose wandering around town in the shadow of the three mountain ranges that encircle the city leaving no doubt the metropolis is a mere speck in this great wilderness. The official boundaries of the city of Anchorage determine it’s the size of the state of Delaware making it the most sparsely populated city in the United States. Wildlife definitely outnumber people.
Anchorage takes a grand step back in time. Rather than crowded with the trimmings you’d expect of a modern city of a 250,000 inhabitants, it more closely resembles a Main Street of a town one-tenth that size, interminably trapped in another century.
Main Street sports locally owned department and drug stores, quaint knick-knack shops and gift outlets. A soda fountain in the hotel lobby lures residents and visitors, and people are invited to sit on the lawn of the downtown city park where local bands entertain most summer afternoons.
A farmer’s market down
by the harbor is the real hub of activity with food and novelty booths, craft vendors and farmers hawking their wares in a carnival atmosphere that celebrates the good, earthy, outdoorsy life of Alaska’s long summer days.
The Visitor’s Center
is probably the downtown’s most recognized attraction, an authentic log cabin with a grass thatch roof. The signpost out front reminds guests of the great distances they’ve traveled to get here. Everything is far away from Anchorage.
The red trolley runs every twenty minutes offering tours of downtown including the Captain Cook lookout
at Resolution Park where whale sightings are practically guaranteed in the summer. A walking tour is manageable but the trolley provides a welcome respite from hapless wanderings should you be homeless for the day. (We’d been asked to disembark our cruiseship in the early morning and our flight home wasn’t until late in the evening.)
Although Anchorage has some great restaurants, we’d opted for Tia’s Reindeer sausage hotdog stand since they sell the world’s best hotdogs - reindeer or otherwise. We sat on the bench outside City Hall under brilliant blue skies enjoying our feast and now searched for shelter. The trolley’s padded seats offered the perfect post-lunch comforting.
During the short tour the driver regaled us with tales of the history of Anchorage, the amazing Good Friday Earthquake
that destroyed downtown buildings and registered 9.2 on the Richter scale. Miraculously, since most people were home for the holiday, many lives were spared from the destruction, including the life of our driver’s husband who was in the dentist’s chair at the time. Although the fourth floor where he sat expecting a shot of Novocain would be the day’s worst fear, the building underneath him suddenly sunk to the ground. He was protected from harm by the sturdy frame of the dental chair.
It’s impossible to overlook the Flowers
decorating Anchorage’s streets. Hanging baskets and beds overflow with the goliath blooms thanks to to the nitrogen released in the glacial runoff which permeates the air perking up the posies and delighting the dahlias encouraging them to grow 30% larger than normal.
Just as the trolley pulled up to the Ulu Factory , driver Sue informed us the salmon were running in the Copper River so she’d have to rush home after work to help "fix" the 14 Kings the family had caught the day before. She’d be using her ulu, naturally. She explained the family had flown their bush plane out there (the River) yesterday and hauled the salmon back fresh on ice. Apparently a typical day in the life of an Anchorage municipal bus driver…
Before dropping us off, Sue offered a solution to our dilemma as to which of the multi-media shows we’d watch that afternoon. From choices ranging from Auroras
presented on giant I-Max screens, we stepped into City Hall for the best deal in town - free nature and history films that looped all afternoon. Before settling into the small theater we watched a friendly park ranger demonstrate gold panning (for free!) and wandered around the interactive nature museum.
I’d like to also share some of the things I’ve done in Anchorage during previous visits. The first must-do for new visitors is a stop at the Heritage Center
. This museum is is evidence of Anchorages’ big city status, providing top tier exhibits and facilities where guests explore Alaska’s native cultures and history.
It doesn’t take much effort to notice the Salmon on Parade
sculptures around the downtown area. They have been on display for a few years now and really add a touch of whimsy to the area with added good intention of raising money for local charities. Further examples of Alaskans’ good humor and sense of fun is demonstrated in the tours offered by a crazy bunch of locals
. Book a tour with this outfit and you’ll get a belly laugh along with your Alaskan education!
If you arrive in Anchorage well-rested and raring to go, which we weren’t, you’ll definitely want to pick up a Trail Map
and take advantage of the location’s fabulous selections of hiking opportunities. Anchorage was voted one of the top urban destinations for enjoying the great outdoors with an added benefit of frequent wildlife spotting. If you’re the type who prefers a walk with no risk and guarantees, visit the Alaska Zoo
to see a grand assortment of animals both native to the area and otherwise.
If you haven’t yet taken the opportunity to visit a sled dog kennel, don’t leave Alaska without getting to know some of nature’s more endearing and amazing creatures. Options include flying to a glacier for the dog’s summer camp, driving a team
through a forest pulled by wheeled cart, visiting the kennel for a huggable overview of the animals and sport, or visiting the Sled Dog Museum
. If you’d like something completely new and different for spring break this year, visit Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod
. You can even bid on a chance to ride in the sled of a top musher, which is high on my list of "some day."
There are a few things you may consider buying while in Anchorage, including Qiviut
, the fur from the musk ox chin, ten times softer than cashmere. Berry Products
of all types are also great buys in Alaska including blueberry, elderberry and salmonberry. Speaking of salmon, how can you NOT bring home some wild salmon
from the earth’s greatest spawning grounds of the juiciest, pinkest, most omega-3 rich fish in the world? Of course Native handiwork, carvings and totems are always popular souvenirs along with the Ulu knife.
If you aren’t visiting Anchorage in conjunction with a cruise, be assured that there are 60 glaciers within 50 miles of Anchorage. Taking a day cruise or other tour
from Anchorage may be a good alternative to the week-long inside passage routes.
As for us, we’d just spent the past two days doing nothing but gazing at dozens of gorgeous frozen rivers, marveling at the wonders of this enormous expanse of wilderness called Alaska. Once in Anchorage, sitting in the darkness of the City Hall theater learning of the history of the native people, Alaska’s role in WWII, and the science of the Northern Lights, I drifted in and out of sleep still imagining I was rocking in a cruise ship sailing the fjords. It was really a perfect end to our Alaska journey and a beautiful day in Anchorage.