Anchorage, Homer and the Kenai Peninsula are easily accessible and on most itineraries to Alaska. The great thing about Anchorage, goes a common joke up north, is that it’s so close to Alaska. The great thing about this joke is that it’s true. Alaska’s largest city is indeed very close to everything travelers seek in the state—towering mountains, sparkling waters, wildlife and wilderness, limitless recreation. Not only is all this available close to Anchorage, it is actually inside the city, whose borough boundaries encompass 1,961 square miles, an area comparable to Rhode Island. Inside those municipal limits lie a half-million acres of wilderness, bestriding the Chugach Mountains that are the city’s eastern backdrop.
Surrounded by nature, Anchorage’s 300,000 residents are devoted to the outdoors—hiking, paddle sports, skiing, biking (summer or winter), fishing, hunting, and numerous iterations combining the above. Anyone for surfboard hunting? The foundation of this lifestyle is the city’s 160+ miles of dedicated off-street recreation trail, a network easily available to visitors from its downtown beginnings.
It’s entirely possible to enjoy a sumptuous breakfast of crab omelettes and sourdough bread, then rent a bike a block away and head out for an all-day ride along Cook Inlet that offers full-on views of Denali’s 20,320-foot summit. You can catch a salmon in downtown Anchorage’s Ship Creek. Stay more than a day and you are virtually certain to see a moose—in Anchorage. There’s a major ski resort, Alyeska, within the city limits, in the Girdwood area. Bears, eagles, beluga whales, lynx and even wolves are occasional visitors.
Yet all this natural abundance is marvelously leavened by cosmopolitan delights that include fine-dining restaurants offering gourmet Alaska Regional Cuisine (yes, that is a real thing, and it’s far more than salmon, halibut and crab) as well as great brewpubs and pizza parlors. The glistening post-modern Anchorage Museum holds a mesmerizing exhibit of priceless Smithsonian artifacts depicting Native cultures of the North. The city’s coffee culture may be the world’s most fervent, with countless espresso stands and several fine homegrown purveyors. An excellent small zoo focuses on animals of the North, and the Native Heritage Cultural Center provides a colorful introduction to Alaska’s thriving indigenous peoples.
Visitors can enjoy all this without any need to rent a car. What is needful is ample planning, as the city fills with travelers each summer starting or concluding an Alaska cruise. That fact, and the rhythms of the Alaska climate, make March and May the best months to visit. That’s not what most people would expect, but neither is Anchorage.
The small communities south of Anchorage have much in the way of character to entice visitors. Homer, at the very end of the road south of Anchorage, is a stubbornly independent colony of artists, poets, fishermen and other iconoclasts that enjoys an awesome setting at the entrance to Kachemak Bay. Kenai, near the mouth of its namesake river, is one of North America’s best-known fishing destinations. Seward, three hours south of Anchorage, is the entrance to Resurrection Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park, and the home of the SeaLife Center.
All these destinations are set in scenic circumstances that include sparkling waters, snowy peaks, spice-scented forests and abundant wildlife. Accommodations range from deluxe wilderness lodges to chunky hostels, and dining is centered on seafood morning, noon and night. While a lot of South-central is on what Alaskans call “the road system,” to really experience the region you’ll need to board a boat or a floatplane.
But day-trippers will find a wealth of sights too. You can head here and in one day hike on a glacier; catch salmon; see whales, eagles and more; and visit a memorable aquarium born of tragedy. The SeaLife Center’s most famous resident was a huge Steller sea lion named Woody, a very self-aware individual who put on a show for visitors, especially kids. Though Woody died (of old age) last fall, he left behind two young pups who may continue his legacy, which is to represent a compelling region in a spectacular landscape.
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