Anchorage after the breakup

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It was midnight in Alaska when I arrived. The trip was a last minute whim. I could see the sunset on the horizon. “Why is it light outside?” I joked to the women sitting beside me on the plane, both Anchorage natives.  Aliza, with whom I’d be staying, met me at the arrivals in her big puffy jacket, and Alaska-ready suburban. Every single vehicle in the parking garage was a truck, Jeep, Subaru, or 4×4. I’d never seen such a thing. There wasn’t a shiny car to be seen, although throughout the week I spotted a few. It was a far cry from the spoiled Phoenix cars sporting their fresh washes and chrome.

Breakup in Anchorage signals springtime. It means the ice has broken apart and water runs freely again. It means cars are filthy, puddles are everywhere and the town goes into full cleanup mode to prepare for tourists, summer sports and dryer days. The deadline to have studs removed from tires is April 15th in southern areas and May 1 for the rest of Alaska, which includes Anchorage, to give you an idea of their seasons.

The town is surrounded by jagged peaks and cold ocean. The air was crisp and clear on my first day in Anchorage. I heard studded tires tapping along the dry roads.

My first impression with Anchorage began at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge, a chocolate lovers dream. I was offered a sample of spicy hot chocolate. “You’re okay with spice?” The owner asked, her circular glasses her trademark, as she peered from behind the counter. I bet she could have guessed my favorite chocolate, had I asked. I felt like I was in Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory with all types of chocolate everything on both sides, including salmon chocolate, motorcycle chocolate figures, and Mother’s Day “cards” in chocolate! I was in love and couldn’t wait to see what else Anchorage had in store!

IMG_8083Next, I visited Indigo Tea, coincidentally right next door to the chocolate shop. How clever! With modern, stylish couches and a great place to spread out and get some work done, it would be easy to lose track of time here. I’d absolutely recommend watching how they brew their tea, which is easy because the fancy machines sit on the counter where you order.

In the mornings I tried to explore Anchorage like the locals might. I found my way Elderberry Park, tucked into a corner of downtown and the perfect starting point for your adventures. The Oscar Anderson house is located there, overlooking the water and open for visiting and tours (with a fee) beginning in June. Here you can take pictures overlooking the water and cruise down to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and along mud flats.

If you continue down the path towards the airport you’ll go by other parks where you can pause and check out the local birds (and the locals, if you’re a tourist). It was at the park just down the trail from there where I spied a bald eagle in a tree, surveying the local fish and angering the local bird population, causing quite the commotion in the trees. The parking spots are limited at Elderberry Park, but you can park down the street a bit in the neighborhood if need be for a couple of hours. Or park at the Westchester Lagoon and start your journey there.

DSC_0189On a mission to check out as many local brews as possible, while also getting my foodie fix, I followed my nose to 49th State Brewing, snuggled up to downtown anchorage on a side street with paid parking out front. I have a weakness for gastropubs. This one boasts a rooftop patio, complete with blankets if needed. I was persuaded to try the Sweet Potato Tots and had to have the Alaska Seafood Chowder. I like sampling the appetizers; it’s a good opportunity to see how creative a place is and gives a broader feel for the creative flavor a restaurant has to offer.
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The perfect crispy outsides of the tots gave way to creamy sweet potato insides and were perfect to dunk into their two sauces, included. Pairing it with the cup of chowder made for a perfectly portioned lunch, bursting with a variety of flavors.
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The rich, creamy chowder was perfect to ward off the Anchorage chill. Although the chill may also have been the full-blast air conditioner. The beer proved diverse, offering flavors from a Baked Blonde to McCarthy’s Stout, and allowed a unique flavor of Alaska to tease my tastebuds with something other than the famous Alaskan Amber.

On Friday I took a trip down the Seward Highway to the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center, a highlight of my trip. Later in the summer, the gorgeous coastal drive would be brimming with tourists ducking in and out of overlook stops on the two-lane highway. The looky-loos go well under the speed limit and swerve occasionally as they try and take in the waterfalls, magnificent mountain range and skimming the water for whales and seals. I pulled aside to meander around Beluga Point, arguably the best view between Anchorage and the Conservation Center. In the summer you can catch the Beluga whales that wander in to fish, and apparently also the Orcas that pursue them. I managed to find a lone seal bobbing in and out of the water, but focused most of my photo energies on the 180 degree view of the Turnagain Arm (literally named Turnagain because the explorer who discovered it realized it didn’t go anywhere, and turned right back around again).

DSC_0223It was about a 45 minute drive from Anchorage and the parking lot was almost empty at 9:00am. I paid the $15 entry fee, parked and hurried ahead just as a large bus and two tour buses wobbled down the rough, dirt entrance. I decided to walk the two mile loop so I didn’t have to worry about the car. I needed to walk-off my foodie adventures, anyway. Armed with my camera, I set out to meet some of Alaska’s most dangerous wildlife.

DSC_0068_love_cAt times I felt as though I had the place to myself. The animals are so used to humans they almost act as if you aren’t there, and really, it’s just a thin wire fence and the occasional electric wire between you and some potentially very dangerous creatures. I took my time hanging out with the bear, the wolves and the friendly moose who was raised there as an orphan. He’s now full grown, but a total ham for photos.DSC_0010love_cThe Conservation Center’s goal is to “provide refuge for orphaned, injured, and ill animals—those that can’t survive in the wild.” And while it was apparent with some animals why they were unable to survive in the wild, like the 1-winged bald eagle or the 3-legged porcupine, I couldn’t seem to find anything wrong with the bear.DSC_0201_cHe paced back and forth and seemed to have settled into a regular routine of walking to the front of the enclosure then returning to the back. He’d lie down and gnaw on some kind of food or bone for awhile and then get up and pace back to the front. The familiar tick tick of the electric wire was a quick snap to reality from my mesmerization by the bear. It’s funny, while purchasing a bear bell in the gift shop, the cashier said, “oh the bear is so cute, isn’t he?” I nodded and smiled. Cute wasn’t exactly the first adjective that came to mind.DSC_electric_cAll the walking worked up an appetite. The iconic Moose’s Tooth had been recommended by many,  even before I left Arizona. It was also the most Yelp-reviewed place in Anchorage. I read that it becomes packed by lunch time and people will be circling and hovering for parking spaces. I arrived at 10:30am just as the doors opened and planned to have an early lunch to miss the crowds. Even at 10:30 people were picking up huge pizza boxes to go. Lunch time at Moose’s Tooth is no joke. As they say, prepare for a wait!

Sitting at the bar as a solo traveler allows for friendly conversation, and a chance to meet locals, who usually have the best recommendation of what to visit. At Moose’s Tooth I began my lunch alone with my Veggie Pizza, but was eventually joined by a Moose Tooth regular, Dan, who was full of tips and insight for Anchorage. Everybody seemed to know him, someone at a neighboring table even sponsored a drink for him. “I’m here pretty much every day at lunch,” he said as I left.

IMG_8207The famous pizza had all the qualities that a good pizza should have, but was not life changing. As for libations, I was torn between the Northern Lights and the Red 5. After a small taste of both I went for the Red 5, which did not disappoint with a great first note of caramel that melted into a crisp, malty red ale. As I would learn, all of Anchorage’s breweries offer a great diversity of flavor in their beers. In Seattle, I found that the great IPA hype had taken over at least half every brewery’s options. In Alaska, that isn’t usually the case, expect for Arkose Brewing, which I’ll get to later.

IMG_8211Another day I made my way to Midnight Sun Brewing. The actual dining area is hard to find. It is tucked up behind the brewery and you finagle your way back through grain bins and delivery trucks to find the fairly unmarked entry door. Had I found a secret locals hide-out? It was a popular lunch spot and vehicles lined the street by a post-office and nestled into a fairly industrial area surrounded by chain link, and home to the Belgian Panty Peeler.

I finally found the entryway, all the way at the back of the building through the side lot to the brewery. I entered through the gift shop and still wasn’t sure how to get upstairs to the dining area. One misleading door here says welcome, but alas, that is the door to the office, and not the bar. Hidden in the far corner behind a wall are stairs that go up to the dining area and taproom.

There I cozied up with the Alpenglow – a juicy, sweet concoction that was quite welcome after my morning exploration. Although looking back, I wish I’d have tried the Panty Peeler, or perhaps Pleasure Town. The Anchorman references are strong at Midnight Sun.

IMG_8278The brewery offers a small assortment of food, including Bruschetta, German style pretzel sticks with beer mustard and beer cheese sauces, sandwiches, salads and other nibblers. I went for the pretzels for cheap and salty thrills and gazed out over the patio during my lunch for one. It’s a great spot to hang, high enough to daydream into the nearby snow capped mountains while you sip and sample.

Another day I wandered into the 1400 acre Kincaid Park and learned that on sunny 55 degree days, sunshine-ready Alaskan teens head out in shorts, tank tops and flip flops. It’s a shocking phenomenon for an Arizonan, bundled up in a puffy jacket and jeans, enjoying the cool breeze. I asked a local at Moose’s Tooth how hot it gets in Anchorage in the summer, “it got up to 80 degrees once!” he said, astounded, as if he’d been melting. But as I learned, Alaska is actually closer to the sun, so 65 degrees in the sun is quite comfortable.

Apparently the park has one main hill trail down into a maze of smaller trails. So it’s at least a mile down to where you can see the coast and I couldn’t figure out how to get down to the water from there. My shoes weren’t ideal for potentially muddy, cold coastal water anyway. But with more time to explore I would have wandered the trails for a few more hours.

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On the weekend I made my way to the Anchorage Market. The air was ripe with salmon quesadillas, halibut poppers and grilled corn. It’s located down near some the downtown Anchorage gift shops and my beloved Balto statue. Since I was a kid, the book about the heroic dog who saved the little girl’s life in Nome has held special place in my heart.

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A view of Palmer’s agricultural side from the reindeer farm

My side trip to Palmer was definitely worth the 45 minute drive along the Glenn Highway. The view is not as immediately striking as the drive south along the Seward Highway, but the end result is. The mountains surrounding the tiny town of 6,000 people cut up into the sky like jagged shrouds of glass. I started my morning at the (Williams) Reindeer Farm, which was my main goal for the drive. The weather was warm and sunny and apparently the reindeer were hot, still covered in their winter coats that were just beginning to shed off. The ground was muddy, and luckily the farm offers a room full of wellies to choose from so you can kick off your own shoes and borrow some, in case you forget yours.

DSC_0023_a_cThe farm offers a short tour and history of how the reindeer came to the farm, which was trickier than you might expect. The Reindeer Act, or Reindeer Industry Act of 1937 passed by Congress prohibits the ownership of reindeer herds in Alaska by non-Native Americans. But these reindeer are kept legally, solely as pets, and themselves are not Alaskan natives.

I’ll let the tour guides tell you the rest of the story, but you should feel quite lucky to trudge through the reindeer pen with the provided cup of reindeer treats and “hang out” with the friendly critters. Carl the reindeer was quite snuggly and happy to pose for #reindeerselfies with me. Even the much taller Rocky Mountain Elk ran up to the fence to nibble at handfuls of grass by the guests.

Other creatures you can encounter on the tour are rabbits in hutches, gorgeous hens in the chicken pen, a not so friendly lady buffalo and the farm dog. Sadly, the farm moose recently passed away.

DSC_0043a_c Breweries and pubs have always proved effective places to learn about the feel and ambience of a town, to get a feel for the local flair. Arkose Brewing is located in a house structure in a semi-industrial area of Palmer and had the biggest assortment of IPAs I’d seen in Alaska. The inside seating is limited, but the outside patio, on a sunny day, has a view worthy of a postcard.

You can order a beer basket and pick your samples from about 8 choices. It was 11:00am when I arrived, just after the tour of the reindeer farm and I was the only person there. There is a Pho food truck parked out front that I assume comes to life on busier evenings and/or weekends. A lone cyclist appeared on the 60 degree, sunny day and sat outside at a nearby table to soak up the sun. I assume all Alaskans were eager to get out in the sunshine after the dark and dreary winters I heard so much about. I ended my trip with lunch at the Palmer Ale House, a great pub in a neat part of town where I took advantage of their pizza and salad special.

I thought that May was a wonderful time to visit Anchorage.

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PRO-TIP: There’s a craft beer shop inside the Silver Gulch Brewery in the airport past security. If you’re a carry-on traveler like me, you had to mind the liquids on the way back, but I was able to load up on both Midnight Sun and Arkose beer to take back to Phoenix with me.

Didn’t make it to this time,  but definitely would for next time:

  • Denali State Park – about a 2 1/2 hour drive north of Anchorage
  • Alaska Sealife Center (about 2 1/2 hour drive south of Anchorage

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