Alaska Travelogue Part 2 – Anchorage

Day 1 – Anchorage

We set off at 4:30 am with the largest amount of luggage we have ever taken on a trip. I hate traveling “heavy” and to my horror cold weather clothes, raingear and fancy dinner wear for the cruise were bulging from the only 4 suitcases we own.  And yes, we ended up wearing or using everything we brought! Thankfully John is a frequent business traveler so we could check bags for free. His mileage status also got us upgraded to first class, so our trip started off on a very happy note. We gave up our usual aisle seats to take in what I hoped would be hour upon hour of gorgeous views of the Midwest and the Canadian Rockies, but alas what I got was hour upon hour of dense cloud cover. However, once we approached Alaska the clouds gave way and we got our first glimpse of snow-covered, ice carved mountains that seemed to go on forever.

Our first glimpse of Alaska

Our first glimpse of Alaska

I was immediately impressed with the sheer enormity of it all. Alaska’s mountains are nothing like North Carolina’s timeworn, densely wooded Blue Ridge Mountains, whose gently rolling, misty peaks invite you to take a leisurely walk or a scenic drive, or simply to sit and rock a spell. No, these mountains looked wild and fierce, like they just exploded into existence only a short while ago.  There is nothing leisurely or gentle about them at all. Our flight path also took us over Prince William Sound where we would be cruising the next day, and from my travel planning I recognized College Fjord. It was fascinating to see it from the air beforehand – our first little bit of flightseeing!

Right from the get-go Alaska turned out to be nothing like what I expected, but so, so much better. I was surprised at what an attractive airport Anchorage has. It is full of beautiful artwork and there are taxidermied animals all over the place! Ordinarily that whole “hunting animals for sport alone” thing gets on my nerves, but it is what it is. The innkeeper where we stayed told us the airport had recently been completely redone and it shows. If you ever find yourself there, don’t bolt out the doors for your rental car or your cruise transfer – take a few minutes to stroll around and enjoy the exhibits.

Life Tip: If You Ask for What You Want Nicely, You Just Might Get Something Even Better! – When we originally booked the trip it was just going to be John and I. About 2 weeks before the trip my sister Cristal decided she was going to go for it and join us on the cruise and Vancouver portions of our trip. I know! I thought I was hardcore spontaneous for booking this trip only a month in advance! Anyway, Miss Cristal will join our adventure late on Day 2, so stay tuned for her arrival. The travel agent told me renting cars in Alaska was expensive, so I just had her reserve a compact car. We wouldn’t be in it much and I am tight with a buck. But now with Cristal and a mountain of luggage coming along I knew I had to upgrade to something much bigger. A few days before our trip I was surprised to find that a search on Travelocity showed every size car from compact to full-size was the same price – and that the prices had come down so much that a full-size car was now less than the compact I had originally reserved. Again, it always pays to keep checking prices, especially when you can cancel an existing resi for free. When we arrived at Enterprise to pick up our full-size car, we asked the agent if she had any  that would hold 3 people and a lot of luggage. She looked at her inventory, handed us a set of keys, smiled and said “it’s a surprise; I think you’ll like it.” We walked outside to find a Nissan Pathfinder waiting for us – another sweet, free upgrade! This trip is ON A ROLL!

A Clean, Comfortable and Convenient B&B – The travel agent also warned me that hotels in Anchorage are very expensive and we should expect to pay over $200/nite for anything better than a “flea trap”. We always stay in bed & breakfasts (B&Bs) when possible, so I checked out a few options online and after reading lots of reviews settled on Jewel Lake B&B. The prices I found for Anchorage B&B’s were generally lower than those for “decent” hotels, which is one of the many reasons we prefer B&Bs when we travel. Jewel Lake is less than 10 minutes from the airport, is on a main thoroughfare in Anchorage and minutes away from stores, restaurants and the Seward Highway (AK1), the main road out of Anchorage. Another plus is that this B&B allows you to cook your own lunch or dinner in the downstairs kitchen. We didn’t take advantage of that feature, but it would be a great way to save $ on meals. It is true – eating in restaurants in Anchorage is markedly more expensive than in the Lower 48. We paid $30 for the two of us to each have a ½ sandwich and a (tiny) cup of soup lunch combo with iced tea at Doriolas, a decent little café (which I found on TripAdvisor, natch). Jewel Lake is not the fanciest B&B we’ve stayed in, but it was clean, comfy, convenient, well-priced and there was plenty of variety at breakfast.

John and our sweet ride at the B&B – ready to head out for some hiking

We’re Continuing a Trend: The Best Hike of My Life, But Not What I Expected – after lunch we set off to hike up 3,500 ft. Flattop Mountain, Anchorage’s most popular day hike, and according to Wikipedia the most climbed mountain in Alaska. All the reviews (yes, they review hiking trails on TripAdvisor) I read said “easy hike except for the last few hundred yards”.  First, I was expecting to be hiking in a spruce forest (I guess I thought the mountains would be like the Canadian Rockies I’ve visited in British Columbia and Alberta). Second, I was expecting an easy hike except for the last few hundred yards! I will say that if you are extremely fit and quite fond of your Stair Master, this 3 mile hike will be right in your wheelhouse. If you hit the gym a few times a week like John and I do, this will be a challenging but quite doable hike (tho both of us were sore for a couple days). Couch potatoes need not apply. Seriously, you and your Hoverround will not make it out of the parking lot.

When we pulled into the Glen Alps parking lot where the trail is accessed, we saw a mountain waaaaaaaay in the distance which had, well, a flat top. We both thought, “there is no way that is the mountain we will be hiking up.” Sho ‘nuff it was. The trail starts off with a staircase, and there will be many, many more of them to come. We huffed and puffed our way through the first stage on the trail (the easiest!), and I was amazed to find myself not in a dense forest, but in a gorgeous tundrascape, with views for miles and miles in all directions. Reaching the end of the first stage rewarded us with beautiful views of Anchorage and the surrounding mountains and valleys.

View of Anchorage from the end of the first stage

View of Anchorage from the end of the first stage

This was our first taste of a land of great scale and great contrasts. Towering, jagged mountains stood shoulder to shoulder as far as we could see to the north, south and east, and the Pacific Ocean spread out to the western horizon, but we were surrounded by a kind of subarctic pixieland of miniature spruce trees, hearty grasses and groundcovers, berries, mosses, lichens and delicate, colorful alpine wildflowers. I loved it!

A small grassy area with Arnicas, Campanulas, Aenemonies and Yarrow

Bearberry (red foliage) and Crowberry

Cow Parsnips

We decided to press on to the next stage of the trail, which grew more and more difficult, but the scenery was so beautiful and it was a perfect, sunny day. The trail is very well maintained but often steep and rocky, and I was encouraged that we weren’t the only ones stopping every few hundred yards to catch our breath. At each stage we read signs which bore increasingly stern warnings about the terrain ahead (the last one pretty much said “I’d turn back if I were you”), but we kept pressing ahead. I’m going to say it right here – all that Zumba and Muscle Class really paid off, but don’t tell John I said that, because he dragged me kicking and screaming to the Y.

A rare flat section on the second stage

We did not make it to the very tippy top because the last hundred yards involved scrambling straight up some very steep, jagged rocks. I knew I could get up there, but I was afraid of slipping and falling on the way down. Not wanting to start our vacation off with a broken ankle or worse, we perched ourselves about 2/3 of the way up the last section and enjoyed the views. The climb down from where we perched ourselves confirmed that we had wisely gone as far as our mountaineering skills would safely take us. The descent is actually what got me sore for a few days – it was so steep in places it just killed my shins.

Another view of Anchorage from the much easier way down

Dinner with a Show! – Our original plan was to grab something at the market to cook in the B&B kitchen, but neither of us was tired so we decided to go out. In the mood for sushi, a quick look on Yelp pointed us to Yamaya in downtown Anchorage. Once again we were confronted with the unexpected. This place is tiny, and the teensiest bit shall we say rugged? on the outside (get used to it, that is pretty much how Alaska rolls), but we ventured in. The whole place is about the size of my living room and it was packed out with Japanese people, all speaking Japanese, who ALL turned to stare at the two crackers who just stepped thru the curtain. When everyone literally stops eating and turns to stare at you, that is your cue to kindly get to steppin’. Just as I was about to grab John’s arm and yank him back outside a friendly guy at the microscopic sushi bar beckoned us to take the last two seats in the place. Mr. Bob is a 30 year Anchorage resident and a long-time Yamaya regular, and he was our delightful dinner companion for the evening.

Yamaya is run by an older Japanese couple and their granddaughter. Grampa-san is the only cook, and he makes each diner their food one item at a time (be prepared for a leisurely affair). The kitchen is open to say the least, so you can see the whole show. Gramma-san is one no-foolery-tolerated memaw, and she will take your order and tell you what is what in no uncertain terms. If the tables are full and she doesn’t want any more customers, she will tell you to step somewhere else for dinner. If you are eating and ordering too fast for Grampa-san to keep up, she will tell you to slow yourself down. All of this is done without leaving her perch behind the sushi bar. She’d be a lot more threatening if she were over 4 feet tall or weighed more than 75 lbs., but trust me, TONE is everything! If Bob had not been there giving her as good as he got, I would have been a little freaked out by this family theater.

The menu was chock full of things we’d never heard of before, so we followed Bob’s recommendations and had some absolutely wonderful sushi and rice dishes, and Grampa-san was also gracious enough to stir fry me up something I was craving but which was not on the menu. We did pass on one of Bob’s recommendations, and deftly sidestepped his generous offer to let us sample his. He was drinking a house special sake, some regional Japanese treat I guess, which consisted of pouring your bottle of sake into a tin cup and steeping a, wait for it, charred fish head in it. I was all for trying it (for real) until I got a whiff of it. It smelled as good as it sounds! All in all, dinner with our new friend Bob at Yamaya’s was the perfect ending to our perfect first day in Alaska, which was a foretaste of what we would experience every day in Alaska: gorgeous scenery, fabulous seafood and super-friendly locals who are passionate about their home state and love to share it with others.

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  • carmelsmom  On September 29, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    Your storytelling is very descriptive and entertaining, my little crackersan. You should consider writing a travel log for your newspaper.


    • E H Whitesides  On September 29, 2012 at 3:02 PM

      Thanks…just wait till the stories are about you! : )


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