Alaska, The Last Frontier (or How to do Alaska on the Quick & Relatively Cheap and Not Freeze to Death!)

Back in late April, I went to Anchorage, Alaska for three days. Three days you say??!!  It’s definitely doable but it would depend on your origination airport. Living in Minneapolis, it’s a five-hour direct flight so that's not unreasonable. I wasn't necessarily planning a trip to Alaska but caught a Delta sale to travel during the off season for $400 (be flexible with your travel dates and destinations so you can take advantage of these special sales when they pop up, it required leaving and returning before May 5 so I left April 21). So decided to go for it since it is somewhere I've wanted to check out but usually the price is prohibitive (summer fares tend to range over $700 & up). Usually once I buy my airfare, I start the planning for how to best spend my time on my Pinterest page for collecting ideas. I knew I wanted to experience the local scene, eat some seafood, check out sea life and see the beauty that Alaska is known for. 

Six weeks later, I packed a small suitcase and off I went. I had booked a car with Avis since I typically use them and they offer rentals at reasonable prices. The weather was in the mid-50s but it wasn’t bad since it had been that temperature in Minneapolis only a few weeks earlier. I wore my fleece jacket and stayed warm (although I would suggest some light gloves since the hands will usually get cold first, especially for those who live in warmer states). I stayed at the Quality Suites Historic Downtown in Anchorage which was a quick drive from the airport and, only spent $66/night with free continental breakfast. I spent my first day checking out the downtown core. The Anchorage Museum was two blocks from the hotel and was amazing. They have some fantastic regional art and great exhibits on the different tribes of the local Inuit people/Native Alaskans. Bonus: I got free admission since they had a generous corporate sponsor pay for visitors that day. And for the shoppers, there is a mall smack dab in the middle of downtown with five floors. Plenty to do near/in the city center.

And for those who were thinking but afraid to ask...yes, there are Black people there. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity. I understand there's a military base nearby so that probably is contributing to the numbers. At 5 pm, my belly started talking out loud and that’s when I realized that my stomach thought it was 8 pm due to the three-hour time difference. So found Humpy's Great Alaska Steakhouse a few blocks from the hotel that had crab rolls that I really wanted (after all it's Alaska...king crab anyone?). Between that and two beers I blew through $35 so make sure you budget extra for food there especially if you desire seafood. After traveling in and walking most of the day, I was beat and crashed at 9 pm (remember it was midnight CT in my brain) even though the sun hadn’t set yet since it remained daylight until 10 pm. I made sure I ate well for breakfast before driving down to Seward in the morning.  

Once you’re out of Anchorage it’s a gorgeous drive with mountain views all the way down on the Seward Highway. It had started raining early into the drive so the views were a bit diminished with the clouds but still worth stopping at a number of scenic lots. I built in enough time to pull off the road often. As I went up into the mountains, it started snowing and it was so pretty but there was nowhere to pull off the road that was safe to snap a photo or video. Two hours later, I arrived in Seward which is a small town on the southern coast on the Gulf of Alaska to catch a whale watching tour. The good people at Kenai Fjords Cruises were great in getting us settled on the boat and off we went. Initially we saw a sea otter chilling on its back (so cute!) and then bald eagles out in Seward Harbor. We probably had sailed for about 30 minutes when we were served lunch and shortly afterwards the Orca whales started appearing in Resurrection Bay. Even the crew was excited because they hadn’t seen any whales since it was early in the season. One crew member started jumping around because he saw a mother and its cub swimming near the boat. But it was chilly out on the bay with strong winds and rain so didn’t spend a lot of time out on the deck except to get footage as best as you can when you don’t know where/when the whales will appear. After seeing about six Orcas, we began the return trip. The crew handed out warm chocolate chip cookies as a treat. A few passengers, including myself, dozed off on the ride back. The tour is about four hours total which was perfect. I highly recommend them, very knowledgeable about marine life in the area and they took us by a yurt village stuck into a cove that caters to fishing enthusiasts.

Once we docked, I headed to my accommodations which was a five minute drive from the marina. I stayed in a unique lodging situation in Seward, it looked like a small office building called Trailhead Lodging but once you went inside it looked like a home…a pleasant surprise and it was cheap at $80/night in the shoulder season. You use a pin code to enter the building and there was a chandelier in the hallway with three doors. I had the large room in the back with cable TV and free WiFi that I found on the AARP Travel Center (proud carrying card member of AARP!). Seward is a destination for many warm weather tourists since they have whale-watching, fishing, hiking, sailing and other outdoor activities so the town gets extremely busy starting in May through August. I was told I hit the sweet spot time, no crowds and no paying the premium prices for the spring/summer. After getting situated in my room, I went to one of the few open restaurants on the main street, Apollo Restaurant, and had a wonderful seafood mix of prawns, halibut, scallops, mussels and clams in a saffron lobster fumet served over linguini. The place was empty with the exception of me and two other people so my food came fast. Delicious...the bill came up to $50 including a beer. My server was very nice and we had good conversation as she kept coming over to check on me. After dinner, I just went back to the Trailhead to relax after a long but exciting day. There was a small coffee shop called Resurrect Art Coffee House that looked a small church across the street so walked over for a light breakfast. I took a little time before driving back to Anchorage to check out the town of Seward since there is a waterfront park overlooking Resurrection Bay with a walking trail and again, the views of the mountains were spectacular and a perfect way to start the morning. It's a cute little town and they have some nice shops along with the Alaska SeaLife Center research institute. I would go back to Seward during the summer season for a longer visit to enjoy some of the other activities like zip lining and kayaking. I should mention that if you're not down for driving the Seward Highway, the Alaska Railroad will take you from Anchorage to Seward. Seward is a walkable town so as long as you have somewhere to stow your bags before check-in at your accommodation or cruise, you don't necessarily need a car since there is a free city shuttle that will take you around town. 

On my way back I wanted to stop at the Kenai Fjords National Park on the way back since it's just outside of Seward. I knew the park was still closed but wanted to get a glimpse of the area. I had considered walking a short trail but when I saw the sign about making noise for the bears(!), I opted out since I was by myself. But I did get some nice photos with the mountains and water. Heading back the sun was finally out so I got a much better view of the mountains and surrounding scenery. I think I stopped as much heading back as I did driving down for the photo ops. But 20 miles outside of Anchorage, I made a detour and went to up to Flattop Mountain. When I tell you it was a white knuckle drive with very steep roads as you go up and a number of hairpin turns, this is NOT the drive for you if you have height issues. At one point, I felt like the car would tip over backwards. But once at the trailhead, it’s $5 for parking and the entrance is free. There are a few walking trails, I took the 1.5-mile one that offers panoramic views of the city. It was extremely windy up there even though I had on a puffy coat (I highly recommend having one, it's crushable and packs easy since weather can change in a heartbeat in the area), almost lost my hat twice with the wind. I didn’t stay long since there was still some snow/ice on the trail which made for a slippery walk because I was wearing my Chucks and it was better suited for boots. After getting back to Anchorage, I stopped at a local Black-owned restaurant, Roscoe’s Catfish & Barbecue just off the city center. Roscoe’s is a soul food institution in Anchorage and he has a lot of celebrity customer photos hanging up on the walls. I enjoyed catfish with red beans & rice, fried okra and a cornbread muffin. After visiting a few parks and another museum, it was time to leave for the airport. While in the gate area, I met a couple who I recognized from the whale watching boat and they also live in Minnesota. We exchanged numbers and have kept in touch. New friends can be found everywhere! Have you ever kept in contact with someone that you met during your travels? Overall, a wonderful trip to see it and I would say this is an easy trip with some planning, I would tell anyone to visit there. Is Alaska on your travel bucket list?