In late May and early June of 2011, my wife, our toddler, and I flew to Alaska for a two week driving tour of the Kenai Peninsula. Our itinerary was as follows:
2 nights in Anchorage
3 nights in Valdez
2 nights in Hope
3 nights in Seward
4 nights in Homer (includes a visit to Katmai National Park via float plane)
1 night in Anchorage
The weather during our trip varied from the low 70's to the mid 40's. I usually wore a hoodie with a sweater underneath. My wife who feels the cold more than I mostly wore her winter coat. We got lucky and only experienced a few days of mild rain. I packed bug spray to combat Alaska's notorious mosquitoes but we never really had a problem with them. Maybe they are not active in early June? We saw a few in Homer, Alaska but they were not very aggressive.
You may wonder why we skipped the famous Denali National Park on this visit. This park is only accessible by an 8 hour bus ride, something a restless toddler could not handle. Actually I'm not sure I would want to do a bus ride that long! I've heard that Denali is best visited by bicycle. A European tourist told us that when he visited Denali on a cycling tour of Alaska, he had a wolf galloping beside his bike for a bit of his visit.
My first impression of Anchorage was that it is an unattractive city set in a very attractive area. This probably due to the reconstruction after the 1964 earthquake. Most of the buildings are pretty uninspiring. I also noticed there are a lot of homeless people in the city, but for the most part the panhandling was not very aggressive. The city is full of your usual chains and strip malls; Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Barnes and Noble...
We stayed in the Embassy Suites our first few nights in Anchorage, their rooms have black out curtains which are a must for the almost 24 hours of sunlight in June (while the sun may have "set" around 11:30pm, it was never really dark in the middle of the night). Embassy Suites is located a few miles from downtown, you'll probably want a rental car if you stay here. I rented a car from the Avis Downtown as it was much cheaper than the airport (I walked the two miles to their office pick it up so I could see what part of the city looked like by foot). GPS is really not needed when driving the Kenai Peninsula as there are only a few major roads so it would be hard to get lost. I used Google maps a bit on my smart phone (I had a signal with T-Mobile in all of the towns we visited).
My wife and I rented bikes (including a trailer for our toddler) from Downtown Bike Rental and did a 20 mile loop of Anchorage. Most of the riding was on the Tony Knowles Coastal Bike trail. You can actually see quicksand from this trail! We also ran into a female moose and her young calf crossing the trail (while I see many moose during our trip, I never see a male moose. I wonder if they are overhunted?). Anchorage is supposed to be the fittest city in America and we saw evidence of this from the hundreds of people biking and jogging on the trail. It is warm enough in Anchorage while we were there to wear short sleeves!
Bike trail break in Anchorage, Alaska
Moose and baby seen on the Tony Knowles Coastal Bike trail in Anchorage, Alaska
Dining highlights in Anchorage for us were casual lunches at the Saqaya City Market (where it was warm enough to eat outside). They offer deli sandwiches, pizzas, and lattes as well as groceries. We also enjoyed more formal dining at both Sacks Cafe and Crush (both places are toddler friendly if you go for an early dinner). Crush in particular had an extensive beer and wine selection and great salads and pastas. It has a tapas-like menu and was the best meal I had in Alaska.
The drive from Anchorage to Valdez takes about 5 hours and is quite scenic. I had ordered a copy of the Milepost (an Alaskan driving guide) from Amazon.com and found it has lots of interesting tidbits about attractions along the way (and practical details such as locations of passing lanes and gas stations).
We stayed at the Brookside Inn in Valdez which unfortunately I cannot recommend. While the innkeeper was quite friendly, our room had flimsy blinds that did nothing to keep the light out. It was also quite hot in the room. So we all had trouble getting a good night's rest here.
Valdez is set in a lovely area surrounded by snow cap mountains. You'll need a clear day to see the views as sometimes low clouds come in and cover up everything. The highlight of our stay was a day cruise we did with Stan Stephens Cruises to visit Prince William Sound. We saw humpback whales, seals, otters, Dall's Porpoises, puffins, bald eagles, and glaciers (specifically Columbia Glacier) on the cruise. The scenery on the cruise was remarkable! If you go note that it is tricky to get good photos from a rocking boat. You'll also want to bring a winter coat as it is quite chilly out on the outside deck. Mr. Stan Stephens himself was the captain and guide on the ship. This is an all-day cruise that serves a light lunch. I didn't buy tickets in advance as I wanted to make sure we went out on a clear and sunny day if possible (which we did).
We also did a pleasant short hike in Valdez on the Goat Trail near the Bridal Veil falls and visited the Valdez museum.
Bald Eagle taking off from ice flow in Prince William Sound, Alaska
Humpback whale diving in Prince William Sound, Alaska
We ate at the decent Harbor View cafe in Valdez (mostly burgers on the menu, they have veggie burgers too) and ordered take-out pizza from Edgewater Grill (the only non-smoking bar in Valdez!). We saw a small cruise ship in port one day but never saw swarms of passengers in town. There is a Safeway grocery store in town if you need any supplies.
To get to tiny Hope we take a ferry from Valdez to Whittier. I booked our tickets in advance from the Alaska Marine Highway website. The ferry is huge and quite comfortable. You drive your car onto the bottom section and then move upstairs for the duration of the journey. We see several whales on the trip (but unlike Stan Stephens the ferry does not stop when they see wildlife). The ferry ends in Whittier, an odd town (in that almost every inhabitant of the town lives in an ugly 16 floor concrete tower). Make sure you are aware of what time the one-way tunnel out of Whittier opens or you may be sitting in your car for a while. The tunnel is also shared with trains and has to be aired out frequently. Our 3pm departure was delayed to about 3:20. On the drive to Hope we saw two young black bears running across the busy highway.
In Hope we stayed in the Black Bear B&B. It is a one bedroom cabin (there is a loft with two extra beds) owned by the affable Maggie (she lives alone with her dog Toby). I see a moose in the evening near the cabin. Our toddler loved all of the stuffed bears in the cabin and also walking over the foot bridge on the property (with a small stream underneath).
The big outdoor activity in Hope is Class 5 white water rafting. My wife booked a last minute trip with the company Nova and enjoyed it immensely. Nova actually requires that you jump in the water and swim down the river as a test before you can get in their raft (they provide dry suits to wear in the chilly water).
I kept my rental bike from Anchorage for the rest of our trip and enjoy riding along the Hope Highway (no bike lanes but very little traffic and a 45 mph speed limit). The Hope Highway has nice views of the Turnagain Arm. Maggie tells us that her dog chased a black bear off her property that morning. She is concerned that the bears are killing off all of the moose calves.
We ate in the cabin for our meals but there are few restaurants in tiny Hope. The grocery store is very small so make sure you have what you need before you get here (we stocked up at the Safeway in Valdez).
A light rain falls as we drive the 3 hour drive to Seward from Hope. We see a trumpeter swan and babies in a lake on the way. We stay at Angels Rest (a group of cabins) located just outside of town on Lowell Point which is accessed via a somewhat creepy dirt road. The first thing you see on Lowell Point are loose dogs near the R.V. park. Be careful as it is reported they have bitten some visitors. We stayed in the quiet Angels Rest triplex, the Angels Rest cabins on the water seem like a better option but they were booked up.
Oddly I have a great breakfast and latte at the local laundromat (Suds N Swirl on 3rd Ave) of all places (we also dropped a load of laundry off here, nice to get some clean clothes during a two week trip).
There is a bike trail around the town (riding to Exit Glacier road from Seward is a fine ride). We do one of my favorite short hikes of the trip-a visit to Exit Glacier. They had neat year markers that show where the glacier was in, say 1968.
We also visit the Seavey Ididaride Sled Dog tours. Seeing 75 huskies all barking and jumping to get put on the sled is a sight to see. We meet the puppies and get to ride on a wheeled practice sled pulled by 16 dogs.
Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska
Lowell Point Beach at Seward, Alaska
Food in Seward is o.k., nothing special. We ate at a Greek place called Apollo and in an old rail car at The Smoke Shack (neat vibe, decent food). The Sea Bean serves good lattes.
The drive to Homer is not far distance-wise but takes a while due to the high number of slow moving RVs on the two lane road. Along the way we stop at River City Books (also a cafe) in Soldotna for lunch on their back patio and also look at a Russian Church in Ninilchik.
Our lodging in Homer is at the Ocean Side Inn, a great place to stay with a views overlooking Kacemak Bay and the snow capped mountains beyond. Bald Eagles are quite common in Homer, so have your camera ready. There is a large nest near the corner of Sterling Hwy and Lake St that you may notice while driving by.
Dining options we tried were Fat Olives (good Italian food), Boardwalk Bakery (great place to get boxed lunches for day outings such as visiting Katmai National Park), Sourdough Express (breakfast complete with outdoor sandbox if you have kids), Finn's Pizza (great pizza and fabulous views from the Spit), Cosmic Kitchen (good burritos and falafels), Cafe Cups (high end dining, good stuff), and Captains Coffee (best lattes in Alaska that I sampled).
I really enjoyed biking to the end of Homer Spit and back (about a 10 mile ride), there is a dedicated bike path for most of it and then the speed limit is 25 mph so you can ride on the road for the last bit. We also did a nice hike at the Wynn Nature Center (saw a moose while hiking) and enjoyed playing on Homer's many beaches with our toddler. Homer was my favorite Alaskan town we visited.
Biking to end of Homer Spit, Homer, Alaska
Old ship in Homer Spit, Homer, Alaska
So the main reason we are spent 4 days in Homer was in hopes of catching a flight to Katmai National Park (famous for large numbers of grizzly bears). I reserved spots for my wife and me in advance via Bald Mountain Air's website. I know that these small planes often have to cancel their flights due to weather and sure enough when I go down to the dock of the float plane during my first reserved flight, the pilot tells me the trip has been scrubbed (the weather was fine in Homer but apparently terrible in Katmai).
But thankfully the next day the flight takes off as planned. The owner of Bald Mountain Air flies us (a group of 11) to Hallo Bay in Katmai and through the windows of the plane we see several bears on the ground below. He and the copilot have a hard time maneuvering the float plane into a spot where we can reach shore. We are given hip waders and rain pants and wade through soggy marshes and shallow rivers for a bit until we come across two young male grizzlies fighting and feeding. We sit opposite the river bank from them and are pretty much ignored by the bears as they tussle and then eat grass (salmon are not running yet). We are instructed by our guide to always follow his lead when around the bears. Sometimes we will be walking and he will tell us to sit down as when bears seem to not like our vibe (bears don't care for any behavior that resembles stalking).
After a while of watching those two bears we continue hiking and suddenly see a bear peeking over a wood pile at us. This bear doesn't like our company and slowly wanders off, but we later see him snoozing by the river bank. We see a few more bears in the distance. The three bears near us sometimes get within 15 to 20 feet of us.
My wife takes the trip the next day and sees fox and a wolf on her visit, as well as numerous bears (more bears than I saw, nature is never consistent). We took turns watching our toddler on Homer when we visited Katmai as it is no place for a child. For me, visiting Katmai is the highlight of our trip to Alaska and I'd love to return someday for a few days camping in the park.
Bald Mountain Air Float Plane at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Grizzly Bear peeking over log pile at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Grizzly Bears fighting at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Grizzly Bear at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Grizzly Bear in background at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Our last day of vacation we drive back to Anchorage, have an o.k. lunch at Charlottes in Kenai on the way back and also visit the tiny Russian Church there. Homewood Suites is where we stay our last night in Anchorage, they have nice quiet and dark suites to get some shut-eye in.
We really enjoyed our two weeks in Alaska. My wife and I would like to go back in the future and visit Denali and some of the other more remote spots (hopefully when our child is old enough for summer camp!).