I’ve cruised Alaska twice, which I thought was pretty good, until I met a couple from the Midwest this spring that had done 25 Alaskan cruises! Yes, TWENTY-FIVE! I was impressed but not surprised: Alaska is one of the few cruise destinations that I want to revisit several more times. There’s just so much to see and do!
Before I continue, let me tell you why I will go back to Alaska as often as I can. I could list many reasons: the incredible natural beauty, the wildlife, the different cultures, and so on. But the real reason I love Alaska is that I have YET to meet an unfriendly Alaskan! I’m not kidding. I’ve actually TRIED to find one, but so far, I’ve failed. These are the most genuine, most honest, and friendliest people I have EVER met. I will be going back as often as I can.
I’m going to do individual posts for all the places I’ve visited on my Alaska cruises, because there’s a lot of information (and pictures) I want to share about each place. This post is about Anchorage, the largest city in the state.
(Anchorage skyline from the sea: photo courtesy of alaska.org)
Be aware of one important thing about visiting Anchorage: the summer (tourist) season doesn’t start until Mother’s Day (in May). If you get there before that, lots of sites may not be open yet, or have limited hours.
I booked the first cruise leaving from from Alaska this year (May 2017). I had never visited Anchorage, so I flew in a few days early, so that I could really get to know the area a bit. Cruises that list Anchorage as their starting point in fact depart from either Seward or Whittier. I’m not sure why they don’t use the Port of Anchorage, unless it may be that it’s just too far from the main Alaska cruise destinations.
With a population of around 300,000, Anchorage has 40% of Alaska’s population! Alaska became a US territory in 1912, and Anchorage was first settled in 1914 as a railroad and construction port for the Alaska Engineering Commission.
(Alaska Railroad depot, taken from my hotel window. The old engine in front has a very interesting history: it was originally used on the building of the Panama Canal, and then brought to Alaska in 1917 when the Canal was finished.)
This station is where you’d board the Denali Express trains run by Princess and other cruise lines.
I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Anchorage. I chose it because of the location, as I wanted a place close to the main sights in Downtown. I was very pleased with the hotel. The room was large, and it really WAS centrally located! One of the really cool things about this hotel is that they deliver a sack breakfast and a newspaper to your room every morning (included in the room price!) The breakfast included a granola bar, yoghurt, juice, and fruit. It was a nice way to start the day!
Because it was planned and settled by the railroad company, Anchorage is one of the most organized and easy-to-get-around cities I’ve ever visited. The downtown area (the oldest part of the city) is organized on a grid system: the east-west streets are the avenues, and the north-south streets were lettered (A, B, etc.) The first street, First Avenue, was of course where the railroad depot was built. It’s always easy to get around in another way, too: the mountains are EAST and the ocean is WEST. So when you’re on an avenue, you always know which way is which! You’d have a tough time getting lost downtown.
(Map of downtown, showing the Grand Hotel and the Visitors Bureau. Many of the main tourist sites are located along 4th and 5th Avenues, so you can see how close the Grand Hotel is! Photo courtesy of Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau)
You can refer to the map when I mention places to visit. You’ll see how easy it is to get around, and how close everything is.
The first stop for anyone visiting Anchorage is the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center (546 West 4th Avenue.) There is a much larger (and more modern) Visitor Information Center right next door to the Log Cabin, but walking into the Log Cabin will make you realize that you are indeed in Alaska! The people that work there all wear traditional Inuit clothing, and could NOT be friendlier! One of the ladies I met there was a retired sled dog musher, and she had one of her dogs with her in the Log Cabin! You can’t get more authentically Alaskan than that! The dog (named Denali!) was very friendly, and everyone got to pet her and enjoy her. Kids went wild when they saw that dog! My only regret is that I didn’t get a photo of Denali: I was too busy playing with her!
This is where you can get your city map, information about local transportation, and day trips from Anchorage. They even sell Log Cabin fridge magnets! 🙂
Once you’ve visited the Log Cabin, your next stop should be diagonally across the street! The Log Cabin is on the corner, and northwest of the Log Cabin is a big white building called the Federal Building. (It LOOKS like a government building, so you won’t have any trouble picking it out!) The building houses courtrooms and other federal offices, but the door closest to the Log Cabin leads to the “Alaska Public Lands Information Center”. When you enter the building, you have to go through security and a metal detector, like in an airport, but it’s a VERY quick process.
This is possibly the most amazing place in Anchorage. It is run by the State of Alaska and by rangers from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. You could literally spend HOURS here, learning all about Alaska. There are exhibits on Alaska’s geology, geography, history, native peoples, and wildlife. You can view dozens of old photographs that show what life was like a century ago. There is an animal scavenger hunt for the kids, where they can collect animal stamps for a little souvenir passport. There are also some amazing stuffed Alaskan animals, and fur samples to touch. They also have a great gift shop with very reasonable prices.
If you collect the National Parks and National Forests stamps, you can get several here, including the Lake Clark Preserve and the Iditarod National Historic Trail stamps. The kids can even become Junior Rangers!
Speaking of the Iditarod race, Anchorage is the traditional starting point of this 1,000 mile race that begins in early March.
For me, the highlight of the Alaska Public Lands Information Center is the theatre! Movies are constantly being shown, and if you get there and want to see a particular one, just ask a ranger and they’ll put it on the schedule. There is a poster listing all the movies right by the ranger desk. The movies, like all the other information here, are free! Here’s a list of the movies you can see:
Alaska’s Coolest Animals (26 minutes) (KIDS LOVE THIS ONE!)
Narrated by a young boy, this charming film provides spectacularly fun footage of some of Alaska’s coolest wildlife! This Emmy Award-winning film is suitable for all ages.
Alaska’s Wild Legacy (14 minutes)
Join former President Jimmy Carter, former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, and others as they discuss the unique history of public lands in Alaska
Heartbeats of Denali (17 minutes)
From the ruggedness of North America’s tallest peak to the delicate eco-system in the low-lying tundra, this film explores one of America’s wildest landscapes through all four seasons.
Alaska Railroad History (14 minutes)
This film provides a brief history of the construction and operations of America’s only state-owned railroad.
The Day the Earth Shook (27 minutes) (THIS MOVIE IS EXCELLENT!)
Filled with survival testimonials and historical footage, this gripping film recounts Alaska’s 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America.
Bears and Volcanoes of Katmai (28 minutes)
Explore the extreme remoteness of Katmai National Park, while observing the greatest population of brown bears in the world!
Gold Fever: Race to the Klondike (26 Minutes) (PERFECT IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE GOLD RUSH.)
This high definition documentary illustrates the rich history of the Klondike Gold Rush and its impact on Alaska.
The video, “Alaska’s Coolest Animals”, is narrated by a young boy, and really is something you should see if you’re in Anchorage! Here’s a video clip:
I actually went back to the Information Center several different times during my four days in Alaska, because there were so many exhibits to see!
When you exit the Federal Building, turn RIGHT and follow 4th Avenue west (towards the water.) Along the way, you will see an office building on the right with some modern (but very beautiful) totem poles in front. Take a moment to learn about them: you’ll be seeing a lot of them in Alaska!
Continue on 4th Avenue to L Street (the last major cross street) and turn right again. Just ahead, on the left, you will come to Resolution Park and the Captain James Cook monument. Cook’s statue looks out towards the Cook Inlet, which he was exploring with his ship, HMS Resolution, in 1778. He was searching in vain for the Northwest Passage. Cook himself never came to the site of Anchorage, but he had sent on his ship’s master, William Bligh, to explore the area. (The name William Bligh might be familiar: this was the same William Bligh who later became infamous as the captain of the HMS Bounty, of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame.) The little park has some nice benches to admire the mountains in the distance, and I’m told that, on clear days, you can see Denali (Mt. McKinley) from here. (I had no such luck!) There is also a large metal chart on the deck, showing the names and locations of all the major mountains that you can see from here. The locals say that this inlet is a great place to see orcas (killer whales) but again, I had no luck.
Head back to 4th Avenue and turn left (head east, toward the mountains). On your right you’ll come to a great little diner that has good prices, great food, and friendly service. It’s the “Sandwich Deck Restaurant” on 400 K Street. It’s not the most famous place eating place in town, but I loved it. The teriyaki burger was AMAZING!
Anchorage doesn’t have a “Hop On Hop Off” bus: they have something much better — the Anchorage Trolley! It’s a family-run and owned business: the guy selling the tickets is probably the son of the guy driving the trolley! It leaves from right in front of the Log Cabin (on F Street) and you buy the tickets from the guy there. (Don’t worry, you’ll know him when you see him!) This ride was GREAT. We got to see all kinds of sights that you’d miss otherwise: Earthquake Park, the largest float plane “airport” in the world, and the neighborhoods where regular Alaskans live. $20 for adults and $10 for kids and it’s worth every penny. The stories of the driver alone were worth the price! If you miss the Trolley, you really haven’t seen Anchorage, I’d say!
If you’re going to be in Anchorage on Saturday or Sunday anytime between mid-May and mid-September, you will definitely not want to miss the Anchorage Market and Festival. It’s held on an open area just up the street from the Grand Hotel (on 225 E. 3rd Avenue). Saturdays it’s open from 10 AM to 6 PM, and Sundays it’s going from 10-5. Every local I spoke with told me not to miss it, that this was THE PLACE to get genuine native Alaskan art and handicrafts, and they were right! There were food booths from every corner of the globe, lots of craftspeople, and plenty to see and do (and buy!) There was even a large tent, where a family of sled dog mushers had set up a little photo studio. You could dress up in different types of clothing (native, gold miners, mushers, etc.) and then pose for pictures with some of their dogs. The market is a great place for kids too: there are lots of activities to keep them busy. There is a stage with entertainers all weekend, and restroom facililties. There’s even an ATM at the market!
(Just one of the many weird and wacky food places at the Market! I had some Hawaiian donuts: I was skeptical until I bit into one, and then I was in Heaven!)
I totally recommend the Anchorage Market, but if you’re looking for the same kinds of local craftspeople at lower prices, walk up the street less than a block to the Anchorage Indoor Market! It’s nowhere near as big as its neighbor, but you’ll find some great buys and have more chances to actually talk with the people that make the items. The other good thing about the Indoor Market is that it’s open on Friday as well as Saturday and Sunday, 10-6 each day. The Indoor Market is located at 333 W. 4th Avenue.
(There were a few craftspeople that set up shop on the sidewalk outside the Indoor Market and this lady had the BEST soap I’ve ever smelled! She was also incredibly friendly and does an impersonation of Lily Tomlin’s telephone operator that had me falling down laughing!)
(Another crafty lady at work outside the Indoor Market. She made some amazing jewelry but also did little things with felt. She was just finishing this moose, which I loved so much I bought it!)
The Anchorage Museum (625 C Street) is a must for anyone that wants to learn more about the history and culture of this city. One of the highlights for me was their planetarium: they have different shows nearly every day (and night)! It’s a great place to relax and unwind after a long day of touring! Check out the museum’s website for all the planetarium shows and the different exhibits showing in the museum.
(One of the planetarium’s regular shows is called “Space Odyssey.” It features news and updates on space exploration, missions and so on. Photo courtesy of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmussen Center.)
One other place that absolutely MUST be on your “bucket list” for Anchorage is the Alaska Native Heritage Center. It’s not downtown BUT there’s a free shuttle bus that runs from Anchorage Museum to the Center (and back to the museum). In fact, you can even buy a combination ticket at the museum, that covers admission to BOTH places!
It’s hard to describe adequately how great this place is, and what you can see and do. So I’ll just shamelessly quote the Center’s webpage: “What You Will See and Experience — THE ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER IS A PREMIER CULTURAL CENTER SHARING THE RICH HERITAGE OF ALASKA’S 11 MAJOR CULTURAL GROUPS. VISITORS EXPERIENCE ALASKA NATIVE CULTURE FIRST-HAND THROUGH ENGAGING STORYTELLING, AUTHENTIC NATIVE SONG AND DANCE, ARTIST DEMONSTRATIONS, NATIVE GAMES DEMONSTRATIONS AND MORE. UNIQUE OPPORTUNITIES TO INTERACT AND PARTICIPATE CREATE AN ENLIGHTENING EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE FOR YOUNG AND OLD ALIKE.”
One of the greatest things about this place is that it’s not just old people showing their culture: the young people are learning from their elders, so that their cultures won’t die off. I think that’s really cool.
Here’s the Center’s official YouTube video: it will give you a quick but good idea of what you can see and do here!
There is a lot more to see in Anchorage, but I ran out of time! I hope you enjoyed reading about what I got to see and do there!