September 9, 2002
Itinerary: Alaska Southbound
We wanted to spend some time in Alaska before our cruise, so we narrowed the field to southbound cruises. After much debate, much on-line research, and many conversations with our travel agent (Fred Lanyard), we decided to skip Denali. After that decision, it was easy to decide that we would handle the land tour ourselves, as opposed to using a cruise line land tour. The Denali and Fairbanks tours seem to me to be a lot of planes, trains and buses over most of 3 days for the possibility of seeing a moose and a mountain in the distance. Instead, we decided to rent a car from Anchorage and drive to Homer, then to Seward.
For our Alaska land tour, we decided on 2 nights in Anchorage, 2 nights in Homer, and a night in Seward. For Anchorage, we consulted biddingfortravel.com before using Priceline. We got booked into the Anchorage Sheraton. We also used Priceline to book a nice hotel in Vancouver for a bargain. I was very happy with this and highly recommend biddingfortravel.com for hotels (I have no affiliation and get no kickbacks). In Homer we booked a B&B we found on a web search. And in Seward we booked the Edgewater hotel directly. The rental car was a little harder to research. I called some local firms but they did not inspire confidence, and were not much cheaper than Hertz. Hertz builds the drop-off fee into the daily rate so it’s hard to compare but I went with Hertz for something like $80/day for 4 days for a Ford Focus.
We booked the cruise with Fred about 60 days prior to departure. Fred found a great rate of about $500 per person inclusive of all fees and credits for an inside cabin. We booked airfare using frequent flier miles on Continental. Even the flights were quite reasonable costing 25,000 miles each. Looks like quite an inexpensive vacation!
The flight from Newark to Alaska was relaxing. There were spectacular views of mountains and glaciers while the sun was low in the sky. There was also a pretty sunset on the flight home from Vancouver, so having my new camera with me, I documented it.
We found Anchorage to be nice for walking, though some parts might be intimidating to some people after dark. Fortunately, during tourist season it doesn’t get dark till quite late. We arrived at our hotel around 9 PM, and it was still dusk, so we took a walk towards the tourist information center hoping to find a decent dinner. We found something, though not particularly memorable.
We really only spent one full day in Anchorage before sleeping and heading to Homer, so we saw the Alaska State Museum, which was worthwhile, and “The Alaska Experience” which was a tourist-trap rip-off. We ate at the Glacier Brewing Company, which came highly recommended, but we didn’t think it was particularly good.
The next morning, a very friendly guy from Hertz picked me up with our rental car. While driving to his office to do paperwork, he said he loved the Kenai Peninsula and halibut fishing. Then we were off to the peninsula.
The drive to Homer starts out on the Alaska Highway along Turnagain Arm. The “highway” is a smooth 2-lane road that would be like a county road in New Jersey. The beginning of the trip to Homer was along the same route that would go to Seward. It seemed that half of the traffic was comprised of cruise line coaches. The Highway also parallels the railroad, where we saw the cruise line rail cars going by.
We stopped at several turn-offs around Beluga Point, and were lucky enough to see a group of about 8-12 belugas going by. The turn-off quickly filled with cars and buses once one person pointed at the water.
We stopped at Portage Glacier, which was a small diversion near Whittier. It was interesting but not the most memorable glacier of the trip. There was a good, educational visitor center.
We stopped in Alyeska for a late breakfast. There was a cozy mom-n-pop bakery / coffee shop. It was very popular, and we had an interesting conversation with some locals who joined us at our table. I don’t remember what I ate, but I do remember ordering a second portion.
Near Alyeska was the Crow Creek Gold Mine. We stopped there to pan for gold. There is still (what appears to be) active commercial gold digging at this site. The dirt road to the mine was part of the Iditarod trail, and I was a little afraid we were going to need a dog team to pull our little car out of a pothole. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the old buildings and artifacts here made for some of the most scenic photos of the whole trip. There was light rain, but we were by ourselves in the river and had a great time enjoying the whole experience. It was near the end of the tourist season, and I don’t know if this would have been as much fun in a summer crowd. We only found the gold that was “seeded” into our pans.
Then we headed out into the Kenai Peninsula. We drove through the tiny town of Hope, which was interesting to get the small-town feel of the area, but wasn’t really worth the bone-jarring ride to get there.
Next stop was the town of Kenai for some beautiful cliff-side views and dinner. South of Kenai we saw some beautiful rivers and active salmon, probably in Coal Creek near Kasilof. It’s hard to describe the beautiful clear, blue water of these rivers, and the photos don’t do it justice. Farther south, we also enjoyed great views of volcanoes in the “Ring of Fire” (Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna).
We stayed in a bed and breakfast in Homer. One night we went out to use the outdoor hot tub and were treated to a crystal clear sky, where we could easily make out the Milky Way. Unfortunately, we were not able to see Northern Lights. As we were walking back to our room, we believe we disturbed a moose. Though we didn’t see him, we heard something big nearby. I prefer not to think it could have been a bear.
The bed and breakfast was advertised as having a color TV. Well, sure enough it did have a color TV in the room. There’s no broadcast TV in this part of the world, and no cable or satellite service in this B&B, but there’s a nice TV, a VCR and some tapes. Our hosts (originally from the South in the lower 48) sternly reminded us of the Alaska custom not to wear shoes indoors.
Homer Spit is where the action is. There are halibut fishing trips available, several nice shops, the Salty Dog Saloon, and a fascinating salmon Fishing Hole. The Red Dog Saloon in Juneau is the Disney version of Homer’s Salty Dog. The Salty Dog has to be seen to be understood. Unfortunately, it’s a genuine working man’s bar, so I didn’t feel comfortable documenting my experience with photos. I was embarrassed enough after asking what beers were available on tap. I had the common sense not to ask for an import, but I didn’t think draft beer would be too upscale. Then I barely had the nerve to request Diet Coke for Sue. OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but the bar is a sight to see. There’s a sawdust floor, and all kinds of odds and ends hanging from the rough wood walls and the low ceiling: snapshots, business cards, fishing and boating artifacts, graffiti, underwear, etc.
The Fishing Hole is a pond where farm-raised Salmon Fry are released. They swim out to the ocean, and years later their instincts bring them back as adults to spawn, but there’s no river for them to climb. So they’re jumping out of the pond like whack-a-moles. This provides a consistent, easy food source for the locals. One elderly fisherman who was taking a cigarette break from working the fishing hole gave us a lecture on salmon. Pink salmon, he told us, is not fit for even his dog to eat. The only salmon really worth eating is king salmon, but he keeps the silvers too. He throws the pinks back. When he was a commercial fisherman, he’d sell the pink salmon for about 5 cents a pound.
Well, I had a grand ambition of writing a travel diary for the entire cruise. If I ever do that, I'll include the following topics. Meanwhile, photos are available by following the links below.