Soon after my Alaska Airlines flight had safely touched down at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, I noticed I felt a bit off. It was 10:30 p.m. but the sun was still hanging above the horizon and it looked like midmorning. My old Peace Corps friend Isaac and I stood in a parking lot overlooking Cook Inlet, where the famed captain had arrived in 1778 in search of the Northwest Passage.
Purple and blue light reflected off the snowcapped corona of mountains that surround Anchorage — Mount Susitna, or the “Sleeping Lady”; Mount Gerdine; and Mount Torbert. Looming in the distance, over 100 miles away and barely visible, was Denali, the highest peak in North America.
“The long days get a little crazy,” he said. Isaac lives in Anchorage with his wife and two children. “You find yourself wanting to garden, or go for a run, and it’s 11 p.m.” I began feeling it too — a messing with your circadian rhythms that felt like a slight mania or internal buzzing.
But I soon found that energy made exploring Anchorage and the surrounding area all the more fun. As one might expect, it’s a city with hiking, biking, wildlife and an abundance of natural beauty that borders on the embarrassing. But it also has one of the more diverse census tracts in the country: Groups like Native Alaskans, as well as a substantial Asian and Pacific Islander population, give the city, its dining and its institutions a multicultural feel unlike any in the “Lower 48.” (That’s how Alaskans, only slightly derisively, refer to us mainlanders. What that means for Hawaii, I’m not sure.)
And, if you know where to look, Anchorage is a great frugal destination, even though you should expect to pay a premium on certain things, like food. (The avocados and citrus you’re enjoying need to be shipped quite a ways.) For residents, some of that is offset by the Permanent Fund, which in 2015 paid out $2,072 to every adult in Alaska simply for choosing to live there. The rest of us have to get creative and take advantage of the open accessibility of the state’s incredible natural resources.
Isaac took me out for a late dinner of tacos filled with tender, blackened cod ($12.95) from Bear Tooth, a combination restaurant and movie theater in the Spenard neighborhood. One of the things Isaac relished about Anchorage, he said, was the feeling that you could make a real, immediate impact with your work, and that you had access to those in positions of power. “Alaska is one of those places where, if you wanted to, you could call the governor and talk to him,” he said.
Deborah Williams, former executive director of the Alaskan Conservation Foundation, expressed a similar sentiment when discussing controversial conservation efforts in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We chatted over a crab omelet ($17) and sausage scramble ($13) at Snow City Cafe, a cute diner downtown. “It was an immense amount of work,” she said. “But I’m proud of what we accomplished: preserving the land for everyone to enjoy.” Currently, less than 1 percent of Alaskan land is privately owned. She said I should talk to “Jimmy” about Alaskan conservation — it took me a minute to figure out she was talking about President Carter. “You really should,” she said. “He would love that.”
Accessibility is a theme in Anchorage, and its surrounding public land and parks the clearest extension of that. Isaac and I took a long hike up Flattop Mountain, a 3,550-foot-high peak in Chugach State Park that’s extremely popular with locals. After paying the $5 parking fee, we began the winding, slushy hike through melting snow and ice. It was very warm — 72 degrees — the same temperature that day as in Los Angeles.
“You do realize that, if you don’t make it to the top, your trip here will be a failure,” Isaac ribbed me as I lagged behind on the steep, narrow path. The 90-minute hike was trying at points, but not too arduous. Tougher was stomaching the packs of 13- and 14-year schoolkids flying past us in shorts and T-shirts. The panoramic view from the top was breathtaking — the entire city lay before us, and Denali was clearly visible. We descended by glissading — leaping down the mountain and sliding down the snow on your feet (and, in my case, my butt).
Anchorage residents play hard, and there’s plenty of great food to fuel their active lives. Seafood is a given, and one of my favorite meals came at a casual restaurant called Arctic Roadrunner, which has been around since 1964. My salmon burger ($8.50), made from wild Alaskan salmon, was very satisfying, with fresh chunks of tender meat. The accompaniment was nearly as good — thick fingers of onion, each a few inches long, battered and deep fried ($2.85).
I also visited Cherie Clonginger, who runs a small food cart on the corner of West Fifth Avenue and G Street downtown. Her business, Mon Cherie, offers a simple, delicious poutine of cheese curds and brown gravy over French fries served hot from a mini-deep fryer she has installed in her cart. She also sells reindeer hot dogs. If you’re able to exorcise images of Rudolph and friends from your mind, give them a try: The one I had, which resembled a pork sausage, was quite tasty, and not particularly gamey.
The diversity of Anchorage’s population, though, is what gives depth to its dining scene. I enjoyed some great dim sum at Charlie’s Bakery and Chinese Cuisine — the shumai dumplings were particularly good ($3.75) — as well as dishes like yuxiang qiezi, a pungent, garlicky eggplant dish ($10.95). I also enjoyed a donor kebab sandwich from a new Turkish restaurant called Turkish Delight. While a bit expensive at $15, it contained a generous portion of beef and lamb meat in soft flatbread, along with a tangy tzatziki sauce. Kazandibi, a thick milk pudding with the consistency of a jiggly crème brûlée, was an outstanding end to the meal.
Getting around Anchorage is simple, and there are many options for transportation. I rented a car (Avis, $23 per day) because I knew I would be exploring the Kenai Peninsula farther downstate. Public transportation is an option, too: the People Mover bus system does an admirable job covering the sprawl of the city. (The city limits of Anchorage technically encircle 1,961 square miles — nearly four times the area of Los Angeles.) Seeing Anchorage by bike is another option: Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals offers a three-hour rental for $20 and a full-day rental for $40, helmet and lock included. One popular bike-friendly destination: the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which runs about 10 miles and hugs Cook Inlet around to Kincaid Park.
My favorite way of getting around, though, was on foot. Downtown Anchorage is very walkable, with most of the action running roughly from Third Avenue down to Ninth Avenue. Another friend, Kate, took me along Fifth Avenue, past Town Square Park, and past a beautiful old theater on Fourth Avenue (whose future is unfortunately uncertain). There were, of course, plenty of stores selling Alaska souvenirs, including Native goods — arts and crafts from indigenous Alaskan cultures like the Inupiat, Aleut and Athabaskan peoples. A lot of what was there, though, looked a little kitschy and tourist-oriented. So where to go to get the real stuff?
“You have to go to the hospital,” said Julia O’Malley, an Anchorage native and fellow James Beard award nominee (we were both nominated in 2015). We had just picked up a coffee ($2.50) from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop and were walking around Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park in South Addition, a cute neighborhood just southwest of downtown. “If you want really good jewelry and crafts, you have to go to the Native hospital.”
The Alaska Native Medical Center provides care to the area’s Native and indigenous populations. It also happens to be the best place in the city to buy Native crafts, clothing, art and jewelry. The ANMC Auxiliary Craft Shop is easy enough to find within the hospital, but catching it during business hours can be tricky. It’s open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week, then every other Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. They take only cash or personal checks. A sign on the door warns that crafts made from whalebone or baleen — Native artists can work, in a very monitored capacity, in these media — may not be taken out of the country.
Though I didn’t settle on a purchase, I had a great time just window shopping. A helpful employee recommended I take a look at the different displays of Native crafts throughout the hospital. “That way, you’ll get a sense of what it is you might be looking for,” she said. I went up to the fifth floor and wound my way down, looking at beautifully curated exhibits of clothing, dolls, baskets and other examples of Native craftsmanship on each floor — as good as any I’d seen in a museum. (I visited two during my stay, incidentally: the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center; $15 and $24.95 admission, respectively, though I bought a combo ticket to both for $29.95).
As pretty as those crafts where, though, it was the natural environs that inspired awe many times a day — the monolithic mountains of the Chugach range force themselves into every aspect of your time in Anchorage. It’s both jarring and strangely comforting. Animals also run wild around the city — moose, in particular, regularly make appearances on residents’ front lawns.
A controlled way to both assist and view wild animals — not just moose, but elk, tundra wolves and bears — is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, created in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that wreaked havoc on coastal wildlife. Zoos often have a slightly depressing quality, but I found this one to be an exception. For $15, visitors can observe the center’s population of animals, most of which were orphaned or injured and are being rehabilitated. I saw red foxes, elk, moose and even a bald eagle.