I don’t want to bore everyone with a lot of words. So I will mainly share our itinerary, sights and places we really loved.
Day 1 — Hello Alaska
As soon as we landed in Anchorage we drove south to Seward. There we lived in Harbor 360 hotel. The hotel is a quality place that’s facing a bay and docks. But compared to the scenery we saw on our way it looked nothing spectacular, so I ended up even not having a picture of it.
Once we settled there we immediately left to see Exit Glacier. It is a quick 15 minutes drive from the hotel followed by an easy 20–30 minutes hike. On our way there we met few people and some mosquitos, so it’s worth to come there prepared and wear your favorite bug repellant.
After visiting the glacier we ate at a local place (Ray’s). They serve variety of fish dishes. Biggest plus for us was the fact that they were willing to accommodate a group of 12 on a short notice.
Day 2 — Seward: Kayaking
After finishing kayaking trip we left for Homer. Drive from Seward to Homer takes more than 3 hours. They appear very close to one another on the map but to get there we had to go half way back to Anchorage and then turn to Homer. It seems like planners do not optimize for distance or time of travel in Alaska. They choose to minimize overall lengths of the roadway to make them cheaper to maintain.
In Homer we stayed at Baycrest Lodge, which turned out to be a very nice place. The lodge sits on the hill above Homer and has a private lawn with breathtaking bay views.
Day 3 — Homer: Bears
We arranged a bear tour at 7am, but when we arrived we found airport covered in thick fog. Two hours of waiting didn’t help and we had to choose either to cancel or reschedule for the evening. Well, we didn’t have much planned for the evening anyways, so we decided to give it another try.
In the afternoon the whether became much better and at 4pm we boarded our small plane. To be honest, I was afraid that flight would be scary, but instead I was surprised how awesome it was (flight alone was worth the wait).
And then we saw bears … many many bears …. Right from the plane and short walk to the shore we witnessed this action:
After the catch another bear tried to question the ownership of the fish (I liked the fish too, but the whole drama was just 100 feet away and bears run fast, which kept me and others dead quiet and glued to the sand).
After we saw many more bears from afar and up close and at the end instead of sitting on the beach we opted for a walk in the mud. I forgot to mention that before flying out we were equipped with mud gear (tall boots).
While walking in the mud (which again is a very fun thing to do for kids and for adults), we approached this cute pair: new mom and a cub.
In a few minutes of observing their peaceful walk and play, we noticed three new bears emerging from the forrest. It was another mamma bear and two 2- or 3-year old bear-teenagers. These bears were there to have some fun and at first they tried to run towards us, but a bigger group made them to rethink their strategy. Next option was to make a run at the mom with the little guy. Mom kept a cub behind her and slowly started to retreat, but in that process cub was trying to look bigger and while hiding behind mom started to stand straight up which made great pictures (again taken by our guide as it was a bit far to get a good shot with my optics).
I think bear adventure was THE highlight of our whole trip. I’d recommend anyone to take it. It was not cheap, but worth every penny and more.
Day 4 — Girdwood: Hiking
While at Girdwood we stayed at Aleyska Resort. Frankly this stop was chosen to avoid long drives and we read about few good hiking trails at the resort. We took Winner Creek trail that was a very comfortable walk in the woods, where trail was crossing the creek and finally getting to a cable bridge. Cable bridge was a lot of fun for the kids (and a bit of a workout for me).
In the evening we opted to eat at Jack Sprat and it was again a very good meal. I had bouillabaisse and it was excellent!
Day 5 — Talkeetna: Hiking
At Talkeetna we stayed at Denali Overlook Inn, which is a re-purposed into B&B house with a guest cottage. We were assigned to the cottage and it was quite charming. The owner was on-site (though he is retired and lives in Mexico). He told us endless stories of how he ended up in Alaska and a life story of his daughter. She left Bay Area to gut fish on Kodiak Island and now is an owner of Talkeena Roadhouse. Also he told us a story of a family cinnamon roll recipe. After all these teasing we had to try it, and it was that good so we took 20 miles detour on our way back from Denali to get one more (yeah, two more, who counts?).
Talkeena is a very charming little town that seems to be frozen in time. Though there are lot of tourists around, it feels really calm and tranquil. Roadhouse meals are local dishes cooked home style and steak at Outlook 62 restaurant was great.
Day 6 — Talkeetna: Fishing
The second day at Talkeetna we spent fishing (and then cooking and eating our catch). At first I was a bit disappointed that we caught not so much good fish (we took only Coho salmon and threw all pinks back to the river). But when the time came to cook and eat I was happy we didn’t keep more. We had Russian fish soup (ukha) followed by grilled salmon. Our inn and a lodge where our friends stayed had grills and kitchens available for guests use, so cooking was no problem (plus local grocery store had everything we needed).
Day 7 — Drive to Denali and hike
After two days in Talkeetna we drove to Denali. There we stayed at Grande Denali Lodge. The hotel location is quite special — it sits at the top of a mountain and sports amazing views. Though besides the view (which can be enjoyed with a visit to their restaurant) it was very typical well maintained (and a bit overpriced) hotel.
In the evening we ate at Overlook Bar&Grill and it was our best meal in Alaska. Every dish from a burger my son had (which was the best I tasted in years) to pork belly with scallops my wife ordered to my rib-eye was amazing. If I have to invent one negative point for this place — it might be an absence of kids menu, but our 8 y/o finished halibut fish cakes from appetizers menu and was happy and full (they server locally brewed beer on tap too).
Day 8 — Denali: visiting the park
To go to Denali we had to take a bus ride (no cars allowed in the park). Bus ride is 4 hours one way. As scary as it sounds, our driver was a very talkative and funny fella, he made 8 hours in the bus fly buy. He stopped for every animal (close or far) and explained a lot of things about the park. We saw a caribou, a wolf, birds and doll sheep. Once back to Visitor’s Center we took a short hike around the lake and found beaver dam with few beavers swimming around.
We ate at a local place called Salmon Bake and out of all places it happened to be the worst. Place looked really cool and authentic, but food was not so good — some dishes came out salty, some over spiced and in the end one of our group had a mild food poisoning.
Local lake with beavers.
Day 9 — Final day at Denali
Final day at Denali we started with a dog show. Rangers did show and tell on how they train dogs. It was fun to see Alaskan Huskies to pull a carriage (sleds are hard to pull during the summer I was told).
After the show we hit a trail at mile 15 (very end of the road where we could get by car). And after that headed to Anchorage and then back home to Bay Area.