Anchorage: The Great Outdoors

Heart of Alaska’s relatively nascent but increasingly visible gay scene

Although it’s a bit less than a century old, Anchorage has developed into Alaska’s largest city, with a population of about 260,000. It’s also an excellent jumping-off point for countless adventures into the surrounding wilderness, from sea kayaking in Prince William Sound to hiking at Denali National Park to skiing at Alyeska Prince Resort in nearby Girdwood. But don’t overlook the city itself, a lively cultural hub with great shopping and dining and immediate access to the great outdoors. It’s also the heart of the state’s relatively nascent but increasingly visible gay scene.

Summer is the most popular time to come, when Anchorage abounds with flowers in private and public gardens as well as in window boxes and hanging baskets on porches. The sun rises around 4:30 in the morning and doesn’t set again until almost midnight, allowing for ample time each day to see the sights. But snow-sports fans and bargain-seekers might want to consider a winter visit, when hotel rates drop precipitously along with temperatures (expect January highs of about 20 to 25 degrees, versus 60- to 65-degree highs in July).

Anchorage won’t likely dazzle you – downtown was largely destroyed during a massive 1964 earthquake, and much of the reconstruction leaves a lot to be desired aesthetically. But it’s nonetheless a culturally rich city that’s home to the acclaimed Alaska Center for the Performing Arts (containing four different theaters), plus the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Anchorage Opera, and Alaska Chamber Singers.

The Anchorage Museum of History and Art is a world-class facility with an extensive trove of art and artifacts that trace the history of the region right up through the modern age. And at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, you can learn about the state’s myriad indigenous cultures through exhibits, classes and seminars, and performances.

Anchorage has long drawn outdoorsy types, as there are plenty of ways to get your blood pounding within city limits, and you’re also within driving distance of many great destinations for recreation and nature-watching. You can hike miles of trails at Chugach State Park, which fringes the city and extends for some 60 miles into the wilderness to the south, offering climbs to numerous peaks with elevations as high as 8,000 feet. Another great venue is Eagle River Nature Center, which offers hikes, naturalist programs, and bird-watching outings among many other activities that showcase the region’s abundant flora and fauna. And that’s just scratching the surface – don’t overlook the Alaska Zoo (an excellent place to see black bears up close) and the Alaska Botanical Gardens.

From a culinary standpoint, Anchorage has truly blossomed of late. There are certain foods that appear routinely on area menus, particularly reindeer (often in the form of sausage), elk, and other area game along with plenty of local seafood, from wild salmon to raw oysters to fresh berries. Kincaid Grill has been a pioneer in creative regional dining, as chef Al Levinsohn is constantly coming up with exciting new takes on Alaskan cuisine, from Kodiak scallops served with an Asian ponzu sauce and stir-fried veggies to roasted halibut Nicoise with olive tapenade. Another top choice is Sack’s, a slick contemporary dining room filled with modern art and serving such innovative creations as pan-seared New Zealand rack of lamb with blueberry-port demiglace. Grab a table along the sidewalk in good weather.

You’ll find sophisticated contemporary cuisine at Mick’s at the Inlet, including a knockout elk chop with goat cheese brioche pudding, Bearnaise sauce, and a berry relish, and roasted skatefish wing with blood oranges, fennel, chives, and olive oil. Drop by Cafe Savannah, a cool little tapas restaurant and wine bar with authentic Spanish cooking, for the likes of Portobello mushrooms stuffed with chorizo and Manchego cheese, and calamari with lemon-garlic aioli.

For a light meal and great people-watching and mingling, check out Glacier Brewhouse, which is known as much for its delicious house-brewed oatmeal stout and red-currant lambic beer as for tasty comfort food, such as seared ahi tuna and Thai chicken pizza. Gay-friendly Sassafras Coffeehouse is a fine spot for a light meal, coffee, and free wireless Internet – it’s right across the street from Nordstrom’s, by downtown’s 5th Avenue Mall. Try the turkey-bacon-avocado wrap.

Also a block from the mall, Cyrano’s Theatre Company comprises a performance space, arty bookstore, and petit cafe (called Twig’s) where you can grab a chicken-pecan salad or a cup of seafood chowder. The theater produces well-acted plays throughout the year and has a strong gay following. The queer nightlife scene is limited to a pair of bars on the edge of downtown, the lively and highly enjoyable Mad Myrna’s – which has campy cabaret shows, a dance floor, and a totally diverse following – and the somewhat more male-oriented and cruisy Raven, which is just around the corner.

There are several accommodations here that actively market to gay visitor. Just on the edge of downtown, the gay-owned Wildflower Inn contains three guest rooms with sophisticated but comfy furnishings, including a beautiful Mission-style bed in one and TV/VCRs in all of them (plus Wi-Fi throughout the house). It’s a great choice if you want to be within walking distance of museums, restaurants, and nightlife.

Another highly popular gay-owned property downtown is the Copper Whale Inn, an urbane late-1930s house (a rare survivor of the ’64 quake) with 15 rooms, most of them affording panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains and Cook Inlet. Of larger mainstream properties, one of the most luxurious is the Marriott Anchorage Downtown. This airy, contemporary high-rise offers dramatic views of the distant wilderness but also affords easy access to local sights and restaurants.

You can make a number of excellent day trips or short overnights from Anchorage. One of the best full-service resorts in Alaska is the luxurious Alyeska Resort, in the small village of Girdwood, a 45-minute drive south of the city. In winter, it’s the state’s top venue for downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snow-tubing, and sledding. You can also take the aerial tram up to Mt. Alyeska, which has a restaurant at the top. In summer, you can book a tandem paragliding ride off the top of the mountain.

Another option is the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Seward, a slightly gritty old fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s gradually developed into a popular cruise port and leisure destination, thanks to its proximity to nature and also the Alaska Sealife Center, a marine-life research facility where visitors can observe the habitats of 2,000-pound Stellar sea lions, diving puffins, and dancing King crabs, among other creatures native to this region.

Just outside of Seward, you can visit Exit Glacier – in fact, you can practically drive your car right up to the edge, as it’s the most accessible glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, which encompasses more than 900 square miles. From the parking area it’s a flat 15-minute hike to the foot of the glacier, where you can get some great up-close photographs of this hulking, slowly retreating mass of ice.

Downtown Seward has a handful of restaurants and souvenir shops, mostly along 3rd and 4th avenues, and the community also has plenty of tour operators offering kayaking trips, flightseeing excursions, and sailing adventures.

Perhaps the most dramatic way to get around the region, especially if you’re a fan of vintage trains, is to book one of the popular sightseeing runs on the Alaska Railroad. There are extensive tours lasting from two to 10 days through the Denali National Park’s backcountry and up into the Arctic Circle, as well as easy day trips that depart Anchorage and take you through rugged Chugach Forest, past soaring glaciers and across wildflower-strewn meadows. Many of these trains have glass-dome roofs, allowing incredible photo ops. These colorful jaunts narrated by experienced naturalists offer the perfect chance to get a sense of America’s richest tract of scenic wilderness, the Alaskan countryside.