The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Alaska: Judith Root of Entrée Alaska.
Judith has mastered dip-net salmon fishing, camping solo in bear country, and skiing at 40 below. She can orchestrate complicated itineraries to remote lodges, select the perfect backcountry retreat for a family reunion, set up a rendezvous with an Iditarod champion, or fly you to a glacier for summer sledding. Her outdoor guides specialize in everything from fly fishing to river rafting to kayaking with whales. For those booked on Alaska cruises who are in need of top-of-the-line private shore excursions—and who can afford them (Alaska is very expensive during the peak summer season)—she can whisk you far from the touristy ports and cruise-ship hordes so you can experience “the real Alaska.” To book the cruise itself, contact Ashton Palmer if you’d like a small-ship expedition, which is the best way to see the coastline and wildlife. For something more affordable—which means a large ship and group shore excursions—contact Tom Baker
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
In the city: Hotel Captain Cook is the best property in Anchorage, with a health club and spa, shops, and four restaurants. I always book the Captain’s Deck rooms so that guests can pick up snacks and beverages around the clock in the concierge lounge (great for late-arriving flights); with the hors d’oeuvres, wine, and beer they put out every evening, you might even be able to skip dinner.
In the countryside: On the southwestern edge of Denali, Winterlake Lodge has five cozy cabins, great guides, saunas, hot tubs, and lots of peace and quiet. There’s nothing better than following a killer hike with a massage, a glass of fine wine, and dinner prepared by a Cordon Bleu–trained chef. The rates aren’t cheap, but they include round-trip air transportation, meals, guided activities, cooking classes, yoga, a one-hour massage, and use of the lodge’s kayaks, fly-fishing gear, and other equipment.
Restaurants the locals love
Moose’s Tooth brewpub in Anchorage. Maybe it’s the convivial atmosphere or the inspired pizza toppings (smoked salmon? apricot sauce?)—or perhaps it’s simply the strong beer on tap, but for whatever reason, it’s a favorite local haunt.
In Juneau, Tracy’s King Crab Shack on the pier is justifiably popular with locals and visitors alike. The star is not the restaurant itself (the name says it all) but the king crab; the Crab Shack Combo—a king-crab leg, four crab cakes, and a bowl of crab bisque, plus garlic rolls and butter—would cost twice as much down south but be half as fresh.
Tiny Ludvig’s Bistro in Sitka. The chef does a great job of pairing Mediterranean flavors with Alaska’s fine seafood. The bistro also sets up a chowder cart in the Mill Building at lunchtime during the summer.
Alaska salmon, halibut, and king crab are a given, but if you want a real delight, try the unbelievably delicious Alaskan oyster—part of Alaska’s sustainable aquaculture endeavors, it is available year-round. Once you taste the bright, pure flavor, you’ll never be satisfied with any other oyster. In Anchorage, order Alaskan oysters at Simon and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill, Sacks Café, or Bridge Seafood.
What to See and Do
Unless you’re on a cruise or don’t mind throngs of tourists, you might as well skip Ketchikan. Sad to say, it is overrun with cruise visitors and generic gift shops; the experience has been so homogenized that there is no longer a single compelling reason to go there.
Haines, on the southeastern panhandle, near Glacier Bay National Park, is the quaint small town that Ketchikan once was. It’s a bit difficult to get to—most visitors fly in or take the ferry from Juneau—and without a lot of luxury, but it is one of the loveliest towns in Alaska (picture a backdrop of stunning jagged mountains). It also has a lot of funky charm, thanks to the residential makeup, a mix of artists, bohemian free spirits, traditional loggers, commercial fishermen, and outdoor-adventure enthusiasts, plus the Tlingit villagers next-door in Klukwan.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which isn’t too surprising when one sees the endless wilderness of jagged peaks so numerous that most of them aren’t even named. Coupled with the abandoned copper-mining towns of Kennicott and McCarthy, it really makes for a jaw-dropping experience—and it gets very few visitors. At the Ultima Thule Lodge, the owners check the skies each morning to devise an itinerary of hiking, rafting, fishing, wildlife viewing, glacier walking, and more, all accessed by light aircraft.
Spend the day at Anchorage’s Saturday Public Market, which has great local foods and crafts. If the time is right, amble over to Ship Creek—conveniently located in the heart of town—to gape at the locals who line the banks fishing for salmon (the kings typically run from June to mid-July, the cohos in August).
Since private vehicles aren’t allowed to go more than 15 miles into Denali National Park, most visitors join one of the 40-passenger bus tours. If you have a small group, I can usually arrange for a permit that will let you bring a private smaller bus into the park (no other vehicles allowed) so that you can stop wherever and whenever you want.
Take in all the lovely scenery (including close-up views of Denali) from a GoldStar dome car on the Alaska Railroad Denali Star route between Denali National Park and Anchorage—an eight-hour train ride. These luxury two-level cars have great views from up top (and an outdoor viewing platform if you want some fresh air), and a full-service dining room below. Makes for a lovely day of relaxation.
An Alaskan-made piece of artwork. Long winters lead to lots of creativity! Alaska Native art is highly sought after; be aware that many of the less expensive pieces are made in Indonesia. The Alaska Native Medical Center Craft Shop in Anchorage is a great and unexpected place to find some lovely (and authentic) pieces from around the country; bring cash, as they don’t accept credit cards. I also love the paintings, illustrations, and beadwork by longtime Alaska residents Jon and Jona Van Zyle. You can make an appointment to visit their home, studio, and kennel of Siberian huskies near Anchorage.
Alaska has two seasons for visiting—summer and winter—and they offer completely different experiences (spring and fall are quite short-lived). A visitor in the summer will not experience Northern Lights, for example, and a visitor in the winter will not be going on a whale-watching cruise or into Denali National Park.
My favorite time in summer is the second week of June to mid-July. The mountains are still covered in snow, the flowers are emerging, and the animals have either just given birth or are just about to, so you might see moose out with their calves, as well as just-born fur-seal pups. Plus, the locals are happy that winter is over and that visitors have returned. Temperatures are typically in the mid-60s during the day.
For a winter visit, March is the best time, as the days are growing longer and the cold weather is not as severe; be prepared, though, for highs barely above freezing.
October, November, December, and April: The weather can be extremely cold and drab, and there are few activities for visitors. (Alaskans often vacation during these periods, so even they don’t stick around!)
Avoiding small bush planes; it’s often the only way to get to some of the state’s most special places—and many Alaskans feel safer in the sky than they do on the road. Floatplanes are especially peaceful, with their smooth takeoffs and landings on the water.
Many of the state’s small airports are without standard services—don’t assume you can get a bite to eat or something to read at the airport.