When I visited Alaska nearly a decade ago, the idea of having a family was an abstract concept. By the time I vacationed there this summer, two small children were ruling my daily existence.
I first journeyed to the 49th state in 2003 with three friends, on a trip that entailed sleeping late, hiking wherever and whenever we wanted and relaxing over a few beers at night. This year, I went to report on several stories for The Post, and my husband and I decided that we might as well combine the assignment with a family vacation. It seemed self-evident: If I was schlepping thousands of miles to one of the most scenic states in the country, why not take him and the kids — our 3-year-old son and 11 / 2-year-old daughter — along?
In reality, vacationing with two toddlers in a state with nearly 24-hour daylight poses more than a few challenges. But we were determined to make it work, and we pulled it off by combining a heavy emphasis on wildlife viewing with a slew of kid-friendly activities. After all, if Sarah Palin’s family can film multiple reality shows in Alaska, surely we could manage on our own there for 10 days.
We started out in Anchorage, where I left my husband to care for the kids at the Sheraton Hotel and Spa downtown while I headed to the Arctic on assignment for two days. I’d provided him with one tip courtesy of a fantastic Alaska travel Web site for families called AKOntheGo, and then left him to his own devices. Andrew found the numerous free city parks a reliable bet.
When he got some time to himself, he found refuge at Side Street Espresso, which boasts a novel feature that he hadn’t realized he’d been missing: no Internet access. Due to the deliberate efforts of George Gee and Deborah Seaton, the couple who own and run it, this shop is more like a community collective than a traditional coffee merchant: They hand out free hot chocolate and milk steamers to children, while poets and political activists stop in to refuel and write without modern-day distractions.
“It’s a place to be free from something that permeates your life all the time,” Seaton said, explaining why there’s no WiFi.
After my return, we were ready to hit the road for Homer, a charming town on the Kenai Peninsula that I had visited on my first trip to Alaska. Back then, I’d stayed at Across the Bay Tent and Breakfast, a wonderful outdoorsy B&B where guests are housed in unheated tents; given both the kids and an uncertain weather forecast, we opted for the Kachemak Ridge House connected with Homer’s Ocean House Inn.
The setup wasn’t perfect for a family with young children — the parents of one of the hotel’s owners rent out two rooms in their house, which are accessible by a steep staircase, and assorted knickknacks and dishes stored on the ground level were a constant temptation for our children. But our hosts were friendly, and their house had a panoramic view of the mountains and the Grewingk glaciers across Kachemak Bay, as well as of the town below.
Hearing that we were headed to Homer, an environmental engineer based in Anchorage remarked, “That town has nothing but hippies and fishermen.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does have plenty of both, which made it an excellent place to visit. In the town billed as “The Halibut Fishing Capital of the World,” Andrew tried his hand at a half-day fishing cruise, managing to pull up nine fish in a few hours. He kept the largest two, 10 pounds of halibut that we had processed and shipped back to Washington. Our kids were too young to go on the Alaska Coastal Marine cruise, but one man brought along his 7- and 14-year-old sons, who also caught their limit.
Though it’s a far cry from Berkeley, Homer boasts a vibrant foodie movement: That’s evident in places such as Two Sisters Bakery and the Mermaid Cafe, both of which take full advantage of local ingredients in preparing their delicious meals. Fresh Sourdough Express also offered up great baked goods in a country diner atmosphere. Our one negative dining experience came on the Homer Spit, which is worth a visit for the views but offers less inspired restaurants. Captain Pattie’s Fish House is clearly popular and offers fresh fish, but it served such plainly prepared dishes at such a slow rate and such high prices that we felt cheated.
As for keeping the kids occupied, the only issue was cramming in all the activities Homer offers. In May, residents had spent a week constructing one of the best community playgrounds I’ve ever seen; the kids adored it. We also visited the Pratt Museum, a modest but sweet museum focused on the arts, culture and science of Kachemak Bay that had a small aquarium exhibit, plenty of animal puppets for kids to play with and a live camera feed of gulls flocking on the other side of the Bay. The Islands and Ocean Center at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge visitors center offers not only exhibits but also a lovely outdoor walk. There are also several excellent nearby hikes you could take, although we opted for less ambitious walks on Bishops Beach and the Spit.
After a few days we departed for Seward, a deepwater port on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. The sunny weather we’d been enjoying evaporated by the time we got there, but even a damp and cool forecast was fine in comparison with the heat wave raging in Washington at the time. We’d planned a couple of activities that we knew would be a powerful draw, by searching the free Web site Go2Seward, which features a range of house rentals as well as discount booking for area tours. Through the site, we rented the Seward Beachside Bungalow, a nice two-bedroom house close to downtown and just yards from Resurrection Bay. It had all the essentials for a family stay, including an outfitted kitchen, a washer-dryer and even games and DVDs. That allowed us to cook dinner at home — including some just-caught coho salmon that we bought in town — rather than having to drag the kids out to restaurants.
As soon as we arrived, we headed for Seavey’s Ididaride, a sled-dog ride and kennel tour at one of the state’s longstanding Iditarod training operations. I grant you that nothing can compare to the thrill of a dogsled ride in fresh snow — something I was lucky enough to do in the Swedish Arctic — but being pulled in a cart over gravel by more than a dozen Alaskan huskies is still fun.
Our musher and the operation’s main handler, Mark Walker, offered some fascinating tidbits on what it takes to prepare the dogs for the 1,049-mile race that helps reinforce the idea that Alaskans are tougher than other Americans. The dogs begin their training in the fall with three- to five-mile runs pulling a four-wheel drive ATV, but work up to daily 76-mile trials in October and November, dragging a Dodge Ram 3500 pickup truck at 10 mph. Our son and daughter, of course, couldn’t have cared less about such details, but they squealed with delight as we raced along the gravel roads, as well as when we got to pet a husky puppy after the ride.
Despite the rain, we pressed ahead the next day with a boat ride operated by Kenai Fjords Tours. We’d promised our son that he’d see whales in Alaska, and nothing was going to deter us from delivering on that promise. Our 85-foot catamaran, operated by captain Ryan McDonald, ventured out into the bay, and within 10 minutes of leaving shore, we spotted our first humpback. We spent more than 20 minutes watching the animal feed, diving beneath the waves with its fluke splayed out before resurfacing again. During the nearly 41 / 2-hour tour, we managed to see another humpback even closer to the boat, along with Steller sea lions, a pair of eagles, horned and tufted puffins and, briefly, a sea otter.
Granted, the waves were rough at points, prompting my daughter to throw up all over me. But I considered that part of the price of admission. The tour operator even gave guests a partial “weather refund” because the captain opted to remain in the bay and came back an hour and a half earlier than scheduled.
We finished the day at the Alaska SeaLife Center, a research center and aquarium with several exhibits on the state’s waters and the creatures who live in it. We gazed at harbor seals and sea lions diving underwater and gently touched crimson anemones, whose tentacles stuck to our fingers.
On the road back to Anchorage the next day, it was so rainy that we had to skip a hike at Exit Glacier right outside town. We did manage to make a quick detour to the port town of Whittier, where many cruise ships dock, and which is accessed through the longest combination vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America. (The several-minute tunnel ride was more exciting than the town, at least from our children’s perspective.) The side trip did allow us to stop by the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier so that we could peek at Byron Glacier, which shone luminescent blue despite the fog shrouding it at the top.
Back in Anchorage, we were ready to relax with the kids and prepare for the trip home. Our best meal during our time in town was at the Bear Tooth Grill, which offers both ambitious and simple dishes (along with excellent beer) in a kid-friendly atmosphere. Glacier BrewHouse prepared a good Caesar salad with smoked Alaskan salmon and bay shrimp. We were less impressed with the Snow Goose pub. The beer was good, but it served up a reindeer hamburger that had clearly been defrosted. (If you’re in the market for reindeer meat, your best bet are the reindeer hot dogs at M.A.’s Gourmet Dogs, served downtown on the sidewalk at 605 W. Fourth Ave.) And if you’ve got time to squeeze in shopping, Octopus Ink Gallery downtown has beautiful jewelry, clothes, toys and crafts made by Alaskan artists.
In the end, we got what we were looking for in Alaska. Though road-tripping with little ones presented a few challenges, we all got to see plenty of wildlife and amazing vistas. And even if the kids don’t remember it when they’re older, I can tell them that they enjoyed the ride.