Living in the Alaska backcountry, as I do, has its advantages, such as serenity, quietude and the ability to take in the landscape of vast unspoiled wilderness with just a glance out the front window. But it doesn't come without some cost. It's not so easy to run to the store in your pajamas for a quart of milk, for example. For me, it takes a one-hour small plane flight into Anchorage to get to my local grocery store -- and about $1,200 to charter the airplane there and back.
Anchorage is a brightly lit urban oasis set against thousands of acres of surrounding wildness. It's the greatest city on the planet -- okay, I'm showing a little bias here -- but, within the span of an hour, I can shed my pioneer living-in-a-log-cabin self, replete with bunny boots, parka and wolves howling in the background, to sipping a salted caramel mocha at Barnes and Noble. That's pretty remarkable.
Getting to Anchorage is a journey, whether you live in Alaska or not. Some visitors land here for just a few hours as they travel through to further outposts; others travel here on business. Regardless, I recommend that you build in at least 24 hours of city exploration before you move on. Here are a few highly personalized recommendations from someone who pays dearly and pays often to get here:
Breakfast: I always start my day thinking I will be on a righteous food path only to later veer off into sins of culinary temptation. The Middle Way Café offers a politically correct vegan (or not) start to your morning. Breakfasts are healthy and lively portions of veg-fed, antibiotic, hormone, rGBH-free products. (Hungry yet?) Trust me: The breakfasts are incredible. I recommend the eggs Sardou along with lots of homemade bread and jam and locally roasted coffee. There's an REI store next door to outfit your Alaska adventure and a great used bookstore nearby.
Shopping: The Alaska Native Medical Center Craft Shop has authentic native handicrafts, including ivory carvings, handmade dolls and grass baskets. Skip the made-in-China imitations from the cheesy tourist shops. When Alaska natives come in from outlying hard-to-access villages, it's a decades-old tradition to bring crafts and art along to sell at the hospital craft shop. Look for mukluks (skin-lined fur booties) for children, my favorite Alaska baby gift. The hospital is home to an incredible permanent art collection as well. The shop doesn't accept credit cards and has limited hours (10-2 Monday through Friday).
Adventure: City tours are cool, but taking a helicopter lesson is cooler. Seeing life from the view of a helicopter adds a whole new dimension to sightseeing -- and learning how to do it adds an experiential element. Alyeska Helicopters is only minutes away from downtown at Merrill Field, one of Anchorage's several airports. No prior experience is necessary for a one-hour ground and air lesson that will cost about $150. It just might introduce you to a whole new addiction: I'd rather receive helicopter time than perfume any day. Alyeska uses Robinson R-22 helicopters, the sports cars of the heli world.
Lunch: Want something locally beloved? Go to the Arctic Roadrunner on Old Seward Highway (though it's not open on Sundays). It's a paper-plate burger joint with weird moose antlers and other animal parts hanging from the walls -- along with hundreds of testimonials from old-time Alaskans declaring their undying loyalty to hand-formed never-frozen old-fashioned burgers. You can sit outside on warm days, talk to locals and watch Campbell Creek roll by, an urban stream that supports a run of 5,000 silver salmon in July. The Arctic Roadrunner is so old-fashioned it only accepts cash.
Action: Anchorage is a city surrounded by mountains and water in a perfect Feng Shui kind of Qi and polarity harmony. There are rivers running through it where people in chest waders can fly-fish on a lunch break. There are trails scattered with bikers, joggers and walkers with cool dogs meandering across the city and along the western coastline. A favorite of mine is Earthquake Park near Lake Hood, Anchorage's float-plane lake where I fly in from my wilderness home. Point Woronzof nearby offers incredible sunset views. If you look out over Cook Inlet from here, beyond Mount Susitna and continuing on a couple hundred miles, that's where I live. There are many online trail maps of Anchorage but check out www.alaska.org for interesting walking and hiking itineraries. A short 15-minute ride out of town gains you some significant elevation and mountainside trails to explore.
Dinner: Jens Restaurant is located in an inconspicuous strip mall far from the city center, but the Danish-born and longtime Alaskan chef Jens Hansen's à la minute cuisine is fresh and modern and worth seeking out. The atmosphere is friendly, festive and artsy in a Euro-mod style. Jens always has fresh Alaskan seafood on the menu and impeccable oysters at the bar. His mostly new-world wine list is filled with interesting choices and his taste in music is fantastic. Look for a picture of me on Jens' party wall.
Of course, there's more to the story. There's a world-class museum here -- and world-class stripper bars -- as well as an increasingly interesting Asian cuisine scene and wildlife galore. Go to www.anchorage.net for continued inspiration.