Alaska Lodges Focus on Luxury

Alaska lodges offer comfort and pampering, as well as a wilderness experience By: Christopher Batin
Many luxury lodges in Alaska offer custom activities as well. // © 2013 Travel Alaska
Many luxury lodges in Alaska offer custom activities as well. // © 2013 Travel Alaska

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The Details

Camp Denali

Kenai Backcountry Lodge

Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge

Within the Wild

Upscale is the new chic in Alaska wilderness lodges. Forget the historic camps of yore, when fine dining was a cooked meal eaten inside a drafty tent, or where gourmet meant something you first had to skin or pluck.

At these lodges, there is an unspoken credo: Visitors expect to indulge and be indulged beyond the ordinary. Fortunately, today’s lodge owners do not disappoint.

“Individual indulgence is big money,” said Jim Bailey, a veteran Alaskan who operated Stephan Lake Lodge for more than 30 years. “People like to be pampered and surprised with exceptional service, and they are willing to pay for it.”

The best lodges do their homework long before the season begins. Guides know arriving customers by name. Favorite drinks are waiting in guests’ cabins, with detailed sightings of their favorite wildlife. I have enjoyed seven-course lunches on a wilderness riverbank that we reached via floatplane. At one lodge, I delighted in having the head chef sit down with my wife and me before dinner, explaining the meal and fine-tuning every element of it to our liking.

“The growth in Alaska’s upscale wilderness lodges is a reflection of consumer demand, one that Alaska’s business owners are enthusiastically embracing,” said Lorene Palmer, director of the Division of Economic Development for the State of Alaska. “Upscale lodges truly offer the best of both worlds, the one-of-a-kind nature of Alaska — where guests can view bears, catch wild Alaskan salmon, hike or kayak — and the creature comforts of a luxurious destination. In addition, guests are offered an array of amenities and activities, such as yoga and massage, along with special interest programs such as photography and writing.”

Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge
Located on remote Fox Island, about 12 miles from Seward, Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge offers easy access via boat from the Seward Small Boat Harbor.

“Our customers want more than just a cruise,” said marketing manager Dee Buchanon. “They want to hike, kayak and explore the wilderness in new and exciting ways. They are looking for wildlife such as bald eagles, puffins, Dall’s porpoise and a variety of whales, and have the opportunities to get close to them. We have found that guests prefer our all-inclusive packages where they can have fun and not calculate the costs as they go. They also look forward to visiting with National Park Service rangers. For them, learning about wildlife is as important as seeing it.”

The lodge is investing heavily in upscale tourism. Its eight waterfront non-smoking cabins were completely renovated in 2012, and a new 3,100-square-foot main lodge with an expanded kitchen will have its grand opening in May 2013. The beds, furniture and indoor bathrooms are decorated in natural tones. With its propane heaters and solar generator-powered electric lighting, this lodge appeals to eco-friendly tourists.

Visiting the lodge last year, I attributed my ability to hear bird calls and waves lapping to the absence of generators, telephones, televisions or radios in the cabins. There was instant camaraderie in joining several guests around a beach campfire, complete with s’mores, or joining the chef on an early morning foraging hike for edible plants along the coastline. I recommend the evening guided kayak tour of the two state parks on the island, Sunny Cove State Marine Park and Sandpit Point State Marine Park. The calm evening seas make for a leisurely paddle to better photograph and observe wildlife.

Guests can expect to have their morning coffee or tea delivered directly to their rooms, and they will be greeted after a day of kayaking with their favorite beverage at their cabin door. Gourmet breakfasts and multi-course meals planned by award-winning gourmet chef Erik Slater do not disappoint. The scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and herbs were heavenly. Lodge chefs handle vegetarian or special diets with flair, and they plan to offer a culinary program in 2013.

For the 2013 season, rooms start at $489 per person, based on double occupancy, including all meals and transportation to and from the lodge and a Kenai Fjords tour. For a slight additional cost, I recommend upgrading your clients to the Northwestern Fjord Tour on their last day. It’s the best I have experienced and worth every cent.

Camp Denali
One of the few private inns in Denali National Park, Camp Denali has earned a reputation for offering the best way to view the park in style and comfort. Many guests consider this wilderness lodge their home-away-from-home. The 67-acre camp has been a family-owned-and-operated business for more than 60 years, which allows ample time for bonding and building a faithful clientele base.

“We cater to each of our guests,” said Katherine Schake, Camp Denali program coordinator. “Our guests look forward to hiking through the tundra with our naturalist guides and sharing in the rich cultural and natural history of this landscape. They return at the end of the day to a delicious meal, an evening program in our historic lodge built in 1954 and a warm bed in a cozy cabin.”

Camp Denali’s historic operating status has given it exclusive rights to commercial guided hiking in the wilderness core of Denali National Park. Guests can choose from three levels of guided hikes or opt for do-it-yourself hiking and wildlife viewing. Guided hikes cover the history, wildlife, birds, botany, geology and general ecology of Denali National Park.

Special Emphasis Series evening programs are not to be missed. Guests often plan their entire stay based on the presentations offered by the guest lecturers and staff naturalists. In 2013, they include Bird Migration and Conservation, Denali Wildflowers and Autumn Nature Photography Workshop.

The camp is famous for its gourmet meals at which chefs share recipes with guests. Camp staffers pick wild blueberries for their famous muffins and help pick lingonberries for fresh-made pancake syrup. The fix-it-yourself lunch buffet is not to be missed, and three-course dinners consist of Alaskan seafood complemented with local, seasonal and organic produce.

All guest cabins offer a picture-window view of Denali, and each has its own personality in decor and construction. The homemade quilts and wood-burning stoves add to the rooms’ ambience. The outdoor toilets, each with a heart-shaped cutout for viewing the Alaska Range, are alone worth the visit.

A seven-day stay at the camp runs $3,815 per person, based on double occupancy.

Kenai Backcountry Lodge
A rich Alaskan history appeals to many tourists looking for an upscale experience. Kenai Backcountry Lodge started in the 1930s as a hunting lodge and has since evolved into an eco-friendly lodge with nine guest cabins located in the nearly 2-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

“Upscale is relaxing in a cozy, wood-fired sauna, having a glass of wine in hand and taking in the snow-capped wilderness mountains,” said marketing director Kris Malecha. “Our sauna is close enough to the glacial lake that our teenage guests like to finish by jumping in. Adults are often scared to do the same, until they see how much fun the youngsters are having.”

The lodge has won awards for its environmentally friendly footprint, including a hydroelectric power system that provides water and electricity.

Guest highlights include sea kayaking along the shoreline of turquoise Skilak Lake, or enjoying meals made from scratch by the lodge chef. Four-course dinners are served family-style, where guests sit around large oval tables. The lodge offers vegetarian and special dietary restriction menus.

A four-day, three-night stay runs $1,495 per person.

Within the Wild
Popular upscale lodges often have renowned experts as owners, and Kirsten and Carl Dixon of Tutka Bay Lodge offer a prime example of the success that comes when visitors get the opportunity to interact with local personalities and learn more about their lifestyles.

Carl is a longtime Alaska guide and naturalist, while Kirsten is a nationally known chef. She attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, holds a master’s degree in gastronomy and won Best Female Chef USA at the Gourmand International Cookbook Awards in 2004. (She has authored numerous cookbooks.) The couple owns several upscale lodges in Alaska.

“Fresh salmon is brought to our dock each week by neighboring fishermen,” said Kirsten. “Our guests can catch salmon from our dock or from our boat, or dig steamer clams or pick mussels on the beach. I’m always happy to prepare salmon at no charge for our guests or show them how they can cook their catch.”

The Cooking School at Tutka Bay takes place on a repurposed crabbing boat, which was originally a World War II-era troop carrier. Guests have a variety of options: One-hour cooking lessons for lodge guests from Monday through Thursday, or multi-hour sessions on weekends that are open to the public. On Fridays, the lodge features local Kachemak Bay cuisine. On Saturdays, there are tips and insights into the company’s recipe collections. On Sundays, it offers weekly rotating three-course menus from one of eight global menus, prepared from a regional perspective.

The school features fresh Alaskan seafood, including halibut, salmon, crab and famous Kachemak Bay oysters. Dixon complements these dishes with Alaska seasonal ingredients such as wild berries, mushrooms, Alaska honey and homegrown vegetables.

With cooking lessons done for the day, the lodge setting offers much to enjoy. Tutka Bay Lodge sits on 10 acres at the head of a seven-mile fjord at the southern end of Kachemak Bay, near Homer, Alaska. The rugged coastline features snow-capped mountains rising abruptly from sea level, deep fjords, remote beaches, old-growth spruce forests and amazing tidal fluctuations.

The infrastructure includes a main lodge, six guest accommodations, spacious balconies, private baths, a wet bar, a spiral staircase and wood-burning stoves. A massive boardwalk connects the cabins with a sauna, hot tub and boathouse. The large deck offers outdoor seating as well as doubles as a helicopter-landing platform.

Activities include ocean kayaking, salmon fishing or hiking a two-mile trail through old-growth forests. Tidepooling here is among the best in Southcentral Alaska. Complimentary massage and yoga sessions and afternoon wine tastings are all included in the rate.

The lodge can also arrange a visit to the artist enclave of Halibut Cove, a tour of the community of Seldovia or the Gull Island rookery near Kachemak Bay.

A four-day, four-night stay costs $3,600 per person.

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