The Hotel Alyeska is a great accommodation choice near Girdwood. // © 2017 Christopher Batin/Heather Fries
Feature image (above): Alyeska Resort offers skiing in winter and mountain biking in summer. // © 2017 iStock
It’s a predictable, yet familiar scenario: Mention Alaska to clients, and some will glow with excitement, while others may frown and say, “That sounds complicated ... and expensive.”
While many clients will be perfectly happy to book a packaged Alaska tour online or from any supplier who can provide a decent trip for the lowest cost, other travelers do hours of research and work with a creative and knowledgeable agent to craft the Alaska vacation of their dreams — featuring real wilderness adventures that are far from the standard fare.
This comparison might help put it in perspective: The complacent traveler will be satisfied with viewing Denali from Anchorage, where the mountain appears as a molehill-size silhouette — a mere bump rising above the lower ridges of the Alaska Range. Having seen it, he or she can claim bragging rights without investing any more time or energy.
More experiential visitors feel alive in Alaska when the trip allows them to merge with nature. They not only want to copilot a ski plane and land on Denali’s snowbound flanks, but they also want to hear mountain snow crunch underfoot and grit their teeth as Denali’s icy winds frost their cheeks. These travelers have the need to dig their fingers into aromatic earth outside a tent, enjoy a drink that has been chilled with glacier ice chiseled from a crevasse and be lulled to sleep by the symphony of a wilderness nightfall.
Agents hoping to meet the needs of these dynamic visitors should consider a simple strategy: Build and coordinate an adventure itinerary that uses small, infrastructure-equipped towns located on the outer fringes of Alaska’s larger cities as base camps.
Below, I’ve created sample itineraries for two base-camp cities: Girdwood, a small town just 39 miles from Anchorage, and Valdez, a coastal city that offers the ambiance of old-time Alaska complemented with a range of adventure opportunities.
Girdwood is a cozy town that is a melting pot of Alaskan culture and personalities, where eccentric artists and authors mingle with ski and fishing bums. Here, big-time CEOs might be drinking buddies with fur trappers. Quirky as it may be, Girdwood is a convenient geographical center to some of Alaska’s best adventures. Besides being so close to Anchorage, it is located 23 miles from the city of Whittier and 89 miles from Seward, a favorite port on the Kenai Peninsula. Girdwood also has an Alaska Railroad depot.
Days 1 and 2: Lodge at Alyeska Resort
Those looking for the best in comfort and convenience will find it at Alyeska Resort and The Hotel Alyeska, my recommended choice of lodging in this area. The property caters to a wide range of clientele, and its knowledgeable staff can assist guests and agents who want exciting individual or family-friendly Alaska adventures.
“Alyeska is an ideal hub where family members can each do their own thing,” said Eric Fullerton, director of marketing for Alyeska. “Grandparents can enjoy a tour on the Alaska Railroad; parents can go ice climbing or fishing; and kids can rent complimentary cruiser bikes or learn mountain biking from professionals.”
Guests at the resort can raft the Class IV and V whitewater rapids of Six Mile Creek’s three canyons; hike in a 3,000-foot-high alpine meadow blanketed in July wildflowers; or meander the Winner Trail through old-growth rainforests — using a hand tram for crossing the roaring glacial stream of Winner Creek Gorge.
Another option is the resort’s aerial tram, which climbs 2,300 feet to the summit of Mount Alyeska, where guests can disembark and explore endless miles of alpine Chugach Mountain wilderness and take in the panoramic views of Turnagain Arm.
For dinner, clients should be sure to make reservations at Seven Glaciers Restaurant — a AAA Four Diamond and Wine Spectator Award winner.
Another option is Alyeska’s Sakura Asian Bistro, which is widely acclaimed as the best place to enjoy hand-rolled sushi and sashimi.
Day 3: Unwind in Nature
Timberline Drive takes visitors from Girdwood to Virgin Creek Falls, where they can take a dip in a snow-melt pool.
Next, they can stop for lunch at Chair 5 Restaurant, which features a sign that reads, “Absolutely no gunfights, fistfights, food fights or cursing.”
Also, the Alaska Railroad offers a scenic tour from Girdwood to Grandview (with a motorcoach return to Girdwood) that’s ideal for young kids and seniors.
Day 4: Moose, Bears and Bison, Oh My!
Navigating the iceberg mazes on a Spencer Lake kayaking excursion offered by Chugach Adventures is one of Alaska’s most scenic boating experiences. When finished, clients can continue to paddle through the scenic Placer River Valley and, under the midnight sun in late June, possibly camp overnight on a glacier.
Another area attraction is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Here, open-range pens allow visitors to get close to bears, bison, reindeer, foxes and Alaska-Yukon moose. Kids will enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour, as well.
Day 5: On the Rocks
For clients who are newbie Alaska backcountry explorers, Ascending Path offers single- or multiday excursions that feature glacier trekking instruction on area glaciers for all skill levels. It also offers rock-climbing classes (with a safety rope) on a towering, creekside crag within walking distance of Alyeska.
Additional day tours explore fields of high-alpine wildflowers and old gold-mine ruins.
Day 6: Where Few Have Gone Before
Alpine Air Alaska’s R44 helicopters are the aircraft of choice for venturing to the remote, western Prince William Sound coastline. A half-day adventure also visits alpine and tidewater glaciers and sandy beaches where few, if any, people have set foot. Or, clients can rent a kayak from Prince William Sound Kayak Center in Whittier to check out the 10,000-bird kittiwake rookery, or take a water taxi to explore the iceberg-laced shoreline and glacial ravages of Blackstone Bay Glacier.
Other options include a full-day boat tour of Kenai Fjords Northwestern Fjord out of Seward, or a full day on the acclaimed 26 Glacier Tour from Phillips Cruises & Tours.
Day 7: Rollin’ Down the Mountain
During the summer, Alyeska’s ski slopes transform into the state’s only lift-accessed, downhill mountain bike park. Numerous top-brand bikes can be rented on-site. These downhill runs can be tricky, so advise clients that they should be in good physical condition. The resort also offers family-friendly, intermediate and advanced bike trails.
Valdez, another base-camp city, is located at the end of the “Adventure Corridor,” the intersection of highways that connect Anchorage (300 miles from Valdez) and Fairbanks (362 miles away). Visiting the 4,000-resident town of Valdez feels like going back in time. Few cities can match its reputation of surviving some of the state’s toughest boom-and bust-cycles — including the 1964 earthquake that destroyed old-town Valdez.
“It takes time to reach and get to know Valdez,” said Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises. “Some see the driving distance as a deterrent, while others see a gateway to adventure and sights not experienced elsewhere in Alaska.”
Day 1: A Valdez Primer
One of the most educational and entertaining activities in all of Alaska is walking the streets of Valdez. I highly recommend visiting Valdez Museum & Historical Archive and its “Remembering Old Valdez” exhibit, as well as the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum for collections of Alaskan life and culture. Another option is a tour of Valdez and northern Prince William Sound’s tidewater and alpine glaciers with VSHelicopters. Tours land on a remote, iceberg-covered moraine, allowing visitors to beachcomb on shorelines that were once buried under glacier ice for thousands of years.
Totem Hotel & Suites and Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn are popular accommodations in Valdez — both are located on the city’s waterfront.
Day 2: Kayak the Icebergs
Clients can feel the ocean’s pulse with Pangaea Adventures’ 10-hour Columbia Glacier Kayak & Wildlife Cruise tour — one of my favorite excursions. A water taxi provides transportation to a launching moraine in scenic Heather Bay near the entrance to Columbia Glacier, the second-largest tidewater glacier in North America. Guests paddle between hissing icebergs several stories tall before exploring miles of shoreline for seals, salmon, deer and bear.
Day 3: Glacial Thunder Potpourri
Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises has long been one of the state’s most respected tour operators. The company’s captains average 25 years of experience conducting tours that feature superbly informative narration on everything from Alaskan history to little-known wildlife facts. I prefer the nine-hour Meares excursion to see breaching whales, salmon migrations, sea lion rookeries, seabirds, otters, commercial salmon fishing boats and, of course, close-up views of the Meares Glacier terminus.
Day 4: Watch the Bears Fish
The best bear viewing on the Alaska road system is near the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, where more than 10 million pink salmon return each year. Clients can expect to photograph black and brown bears wading the tidal flats to feed on stranded pink salmon. Bank fishing is allowed nearby, and salmon hookups are virtually guaranteed during the peak of the run. The nearby 1.3-mile John Hunter Memorial Trail is rated by National Geographic as one of the world’s best hikes and offers a stunning, panoramic view of Prince William Sound.
Day 5: Be a Derby Queen
Valdez fishing derbies offer more than $80,000 in prizes for silver salmon and halibut. Special derbies include the Kid’s Derby in July and popular Women’s Derby in August. Valdez Outfitters offers full-day charters into Prince William Sound for trophy halibut, rockfish, lingcod and salmon. With halibut that ranges from 20 to 300 pounds, lingcod weighing in at 10 to 40 pounds and plenty of salmon and rockfish, anglers can return with more than 100 pounds of fish. Easy Freeze Inc. offers complete fish processing, packing and FedEx overnight shipping for those who want to send their catch home.
Days 6 and 7: Alaska’s Middle Earth
Northeast of Valdez, clients will find pristine beauty that stretches for miles at Thompson Pass. The nearby Horsetail and Bridal Veil waterfalls turn the area’s 27 feet of annual snowpack into tiered wisps of cascading beauty reminiscent of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Visitors can make the 28-mile drive to Worthington Glacier, or they can join an eight-hour Worthington trip from Pangaea Adventures that includes glacier hiking, crevasse exploration and ice-wall climbing.
Just east of here is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska’s wilderness crown jewel. At 20,000 square miles, this “mountain kingdom of North America” is 2½ times the size of Denali National Park, which makes it Alaska’s — and America’s — largest national park. It is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s an International Biosphere Reserve; and it offers North America’s largest collection of glaciers and mountain peaks over 16,000 feet. Wrangell Mountain Air and St. Elias Alpine Guides offer outfitted wilderness expeditions lasting from one day to two weeks, while top flightseeing tours take in the Stairway Icefall, Mile High Cliffs, Bagley Icefield, West Fork ice falls and 13 glaciers.
Base-camp cities are portals of adventure that provide freedom of choice for clients who deplore group-tour dynamics and big-city itineraries. For the agent, there’s no bigger thrill than helping clients experience the untouched, wild Alaska of their dreams.