Alaska was always one of those places I wanted to visit but never actually put a plan in practice. This changed last weekend and I had a chance to spend 36 hours in Anchorage, Alaska. Here are the eight things I learned from my trip!
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Anchorage has a surprising number of flights from the US, but many of them operate on just a seasonal basis. Winter is certainly not the season for Alaska and so flights get fewer. However, award space is rather easy on Alaska, which operates year-round – much harder on United and American (through the Phoenix ex-US Airways connection). Delta also connects from Seattle.
Fares to Anchorage occasionally fall under $300 for the round-trip from many US cities for winter dates and often for much less. It’s somehow unpredictable when that happens but as a Mighty Travels Premium Subscriber you can see the best prices for your departure area every day and will never miss a deal.
I had used Citi ThankYou points on American, which are worth 1.6 cents (instead of the usual 1.3) for flight redemptions to get to Alaska. For the return, I used an AA award ticket from Alaska all the way to Rio de Janeiro in business class for 50,000 AAdvantage miles.
Anchorage January Temperatures
Anchorage is situated in a protected bay, far away from ocean movements. Amazingly, the bay isn’t frozen in January and temperatures are ‘just’ in the 20s and 30s. The city is abuzz with talk about what the mild winters may mean for the tourism industry. The warm-up can be good and bad – if you operate a ski resort it’s bad news, but for the folks running city hotels it’s not such a bad thing that visitors can actually roam outside even in winter. Anchorage felt much warmer to me than Montreal and if we assume the warming trend may continue it will barely see snow on the city level in the decades to come.
The daylight hours for Anchorage are 10AM until 4PM in mid January. That does not sound so bad, but given the time zone change (one hour behind Pacific Time) you wake up at 8AM and it’s still completely dark! Just before 10AM, the night slowly ends, which is just an odd feeling and a rare thing. The sun comes up but often gets stuck behind low clouds over the bay so the actual sunlight is pretty minuscule, given the low angle. It makes pictures very dark even when you perceive the daylight as brighter, so it seems the brain has an easier time adjusting to the color and missing brightness of the daylight. Sunrise easily takes 90 minutes in Anchorage.
Anchorage Glaciers/Scenery around Anchorage
Anchorage isn’t a pretty city – it’s a practical one where freeways work (unlike San Francisco where they resemble parking lots) with most buildings very functional and not styled to be architectural highlights. However, the city is surrounded by snow-covered mountains (at least in winter). Several glaciers have formed in those mountains, but the warming trends have meant most have receded to such a small size that there is no comparison with, say, Perito Moreno anymore.
I went to the Portage Glacier in the Portage Valley, which was barely visible under the thin snow cover.
Anchorage feels enough like a frontier town that you won’t expect temples of gourmet food. And so it is. Good food is sparse (although it does exist) and you will pay for it. I went to Sushi & Sushi which is the best rated sushi place in town and the food was just OK and expensive!
I had a much better time at Glacier BrewHouse, which has a great atmosphere and excellent food (though the pizzas look a bit sorry) and locally-brewed beer. According to the locals, it stays busy and it is a good idea to get there early; it’s easy to be hungry at 4PM because it will be perfectly dark outside and yet somehow feel like 8PM.
I also liked the Snow City Cafe, which serves an excellent American breakfast and decent coffee – all for a small price tag with super-friendly service. Once the sun comes up (i.e. after 10AM) it gets very busy there.
The coffee craze certainly hasn’t reached Anchorage, even though it is closely connected to the coffee towns of Seattle and Vancouver. Kaladi Brothers has a few outlets around the city and while the baristas try, the outcome isn’t anything to savor. It is even more surprising given the minimal daylight hours which make you pray for good coffee, but maybe it is too dark and the locals prefer something stronger.
Alaska has undoubtedly bought into the artisan draft beer craze. Besides the excellent Glacier BrewHouse, there is the Anchorage Brewing Company brewery and the Midnight Sun Brewing Company. All of them make a wide variety of artisan beers including IPA’s, bocks, stouts and ales. The latter brewery opens for breakfast and closes at 8PM as part of their license. It’s in a great location, hidden between various industrial buildings.
People in Alaska seem to be much less jaded by tourism than other places in the USA. Every interaction I had was much warmer and friendlier than in the coastal cities where I usually spend my time.
I found Anchorage a fantastic place to experience in a short visit and it’s too bad you cant stop over on a flight to Asia anymore. It’s a very remote corner of this world and beats most Siberian cities like Irkutsk and Novosibirsk in terms of liveliness. I’d love to go back and hike into the wilderness, see more remote glaciers and fly into a remote lodge on a seaplane. So many things to do – so little time!
What is your take on Anchorage?