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Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, has many personalities. A cruise traveler's first impression is often of a cliched tourist destination with rows of souvenir shops selling chocolate moose poop, Alaska T-shirts and native ulu knives. But, duck down a side street, and it oozes a Pacific Northwest hipster vibe with galleries selling original paintings and organic silk-screened T-shirts, coffee shops serving up monster breakfasts and spicy hot chocolate, and brewpubs churning out growlers of locally produced beer. The city can even get a bit high-brow at the fabulous Anchorage Museum, where the state's artists team up with the veritable Smithsonian to display native Alaskan cultural artifacts and modern art as indecipherable as moose tracks after a heavy snow.
And, when the rare sunny day comes along (and even when it doesn't), Anchorage puts on its outdoorsmen's hat. Nestled between the Chugach Mountains and the ocean, the city is ideally situated for outdoor play. On Flattop Mountain, blueberry-pickers, trail-runners, dog-walkers and even the occasional moose test themselves against the steep climb to the summit (or linger on the gentler, bottom slopes). In the city center, bikers, walkers and rollerbladers stretch their legs on the 11-mile Tony Knowles coastal trail that rims the city. You can't walk very far downtown without passing at least one bike rental place. And down at Ship Creek, not far from the port, fishermen attempt to catch their dinner in the form of big, meaty salmon.
And, if Anchorage's multiple facets don't suit, the surrounding natural areas are available to anyone who doesn't mind spending a few hours on a bus, train or bush plane. South of the city, Prince William Sound and the Kenai Fjords beckon with their dramatic glacial ice and variety of sea life. North of town, Talkeetna offers a glimpse into Denali National Park and the lofty Mt. McKinley, especially if you can take to the skies. Wilderness hikes, salmon-fishing and even bear-watching are accessible in one very full day from Anchorage.
Cruise passengers visit Anchorage in a variety of ways. Some book extra time in the city before or after a cruise into or out of Seward or Whittier. Others overnight there as part of a cruisetour, a combination cruise and land tour. In 2014, Holland America Line plans to return to Anchorage as part of the line's 14-night Alaska itinerary, a trip first debuted in 2010. The stop in Anchorage is a full-day port of call, docking right at the city's port.
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Other Alaska Cruise Ports:
Anchorage • Haines • Icy Strait • Juneau • Ketchikan • Petersburg • Prince Rupert • San Francisco • Seattle • Seward • Sitka • Skagway • Vancouver • Victoria • Whittier
One of the most popular only-in-Alaska souvenirs is an ulu knife. These round-bladed knives date back more than 5,000 years and were used by Eskimo women to skin and clean fish. Today, they come packaged with wooden cutting boards and can be used to chop anything from vegetables to meat. You can buy them at any souvenir shop, or if you'd like to see how they're made, stop at the Ulu Factory by the train station.
A more expensive yet very unique souvenir is a scarf, hat or headband made of qiviut, which is musk ox wool. It is warmer, softer and finer than lamb's wool. You can buy them at Oomingmak (604 H Street), but they're pricey -- items range from $100 on up.
English is spoken there.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar; for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are several ATM's and banks downtown, including First National Bank (646 W. 4th Ave. at G St. and 222 W. 7th Ave. at B St.) and Wells Fargo (in the 5th St. Mall). There's also an ATM in the Grizzly's Gifts store (501 W. 4th Ave.).
Where You're Docked
The Port of Anchorage is an industrial port located just five minutes' drive from downtown Anchorage.
The port does not offer a cruise terminal or any facilities, as it's mainly an industrial port with very little cruise-ship traffic. Holland America offers a free shuttle into town in conjunction with Visit Anchorage. It drops passengers off at the Egan Convention Center, where they can find bathrooms and ATM's; the center is within walking distance of all downtown attractions.
Anchorage's main downtown area is quite small and easily walkable. Most attractions are found between C and L Streets and 3rd and 8th Avenues. You will see some public buses, but they mostly head out to the university and the residential communities and aren't useful for tourists. As previously mentioned, free shuttles run frequently throughout the day from the cruise ship terminal to the Egan Center in the heart of downtown.
Taxis are available right at the port if you wish to head farther afield. Car rental agencies Avis (441 B Street) and Hertz (414 K Street) have locations a few blocks from the Egan Center; definitely make reservations in advance, as the small offices don't always have extra cars for rent.
However, you don't need a car for most out-of-downtown attractions because so many places run (often free) shuttles. The Ulu Factory, Alaska Zoo and Alaska Wild Berry Park all offer free shuttles. Downtown Bike Rentals also runs a for-fee shuttle to Flattop Mountain for hikers and bikers.
Watch Out For
Given that most goods and foodstuffs are flown or shipped into Alaska from the "Outside," you might be a bit taken aback by the higher-than-average costs of food and other essentials in Alaska. Then again, if you're from Manhattan, you won't bat an eyelash!
Even if you're not usually a museumgoer, consider giving the Anchorage Museum (corner of 7th Avenue and C Street, 907-929-9200) a try. Following an expansion that was completed in May 2010, the museum offers something for everyone, including modern and older Alaskan art in multiple media; Alaskan cultural exhibits in connection with the Smithsonian Research Center (including interactive touch-screen computers for more information); a hands-on Imaginarium, where kids can learn about science and nature with an Alaskan connection; and a small planetarium. The museum's Restaurant Muse is operated by award-winning local chefs, the Marx Bros. The museum is open in summer, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.
To interact with Alaska's native peoples and learn more about their cultures, visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center (8800 Heritage Center Drive, 800-315-6608). Inside, performances of dance, storytelling and native games take place on the stage, artists demonstrate how to make native crafts, and a movie theater shows films on Alaska and its cultures. Outside, six authentic native dwellings ring a lake, and volunteers are on hand to discuss their people's lifestyles, including fishing, hunting and healing. (On a recent visit, I got to use an atlatl to throw a spear.) The center is located outside the downtown area, but free shuttles transfer guests from the downtown visitor centers to the museum and back. It's open daily in summer, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If the weather's sunny and clear, you can stretch your legs and catch great views (on a clear day you can see Denali) at Flattop Mountain, part of Chugach State Park. If you're up for a challenge, hike the three-mile roundtrip (elevation gain: 1,252 feet) to the summit; beware, the last uphill section is a scramble. An easier quarter-mile loop with nice views leaves from the other side of the parking lot. To get to the trailhead, you can drive (parking is $5) or pay for a shuttle ride from Downtown Bicycle Rentals (4th Ave. and C-D St., 907-279-3334).
Anchorage is a bike-friendly city, with bike rental agencies scattered throughout downtown. To see a different side of Anchorage, cycle (or walk, run or rollerblade) the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail that runs along Anchorage's coastline, beginning downtown. Hire some wheels at Downtown Bicycle Rentals (4th Ave. and C-D St., 907-279-3334) or Pablo's Bicycle Rentals (440 L Street, 907-250-2871).
Downtown Anchorage has plenty to offer visitors interested in shopping. For local art, head to the area around G Street, where you'll find galleries by Anchorage artisans, including Sevigny Studio on 4th Ave. and Octopus Ink Gallery on G St. You'll find everything from fur hats and native crafts to jewelry and food items at the weekend-only Anchorage Market and Festival, located in the parking lot between C and E Streets at W. Third Avenue. Alaska berry products (chocolates, jams, etc.) can be purchased in a designated store in the Fifth Street Mall or at the Alaska Wild Berry Park (shuttle service is available). If you're looking for typical souvenirs (T-shirts, bear-claw salad tongs, ulu knives), head to 4th, 5th and 6th Streets -- by mid- to late August, everything goes on sale as the tourist season winds down.
Alaska has the greatest concentration of glaciers in the U.S., and if you're willing to travel a few hours by coach, rail or plane from Anchorage, you can view some of these icy wonders. Glacier and wildlife cruises are available in the Kenai Fjords National Park (out of Seward) and the Prince William Sound (out of Whittier). Or, just 50 miles south of Anchorage, visitors can drive to the Portage Glacier. Tours are available through cruise lines or operators in Anchorage.
Been There, Done That
Looking for some no-hassle fishing? Ship Creek -- located off East Whitney Road, on the other side of the railroad tracks, not far from the Ulu Factory -- is an in-town spot for salmon-fishing. The biggest runs are the King Salmon run from early June through mid-July and the Silver Salmon run from late July through late October. You can get a fishing license at many outdoor retailers, such as 6th Avenue Outfitters (524 W. 6th Ave., 907-276-0233), where you can also pick up gear.
If you're a golfer, you'll love Alaska -- on long summer days, tee times can range from 5 a.m. up until midnight! Anchorage and the surrounding area have several golf courses, including the Anchorage Golf Course (3651 O'Malley Rd., 907-522-3363), the Moose Run Golf Course (27000 Arctic Valley Road, 907-428-0056) and the Eagleglen Golf Course (4414 1st St., Elmendorf AFB, 907-552-3821).
At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, injured and orphaned animals are rescued and rehabilitated in the center's wildlife preserve. Moose, bear, musk oxen, caribou and bison are kept in outdoor enclosures, as similar as possible to their native habitats. A visit there guarantees you'll see Alaska's famed wildlife. The center is located south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway, just before the Portage Glacier road turnoff.
If you're willing to make a very long day-trip from Anchorage, Talkeetna is a small community at the base of a very large mountain. The town, which is said to have inspired the Alaskan community in the TV show "Northern Exposure," is the gateway to Mt. McKinley, and this is where climbers come to register before flying out to base camp. About three hours from Anchorage by train, Talkeetna offers visitors the chance to take a scenic flight by the McKinley's summit, fish or ride a jetboat in the area's three rivers, or hike in the wilderness.
Also check out these fun places of note:
Anchorage, like Alaska, is known for seafood: halibut, salmon, crab and razor clams. You won't find a ton of moose or bear on the menu, but reindeer sausage is popular. Look for the hot dog-style carts along the main streets. They're a favorite for a quick bite. Berries are also local, so look for them in pies or other dishes.
Alaska has jumped on the microbrew trend, and Anchorage has several in-town brewpubs that serve up local beer and casual fare. Most restaurants will highlight Alaska brews on their beverage menus.
For breakfast all day or lunch staples like soup and sandwiches, head to the popular Snow City café (1034 W. 4th Ave., 907-272-2489) at the far end of 4th Avenue. The cafe is a firm believer in Alaska-size portions -- the blueberry pancakes are larger than the plate on which they're served and can easily feed two. In the mornings, this place is hopping, and you can easily wait for a table as early as 8:30 am. It's open weekdays, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and weekends until 4 p.m.
If you're shopping for art along G Street and need a pick-me-up, stop into Urban Greens (304 G St., 907-276-0333) for sandwiches, soup or salad. If you're not ravenous, definitely order a half portion instead of a whole. It's open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse (610 W. 6th Ave. at F St., 907-276-BEER) is a locals' hangout with yummy food and an enormous selection of beer, many of which are brewed locally. Sit indoors, and watch the game on TV, or sit outside in the Crab Shack to enjoy a bit of sun. Try the halibut burger or a regular one, as well as pizza and other local fish. Bands perform live on weekends. It's open for lunch from 11 a.m. on weekdays; breakfast is served weekends from 9 a.m.
Another popular spot for beer and burgers is the Glacier Brewhouse (737 W. 5th Avenue, Suite 110, 907-274-2739). The menu ranges from pizza to wood-grill and rotisserie meats (like the rotisserie prime rib and Bering Sea King crab legs) and fish dishes (like Bourbon BBQ Alaska Salmon). All beer is brewed locally. On Saturday nights, try the bar because there may be a long wait for a table in the restaurant. It's open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Upscale Orso (737 W. 5th Ave., 907-222-3232) blends Mediterranean cooking traditions with Alaskan seafood and meat, as well as locally crafted pasta. Try Alaskan King Crab and risotto cakes, a seafood gyro or Halibut Cheek Picatta. It's open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2:30 p.m., and for brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is served daily from 5 p.m.
For typical steakhouse fare, try Sullivan's Steakhouse (320 West 5th Ave., 907-258-2882). Go for a "knife and fork" burger or an 8- to 24-ounce steak; of course, seafood is available, too. The "Business Lunch" is a prix fixe menu, offering your choice of soup/salad and entree from a select list. It also comes with vegetables and mashed potatoes. It's open for lunch Mon. through Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner daily, starting at 5 p.m.
If you're willing to travel a bit further for fine dining, head to the Kincaid Grill (6700 Jewel Lake Road, 907-243-0507) located near the airport. The top flight eatery is helmed by award-winning Chef Al Levinsohn, who has owned, operated and served as executive chef for a variety of area restaurants, including the famed four-Diamond restaurant The Seven Glaciers in Girdwood. The restaurant emphasizes Alaska's regional cuisine, fresh seafood, and specialty meats and game. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. (dinner only).
Check out these other options:
Alaska Cake Studio
Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge
Crush Bistro & Cellar
Midnight Sun Brewing Co.
Best Location: The Hilton Anchorage (500 West Third Avenue, 907-272-7411) is located within walking distance of downtown shops and restaurants, the train station and the weekend market. Book a room high up in one of the towers for great views. Lots of cruise lines use this hotel for pre- or post-cruise stays.
Best for a Splurge: Hotel Captain Cook (4th and K Street; 800-843-1950) offers luxe accommodations, a salon and spa, and several sophisticated restaurants. The hotel has lots of local flavor -- it was built by a former Alaska governor!
Best Affordable Stay: The Copper Whale Inn (440 L Street, 866-258-7999) is a kitschy B&B with 14 guest rooms, set in a house that survived the 1964 earthquake. Breakfast and wireless Internet are included in the price.
Best Historic Property: The Anchorage Hotel (330 E. Street, 800-544-0988) was built in 1916 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rooms are spacious and have a homey feel. Just beware of ghosts that are said to haunt the property! Breakfast is included.
Best Bed & Breakfast:
G Street Bed & Breakfast
Staying in Touch
Free Wi-Fi is easy to come by with hotspots in many downtown cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and brew pubs. Sourdough's Tobacco and Internet (735 W. 4th Ave.) has five computer terminals with Internet and printing capabilities ($6/hour).
Best for Sea Life: On the all-day Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise, passengers transfer to Whittier along the scenic Turnagain Arm. There, you board a boat for a six-hour cruise along the protected waters of Prince William Sound, narrated by an onboard naturalist. Look out for bald eagles near the salmon hatchery, glaciers and sea otters near Port Wells, and harbor seals dozing on icebergs in the Harriman Fjord. An Alaskan crab lunch is served onboard.
Best for Animal Lovers: On the 5.5-hour Portage Cruise & Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center tour, travel an hour south of Anchorage to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where you can see rehabilitated moose, bears, musk oxen, caribou, bison and eagles. The visit is followed by a cruise on Portage Lake that takes you to within 300 yards of the Portage Glacier and its many icebergs.
Best for a Splurge: On the four-hour Discover McKinley/Denali National Park Flightseeing tour, you'll take a three-hour flight with a bush pilot to soar over the Cook Inlet, Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Ruth Glacier and Great Gorge, as well as Mt. McKinley (the highlight).
Best for Fishermen: Take part in a favorite Alaska pastime -- fishing! -- on the One Day Guided Fly-in Fishing Tour. On this all-day tour, you'll fly to a remote location where you'll spend six hours fishing for salmon, rainbow trout and grayling. A guide, all the necessary gear and a hearty lunch are provided, and both experienced and novice fishers are welcome.
Best Overview Tour: If you're looking for a short introduction to Anchorage and Alaskan culture, take the 3.5-hour Anchorage Highlights tour. After a tour of downtown highlights, you'll transfer to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where you can wander around the authentic village buildings or watch performances of native song and dance.
Best for Active Travelers: On the all-day Spencer Glacier Rail & Trail tour, begin with a scenic train ride past Turnagain Arm and Whittier into the countryside. At Spencer Glacier, you'll disembark and set out on a 2.5-mile hike with a forest ranger to Spencer Lake and have great glacier views. Keep an eye out for bear, moose, coyotes and wolves on the trail.
For More Information
Visit Anchorage Bureau: Information center located in the log cabin at Fourth Avenue and F Street, 907-274-3531
Anchorage Downtown Partnership
Alaska Division of Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Alaska
Independent Traveler Forums: Alaska
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor