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Touring Southcentral Alaska

By train, by foot, or by boat, there’s an Alaska for everyone


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One of the conveniences of visiting southcentral Alaska is that much of the state’s infrastructure is in this region, radiating out of Anchorage, the state’s population center. In particular, the Alaska Railroad is a unique and convenient way to travel through the region, in part because it has structured its service to cater to visitors that want to follow a strict itinerary and to those wanting the freedom to get just a little lost in the Last Frontier.

 

The Alaska Railroad

Alaska Railroad passengers take photos of the Alaska Railroad as the train travels from Anchorage to Seward.

Photo by Tasha Anderson

 

An Alaska Railroad train awaits departure at the Seward depot; it is returning to Anchorage for the second leg of the round-trip Coastal Classic route.

Photo by Tasha Anderson

 

The Alaska Railroad has five passenger routes on its main line that stretches 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, connecting with communities along the way. The Coastal Classic offers daily service between Anchorage and Seward in the summer, while the Denali Star has daily departures from both Anchorage and Fairbanks, and the Hurricane Turn starts and ends in Talkeetna, turning around in Hurricane. The Hurricane Turn also provides an essential transportation link to residents living off the grid. Another summer service is the Glacier Discovery, which heads south daily from Anchorage to Whittier, Portage, and the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. During the winter, passengers can ride the Aurora Winter between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Alaska Railroad Vice President of Marketing and Customer Service Dale Wade says seeing Alaska by train is an unforgettable and convenient experience. “Leave the driving up to us; on the Alaska Railroad you’re free to look out the windows and pay attention to what’s going on outside in the grandeur of Alaska.” The train also allows freedom of movement that may not be available on other modes of transportation: passengers can get up to stretch, move freely through the various cars, or even step into the vestibule between cars to take in the fresh Alaska air or chat with other guests. “There seems to be a comradery among the guests; they get to know each other a little bit and ask each other where they’re from and why they came to Alaska,” Wade says.

Along the way, as special points of interest come into view or wildlife is spotted, the conductor will slow the train to give everyone time to see and enjoy Alaska at its best. The train’s onboard commentary is conducted by local Alaska students. Area high school juniors and seniors who have demonstrated academic excellence apply for a program that allows them to take a series of classes co-taught by the Alaska Railroad and the King Career Center. From the group of students who complete the training, a limited number are selected to educate railroad passengers about points of interest and Alaska history along the track, including information on Potter Marsh, Cook Inlet, Trail Glacier, Moose Pass, and Alaska Nellie (travelling south from Anchorage, for example).

Wade says the railroad developed this program for three reasons: “One, we love to support the youth of Alaska; two, to prepare them for service and employment in the industry in the future; and three, we think there’s no better spokesperson for the state of Alaska than these students—they have personal experience with Alaska that we can convey to our guests on board.”

The railroad announced in May that it is making a small change to its onboard dining service this season with a menu update by new Executive Chef, Alexa Stallone. “We’ve kept the old-time favorites,” Wade says, including their stuffed French toast for breakfast and pot roast for dinner. New items include a locally-sourced barley breakfast and a ground mustard-stuffed cod dinner. The Alaska Railroad has also developed “gluten minimized” (meaning the dish may not have gluten but it is prepped in a kitchen that is not gluten-free) and vegetarian options. Wade says the Railroad always has an eye on the menu, “making sure that we access products locally as much as possible and that the seafood is always fresh.”

 

While in Seward

The Spirit of Adventure, operated by Major Marine Tours, takes on guests in the Seward boat harbor.

Photo by Tasha Anderson

 

While the train is itself a fantastic experience, it also connects Alaska’s visitors with other excursions around southcentral. For example, the Coastal Classic departs Anchorage early enough to arrive in Seward in time for passengers to depart the train and hop on a boat to take a cruise through Resurrection Bay to view the wonders of Kenai Fjords National Park. Companies such as Kenai Fjords Tours and Major Marine Tours offer day cruises with access to whales, seals, otters, seabirds, glaciers, and Alaska’s stunning vistas.

The length of their tours vary, ranging from a full day to a cruise that pulls back into the dock in time for travelers to catch dinner at one of Seward’s many fantastic restaurants. Gold Rush Bistro is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and features classic breakfast items, burgers, and fresh Alaska seafood in a casual environment. Ray’s Waterfront directly overlooks the Seward Boat harbor and offers fine dining options, featuring Alaska seafood with crab cakes, cedar planked salmon, seafood linguine, and more. To satisfy a sweet tooth, Sweet Darlings offers a range of house-made delights, including salt water toffee, fudge, and gelato.

Sweet Darlings and Gold Rush Bistro, along with local brewery Seward Brewing Company and other watering spots, restaurants, and shopping opportunities are located on Fourth Avenue, forming a compact but exciting Downtown Seward. Seward’s Fourth Avenue shops feature locally made art, clothing, jewelry, and household goods. Seward, like many of Alaska’s smaller cities, has a vibrant artistic community celebrating Alaska’s beauty, and their products can be found throughout town.

 

SeaLife on the Seashore

At the end of Fourth Avenue, situated on the shore of Resurrection Bay, is the Alaska Sea­Life Center, where the marine life on exhibit comes almost entirely from Alaska’s unique cold water marine ecosystem, including Resurrection Bay, says Marketing & Communications Director Jennifer Gibbins. In fact, the water in the SeaLife Center aquarium tanks is pumped directly from Resurrection Bay. Gibbins says that, every so often, small “visiting” plants and animals, such as small anemones from the bay, make their way in with the water and live in the tanks.

The Alaska SeaLife Center allows guests from around the world to get up close to Alaska’s sea creatures, but the Center’s core mission is to “generate and share scientific knowledge.” As part of that mission, the Center offers Encounters and Experiences, which they have updated and expanded for this year. “Our Encounter tours are really popular,” Gibbins says. “People tell us they’re a great experience for a great value.”

Encounters are a fifty-minute to one-hour tour designed for small groups to go behind the scenes to learn about the care and training of the animals. For example, at the Puffin Encounter guests can actually hand feed the puffins and other birds within the enclosure, helping them to learn about the birds, their behavior, and how they have adapted to live in Alaska’s notorious climate. Experiences, which were introduced in the summer of 2016, are shorter versions of Encounters, and unlike Encounters many Experiences do not have an age limit. “We’re trying to give people a very high quality personal experience,” Gibbins says.

The Alaska SeaLife Center relies on admission fees and donations to pursue its ongoing mission of research and education; it’s the only facility in Alaska “that combines a public aquarium with marine research, education, and wildlife response.” The Center is Alaska’s only permitted marine mammal wildlife response facility, and as such is able to respond to stranded marine mammals across the entire state. Stranded animals that are admitted to the Center’s rehabilitation program typically require care for several months before being released back into the wild. In the case of harbor seals or sea otters, the animals are transferred as permanent ambassadors for their species to other facilities.

For those who want to support wildlife rescue efforts, the annual 5K Wildlife Rescue Run & Walk takes place this year on Saturday, July 29. The run/walk is one of the events through which the Alaska SeaLife Center raises funds for wildlife rescue and marine mammal care.

 

Independent Touring in Anchorage

For those making a day trip out to Seward, the train returns to Anchorage in the evening. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city, and for those wishing to explore independently, Anchorage is a great place to start. The city has an award-winning trail system that can be enjoyed any time of the year: the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail winds along the coast of Cook Inlet for eleven miles from Downtown Anchorage to the chalet at Kinkaid Park. In the summer it’s nearly impossible to walk the trail without seeing a moose, especially within Kinkaid Park.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail also features a portion of the Anchorage Light Speed Planet Walk, a scale model of the solar system. On the walk guests feel the relative size of the planets and their distance from the sun. The scale was chosen so that a leisurely walking pace mimics the speed of light: each step equals 186,000 miles—the distance light travels in one second. In total, the Municipality is home to more than 120 miles of paved multi-use trails with an additional 87 miles of non-paved summer trails.

Another fantastic Anchorage independent activity is visiting the Anchorage Museum, which is currently finishing construction on a new expansion; the rest of the Museum is open while construction continues, and the expansion will open in September of this year. Ideal for families, the Discovery Center at the Anchorage Museum is a hands-on science discovery experience, providing children and adults an opportunity to explore art, history, and science of the northern regions. The Discovery Center is 9,000-square-feet and has more than eighty exhibits in six areas: Kinetic Space, Bubble Space, Tote Kidspace (designed for children five years of age and younger), Earth and Life Science, the Thomas Planetarium, and the Smithsonian Spark!Lab.

A local favorite outdoor trip “in town” is heading up to Flattop; from an easily accessible parking lot, hikers can travel up the 1.5-mile trail to the roughly football-field-sized plateau summit to take in panoramic views of Denali and the Aleutian Islands with the city of Anchorage spread below. Those who aren’t looking to ascend another 1,350 feet by foot from the Flattop parking lot can take a short walk to the overlook, which also boasts stunning views of the city and Cook Inlet. Visitors with local friends or family can beg or trade for a ride, or there’s the Flattop Mountain Shuttle that provides round-trip rides from Downtown Anchorage to the mountain.


This article first appeared in the July 2017 print edition of Alaska Business.

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