Before you arrive – It is staggering to think that this growing, vibrant city – home to nearly half of Alaska’s population – was founded just 99 years ago. It started as a survey camp for the railroad; within a few months it had grown to a tented city of workers, settlers and hangers-on. Overcoming setbacks, such as the 1964 Good Friday earthquake (the second-largest ever recorded), Anchorage continues to attract new migrants, who are tempted to the city by the state’s lack of income tax thanks to its oil revenues (indeed Alaskans receive an annual dividend). Seasonal workers also descend, making the most of the summer influx of visitors. Anchorage sprawls over a huge area, yet the downtown is compact and walkable. Sophisticated restaurants specialise in fish and seafood. At Ship Creek, a short walk from the centre, locals fish for king salmon to fill their freezers.
Living with wildlife goes with the territory. At least 1,500 moose and dozens of bears live within Anchorage’s environs. In winter in particular, it is not unusual for moose to wander downtown; wolves are sometimes spotted on the walking and cycling trails; beluga whales live in Cook Inlet. On a clear day, Mt McKinley can be glimpsed in the distance. In summer, it can be light for over 20 hours a day, giving plenty of time to explore Chugach State Park, to cycle the Coastal Trail along Cook Inlet or simply to enjoy the sun eventually going down over the world-class scenery that enfolds the city.
At the airport – In summer, Icelandair flies to Anchorage twice-weekly from several UK airports via Reykjavik. Returns from £682; journey time from 11.5 hours. Sit on the right side of the plane as you fly in, for views of Mt McKinley. International flights arrive at the North Terminal; the South (Domestic) Terminal is much larger and has a wider range of facilities.
Getting into town – The airport is 8km south of downtown. Taxis are plentiful; the fare to the centre is around $18. The People Mover bus is an excellent and cheap service that includes the airport on its Spenard 7 route; a ticket costs $2 (correct money essential
Other ways to arrive – If arriving by cruise ship at Whittier or Seward, there are good connections to Anchorage, including via the iconic Alaska Railroad. The train station is on 1st Street; it is walkable from many downtown hotels, or you can grab a cab (best to pre-arrange).
First Day’s Tour – Flying is integral to Alaskan life, and the best way to appreciate the immense landscapes; if weather and budget allow, start with a flightseeing tour. Mornings tend to be less bumpy than afternoons. Rust’s Flying Service offers float-plane flights from Lake Hood. Although the McKinley & Denali NP tour is popular, the Prince William Sound flight is the most scenic, with unforgettable views of mountains, glaciers and fjords, within minutes of taking off. If flying is off, enjoy brunch at the Snow City Café. Then head to the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center for maps and advice. If it’s a weekend, go to the open-air market. Here you’ll find Alaskan specialities including birch syrups and jewellery, as well as snacks such as salmon quesadillas and calorific funnel cake. Still hungry? Pick up a reindeer hotdog from MA’s Gourmet Dogs stand on 4th Ave, famed for its eccentric owner as much as its food.
Next, a dose of culture: both the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Anchorage Museum are musts. An Alaska Culture Pass covers admission to both, plus the shuttlebus between them. Alternatively, take a horse-drawn carriage ride from the Hotel Captain Cook. Finish with a drink at Crush or on the Deck at the Millennium Alaskan, before heading out for a seafood dinner at Sacks Cafe, Ginger or Simon & Seafort’s.
Where to Stay – The Historic Anchorage Hotel was established in 1916, when it was the new city’s central gathering place. It has an excellent location in the heart of downtown.
Mid-range: Copper Whale Inn is a comfy and characterful B&B that is well placed in downtown yet close to the Coastal Trail: bikes can be hired from just outside the door. The living room (which has a large stone fireplace) and some of the 15 bedrooms have lovely views across the Cook Inlet to the Alaska Range.
Budget: The Arctic Adventure Hostel is fantastic value for the city – a bed in a shared dorm costs $25 plus tax; a private room (sleeps two) costs $50 plus tax. If you don’t have a hire car, you can take buses to downtown.
Stay or Go – While Anchorage has a plethora of activities on its doorstep, it’s also the gateway to some incredible experiences. Head south by car, train or plane to the Kenai Peninsula. Known as ‘Alaska’s playground’ it is rich in scenery, wildlife, characterful towns (including Homer and Seward) and adventures galore -kayaking, fishing, riding, trekking and dog-sledding are all available. For incredible brown (grizzly) bear watching, fly to Katmai National Park rom Homer or Anchorage (see the November 2013 issue of Wanderlusts an article on Kenai and Hallo Bay Bear Camp).
Alternatively, take a loop up to Denali National Park for hiking and views of Mt McKinley (make sure you book accommodation well in advance if travelling in peak season). Head to Valdez for whale-watching trips – here, the chances of seeing humpbacks along with seals, two types of puffin and rafts of sea otters are high.