A nice little city.

Anchorage was the first stop on our Alaska vacation. We arrived on Sunday afternoon and were picked up at the airport by Mike’s friend, Francis. We would spend the first two nights in Francis and Barbara’s newly finished guest room.

AnchorageAnchorage is a nice little city. I was extremely impressed by its 100+ miles of paved walking/biking trails that are easily accessible from many points along the coast. The paths follow the coastline, passing through one park after another, with great views and plenty of clean, fresh air along the way. I could easily imagine myself biking or walking or even skating along those paths every single day. I’d be happier and healthier and thinner.

Downtown was also nice, but obviously designed to cater more to tourists than locals. There were plenty of gift shops, restaurants, and hotels. The gift shops mostly specialized in local art and the usual tourist t-shirts and nicknacks. We had a nice meal on Sunday night at the restaurant in the Westmark Hotel and ate on an upstairs patio at the Snow Goose Restaurant the following day. Yes, we ate outdoors. The weather on Monday afternoon was warm with plenty of sunshine. Definitely un-Alaskan — at least as far as we knew.

Mud FlatsI should make it clear here: Anchorage does not have a deep water port so it does not get cruise ship traffic. Passengers on cruise package tours do come through the city, though. And there are other visitors who don’t come or go as part of a cruise package. So tourism is big in Anchorage — as it is in most of the rest of the state’s cities and towns.

Anchorage has the second highest tide changes in the world, with up to 40 feet between low and high tides. At low tide, the coast is surrounded by mudflats that extend a mile or more toward the sea. The mud flats are extremely dangerous to walk on, as we were warned over and over again by signs and, later, tour guides. Evidently, they’re like quicksand. Once you’re sunk in, you’re stuck and you’d better hope the local fire department comes with a hovercraft and specially developed tools for extracting you before the tide comes in.

Francis and Barbara also took us to Whittier. The weather on Monday morning wasn’t bad when we left Anchorage, but steadily deteriorated during the drive south. The road followed the coast with plenty of views of the mudflats (at low tide) and eastern shore of the Kenai Peninsula. When we turned off toward Whittier and entered the Portage Valley, the clouds dropped even farther and it began to rain. We caught a glimpse of our first Glacier — Portage Glacier — through the clouds.

To get to Whittier by car or train, you need to pass through a single-lane tunnel with a train track running down the center of it. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is 2-1/2 miles long and goes straight through a mountain. At the top of the hour, traffic goes east to Whittier. At the half hour, it goes west to the Portage Valley. If a train needs to go through, all traffic stops to let the train through.

Whittier is a tiny town that includes a hotel, a handful of gift shops, and a big building built during World War II, which most of the town’s several hundred residents live in. It has a dock large enough for a single cruise ship and while we were there, a Princess ship was at port, dwarfing the entire town. It was a weird little place, so isolated with not much to do — especially with the weather being so bad. We didn’t stay long.

On the way back, we stopped at Girdwood for lunch and a quick peek at the five-star Alyeska Resort. Then another stop at Indian Valley Meats, where Francis and Barbara bought some caribou sausage and we bought some reindeer jerky.

Anchorage SunsetBack in Anchorage, the weather had become — well, perfect. We had a great walk along one of Anchorage’s trails, where I got a chance to experiment with my new camera. This time of year, the sun sets in Anchorage around midnight, so the days are long and, oddly enough, you don’t feel tired, even late at night. I managed to get a shot of an Anchorage almost-sunset over the mud flats.

Our next stop was Denali National Park. More on that in another entry.

What do you think?