Alaska is so vast that trying to take it all in during a single visit is practically impossible. And while Denali National Park (crowned by Mount McKinley) is certainly the state's marquee nature attraction, focusing a visit on a less remote, more diverse area of the state -- say the Kenai Peninsula -- may ultimately prove more rewarding.
Here is a landscape of towering snow-capped peaks, rushing rivers and mighty glaciers that have carved their way to the sea. This is also one of the great wildlife centers of the world, where boisterous rookeries of gulls and puffins nest, colonies of sea lions bask in the sun, and pods of orcas, other whales and dolphins slip gracefully through the waves.
The Kenai Peninsula extends approximately 150 miles into the Gulf of Alaska south of Anchorage, separated from the mainland on the west by the Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound. The towering Kenai Mountains form its southeast spine. But the region's crown jewel is the Kenai Fjords National Park, where 40 glaciers flow from a common source.
Getting to the Kenai Peninsula is at least half the fun. Anchorage and the peninsula's two major cruise ship ports, Seward and Whittier, are connected by the Alaska Railroad, and the trip (in either direction) offers some of the most spectacular stretches of track in all of Alaska. The railroad also offers a package that allows passengers to get off the train, hike to a glacier, then return and board a later train.
Many visitors arrive by boat by way of the Alaska Ferry system or aboard any number of cruise-ship lines. Visitors can also take advantage of the state's ever-popular floatplanes operated by companies such as Rust's Flying Service out of Anchorage.
Renting a car is another great way to explore the peninsula's mountainous interior and historic seacoast towns, such as the fishing port of Homer, where, incidentally, the road comes to an end. And if fishing is on your itinerary, the Kenai River offers a yearly salmon run that is world-famous, though the state recently imposed a restriction on fishing for king salmon due to decreased numbers. Sockeyes, however, are in no danger, so bait that hook. Just be prepared to compete with the bears!
From fish camps and campgrounds to luxury resorts, the Kenai Peninsula offers a wide range of accommodations for visitors. One of the most unusual of these getaway spots is the Tutka Bay Lodge. Accessible by small boat from Homer or by floatplane, the lodge is located on the piney wooded shore of Kachemak Bay. Carl Dixon and his wife, Kirsten Dixon, a master chef who studied at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, operate the lodge. In 2004 her "Winterlake Lodge Cookbook" earned her the title "Best Female Chef USA" from the Gourmand International Cookbook Awards.
Food preparation plays a featured role at the lodge. And when Kirsten is in residence she conducts her cooking courses in a unique classroom -- a former crabbing boat and World War II troop carrier named the Widgeon II. On the outside the craft may look like a derelict. But the interior has been ingeniously converted to fit her new purpose. It is now outfitted with rough-hewn furniture, a gigantic dining table, driftwood chandelier and a series of workstations for up to 12 aspiring chefs.
As Kirsten explains, "The boat was moored during a high tide by a previous owner, who then built a two-story wooden structure onto the deck. With some added renovations, the Widgeon II is now a rustic outpost adapted for cooking classes and special events."
The 10-acre site includes the Winterlake Lodge, exceedingly comfortable cabins, an expansive deck and hot tub. All meals and activities are included. The lodge also serves as an ideal jumping-off point (by way of the lodge's boats) to some of the best hiking in the region.
In contrast, the seaport-rail terminus town of Seward (named for U.S. Secretary of the State William H. Seward, who fought for the purchase of Alaska in 1867) bustles with summer visitors. The city is located at the picturesque end of Resurrection Bay and is the primary port for the fleet of day boats that ferry visitors to the Kenai Fjords National Park, which is described by the Park Service as "The place where mountains, ice and oceans meet."
Seward is also home to the Windsong Lodge, operated by the tribally owned CIRI Corp. Located close to town but secluded in a woodland setting, the lodge's 180 guest rooms, restaurant and lounge provide a peaceful place to relax after a day of onboard sightseeing. The lodge is also the gateway to Exit Glacier, one of the few easily accessible glaciers in Alaska and ideal for hiking, especially in the soft light of morning or sunset.
For those who are seeking a different form of escape, however, few experiences can match a two-night, three-day stay at the Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on Fox Island. Dropped off by boat, overnight visitors stay in one of nine rustic cabins that line the pine-fringed, rocky beach. Packaged stays include a day of cruising the national park. Once the boat departs, anyone who stays behind is blissfully marooned with "nothing" to do but kayak, hike the island's interior, skip rocks on the shore or roast s'mores over the campfire.
Mount McKinley is one heck of a mountain and a must-see for anyone's first trip to Alaska. But the Kenai Peninsula offers a whole other experience, which is why it is where Alaskans go to spend their vacations.
WHEN YOU GO
For general information: www.travelalaska.com/destinations/regions/southcentral/kenai%20peninsula.aspx
Alaska Railroad: www.alaskarailroad.com
The Tutka Bay Lodge (open May 1 to Sept. 30): www.withinthewild.com/lodges/tutka-bay
The Windsong Lodge: www.sewardwindsong.com
Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge: www.kenaifjords.com/fox-island-escape-package.html
Rust's Flying Service: www.flyrusts.com
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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