Sunday, June 24, 2018

Our Great Alaskan Adventure!

We recently took a two week vacation to Alaska with my parents and our youngest son. Our oldest son and his wife weren't able to get away from work, otherwise we would have had a trip with the whole family! It was to celebrate our 30th Anniversary and us both hitting milestone birthdays this year.

We started talking and planning with my parents last August. This trip was their sixth visit and they were like our very own personal tour guides. We flew in to Anchorage and rented a 31 foot motor home from Great Alaskan Holidays. This was the third time my parents have used this company. Were I to go back for this type of trip again, I would rent from them. I was impressed with their customer service and the great prices.

We were a little nervous about having 5 people in a motor home for two weeks, but we also knew that we had tons of excursions and side trips planned, so we decided to go for it! My Dad and I were the 2 trained drivers, but he actually did ALL of the driving-something I cannot say thank you enough for!! He loves to drive, he's a great driver, and he's driven motor homes before.

Our flight landed after ten pm, Alaska time-which was around 2am Michigan time. We were exhausted, yet excited for our adventure to begin. My parents flew out a few days before us to have some time to visit with their friends, so they picked us up a the airport. I had booked our hotel online, and was very disappointed with my choice. There were three sections to this hotel. One with inside entrance rooms, another section that had outside entrances, that was a big step down in appearance from the first section. Then a third section that was outside entrances, and an even bigger step down in appearance. It was convenient to the airport, and relatively clean, but that was about it, It was nothing like how it was advertised online.

The heat in our room was stuck on. It was miserably hot, and no air conditioner! We were so exhausted, the thought of switching rooms was not even on our radar.  We crashed, but didn't sleep well at all. Early the next morning, the guys went to the main building to check out the continental breakfast, while I hopped in the shower. Our room had a window, so they thought they'd be helpful and open it to cool the room off. They also left the t.v. on when they left.

When I got out of the shower and was dressing, a man screamed into the window, calling whomever was inside a f-ing communist! At that moment, I realized A. the window was open, and B. how unsafe that was for me to be there alone. I grabbed my phone and texted my son to tell him what happened. They raced back to the room and I finished getting ready and we packed up our stuff.

I don't know if it was the noise of the shower, the t.v. (which wasn't loud at all), of just the fact of the open window that caused that startling morning greeting, but it didn't do much to start us off on a fun adventure. Seeing the mountains in the distance from the window was exciting, but seeing the street walking "ladies" heading in for the night wasn't that great either. It wasn't even that early, it was 7 am, Alaska time!

After my parents got up and around, we went down the road to Gwennie's for a hearty breakfast and to start our Great Alaskan Adventure! It was fun to walk in and take in the atmosphere and their plates were piled high with good hearty, belly filling food! The server was super friendly, and we tried reindeer sausage for the first time!

After breakfast, we visited Walmart to stock up on groceries for the motor home. While I was wandering with the cart, I noticed an end unit in the meat department with whole pig heads, shrink wrapped in clear plastic! I've never seen anything like that at any of the Michigan or Florida Walmart stores that I've visited. Prices were a bit higher on some items and considerably higher on others, than what I see in Michigan.

After we filled the already over-filled rental mini van with the groceries, we had mom and my guys drop dad and I off at the motor home rental place, so we could watch the training video. It was about a half hour video, and then we had to sign a bunch of papers, before we could go. The motor home was stocked with bedding, towels, and dishes. We added a propane grill, toaster and keurig coffee pot.

While we were getting the motor home training, mom and my guys went back to the hotel to get the rest of the luggage. We met them at Gwennie's parking lot and loaded it all into the motor home. It was within walking distance of the car rental place, so we got everything situated and put away while Dad returned the mini van. It seems like a lot of time, but it actually went really fast!

We were all excited to finally get on the road. As we started driving, everything as new and exciting-especially seeing mountains, everywhere we went. Our first stop was in Wasilla at my parent's friend's house. They wanted to meet us, and put out a HUGE spread of food for us for lunch. I tried a lamb chop and moose lasagna. I learned I am not a lamb fan, but the moose lasagna was very tasty! She had such an amazing spread of food for us and it was fun to finally meet the people my parents have been talking about for years!

Our next stop was Talkeetna. It had started raining while we were driving so, our wanderings in all the shops was muddy and soggy. It was a sleepy little gem of a town, where everything was within a very short walk. We made reservations for a jet boat ride. We assumed it was going to be taking us on white water and to the edge of the rapids. We misunderstood. It was an interesting adventure, but not at all what we were expecting. After our boat ride, we ate dinner at a local restaurant with a craft brewery. The food was very good. The service-not so much.

We stayed in the nearby RV park, which introduced us to our first pay showers! They were coin operated and it was $2 for 4 minutes. The showers were very clean and had doors that locked-something I didn't even appreciate at the time. We didn't know at the time how good it was!

After Talkeetna, we went to Denali. It was very cloudy and overcast so we didn't get to see it. We heard over and over, that only about 20% of the people who come to Alaska on vacation ever get to see it. We were able to drive back on the dirt roads forever, but still no luck. We saw caribou, moose and ptarmigan but no Mt. Denali.

We left Denali behind and went to Fairbanks. We stopped at the Chena Hot Springs Resort and took a soak in the hot springs. I was expecting something totally different! It was a lot bigger than I thought, and it was a lot stinkier than I thought! It kind of smelled like a cross between sulfur and stinky feet!

We ate lunch at the hotel restaurant/bar and it was very good! Then we visited the ice house. It was freezing inside but so beautiful! I ordered an apple-tini that was served at an ice bar, in an ice martini glass!

Our next adventure was a trip on the Riverboat Discovery. I really enjoyed learning about the area, seeing and learning about the dogs from the Susan Butcher kennels, and the little stop with several stations of learning. It was really neat to see a float plane land and take off right in front of the boat! My Dad and son enjoyed some reindeer hot dog/sausages. It was a very professional, well done tour.

The next day, we went to the North Pole! It was a cute little town with lamp posts painted to look like candy canes and a little gift shop where you could visit Santa and get your picture taken. We also got to see some reindeer that lived on the property. The shop was tiny compared to Michigan's Bronner's but it was very nice-even if it was small.

We went to a Chinese restaurant called Pagoda for lunch. It had been featured on Diner's Drive ins and Dives. My Dad heard from our server that they were going to be featured again soon. The food and the service were incredible! We all absolutely LOVED our food! So fresh, so delicious and so plentiful! If that restaurant were in my hometown, we would eat there every week! We couldn't have enjoyed it more, and we had leftovers to enjoy for dinner!!

The next day, we visited Gold Dredge 8. It was a really fun excursion that was very professionally done, yet  not cheesy. Both the riverboat and the gold dredge companies (sister companies we were told) have figured out how to do what they do and do it exceptionally well. We rode a little train, complete with live entertainment, and learned some history with a lesson on panning for gold. Then we got a chance to try our hand and panning!

The staff were super nice and helpful. We greenhorns were not very good at panning. They were very friendly and patient with us and before long, we saw tons of tiny flakes in the bottoms of our pans. We each took our spoils inside to be weighed and we all were thrilled with what we found. I found $18 worth, Mr found $15 and our son found $10. My parents combined theirs for a whopping total of $85! I got mine put into a clear charm for my charm bracelet, and my parents had theirs put into a refrigerator magnet.

We planned to head to Valdez the next day, but decided to shorten our drive by not going all the way. We were driving  a ton of miles every day, and stopping several times along the route. Everyone was exhausted, so we stayed near Glennallen at a campground in Gakona. It was a neat little place on the river. In addition to the campground, they had little cabins shaped like igloos to rent for the night. The owner was super friendly and offered to show us the insides of  the igloos. He told us about building them and it was fun to see inside.

One of my coworkers, who lived in Glennallen for a couple of years, while attending college, recommended that we eat at the Thai food truck in the parking lot of The Hub. We saw it and even stopped, but it was 9am on a Sunday, and they weren't open yet. We had too many places to go to wait until they opened, but I did get a pic to send to my friend. He was happy to see that they are doing well enough to build a little building and are not in the truck anymore.

Our next adventure was the Matanuska Glacier. We'd read online that you can actually walk on the glacier! We knew ahead of time that there was a $30 per person charge, and we thought that it was worth it to walk-on-a-glacier! The main road we were traveling was on considerably higher ground that the gift store and admission office for the glacier. One side was sheer rock and the other side was a sheer drop off! I was super thankful that my Dad was the driver that day and not me!!

As the ground leveled off, we saw a one lane bridge that didn't look like it could hold the rv, so I called the gift shop and they assured me that they get hundreds of motor coaches every summer that safely cross it. We too made it and once we parked at the gift shop, we all went in to fill out their waiver and pay our fee. It was in this shop that I picked up a used Alaska license plate to bring home as a souvenir.

We drove back a good mile or so to another parking area and started our trek to the glacier. It was muddy, slippery and the "trail" if you could call it a trail. wasn't very clearly marked. They had metal ramp-like grates placed, sometime precariously over the super messy areas and cones placed very few and far between to mark where we were to walk. We were told to no go too far to the left because there was a 100 foot crevice that we could fall into.

It was quite a winding, slow-going hike to get ever closer to the white, snow-covered part of the glacier. We walked on the muddy, dirty, gravely part for quite some time. My parents stopped when we came to the part where we had to hop a little stream. I only made it across because my guys grabbed my arms and pulled me as I jumped.

We walked as far as we could go then I turned around to go back to my parents. The guys went a little further, along with about 50 other people, but they soon turned around. While my parents and I were talking and walking back to the RV, I went on one side of a picnic table and they the other-BIG mistake on my part! I sunk in the mud to over my ankles! Shoes ruined, pants a MESS!

As we were driving out, we stopped one last time in the gift shop and there were a few couples who looked like they were from India. The ladies had very pretty slippers and gauzy, flowing outfits on. They were talking about going on the glacier. I mentioned to one of the ladies that they would want to wear different shoes because it was muddy. They looked at my feet and pants and decided they weren't going!

The ride out was just as harrowing as the ride in! Once we got to the bridge, I hopped out and ran across so I could snap some pics of the RV going across. I didn't realize Mr was taking my pic, as I was taking theirs!

Our next destination was Seward. We stayed at Resurrection Bay Campground, right on the water. Our site was one row off the water, and near to the bathrooms. Since it was chilly and the showers were open to the outside, and unheated, we decided to use the RV's tiny little shower and 6 gallon hot water tank. I'm sure it was much warmer than the campground's.

After parking, and setting up camp, we walked into town to try to find a little bar/restaurant that my parent's had eaten at on other trips to the area. We found it, but it wasn't the same as the last time they visited. It was right on the marina, so it was neat to see all of the boats docked and the mountains in the background.

We spent two nights in Seward. We went on a whale watching excursion with Major Marine Tours, out of Resurrection Bay. Captain Kaylee was exceptional! She knew the area, she knew her history and she she knew how to drive the boat and adapt to the changing waves and weather for the best interest of her guests. We saw a family of orca whales swimming around and feeding. We only saw one breach the water, but we got a ton of shots of them surfacing and swimming. It wasn't as exciting as our whale watching excursion when we went out east, where the whales were breaching  and putting on a show, but it was still fun to be a part of.

It was a very chilly, damp, rainy day so it was nice that there was in enclosed cabin to go to to warm up! the trip back was just as informative and interesting as the trip out to the whales. We even got to see a bunch of sea lions sunning on some rocks! I would highly recommend Captain Kaylee and Major Marine Tours-if you ever get to Seward and want to go whale watching!

The guys climbed Mt. Marathon, a mountain just a few blocks from our campsite, while my parents and I drove around and did the touristy things. We even stopped at a thrift store, just so I could say I went thrifting in Alaska!

Our next destination was Homer, but on the way, we stopped at Exit Glacier. It was free to get in, and free to walk to. The trails started out paved and after a while, turned into well groomed hiking trails that weren't muddy at all and were easily navigated. It was neat to see all of the date signs, showing where the glacier once stood at a specific year. I preferred Exit Glacier over Matanuska Glacier for many reasons. Were I to go on this trip again, I'd skip Matanuska and the $30 fee, and the mud.

We went on to Homer and checked in at the Homer Spit Campground. It was a beautiful area, right on the water with gorgeous mountain views. We stayed there two nights. The guys went on a fishing charter for 12 hours and mom and I explored and did the touristy thing...and even managed to sneak in a little nap while they were gone!

She remembered a little cafe in one of the outfitter shops that had amazing seafood chowder, from her last trip and we were able to find it again! The chowder was AMAZING! Super delicious and loaded with seafood! We got three cups of it to go, to take back to the guys. We also ordered halibut tacos to split. The owner didn't charge us for them because he wasn't happy with how the homemade tortillas came out! The insides was super tasty and loaded with fresh ingredients. One thing I noticed about most of the food places we ate it was they took their food seriously! Made from scratch, fresh food, done very well.

One place we were highly disappointed in was a place in Homer that had a huge sign for fresh sushi. My son, parents and I love sushi, Mr, not so much. We walked into town from the campground when we first arrived to try some sushi as an appetizer. Mr got mozzarella sticks. I was expecting amazing out of this world sushi. Instead, I found it to be bland and just so-so. I actually think the sushi we bought at Fred Meyer (Alaska's version of a super Kroger) was hands down much better.

While Mom and I were wandering around the spit and the guys were fishing, we walked around the marina looking at the boats that were docked there. We saw the Time Bandit from Deadliest Catch and a few others. I didn't know they were at the time, but when we got back to the RV, I Googled their names and found out they were also from the show.

When the guys came back in to the docks, we walked over from the campground to meet them. They were exhausted, but had had a ton of fun and caught tons of fish. They estimated that they had caught somewhere around 60 halibut, but only kept their limit of legal sized fish. There was another couple who was on the charter with them, and they all got along really well. The captain and his helper were great they said. The helper was cutting bait on his knees for the entire 2 hours they were motoring out to their fishing spot!

The fish was taken to a processing plant where it was cleaned and vacuum sealed, frozen and boxed up to go home. They told us to take it to the airport baggage storage where we could pay to have it stored until we were ready to fly home. Then to check the box as baggage on the plane. They said ti would be good for 24-36 hours until it thawed. It was perfect! Very easy to bring the fish home that way. We had to pay to store it and pay to check it as a bag, but it was worth it!

On the way back to Anchorage, we stopped in Girdwood and rode on the Alyeska Tram, up to the top of the mountain for spectacular views and an interesting lunch. They offer just a tram ride or a tram ride/lunch voucher combination. The combo ticket was only $9 more than just the ride itself. So, we went for the combo. The lunch voucher was for $20 each-well worth the extra $9 each! They had a sign telling about their fresh-made cream soda, so of course, I had to try it! It was AMAZING! The best cream soda I've ever had!

After a seamless, easy fish drop at the airport, we checked in at the Centennial Campground. It is the only campground in Anchorage that has trees. The others are just parking lots. We were happy for the trees and larger sites. The staff was super friendly and easy to work with. Unfortunately, the camp hosts didn't do the paying campers any favors. They didn't enforce quiet time, and allowed our "neighbor" and the people he brought in on multiple motorcycle trips to stay outside playing a two note, off beat strum while screeching and wailing until almost 2am. It was MISERABLE!!

The bathrooms and showers were awful! Dirty, nasty and unsafe. Since I've been home, I've read the reviews on this park and found out there is a large homeless population very near to this campground. We noticed some campsites that had a bunch of people just laying around on the ground, but just thought they were open air campers! When we informed the campground staff of the issues the previous night, they apologized and said that particular person is a known local who camps there all the time and they ALWAYS have to talk to him about the people he brings in and how they disrupt everyone around them. I wonder if they've ever tried refusing to rent to people like that? Almost every campground had signs saying they reserved the right to refuse to rent to anyone for any reason. Maybe this place should try that. With just a few tweaks, this could be a really nice campground.

We visited Anchorage's Farmer's Market, which was more like a craft and food truck event, I didn't see any farm goods, but maybe it was too early in the season for that. We had a blast walking around visiting all the booths. My parents had been before and were happy to see some of the same vendors they's shopped in previous years. We saw everything from photography, clothing, jewelry, honey products, Matryoshka dolls, Russian hats, fresh baked goods, to jams and jellies. The food choices ranged from reindeer fried rice, Hawaiian Poke bowls, Fresh squeezed lemonade, candied nuts, twister potatoes, thai food-you name it, it was there! Even kettle corn!!

We  took a trolley ride through Anchorage on another day and enjoyed seeing the area as well as hearing the history and fun facts of the surrounding area. Our guide was fantastic and made the outing a ton of fun. We also visited the ulu factory and the Wild Berry gift shop to see a gigantic chocolate fountain.

We ate at a couple of restaurants in Anchorage and I would highly recommend them! First was Humpy's-which I am told was on Diner's Drive ins and Dives. I had the most AMAZING crab roll of my life! My dad got fish and chips and the others got crabby patties. It is a dive, but the food is worth it!

The last Alaskan meal we had was at the Fat Ptarmigan. I cannot rave enough about their pizza. We were soon to be flying, so my guys and I had sandwiches. They were delicious. I got their home brewed cream soda, and at first it was bitter, but once it was well mixed, it was really good! How do I know about the pizza, if I ordered a sandwich? My parents ordered pizzas. Dad got reindeer sausage pizza and Mom got a gourmet mushroom pizza. Oh, man, were they good!!!

We drove out to visit the wildlife conservation center since we didn't see any bears in the wild. I don't know if not seeing any in the wild was a good thing, or a bad thing-probably good. We got up close to several brown bears and a black bear, as well as moose, caribou a porcupine and many other animals. I would highly recommend a visit.

Another restaurant we visited on our travels that needs a mention is the Turnigan Arm Pit BBQ. We ate out on the deck, even though it was chilly because the views were awesome! The food was AMAZING and the service was top notch!

One thing I took away from this trip was Alaskans take their craft beer and food seriously! Where I live in Michigan, we have a LOT of chain restaurants and not many that are stand alone  places.  I guess our trip could be called how to eat your way through Alaska! I am still not a beer fan, and probably will never be, but my son and my Dad and even Mr from time to time enjoyed sampling the many craft beers Alaska has to offer.

Before our flight, we had a couple of hours to kill so we sat along side lake Hood and watched plane after plane land and take off. it was really neat, and not something we are likely to see ever again. We also found an antique shop with a grand opening sign out front. It was fun to wander around, and see what antiquing is like in another state. It is pretty much the same everywhere. A lot of the booths look just like what I've seen in Michigan, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

We brought home t-shirts, hats, and ulus for everyone, and once we got over the exhaustion of not sleeping well for two weeks, due to being on the go so much, perpetual daylight, we've had time to reflect and reminisce over the trip. The worst parts were the first night and the flight home with the screaming baby-almost everything else in between was super fun and worth the time and money. Two things I'd skip but the rest I'd say is are things I'd recommend.

If you're planning a land trip to Alaska and want some tips on where to stop, send me a message and I'll share our itinerary with you including all the campgrounds we stayed at. It was a once in a lifetime trip for us, something we're not likely to repeat. My parents, are already talking about another trip! I think I'd like to focus on the rest of the lower 48, maybe one state at a in, rent a car and explore! Maybe next summer I'll be sharing more travel adventures!