Fly Direct to Anchorage for Axes and Pancakes, Surfers and Straight Talk

Need a tonic to Portland preciousness? Alaska keeps it real.

By Julia O'Malley August 14, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

On a recent trip to Seattle, I found myself nursing a mason jar cocktail in a bar that also sold beard oil and leather notebooks. Looking up, I spotted an ax mounted on the wall. Like, as décor. In that moment, I knew I’d never quit Anchorage.

Don’t get me wrong; I liked living in the Pacific Northwest: Portland, specifically. (New Seasons, you complete me.) But 13 years ago, I moved to Anchorage for a job. Now, I love my city—hard.

Ain’t nobody turning their axes into wall art up here. The beards aren’t oiled. There’s no irony in the old Wranglers we wear, or the plastic nuts dangling from a pickup’s tow-hitch.

Maybe this sounds weird, but I love that stuff—the giving of zero Fs, the relief from the cute and the curated. I wave that well-endowed pickup through the intersection with a nod. Because months from now, I might find myself in a snowy ditch, and you can bet that guy’s got a tow-strap. (This has totally happened.) That there, whatever that is—that’s Alaska. We don’t wall-mount our axes; we use them to split kindling. And we’ll split some for you, too.

Then there’s Anchorage’s off-the-chain nature; it grows on a person. From the Captain Cook Hotel’s Crow’s Nest Bar, you’ll see, to the east, the torn-paper edge of the Chugach Range. To the west, Cook Inlet’s tides rise and fall below the gentle outline of Mount Susitna. Beyond that, the jagged tooth of Denali, some 200 miles away. 

I’ll let you in on a secret: September in Anchorage is my favorite month. (Don’t tell the cruise ship crowd, who start to peter out by then.) It’s a little rainy, sure, but also when the mountains glow the greenest. The lowbush cranberries are ready. There’s a nip in the morning, but the sun still sets over long hours. (You’ve never seen evening light so golden.) Yes, we’ve got a lot of Trump stickers. Kombucha on tap? Not so much. But settle in and you’ll know why so many of us stay.

FROM LEFT: Downtown Anchorage's Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop; ploughman's platter and rosé at Crush Bistro


In downtown Anchorage—an easy-to-navigate grid with great access to parks, trails, and sights—avoid the tourist traps and head for our haunts. Here, we too roast our own coffee and brew our own beer. Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, a short walk from the downtown core, serves warm raspberry scones and sourdough made with Alaska wheat. Steam Dot offers flawless lattes, or get yourself a cold brew at Kaladi Brothers Coffee. And don’t miss dinner at Crush Bistro, a wine bar loved by townies, with a menu heavy on local meats, game, and produce. Try an Alaska cocktail with gin from Juneau’s Amalga Distillery. The White Spot Café is another off-the-path treasure. (If you don’t order the halibut burger, you’re crazy.)


Rent a bike from Alaska Pablo’s for a spin around downtown Anchorage (Note: beyond the urban core, the city isn’t that walkable.) Ogle the Anchorage Museum’s new wing, and also try to nab tickets to Arctic Entries, a Moth-esque live storytellers’ revue. (September’s theme: “Stories of Breaking Trail, Taking Risks, and Leaving It All Behind.”) A quick drive south of downtown, Spenard is a rough-edged hood dotted with vintage trailers, log cabins, weed shops, and bars. Check out the event schedule at the Spenard Church of Love, a former church now home to community gardens and pop-up markets. Browse art and jewelry at Dos Manos Gallery, then relax with a Pabst at the Buckaroo Club—or a local Polar Pale at Bear Tooth. On Saturdays, hunt for Dipper Donuts maple bars and golden raspberries at the Spenard Farmers Market. On any day of the week, explore the city’s 10,000 acres of urban parkland. My favorite, hidden among the culs-de-sac of South Anchorage, is the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area, a 60-acre old homestead with forest paths and sandhill crane sightings across tidal flats.

Art appreciation at the Anchorage Museum


In downtown or adjacent South Addition, Airbnb or VRBO are the way to go. (Mother-in-law apartments are common here.) If high-season prices are no object, consider the upscale Captain Cook Hotel (rooms from $295/night). Built just after the 1964 earthquake, it has an elegant retro feel known to attract the odd movie star. And hot tip: there’s rarely a wait for breakfast in the ground-floor café. (During tourist season, breakfast waits are a thing.) Another option: the Voyager (rooms from $220/night), right across Fifth, is a modern hotel with free breakfast, in-room kitchenettes, and access to the Cook’s swanky athletic club.

Side Trip

Want to wander—not just witness—those lush, green, surrounding slopes? Head for Girdwood, a tie-dye-loving ski community 40 minutes south of Anchorage (but still technically in the city). Grab avocado toast and lavender lattes at South Restaurant & Café on your way out of town, or pop into the locavore kitchen at Froth and Forage along the Seward Highway. (Watch for Dall sheep and surfers catching the bore tide wave rolling down Turnagain Arm.) In Girdwood, explore the three-mile Winner Creek Trail, which features a hand-tram over a gorge. Refuel with wild salmon or Kodiak scallops at Jack Sprat, and consider making a night of it at the Alyeska Resort (rooms from $200/night, pictured at top), a sprawling château with soft, snowy beds. The next morning, score sourdough pancakes at the Bake Shop. Just don’t forget your rain jacket and fleece. Because Alaskans don’t wear Patagonia for show.

September round-trip direct flights from PDX to Anchorage (ANC) start at $300 on Alaska Airlines.

Top image: A view from the top of the Alyeska Resort Aerial Tram in Girdwood (Courtesy Mathias Berlin/Shutterstock)

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