Barely a dozen miles out of Anchorage, the electric sense of impending adventure hits. My wife, Anna Lou, and I are driving along the edge of Turnagain Arm, where great jagged peaks capped with ice cut into the deep blue sky across the inlet. The air is chilly and clean and smells faintly of cedar.
In a land where the summer sun hardly sets and distances are better measured in travel time than miles, outside perceptions are easily challenged. Alaska certainly is big, yet a trip here can be easily managed and affordable. Some of the state's most dramatic scenery, including Kenai Fjords and Mt. McKinley, is on our 10-day, 878-mile driving itinerary.
This vast subcontinent that burns into the imagination doesn't wait long to reveal itself. Our first stop is because of a moose.
Anchorage to Seward
We see this particular moose from the boardwalk at the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. After logging a few more miles along Turnagain Arm, we pull over to break out the binoculars again. The blurry spots of white out on the water turn out to be beluga whales, and we watch as they cruise the receding tide.
With the number of times we stop to sightsee, we're lucky it's only 60 miles to the coastal-mountain resort town of Girdwood. Built around a ski area tucked into a stunning glacial valley, Girdwood is the kind of low-key town that makes us think of moving here.
At Alyeska Resort, an aerial tramway climbs 2,028 feet up to hiking trails and a top-of-the-world view stretching back down the valley to Turnagain Arm. There we stand, encircled by snowy mountains and counting seven blue-iced glaciers wedged between peaks.
Later, the cacophony around the bar at the Double Musky is nearly deafening. Locals flock here because the restaurant's smallest steak weighs in at a pound. But it isn't the beef that draws us, it's the heavenly halibut ceviche and house specialties such as étouffée and crawfish pie. The menu makes sense when you meet Bob Persons, who moved here from Alabama with wife Deanna and opened the restaurant in 1979. The adventuresome food complements the local lifestyle.
The sun's still up when we climb into bed at 10, and it's up when we rise at 6 the next morning to head south to Seward and catch a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. This overlooked park is a don't-miss experience. Even when the clouds are low and occasionally spitting rain, the steep-walled inlets where grumbling glaciers plow into the ocean are spectacular. In places, the boat gets so close to the rocky cliffs that we expect to hear an agonizing scrape. Sea otters are everywhere.
Heading back to Seward, I notice that my tongue is still tingling from the glacier ice the crew brought aboard for us to taste. Exhilarated and exhausted, I turn in for the night.
Next: Seward to Gakona