Sunday, 12 September 2010

Alaska On The Cheap (It Can Be Done)

Budget Alaska travel sounds vaguely oxymoronic. Even (especially?) Alaskans admit the cost of living is outrageous. I still have sticker shock from the $3.25 I paid out for a quart of Tropicana orange juice my first day in Anchorage. Don’t even talk to me about the $3.50 local beers.
I first decided to spend a month there (after Labor Day, when there are bargains—if not galore, enough if you know where to look for them) when I was mulling over the three Northwest $80 senior citizen coupons I had left. Two would take me from Philadelphia to Anchorage—with a convenient two-hour layover at the Twin Cities airport for some hometown schmoozing with granddaughter Sonia.
The third coupon would take me from Bellingham, Washington, through Sea-Tac Airport back to Philly. That way, I fantasized, I could meander on and off the so-called Alaskan Marine Highway System (we call them ferries in the Lower 48) from Skagway to Bellingham with stops in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. Or so I dreamed.
Transportation Realities:
Once you’re in Anchorage, the size and cost of travel (even for short distances) begins to sink in. True, the Alaskan Railway offered a tempting two-week pass for $199, with unlimited use of their system and a slick brochure luring you to Seward (and an expensive boat ride to the glaciers—I feel about glaciers the way Ronald Reagan is alleged to have felt about giant sequoias: seen one, seen them all), to Denali Park (where the object of ahhhs! is 83 miles from the train stop), and to Fairbanks (which I coveted to visit ever since Dody Goodman sang “April in Fairbanks” on the old Jack Paar Show).
The railroad touts other trips as well: to Nenana, where Warren G. Harding memorialized the completion of the railroad in 1923 by pounding in a golden spike; to Wasilla in the land of gargantuan veggies (but the growing, the groaning, season was already over and the winners were being airlifted to the David Letterman Show); to Talkeetna; and to Hurricane Gulch (something of a scam, since it involves trekking for hours to an admittedly grand bridge over an admittedly grandiose gulch).
But the 12-hour train ride between Anchorage and Fairbanks is posterior purgatory, even at the peak of the alder, aspen and birch golden unleaving season. The average of 35 miles per hour is simple prudence—the roadbed was washing away, and the “shoulder” between the rails and the Nenana river miles below would give a Milanese fashion designer the shudders.
The day I entrained to Denali, we had to school-bus back to Fairbanks because a freight train had derailed. Should I add that the bus made better time even though its heating system was on the fritz? I shouldn’t complain about the backache the seats gave me—walking the aisles to relieve my backbone, I discovered that the spartan cars came out of the Budd factory in Philadelphia.
Don’t let me discourage you from taking the trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks—once. The people in the dome car are interesting to palaver with, especially the Alaskans and students from the tourism class at Fairbanks High who provide the help, give or take a few adult conductors.
And my seafood sauté dinner on the train was the only decent fish dinner I had in Alaska—the good stuff is airlifted frozen to Michelin-level restaurants around the world.
Mark Air, the People’s Express-like airline of Alaska, provided the sane solution to my badly abused bottom: You can fly back to Anchorage in an hour for $49. The next time I go North I’m also going to avail myself of Mark’s two-day / one-night excursions to exotic polar places like Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay.
There’s one other air bargain I’m going to pick up on my air trip. Air North has a three-week pass ($499) that allows you to fly from Fairbanks to Old Crow (above the Artic Circle), Dawson City, Whitehorse, Watson Creek (which will be big in 1992 when they’re celebrating the golden jubilee of the Alcan Highway) and Juneau.
There’s a bus that takes you from Anchorage to Homer round-trip for $37.50—but it takes six hours each way! The 100 miles my ERA Dash 800 made in half an hour turns into 225 miles by a very sinuous road in and around the Kenai peninsula.
You can rent a National compact car weekends at the Homer airport for $35 a day—unlimited miles. But the artist who sold me Terri Lyon’s beguiling puzzle sculpture, “Pink Salmon on Rye,” was worried about running into moose even on her drive home to nearby Soldotna. No wonder so many people fly their own planes. (Although the day I trained by Healy, two light planes terminated each other because the pilots’ eyes were on the moose below instead of the clouds above.)
But it’s not these bargains that set me back over $1,000 in air fares in two weeks. Blame most of that spending on Anchorage to Juneau ($205), Juneau to Sitka ($75), Sitka to Seattle ($295), with 10% off for good senile behavior. I took a pricey flight back to Seattle because bad weather was closing in on the Sitka airport (the skinniest jet strip on earth). And I was going blind trying to read the Alaskan Marine Highway schedules to see how I could include Skagway, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell and Price Rupert and still get back to Philly before Christmas.
The mass trans systems in Anchorage (80 cents a ride, 25 cents for seniors, with a People Mover schedule available for $1) and Fairbanks (no schedule needed, since there are only two lines which radiate from the Transit Depot downtown) are worth noting if you want to visit places like the local branches of the University of Alaska. Anchorage is so spread out for a city of 250,000 that I’d book a car on my next visit. (To be continued.)
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

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