Summertime in Anchorage

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Unfairly called one of the most expensive and ugliest cities in America, Anchorage is filled with hidden treasures--culturally, environmentally, and economically

Prices in Alaska during summer can be crazy, we won't lie to you (full disclosure: the bugs can be awfully hungry in summer too). Hotels and transportation may be double or more than their winter rates. Alaskan businesses have to make up in the tourist-popular summer what they lose in the locals-only wintertime. But don't worry, we'll show you some of the secrets in visiting the southcentral region of Alaska and Anchorage cheaply in its glorious and, yes, warm summer (temperatures in the 60s to 80s).

In this, the state with the lowest population density in the U.S. (less than one person per square mile, compared to over 1,000 people per square mile in New Jersey), and where two-thirds of the land mass is set aside as protective wilderness, the idea of a city is a novelty. But Anchorage is just that--a sprawling, very American metropolis with gleaming buildings built during the oil-rich '80s, and fast food restaurants, mini malls, and an espresso stand on every corner (to help the residents keep up with the eternal summer sunshine, day and night). Sure, its utilitarian aura may not make it the most attractive city in the U.S., but what other city may have moose strolling through its downtown, or bears living in its suburbs? Alaska's epic wilderness may overwhelm the entire state and its inhabitants, but Anchorage puts up a good fight. It's an entire city (and a rather new one, having been established in 1914) carved directly out of nature. Nearly half of the state's population of 600,000 reside here.

Rare is the tourist who comes to Alaska just to see Anchorage. But almost every tourist spends a good amount of time here since this is where nearly everyone flies in and out of, and sets up excursions to the wilderness in the surrounding southcentral part of the state. In fact, you can get an excellent dose of nature by simply doing day trips out of Anchorage, which many tourists do.

Anchorage is a rambling, friendly town, filled with stoic parking lots, refurbished wooden houses, flashy skyscrapers, and a spacious, mellow atmosphere. And Anchorage has more hidden treasures to it than its first Spartan impression gives you. All that oil money has been put to good use, funneled into arts centers, museums, civic halls, and well-maintained parks. And unlike most tourist towns, the locals love hanging out with people from "Outside" (meaning anywhere outside Alaska) and divulging local secrets.

First, when planning to visit Alaska anytime before October (the weather stays nice through September), book early, since this is high high season. Although Anchorage has the largest selection of lodging in the state, even the banal Econolodge starts at $120 a night for a blah room. So stay away from the Sheratons and Days Inns and look to Anchorage's great accommodation secret: B&Bs that are scattered all around town, even in tourist-popular downtown. They're cheaper and lot more fun than brand hotels, and you have built-in hosts to fill you in on the hows and whys of the city. Check out anchorage-bnb.com/ for a complete list of B&Bs. One highly recommended one is the B&B on the Park (800/353-0878, bedandbreakfastonthepark.net/). It's a full fledge log cabin right in the heart of Anchorage, looking somewhat like a wooden fort. Run by long-time residents Helen and Stella, you're served a full homemade breakfast in the dining room, animal skins adorn the walls, and the rates start at just $100 a night.

If you're willing to stay a little north of town in the Eagle Creek area, there is the Alaska Chalet B&B (877/694-1528, alaskachaletbb.com/), with summer rates starting at an amazing $55 for their "Rise and Shine" room, paneled in cedar wood and including a private bath, TV, phone and fridge and a quilted, homey feel. The house is wooden too, with an outside deck with mountain views all around. For $95 a night for a double, the popular Oscar Gill House (907/279-1344,oscargill.com/) is a great deal. Built in 1913, this historic downtown B&B offers Body Shop toiletries, family-style breakfasts, and three rooms with clawfoot bathtubs and antique furnishings. Or for a splurge that's worth every penny, check out the Copper Whale (888-WHALE-IN, copperwhale.com/), one of the best B&Bs in the state, with a wonderful garden complete with espresso bar, incredible views of the inlet, spacious rooms, and a super helpful staff. Rooms start at $125 in the summer for a double.

And don't just leave Anchorage in a mad rush to see Alaska's stunning wilderness. The city can prep you for your wilderness adventures quite well with its well-oiled infrastructure (pun intended!). Your first stop before you even get to Anchorage should be the excellent web site travelalaska.com/, overflowing with maps, food and lodging info, public parks details, events, packages, and more. After you get your fill online, stop by the visitors center housed in rustic log cabin along 4th Avenue in the heart of the downtown (907/276-4118 anchorage.net/). You can't miss it--it's the only building in Anchorage with tall flowers and grasses growing from its roof!

After that, you'll want to check out some of Anchorage's museums and attractions that will educate you about the state so you know what you're looking at later. The Alaska Native Heritage Center (907/330-8000, alaskanative.net/) is a bit expensive at $20.95 a head, but for those interested in the ancient cultures of Alaska, it's a must. You can watch artists at work, and daily programs include traditional storytelling, dances, games, and clothing and canoe presentations. Less interactive but much cheaper is the Anchorage Museum of History and Art (907/343-6173, anchoragemuseum.org/, $6.50), full of contemporary Alaskan art, ancient crafts, and historical photographs. It's fun if for nothing else the fact that you can walk through life-size dioramas of detailed and authentic native homes.

It may seem strange to visit a zoo in a city where wild critters roam freely everywhere, but be sure to stop by the Alaska Zoo (4731 O'Malley Road, 907/346-2133, alaskazoo.org/, $9), since it may be your only chance to see a real Alaskan polar bear (they are only found way north of Anchorage). You'll also see other wolverines and native grizzlies here--a much better option than on a hiking trail!

For local eats, try the Snow City Café (4th Avenue and L Street, 907/272-2489, snowcitycafe.com/), a low key but hip hangout with lots of windows and fake snowflakes dangling from the ceiling. Prices range from $5-$10 for breakfasts and lunch (it closes at 2 PM), and be sure to try the signature (and huge) Crabby Omelet stuffed with Alaskan Dungeness crab for $9.95. Another must is the Bear's Tooth Theatre Pub (1230 W. 27th Ave., 907/276-4200, beartooththeatre.net/), with Lemon Greek Salads for $7.95, Asian Chicken Wraps for $6.95, and Chipotle Steak Burritos for $7.95. But the best thing about Bear's Tooth is that you can munch on these yummies while watching $3 Hollywood movies in their full-fledge theater! (Leave it to the Alaskans to refine the art of enjoying themselves indoors.) And Anchorage has quite the nightclub and lounge scene too. Stop by Bernie's Bungalow (626 D Street, 907/276-8808, berniesbungalowlounge.com/), a local hotspot with a hopping outdoor patio where the cool of Anchorage sip on martinis and Alaskan brews while listening to live music and gossiping.

So don't bolt out of Anchorage just because the hinterland is calling--this American outpost has many hidden budget treasures for those willing to look beyond its no-nonsense façade.

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