Anchorage, Alaska sits at one of the oddest crossroads on earth, where disparate worlds peacefully collide. Hippies live alongside career military families, and international traders brush shoulders with outdoor enthusiasts. It’s a modern frontier metropolis, home to 41 percent of Alaska’s population, masquerading as a gateway to some of the world’s most extreme terrain. Tall tales of backcountry powder conquests and rumors of crazy-good Alaskan weed (commonly referred to as “Matanuska thunderfuck”) are more commonplace than reported yeti sightings.
Part of this is attributable to Anchorage’s youth. Founded in 1914 as a tent camp for the Alaska Railroad, it grew steadily until Good Friday 1964, when the second-strongest earthquake in recorded times leveled everything. The rebuilding process coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, yet at a distance that the reborn city could pick and choose its cultural references. As such, Anchorage has plenty of midcentury architecture, a laissez-faire attitude toward controlled substances and a penchant for “manly” pursuits such as shooting big guns—all of which results in a “Don’t tell me what to do, and I won’t tell you what to do” vibe.
Here, the concepts of “freezing” and “daylight” are relative. Anchorage’s seaside location moderates its fearsome cold, and winter’s darkness is the perfect cover for an evening of excess. As a counterbalance, summertime provides the most unadulterated, nonstop sunshine available. Around August, the days rapidly get shorter, but with more than 16 hours between sunrise and sunset, you’ve still got up to three more hours of daylight than down in the Lower 48, making right now an ideal time to venture to Alaska’s biggest city to get lost in its wild wilderness.
11 A.M. Drop off your bags at the Anchorage Downtown Hotel. Though it might not look like much from the outside, the interior isn’t some charmless, bargain-basement hotel. To wit, the common area, with its small, round tables and dark wood chairs resembles a tiny café. The rooms, which start at around $160 per night, are spare but warmly decorated.
12 P.M. Take a scenic drive 25 miles north of downtown to see where Alaska’s Native American and Russian histories meld. Eklutna Historical Park, an Orthodox church built by Russian missionaries around 1830, has a cemetery dotted with brightly colored wood boxes that resemble oversize dollhouses. The Athabascan Native Peoples built these “spirit houses,” which sit atop graves tucked among evergreens and wild grass. The Athabascans used to cremate their dead, but after the Russians converted them to Christianity, they adopted their new religion’s custom and began burying the deceased—with their own twist. Instead of just a cross to mark the grave, the Athabascans lay a blanket atop the interred to provide spiritual warmth in the hereafter. Forty days later, the loved one’s family places a hand-painted spirit house over the blanket, giving the soul a place to commune before departing fully for the afterlife.
3 P.M. Hop aboard one of Rust’s Flying Service’s seaplanes for a three-hour tour that departs from Lake Hood and flies up to Mount McKinley. Rust’s largest plane accommodates 10 passengers, and everyone gets a window seat and a headset to hear the pilot guide the excursion. Along the way you’ll see icefalls, rivers, the 40-mile-long Ruth Glacier and a vast, untouched wilderness. Keep your eyes open for moose, bears and wolves and all other manner of animals Sarah Palin could kill and field dress.
7:30 P.M. Much of Anchorage is no-frills, but not all. Indulge yourself at the upscale Asian fusion restaurant Ginger. Chef Guy Conley sources ingredients from around the Pacific Rim to create dishes with a heavy Thai influence. Start with the banana, lemongrass, roasted eggplant and crab soup. For your entrée, order sesame-crusted seared ahi, which is served over coconut rice, sautéed spinach and red peppers. The impeccable green tea crème brûlée makes for the perfect dessert.
9:30 P.M. The craft cocktail craze has found its way to the country’s 49th state. Simon & Seafort’s makes a damn fine classic (e.g., a manhattan or a Moscow mule), but live a little adventurously instead and order the lavender cosmo. The bar’s signature drink mixes Absolut Mandarin with Marie Brizard Parfait Amour liqueur, cranberry juice, lime and simple syrup, which he shakes and then pours in a glass partially coated with a house mixture of lavender and sugar. It’s a refreshing drink on a long Alaskan summer night.
11:30 P.M. Move from upscale to downscale in a matter of minutes. Chilkoot Charlie’s is a famous dive bar located in Spenard—the Anchorage neighborhood that held out longest before annexation and was formerly a haven for outlaws and prostitutes. The massive wood building stretches nearly a city block. Inside is something only a drunken Willy Wonka could have imagined: 10 bars wrapped in one, each with a unique flavor. One hosts live music, another is czarist-Russia-themed and another has bras draped everywhere in a kitschy fashion that’s more Northwoods than Bourbon Street. Fair warning:Aside from the courthouse and airport, Chilkoot Charlie’s is the only place in town with a metal detector, the result of one too many clashes between Anchorage urchins who got feisty in their excess.
3 A.M. Late-night eats await. A popular, decent option is the reindeer hot-dog carts along Fourth Avenue, but many locals regard these proprietors as “sausage nazis” thanks to egos fueled by constant press attention. Bypass them for Nane’s Pelmeni, a straightforward joint that does its one thing quite well: pelmeni, a regional take on traditional Russian dumplings stuffed with savory seasoned beef or potatoes. Each order of 10 little pouches comes with rye bread, sour cream (let it melt slightly on top) and an array of condiments (e.g., hot chili sauce, vinegars and soy sauce). A meal here is one last way Anchorage lets you experience Russian culture sans Putin’s thuggery.