Twenty years ago this summer I fell in love with Alaska. After graduating from college and moving permanently to Atlanta with friends, I thought I had died and gone to heaven by escaping my small town life. My parents quickly threw a wrench into all the excitement by informing me we were going on a family vacation to Alaska - a week on a cruise ship. I balked, begged and pleaded not to go. I am the least 'outdoorsy' person in the world. I don't like to be cold and I don't like to be hot. My definition of camping is a night at a Holiday Inn Express.
We boarded the ship in Vancouver and spent the first night at sea. When I woke up the next morning and peered through the tiny porthole, I was amazed and astonished. It was the most magnificent scenery I had ever seen. The snow covered mountains soared above the clouds and the ocean looked so vast it almost seemed powerful. Since there are only about 4 hours of darkness each night, I woke up when the sun came up with as much excitement as a child does on Christmas morning.
I have been back to Alaska about 10 times since that summer, another cruise, a trip to Juneau to visit my old friend Reecia and the rest for work, long layovers in Anchorage with my “stewardess job."
Reecia is from Juneau and opened a seafood restaurant, which is, in my opinion, the best seafood restaurant in the world, (Yes, I said world). The view alone would be enough to draw a crowd and serve hotdogs. We took a helicopter ride and landed on a glacier, which is on the top of my list of things to do before you die. We also rode on an old yellow school bus to the top of a mountain where a group of men grilled salmon they had caught from the nearby stream. They marinated it all day in brown sugar, garlic and soy sauce, put it on a big charcoal pit and served it with their wives' potato salad and other local sides they made.
My airline flies to Anchorage in the summer months and it is a much-anticipated destination, except for the cruise ship passengers who make the flights a bit of a trial. On my most recent trip, I decided to rent a car for a drive based on two criteria. I wanted the most scenic road to a destination for an excellent seafood meal. It did not take much research to discover that the Seward Highway was considered by many to be one of the most scenic drives in the world, comparable to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Whittier, a very tiny fishing village located on Prince William Sound along the Seward, kept showing up as a must-see. It has just become accessible by car via a recently built tunnel and is apparently the home of a seafood restaurant thought by many Alaskans to have the best fish and chips in the state.
I invited my fellow crew members to come along and two of them accepted my offer. We departed at 7 am to drive from Anchorage to Whittier. A nice couple on our flight who were local Alaskans and had lived all over the state, suggested that we stop at a bakery called the "Bake Shop" along the way. I’d read about this bakery, located in Girdwood, a ski resort that is the only town between Anchorage and Whittier. The article said to get there early for a hot, cinnamon role, infused with local blueberries. We made it just in time, watching them come out of the oven. They were huge and covered in icing. We contemplated whether to share one or two. We ordered three and not a crumb was left.
We continued our journey, agreeing that we could be perfectly content sitting in that bakery all day, drinking coffee and eating everything they had on the menu. However, there was more magnificent scenery down the road and those fish and chips were calling. It’s hard to accurately describe the magnitude of awe we felt driving along the Seward Highway. All I can say is that the scenery is so amazing and powerful I am positive that many people have 'found Jesus' along that road.
We took many photos along the way. The road is sandwiched between the Chugach mountains and Turnagain Sound, best described as Bug Sur on Barry Bond's steroids! We stopped at Portage Glacier, which is one of the most visited glaciers in Alaska and I see why. After we spent a good half hour, staring in awe, we marveled that we were actually getting paid to look at this. As it was almost lunchtime and Whittier was over the next mountain, we headed to the tunnel, which was the first sign of civilization since we left the bakery. There was a tollbooth with a young Alaskan guy taking the $12 fee who explained the rules of passage. It is 2 and a half miles long and is the longest and most costly tunnel ever built in the USA besides the one in Boston. Cars share the tunnel with a train. The direction of traffic flow changes every 30 minutes to accommodate everyone. I had a brief vision of driving through the long, dark tunnel to come upon the headlights of a train heading towards me.
It was stressful driving through the dark at the speed limit of 25 mph, careful not to drive directly on the train tracks as you could get your tires stuck in the tracks. Finally, we saw light and once we exited the tunnel I knew what Dorothy felt like when she landed in Oz. Whittier is a picture-perfect, charming, tiny fishing village on the sound with soaring mountains in the background. We spotted The Swiftwater Seafood Cafe and sat on the porch until it opened, watching the locals go about their business, fisherman loading up their boats, a lady planting petunias on the porch next door.
The restaurant was cute on the inside, like being in the dining room of a log cabin. There was an impressive selection of local and imported beers to go along with the simple menu of fish and chips. We all ordered the combo of beer-battered halibut and shrimp served with fries, ketchup and tartar sauce. It was divine and by the time we finished, it was standing room only with a line out the door. We all agreed that we could sit there all day, watch the boats go by, talk to the friendly locals but I am sure those folks preferred our seats to our company. It was time to head back to Anchorage as we had a flight to work that night.
We arrived back at the hotel, in time for a quick nap before hosting 250 cruise ship passengers for a flight home, which is worse than taking the folks to their cruise, because for some reason they still believe they are on a cruise ship. After a nap, I decided to go down and get some 'Alaskan seafood chowder,' which was the daily special at the hotel restaurant. Oddly enough, the first person I ran into in the lobby was Elton John. I was still kind of sleepy and did a double take and yes, it was him. He lives in Atlanta and I have seen him around town but Anchorage is about the last place I thought I would ever run into him.
As I was waiting to order my chowder, I heard a familiar voice. I turned around and sitting at the bar was my friend, Reecia, from Juneau, who I hadn’t seen in 12 years! I slowly walked towards her in disbelief, spoke her name, she turned around and both of our jaws dropped to the ground. She was in town to see Elton John, the first time he had ever played in Alaska. Yes, she's still in Juneau, now has 3 restaurants and wanted to know when I’m coming to visit. I asked her how her schedule looked next month? I can’t wait.
The Bake Shop
Olympic Cir # C1
Girdwood, AK 99587
Varly's Swiftwater Seafood Cafe
Laura grew up in a small southern town in Georgia on a cotton and pecan farm where life centered around family, friends and good food. She has lived in Atlanta for 20 years and has been a Flight Attendant for a major airline for 18 years, traveling the world in search for the next best meal.
by Nancy Ellison