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Spring trip 2024 - Alaska I

Planning for my spring 2024 trip actually began back in the dark period of the coronavirus sequestering. Looking at the list of 9 cathedrals in Alaska, I planned on getting to 8 by starting in Fairbanks, then traveling via rail, to Denali National Park before several days in Anchorage. A day trip flying to Kodiak before boarding a ship in Whittier or Seward would bring me to Juneau and Sitka. All that I’d miss was the orthodox cathedral in Unalaska, out at the end of the Aleutian Islands chain.

The challenges with that plan were several: the trains in Alaska run only during “season”; most cruises didn’t stop in Sitka because it wasn’t on the Inland Passage; and flights to Kodiak were limited. Then in 2022, I spotted a NCL cruise out of Seattle which stopped in both Sitka and Juneau in early May. Relatively inexpensive, I booked and planned to see the 4 “missed” cathedrals in Washington (State) as well as hook up with friends. That trip resulted in six more cathedrals photographed and visited: Sitka and Juneau in Alaska, and Spokane (2), Yakima and the one I’d missed in Seattle.

[Twenty twenty-two took me to Iceland, Ireland and back to Britain. Last year I focused on central Western Europe and Italy. This year I would focus on the Western Hemisphere. Checking my count of cathedrals visited before this trip had me very close to one thousand.]

When actual planning began for this most recent trip, the anchor – the element which would dictate the calendar – was a one-way passage between the ports for Anchorage and the forty-ninth parallel, as I didn’t just want to fly to Alaska and return to Florida. After some checking, I booked the NCL Jewel from Seward to Vancouver, BC for early May. That meant that my planned Fairbanks-Denali-Anchorage connection – the train – wouldn’t be available, so I booked my flight (using miles) into Anchorage, allowing me 5 nights pre boarding. I checked the locations of the 4 local cathedrals, finding their locations spread over greater Anchorage. Searching for a driver-guide, I booked a tour with ToursByLocals guide Greg. Looking at making that day trip to Kodiak, I found I’d not be able to see the cathedral there without doing an overnight. Similarly, a flight to Fairbanks and back was priced out. I settled for just those cathedrals in Anchorage.

To round out my experiences in Alaska’s largest city, I also booked a craft brewery crawl, and a chocolate-and-wine tasting. (I’d read years ago that wine was being produced in all 50 states, so I wanted to check it out.) Following the cruise forum online, I learned that I’d need to book transportation to the port, a 4+ hour drive, and found a transfer-tour package making touristy stops, delivering to lodgings in Seward. Seward didn’t seem to offer much locally in terms of walking tours or brewery crawls, so the Alaska portion was set. I continued to plan for my days while cruising, and then began arranging for my time in western Canada.

On Wednesday, 1 May I was packed and ready for my neighbor Bobby to pick me up for my ride to Tampa Airport. My bag was below the 50-pound mark, so American checked it and gave me both boarding passes. With a 90-minute layover in DFW, the long leg up to Anchorage got me on the ground at 7pm in daylight. After collecting my bag I booked an Uber, getting a surly driver who never let go of the steering wheel or opened her mouth. Not the best welcome! My lodgings at the Qupqugiag Inn were spartan and rustic, but at least I was on the ground floor. Few amenities were nearby. After unpacking the smaller roller with my toiletries, I set off for a restaurant for dinner. Google Maps understated the distance, and I walked about three-quarters of a mile. Jimmy’s Chinese Restaurant was disappointing. I returned again on foot and went to bed.

Thursday morning was gray and overcast. The downtown Roman Catholic cathedral wouldn’t open until 11am, so I decided to walk as Maps showed a near straight route north for 2.3 miles. I figured that I’d see some of Anchorage and scope out another restaurant. Arctic Boulevard didn’t offer much viewing besides single-story retail, repair and manufacturing businesses.

As I approached Valley of the Moon Park, one- and two-story houses were set back from the road, and a brass-domed Byzantine Catholic church sat back behind the fir trees. The walk through the park brought me by some camping tents for several of the many homeless that populate Anchorage. Continuing on I street, I got to Fifth Avenue and got my outside photos of the cathedral. I still had nearly an hour before I could get inside, so I went looking for a coffee shop, finding Cubby’s in a downtown hotel lobby.

Holy Family Catholic Church (ex- & co-cathedral) Anchorage: Exterior at 5th Ave & H St
Holy Family Catholic Church (ex- & co-cathedral) Anchorage

Back to Holy Family Cathedral, the original Roman Catholic cathedral in Anchorage, I ascended the front steps of the white two-story building and entered the front doors. While founded initially in 1915, it became a cathedral in 1966. The interior is a rectangular boxy space with three stained glass windows on each side, a wide central aisle and smaller side aisles. As an ex-cathedral, there is no cathedra in Holy Family, albeit it acts as a co-cathedral. To me, it has the feel of a parish church.

Exiting, I wandered a bit of downtown, noting the interesting architecture of the theater. As my afternoon tour was 3 hours off, I decided to explore while using the local public transportation. Boarding the #985 and riding 3.6 miles, I was soon dropped at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, now the seat of the RC archbishop. A much larger building out on Wisconsin Avenue with a large campus, the sandstone-colored building with a red tile roof backs on to the avenue. Twin towers of the western façade bracket the main doors set back under an arched overhang.

Exterior view of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Anchorage
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Anchorage

On my arrival the doors were locked. I approached the office next door and a woman there walked me back to the side entrance and opened the door for me, leaving me after we conversed a bit about my quest. The entryway opened to a large narthex – probably a good gathering place for conversation and socializing after Mass. The access to the nave is through sets of pairs of window-paneled doors of light-colored wood, with a glass-walled space in the center for the flags, candles and processional cross.

The wooden pews are set in a rough bow around the raised platform with the altar table. Natural light comes into the body of the church through clerestory windows which highlight the golden-wood support ceiling beams. Set back behind the altar in another arch, the cathedra sits under a cross and the Risen Christ. While seemingly bright and airy, there are few floor-level windows. Our Lady of Guadalupe replaced Holy Family in 2020 combining the diocese with Juneau, albeit it was a co-cathedral from 2014 until then.

After ensuring the cathedral was locked, I advised the office I was leaving and walked across the lawn to Wisconsin where I waited for the return bus to bring me back to downtown. I passed the Pioneer Bar (“Home of the almost perfect bartenders”) as I walked to the Anchorage Log Cabin Visitor Information Center for the (Viator) Craft Brewery Tour and Tasting. McKenzie from Binghamton, NY was also solo, and Jen and her partner Jen were from Phoenix. We piled into a van and while we headed to the first stop, we learned there are 55 craft breweries in Alaska; we would be visiting 3 in Anchorage.

Our first stop was the King Street Brewing Company where we were offered 5 samples: bock, stout, Imperial IPA, dunkel and OJ Hefe as we stood in the warehouse space. The staff there explained how they source their grains, how these grains are processed and then he directed us into the actual brewery where we walked around the tanks, tuns, and storage vessels. Curious to try my preferences, I added tastes of the “chocolate milk stout” and the dry hopped cider.

Back in the van for a short hop to the Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Rather than a productions space with a small tasting area, this was set up more like a bar with tables spaced throughout the room. Crudité platters, with salami, cheese, chorizo, prosciutto, pickles, were provided for pairs, so I split with McKenzie. The samples we tasted were Panty Peeler, Sockeye Red, Great Northern Chicken, Leap, Hella Helles, and Meltdown; most were provided from cans or bottles, rather than draft.

Our final stop was at Cynosure Brewing. The tasting space was alongside the tanks and kettles, with red picnic benches for seating. We got a brief introductory talk from staff relating a bit of their history. Starting with Leyland, a lager, we then had the Belgian-style ales Saison du Champ, Triple and Noë; which were followed by the Vivid Cold IPA and the Cynosure Stout. After a pit stop, we returned to the van and headed back to downtown. The Arizonans headed back to their hotel while McKenzie and I opted to head to the 49th State Brewing, a brewery, pub and restaurant.

A very crowded and popular venue, we were directed into the bar space and advised to wait to be called. A long high-top had a couple of seats open, so we opted to settle in and have dinner there. The couple at the end gregariously welcomed us: Liew and Adam who have lived in Anchorage for 6 years. After hearing we’d been out beer tasting, they insisted we have a shot before dinner, and 4 shots of Johnnie Walker Red appeared. Adam’s yak burger looked delicious, so we both ordered one and a Seward’s Folly (ale). The couple and McKenzie decided to head into the pub section (to dance) while I headed out and caught the wrong bus south, resulting in having a long walk to my lodgings. I was none the worse for wear, and crashed on arrival.

Friday morning my alarm went off at 7:45, and I was up and ready well ahead of my pickup. I was able to make a few notes after I backed up my photos and posted a few pictures to FaceBook. Greg, the guide, showed up on time with a “new” 2013 Chevy van for my private Anchorage City and Moose Hunt Private Tour and we were soon away. He proposed that we start to the north, to check the two “out-of-town” cathedrals off our list. Initially heading north on A Street, we headed east on Alaska 1 until a right turn on Turpin Street took us up a hill in a residential neighborhood.

St Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Anchorage

Near the crest, the dark brown wood-clad St Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral stood to the left, with cross-topped blue onion domes on multiple peaks. Walking around the west-facing building looking for a great angle, I spied the front had an open entry. Inside, Good Friday service was underway with the robed priest facing the closed iconostasis. I hadn’t realized the Orthodox calendar had pushed Easter into May! In any case, I got a few more shots of the outside before returning to the car.

Our next stop would be in Eagle River, another 15 miles northeast along Alaska 1, passing the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. To the north of Eagle River proper, Saint John Orthodox Cathedral, is set on Monastery Drive in a wooded enclave.

Saint John Orthodox Cathedral, Eagle River
Saint John Orthodox Cathedral, Eagle River

A sign out front proclaimed it as an Antiochian Orthodox seat, again clad in dark brown wood but bearing more of a resemblance to an extended barn. The central dome was topped with a lantern and cross. Now knowing it was Good Friday, I held out hope that I might get more than a quick inside photo, but I lucked out as service was just ending. I was able to view inside, a near circular space with the altar and iconostasis filling one wall, covered with icons. The bishop’s chair sat off to the right, and the ceiling was a series of wood triangles fitted into a complex geodesic bowl. One parishioner answered my question: the dedication is St John the Apostle, not the Forerunner, which I confirmed viewing the front door.

At my request, we stopped at the Best Buy in Eagle River. When I went to charge a discharged camera battery the night prior, I found I’d left the charger in Florida. I was looking to get another, but they didn’t stock one, recommending a stop at a local camera shop in Anchorage. Returning to downtown Anchorage, we stopped at Stewarts Photo, where a sales agent sold me a versatile charger combo. Continuing the tour, our next stop was at the Ship Creek salmon hatchery.

As I was visiting in “break up season” [the two-week period between winter and spring where surface ice was melting but plants and trees hadn’t broken into leaf (aka gray and dreary,)] the facility was closed, and the salmon were still in the ocean. We viewed the primary Ship Creek stream (up to a man-made fall) before returning to the car. Continuing along the edge of Knik Arm, we reached Earthquake Park, a memorial to those affected by the Good Friday or Great Alaskan Earthquake of 27 March 1964.

The leafless spindly beech trees covered the slide area which had dropped 8 feet. Beyond the park, the waters of the Cook Inlet stretched past Fire Island to the west and the snow-capped mountains to the north and east, beyond the skyscrapers of downtown Anchorage.

Back in the car, we headed south to Lake Hood, an inland lake to the north of Ted Stevens International Airport. As we rode around the ring road, I was amazed at the number and variety of small aircraft. Home of the largest seaplane base, these small propeller planes had wheels, pontoons or skis. Local enterprises offered air taxis, tours to glaciers and lakes, transport to the wilds of this largest state.

With an objective to see wildlife, Greg headed along the coast of the Turnagain Arm, alongside the single train track from Seward and Whittier. Greg kept an eye to the rocky slope to our left, the edge of the Brooks Range. Spotting some white fluff, we pulled over and I made use of the superb telephoto lens feature of the Nikon P950. There were Dall’s sheep grazing along the narrow ridges and shelves.

Proceeding along Alaska 1, we stopped at the Potter Marsh Wildlife bird sanctuary (across the road from the Rabbit Creek Shooting Park/Range!) Following the raised wooden walkway, we approached an active bald eagle nest. The female was in the nest, a huge messy mass of sticks, but we couldn’t spot the male, who was either out hunting or had found a higher roost to survey his domain.

We had reached Beluga Point, which was the end of the tour. Greg began the return to Anchorage, querying me about my plans. As I’d complained about my dining choice the first night and my lack of breakfast spots the following morning, I got a recommendation for breakfast and was dropped off at the Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizza for late lunch.

Lunch consisted of a “Santa’s Little Helper” pizza, which featured pepperoni, blackened chicken, grilled steak, red peppers, cilantro, mozzarella, provolone, marinara and garlic. I asked for a small, and to have gorgonzola added to the toppings. No notes as to beverage. Also no notes regarding my activities after lunch, other than I would be able to easily walk from the pub on Old Seward Highway along 36th Avenue to the Inn. And no further photos.

Saturday I had planned on heading west to the RC cathedral, and then back to downtown for a chocolate and wine tour. Since I’d taken my photos during my Thursday visit, I opted to head to downtown for breakfast at the Snow City Café, one of Greg’s recommendations. I collected a tall mocha from the bakery across the street from the Inn, and walked to the corner to catch the bus north.

After a half-hour wait for a table, I managed to spill the salt & pepper as I settled in. From the Benedicts section of the menu, I ordered a Ship Creek omelet with a side of OMG bacon. My plates arrived: poached eggs, housemade Alaskan salmon cakes, toasted English muffin, housemade hollandaise and red onion with hash browns; and three strips of the most delicious bacon I’ve tasted – thick, chewy, “candied and peppered applewood smoked” – truly worthy of the OMG label.

Outside it was overcast and in the low 40’s (°F), spitting light rain. Noon, and the tour met at 4:45. I walked down to the state museum, getting into the lobby only to find an admission charge of $18 for seniors! I continued down the shop-lined Fourth Avenue, probably sticking my head or walking around in most of them. As I knew I’d need a lighter weight shirt when I got to Hawaii a month later, I picked up an “Aloha shirt” that celebrated Alaska in a flag-blue shade. (I would have packed one, but I was concerned about weight. I knew I’d be “passing along” the winter-wear shirts I no longer need in Florida before flying from the mainland.)

A large indoor shopping mall proved to be immeasurable useful, as the public restrooms were clean and free (albeit tucked away on the top floor back in a corner.) Back outside I spotted several totem poles, a few street murals and checked out the theater. (Aurora Borealis show opened a week later.) I noted that spring bulbs, when planted close to building foundations, had bloomed, giving a bright announcement that spring was coming.

While window shopping, I bumped into McKenzie. She was about to board the trolley tour, a 90-minute excursion for $50; had I joined, I would have been pressed for time for the tour booking. The sun poked through the clouds. With the tour still an hour off, I returned to the mall and got some Tom Yum soup in the Food Court. Back to the Visitor Center, it turned out I was the sole participant. The driver was Patrick, and Chris, a trainee, was joining us.

First stop was Chugash Chocolates, a pristine operation in the back corner of a tall warehouse-like building. Sourcing cocoa pods from South America and Africa, they created their own chocolate. After a brief introduction, she disappeared. We were offered three samples and a 6-point bull’s-eye type grading system. (We were advised there are no wrong assessments.) The facility also offers chocolate bars (all dark chocolate), truffles and both hot chocolate or drinking chocolate. (No idea and didn’t ask.)

Back into the van, we rolled around a few more corners before getting to the “winery” for an exclusive experience. Opening in December 2023, they offer sales, tastings, team buildings. [At no point did I hear or see the name of this establishment. They provided a double-sided, 2-sheet handout with their offerings. After some Internet searching, I’m guessing it was the 61°N Winery.] We were offered 5 tastings with a small dish of oyster crackers. I opted to try the viognier, Chilean malbec, Winemaker’s trio (cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel), Super Tuscan (Italian blend) and Trinity Red. All of their offerings are made with source-pressed juice kits which they also sell. While we were there, a group of about a dozen were there as a team building exercise to create their own wine. Plastic pouches of juice are combines into a 7-10 gallon bucket, yeast is added and the bucket capped and put aside to ferment. The group would return to bottle and label their creation.

The tour hosts/drivers put me back in the van and were kind enough to drop me at my lodgings. I suspect they were aware of my disappointment at the whole package, which cost $115. They had admitted that this was a start-up offering, and they were still seeking venues and smoothing out the presentation. It did support local businesses. Back at my room, I pulled out the American Airlines cheese parcel I’d received and had it for dinner. My pickup the following morning for the tour and transfer to Seward was at 9am, so I got the major part of packing done, backed up and crashed.

Sunday morning I was up, checked out and ready to travel onward to Seward. The driver and a trainee (both female) arrived at 9:04, having picked up another solo participant, Michael who hailed from Montreal. Into downtown to collect a couple from Michigan and off to the airport to gather a final pair. We passed by the float plane airport on our way to the overlook.

After pointing out Mount Susitna, the mountain called Sleeping Lady, the clouds to the north parted and we were able to see Denali, 150 miles away! On to Earthquake Park, where the driver/guide presented her version of the 1964 earthquake. Then heading south, we passed Beluga Point, but stopped for a picture of the snowplow train, and then to view the Dall’s sheep about 5 miles further on. Our next stop was across the Arm from a mountain covered with glaciers where another nesting pair of bald eagles have settled. This time we were able to spot the male in a neighboring tree.

We spent better than a hour at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located at the end of the Turnagain Arm fjord in Portage Valley. While there, we were out and in the van as the group rode and walked the loops at the end of what was a river-bound island. Reindeer, wood bison, elk, black bears, deer, fox, coyote, wolf and a bald eagle were in residence for us to see.

After collecting a t-shirt and a hat pin, we returned to the van and continued on Alaska 1 until Tern Lake Pullover, where we headed south on Alaska 9 past Kenai Lake and Primrose. Arriving about 4, we had a brief tour of Seward and then I was dropped at my hotel.

After a cursory settling in, I decided to check out the port and then head into town. With a headwind facing my trip into town, I waited for the free shuttle, then walked the inclines of several streets of the small town of mainly one- and two-storied buildings. In addition to several awesome public art murals on sides of buildings, the Historical Society had celebrated their history by placing photo-album-based murals on some buildings.

I was particularly taken by the community library - its outside surface were iridescent tiles that switched from a deep red-orange to a turquoise, depending where you stood. I continued along the shore, past the original point where the Iditarod traditionally began, enjoying the expanse of the inlet. The Sealife Center had closed at 5. With Mt Marathon to my left, I strolled back to my room.

Checking in, I went online, and found that the dinner rendezvous had been rescheduled an hour earlier, so I quickly pulled on my jacket and headed out to Roy’s where Juli had a table.

Halibut special dinner
Halibut special at Roy's Seward

Joining her and two other women (?Barbara and Marissa?) that had been active on FaceBook chat or Cruise Critic board, I had the jalapeno corn soup and the halibut special with a beer. We split, each heading to our respective lodgings. I backed up my shots, did email, put many of my transfer/tour photos out on NikonImages as I had offered to share with my fellow passengers. After reading a bit, I went to sleep. So much for Cinco de Mayo!

Monday 6 June all I had planned was boarding the ship. My appointed arrival time was 1:30, so I had my morning free. I checked out and left my bags, crossing to the waterfront to snap a picture of the NCL Jewel.

Returning, I entered the Breeze Inn Restaurant where I had a hearty breakfast of pancakes and bacon, although it took them a while to brew a pot of decaf. I strolled the port waterfront for about a half hour and decided to head inside as the weather was gray and gloomy, with a cold wind. At 1pm, I boarded the “free” shuttle to the port, and dropped my big luggage with the porters. Wheeling the smaller bag, there were no holdups getting checked in and boarding the ship.

Book: Cathedrals to the Glory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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