As my mother-in-law used to say, "and awaaay way we go"....and away we went, to Alaska, for two weeks in May. My husband, Joe, was born there, and after his parents peacefully left our world last Fall, he's been back to Anchorage several times to settle their affairs.
I'd visited several times before this trip; the girls just once. Each visit was all about spending time with Mom & Dad, then Grandma & Grandpa, at their house. With life moving faster than ever for us all, and our big girl Hazel pleading to "go with daddy" on one of his necessary family-matters trips, this next trip would be different, just us, our time, our girls.
Our initial plan included some work as well. We anticipated renting an RV and parking it at Joe's family home while contractors came through to prep the property for sale. But when the timing shifted out of our control, we shifted gears as well: no more working holiday...now we'd have a grand holiday adventure instead. RV included.
We spent the first few days in Anchorage recovering from the all-day travel, redeye arrival, and the four-hour time change. Hazel saw a TV ad for a reindeer farm; shortly thereafter we found ourselves at that reindeer farm in Palmer, AK. Note: all travel-weariness magically subsides when you see your kids caressing days-old reindeer.
Eyes brightened and our internal clocks adjusted, it was time to hit the road! With the RV packed and ready to go, we set out to experience wide open spaces without driving too far. We don't enjoy driving too much so an intinerary of seven days between Anchorage and Seward, 120 miles south, was just right for us.
First stop was Portage Glacier where the wind howled and bluish icebergs lined the lakeshore. Joe picked up a chunk of glacier ice for the girls to touch. I was fascinated by the architecture of the visitor center but they hadn't opened for the season yet. Not a big deal since we were there to experience nature. And that we did with a few nights at Kenai Lake. We roasted marshmallows, the girls made friends from nearby campsites, and we skipped rocks on the blue-green glacial lake under grey skies. It was peaceful, moody, and perfect for holing up in the RV whenever we felt like it.
We fully settled into RV life at Kenai Lake and it felt good, but onward to Seward, the biggest surprise of the trip. I had no expecations for Seward but between the scenic city-operated RV campsite, once in a season/year weather, and kid-friendly spots, it blew me away.
The girls loved Alaska Sea Life Center, playing in the town's park with a view, and visiting Resurrect Art multiple times to order hot chocolate; I love how they serve an extra dose of whipped cream with sprinkles on top! It was truly one of the best coffee shops I've ever been to. They serve everything with a smile, have a broad and deep selection of art and objects by local artists, and the space within the context of the town was just right for their energy and focus on quality.
Aside from waking up every morning to an incredible view and watching sea lions and sea otters in the evening after the girls had gone to bed, the Seward highlights were hitting the sea with Captain Elaina and flying up high with Pilot Joey.
Out at sea, Hazel took on the role of co-Captain asking Elaina a million questions and learning all about how radios and naviation systems work. Hazel even "spoke" to orcas through a hydrophone and speaker as we watched and listened to them from a distance in a glistening cove. It felt magical and Captain Elaina said as much when describing how rough the water and wind usually is.
Pilot Joey took us on our first family flightseeing trip, in a Cessna 185 on skis. I've been up in small planes a few times with Joe since he's a pilot (if you grew up in Alaska, you might be too), but it was a first for the girls, and they were immediately in their element. Excited before, excited during, and long after. Well...Nicola fell asleep on the return but that was to be expected. The weather was incredibly nice and we had a peaceful and easy flight over the Harding Ice Field. What a trip. I wanted to swan dive out of the plane and land on what looked like the softest most pristine snow I'd ever seen. It was like a white desert with mountain peaks poking out and it seemed endless.
On the way back to Anchorage we made a must-do stop at The Bake Shop in Girdwood; home of sourdough pancakes and the most indulgent sweet roll made even more indulgent by the fist-sized scoop of soft butter on the side.
Bookending our trip with several days in Anchorage gave us time to explore bits of the city and let the girls play and let loose in different ways. Anchorage isn't much of a tourist destination itself but we made the most of it, especially easy to do with a rental car and Joe as our local guide.
Good local dining is plentiful but can be very spread out for the good stuff. Our favorite dining experiences were at Simon and Seafort's, Hearth, El Green-Go's, Snow City Cafe, and South.
Shopping is a little harder to come by unless you really want standard souvenirs. Not so standard would be Alaska Native art. So much of it is beautiful and fascinating in design, materials, and storytelling – definitely worth seeking out something that speaks to you. But speaking of retail: when I was craving a smoothie bar, I found Johnny's Produce and loved stepping into the retail world they've created in an old garage. Adjacent and connected is That Feeling Co. which sells plants and plant-related things. Both are perhaps a hint of what's to come for Anchorage's retail scene.
Muesums are always a go-to for us and we love the Anchorage Museum. It has an immersive and highly engaging discovery zone for kids, a deep collection of Alaska Native art (from ancestral to contemporary) and fun curated pieces from artists around the world that feel right at home in Alaska.
Local parks are a must for our kiddos. And while they had a blast playing with local kids on new-to-them playgrounds, flying kites was the most memorable for me. Joe has long traveled with a kite – I have photos of him flying one all over the world – and now we travel with two of these. We had been relaxing in the hotel room when we spotted large high-flying kites in a greenbelt a few blocks away. We were quickly out the door with our own in had, ready to take to the sky.
The trip turned out to be very much about taking to the skies. We decided to go flightseeing again to explore beyond "The Anchorage Bowl" and prior to our tour, we spent time at the Alaska Aviation Air Museum. The most exciting part of the muesum for the girls was watching from an old control tower (now an exhibit) as real seaplanes took-off and landed on the lake. That, and sporting new old-timey flight goggles from the gift shop.
Our flightseeing tour was with Rust's, a well established go-to with great service and highly experienced pilots. Their fleet of red planes leaves from Lake Hood, the largest seaplane base in the world, and with red being Hazel's favorite color, she was in heaven. We were once again graced with incredible weather that allowed for the smoothest ride Joe has ever experienced near Anchorage. The smoothness didn't do much for Hazel's ears feeling the rapid pressure changes - new and scary for her - but otherwise it was a clear skies and clear mind kind of experience. To see endless mountain peaks partially covered with snow, just beyond civilization, is pretty wild.
The whole trip was pretty wild. One of those trips of a lifetime that once was a dream and became a reality as a family. The memories, and photos that confirm the joy we experienced, far outweigh the exhausted and short-tempered moments when we wanted to hand our kids off to anybody for a few minutes, or an entire night. But that's the way it goes, while traveling and while at home. Their time and experiences are our time and experiences.
I know that Grandma and Grandpa were with us on this trip, literally clearing the skies and smoothing the waters for us to have incredible experiences. I also know that we'll be saying "and awaaay way we go" for many, many more adventures and years to come.