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Cheap travel to Alaska, no taxes in Anchorage
By: - (justin) 2012.01.09

Life never returns to normal in Alaska. This is a place of constant change - where the elements of weather and geographic obstacles make some of the most beautiful, yet intimidating places to live in the world. Many people go to Alaska to see the serenity; towering, snowcapped mountains slicing into deep riverbed gorges or baby-blue glaciers and icebergs pushing into to Arctic-blue waters. But if one goes just to see the sights, they have missed half the fun. The people of Alaska and their history give life to the place that a floating piece of ice just cannot.

Don't bring change to Anchorage
My travel partner Mary and I began our journey in the largest city in Alaska. Nestled at the beginning of the Cook Inlet in southwest Alaska, Anchorage is unique in its simplicity with the 250,000 residents. Downtown is a one mile radius of small antique and souvenir shops, lounges and bars, a town square, and the infamous JC Penney mall. As I wandered through these neatly ordered streets I felt like something was missing - a fisherman's wharf, a totem pole, a tour bus, something that would attract throngs of tourists like other cities.

Anchorage offers excitement for the two-day visitor. The Alaskan Experience ($6 with student ID) was a great introduction on the beauty of Alaska from the air. For those never in a California earthquake, the earthquake exhibit next door holds firmly grounded midwesterners on edge for the grand finale simulated earthquake. For night life, Humpy's, located downtown, has a vibrant young night life that few of the other lounges can compete with. Finally, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art is a relaxing two-hour escapade into local artwork and an impressive history display of fur-trading houses and Eskimo tools.

Although most locals treat visitors with their accommodating kindness, it seems that oil companies support this city, not tourism. The reason is the small ice-free port of Valdez, located southeast of Anchorage. This port is the final destination for the Alyeska pipeline, an 800-mile-long-stretch carrying 1.4 million barrels of oil per day from the northern Prudhoe Bay. Seven oil companies (ARCO has the large, gold tower in the middle of downtown) own the pipeline and pay all taxes in Anchorage and a $1,000-a-year stipend to all yearlong residents of the city. So even a shoestring spender like myself will save a pretty penny over the course of a day of non-taxed buying in a rather expensive city.

June 22nd, Sunrise 4:21 a.m. Sunset 11:44p.m. 19 hours, 21 minutes
Surf City Cafe, Anchorage

Most Alaskans have a contrasting feeling about the coming of the solstice, the natural summer phenomenon that exposes the most northern parts of the globe to the sun for 24 hour days. I came for an American version of may poles and celebration - but settled for a city-wide celebration geared more for tourists.

In fact, Alaskans seem to look more forward to March, and the famous Itatrod Trail Dog Sled Race than the summer solstice. Called the "Last Great Race," the Itatrod attracts 60 or so of the world's best mushers for a top prize of $50,000. The race begins among several thousand onlookers in downtown Anchorage and journeys 674 miles through blizzards and 40-below temperatures to finish up in Nome, located in the northern Arctic.

But to locals the summer means the beginning of another brutal winter. Local newspapers and radio stations commented on the long day by more or less saying "it's all down hill from here." When winter rolls around, locals look forward to only four hours of sunlight in negative temperatures. Fairbanks, located in the northern interior and considered the most northern city in the world, experiences 90 degrees in the summer and 66 below in the winter.

The most beautiful drive in the United States
After adjusting to the time difference and seemingly "unnightly" skies, the real Alaska begins. Only twenty miles from downtown begins a eye-opening drive along a mountain wall, looking out to the waters of Turnagain Arm and the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula. The first stop is Alaska's most visited attraction, the Portage Glacier. Even though the glacier has nearly melted away, chunks falling in the water, with their array of blues, more than substitute for the glaciers. A short backtrack finds the train stop for the train to Whittier. Whittier, located on the other side of a mountain range, is the most western part of Prince William Sound. Construction crews are drilling and paving day and night to prepare a road for motorists to visit this now sparsely populated town that lies on edge of the magnificent Prince William Sound (see sidebar).

The Seward Highway, also rideable by bike, continues into the Kenai Peninsula. Here one can marvel at majestic mountain and water views at each turn until the turnoff to Homer. Located some 300 miles from Anchorage, Homer is everything that our guidebook says it is; fine scenery, mild climate, heavy halibut, biggest bays, and coolest people (Moon Travel Handbooks). While driving out on the historical four-mile-long spit the white-blanketed Aleutian Islands surround the horizon. This spit has experienced several docks, a railroad and roundhouse, a shipwreck, a fire, drought. But today it is a great road trip of contrasts. On the left, rusty, old boats lie beached for sale, "$1,000" clearly spray painted on the side. To the right, lines of souvenir shops, halibut charter tours, and restaurants stand upon pier pilings. And at the end of the spit stands the Lands End Hotel, which also has some of the greatest views and lowest priced lunches in town. Hotels are expensive here at around $80 a night. Instead, try to stay in a bed and breakfast at RoadRunner Bed & Breakfast for $60. There is a great little museum off Pioneer Street dedicating lots of space to wildlife, including a giant stuffed grizzly bear and the Valdez oil spill, which by the way took $1.1 billion dollars to clean up ($80,000 for each otter and $30,000 for each bird).

After Homer, continue back towards Anchorage, but go south on the Seward Highway. We did not have a chance to visit Seward on the east side of the peninsula but I heard it has some of the best whale watching in the state, if not the world.

Your next destination should be Valdez, accessible via Highway 4 (Richardson's Highway). This small town of 4,000 is notorious for bringing people from every nook and cranny at odd times for work. In 1898, between 4,000 and 6,000 brave souls took to cross the Valdez Glacier after gold was found near the coast. Only 300 made the journey after most were blinded by the sun's burning reflection or lost in howling snowstorms. In 1989, a fully loaded carrier and its captain hit a submerged reef and poured over 11 million gallons of crude oil into the bay. Suddenly Valdez turned to "Exxon economy" with boatloads of clean up crews, scientists and activists to solve the problem. Valdez has since returned to its normal livelihood, and visitors will be captivated by the enchanted surroundings, like most of this beautiful region of Alaska.

Moon Travel Handbook's travel guide to Alaska and the Yukon Territory is highly recommended for information.(

Globe Pequot Press publishes Travel Smarts Anchorage, which is a fact-filled book full of cynicism.

Sources: Aleyska pipeline brochure
Moon Travel Handbooks

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