It ain’t the Castro, but our 49th state has gay appeal amid the natural beauty
ANDREW COLLINS | Contributing Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Things may be bigger in Texas, but nothing’s quite as big as Alaska, America’s largest and least populated (by density) state. More than twice Texas’ land mass, sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the state’s sheer dimensions — for example, Alaska is about 15 times bigger than Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania has 17 times the number of residents. Aside from geeky stats like these, it’s difficult to describe Alaska’s terrain and scenery without resorting to trite superlatives. You must visit this land to comprehend it.
Among the highlights for most visitors are up-close views of massive glaciers, a fascinating array of wildlife and North America’s highest peak (20,320 foot Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park). Alaska also offers rafting, hiking and camping. The abundance of delicious fresh seafood makes this a terrific dining destination.
Alaska is ideally suited to outdoorsy travelers, but thanks to cruise ships and scenic railroads it’s relatively easy to enjoy the natural beauty from a comfy and controlled environment.
But is there a gay scene in the 49th state? Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t recommend a trip just for a tour of gay nightlife, or meeting other “family.” But Anchorage is a large, modern city with a couple of gay bars, including the extremely fun and friendly dance club Mad Myrna’s. And you’ll find excellent museums and many stellar restaurants here. The state’s second largest city, Fairbanks, has a small but active gay scene, some of it tied to Alaska’s oldest college, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Juneau, with a population of about 30,000, is the capital and is generally considered the most progressive city in the state — a fair number of gay folks live here, and bars and restaurants are generally gay-friendly. Also noteworthy is tiny but funky Talkeetna, midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park. This cool little village is a great base for exploring Denali and a haven of free spirits (it was the inspiration for Northern Exposure). Throughout Alaska, and especially around Anchorage, you’ll find many gay-owned and gay-friendly inns and B&Bs (there’s a good list at PurpleRoofs.com; an excellent general LGBT resource for the state is BentAlaska.com).
Even if you’re not especially enamored of cruises, traveling by boat is without question the best way to see southeastern Alaska’s scenery, including areas like Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord. Many major cruise lines offer Alaska cruises, with Holland America Line and Princess Cruises offering the greatest variety of itineraries, along with the exceptional line of smaller, upscale ships, Cruise West.
These are all extremely gay-friendly and gay-popular cruise lines. Several LGBT-oriented tour operators, notably RSVP Vacations, Olivia and Atlantis, book all-gay charter trips on some of the major lines that ply Alaska waters, including Holland America, Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. Ultra-luxurious lines such as Silversea and Regent Seven Seas regularly visit Alaska.
Even on cruises booked to the general public, you’ll nearly always find gay and lesbian passengers (and certainly some crew), and there’s usually at least one and sometimes several LGBT mixers or meet-ups onboard during a week trip. (If you’d like to find other gay travelers booked on the same cruise, or read other LGBT feedback related to cruise travel, check out the gay cruising forum at Cruisemates.com.)
My recent rip aboard Holland America’s exceptionally well-outfitted Statendam set the bar. I chose a glacier-intensive itinerary, through the Inside Passage, with calls at Ketchikan, Juneau (my favorite) and Skagway, plus a day each sailing through Glacier Bay and College Fjord. This Holland America cruise was a wonderful adventure from start (out of Vancouver) to finish (Seward). And if you are planning a trip with a few friends or relatives, a cruise can be ideal in terms of logistics, value and the pure fun of sharing countless memorable experiences together.
Alaska cruises range greatly in price, starting for as little as $600 (double-occupancy) for with an inside cabin on less-fancy ships (the Carnival Spirit or Norwegian Star) during the shoulder months (May and September). For a stateroom with balcony on an upscale line like Holland America, expect to pay $1,500 or more, depending on the size of the cabin, the ship and the time of sailing (June through August are high season). If there were ever a great time to splurge for a balcony cabin, it’s an Alaska cruise, as a huge part of the experience is observing the magnificent scenery from aboard the ship.
For those who prefer less structured tours, you can get around via an extensive network of state-operated ferries, just as many Alaskans get from town to town, either without a car or (at considerably greater expense) with one. This is an adventurous way to sail through the Inside Passage, starting either down in Bellingham, Wash., or much closer to Alaska in the Canadian port city of Prince Rupert. The ferry stops at all the major towns in southeast Alaska.
You can also sail via the ferry system through Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island (with stops in Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Homer and others), or through southwestern Alaska’s remote Aleutian Chain, from Chignik all the way to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Again, traveling with a car and sleeping onboard in cabins can make this a fairly costly trip — figure on about $800 to $900 for two passengers, a car, and a cabin for a one-way trip from Port Rupert to Skagway. But you can choose an itinerary that allows you to get on and off at a number of ports, and it’s still cheaper and allows for greater flexibility than a cruise.
Whether you reach Alaska by cruise ship, plane or car (the 2,300-mile drive from Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks on the Alaska-Canada Highway is memorable), it’s worth taking some time to explore some parts of the state’s rugged and largely unspoiled interior.
Many cruise lines offer one-way itineraries that begin or end in Alaska, typically in a port that’s relatively close to Anchorage, such as Whittier or Seward. You can, as we did, rent a car and explored the area, continuing on to Anchorage and stopping in Talkeetna. Other notable areas within relatively easy driving distance of Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula include the charming little vacation town of Girdwood, which is home to upscale Alyeska Resort; Homer, a popular fishing town; and Whittier, which has kayaking and boating on Prince William Sound plus access to several stunning glaciers. Farther afield and also well worth investigating are Denali National Park (four to five hours north of Anchorage), Fairbanks (two hours farther north of Denali), and Valdez (six to seven hours east of Anchorage).
One way to explore the interior without a car, as far north as spectacular Denali National Park and on up to Fairbanks, is via the scenic Alaska Railroad. Many Alaska cruises offer post- or pre-trip options that include several days on the railroad, or you can book your own railroad package, which includes riding the railroad’s gleaming railcars past incredible scenery, tours at different stops, and overnight hotel accommodations. Packages start at five nights for around $1,800. Shorter day trips are also available on the Alaska Railroad — among the most rewarding itineraries are the ride from Anchorage to Denali (starting around $150), and the Glacier Discovery Trains to Grandview (starting around $85).
Another great option is to book a trip with a local outfitter. Based in Fairbanks, Out in Alaska is a highly reputable, gay-owned tour operator that offers exciting trips, both camping (starting around $1,800 for six days) and hotel-based (from $2,500 for seven days), to some of the state’s most scenic areas. Out in Alaska trips typically last a week to 10 days, have five to 10 participants, and include meals, transportation within the regions visited, activities and — in the case of camping — gear.
Some Out in Alaska trips are oriented primarily toward sightseeing and might cover major national parks (Denali, Kanai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias) and the regions around Fairbanks and Anchorage. The more activity-driven trips — which can be themed around glacier trekking, hiking, rafting, or kayaking — venture into the state’s remote wilderness, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Yukon or Copper rivers. The company also organizes small LGBT group adventures on some of the mainstream cruises offered through the Inside Passage.
However you explore this majestic land, it’s absolutely worth the time and effort to get yourself up here — and to plan on spending a minimum of seven days. When even seasoned travelers talk about “trips of a lifetime” and “most memorable travel experiences,” they’re often referring to adventures had in Alaska.
Little Black Book
Cruise lines and charters
Atlantis, AtlantisEvents.com. Carnival, Carnival.com. Celebrity, CelebrityCruises.com. Cruise West, CruiseWest.com. Holland America, HollandAmerica.com. Norwegian Cruise Lines, NCL.com.com. Olivia, Olivia.com. Princess, Princess.com. Royal Caribbean, RoyalCaribbean.com, RSVP Vacations, RSVPVacations.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.