My last time driving up Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Alyeska Resort was in the winter of 1993. At that time the resort was a cluster of low condos and single-family vacation homes at the base of what could generously be called a rustic ski resort. Today, it hasn’t changed much at all, except that around the bend from the old resort base area stands what is arguably Alaska’s most luxurious hotel.
Twenty-three hundred feet above the hotel in the tramway building, the Seven Glaciers Restaurant is one of the state’s premier dining spots with massive windows opening to the unspoiled grandeur of the Chugach mountains. (More on the fantastic dining later.)
The juxtaposition of an AAA four-diamond restaurant and the majestically lovely Hotel Alyeska that harks back to images of castle turrets with the surrounding town of condos of the 60s and 70s, dirt roads and restaurants serving mostly wannabe gourmet fare, pizzas, soup and dolled-up Mexican food is jarring.
Don’t get me wrong. Girdwood is charming. It makes the perfect ski resort or the perfect rustic Alaska town. The restaurants are serviceable and considered some of the best in the Anchorage area, but it is not a luxury town. You won’t fine a Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Zegna, Cartier or Coach store. However, Girdwood’s hotel Alyeska is just about luxury as it gets for large hotels in Alaska. Perhaps, there are small smaller, more secluded inns, reachable only by seaplane that have the amenities found at Alyseka Resort, but those have less than 20 rooms for the most part.
The resort is an easy 45-minute drive from Anchorage alongside the Turnagain Arm with a chance to see splashing Beluga whales midst the whitecaps, Dall Sheep on the rocky cliffs that line the shore and eagles overhead. Turnouts provide spots to enjoy the scenery and wildlife and small parks with trails like McHugh Creek provide opportunities to get up close with nature. (If you decide to hike, be careful of the bears. Make noise and keep and eye out.)
During the winter, Alyeska is the main ski and snowboard resort in Alaska. It is perfect for night owls. First, because it dark for much of the winter; second, the slopes open later, which means more time for nightlife. However, from the middle of March there is plenty of daylight, more than some resorts in the Lower 48.
In the summer, Alyeska Resort hits its prime. During my recent visit in early June, flowers were blooming, moose were wandering through the woods and if nightime came, I didn’t ever see it. It was light when I went to sleep around midnight and light even when I got up early around 5 a.m.
The hotel has a full selection of activities in Girdwood such as lift-assisted mountain biking, aerial tram rides, summer concerts and plenty of hiking. Hotel Alyeska also can serve as the perfect base from which to explore the Kenai Peninsula or take short trips to Whittier and the Portage Glacier.
The resort has arrangements with various outfitters that allow guests to spend the day touring the Kenai Fjords National Park and them spend the night in Seward or Cooper Landing. Other trips take visitors to Homer at the end of the peninsula for an overnight or several nights. This ability to dip into the rustic side of the Kenai Peninsula and then return to the pampered world of the resort is unique in the state.
The resort also offers spa facilities with a full menu of options from Vichy to massage and body treatments to yoga.
The Hotel Alyeska also offers an indoor heated 25 x 45 foot saltwater pool and whirlpool with mountain views. There is also a traditional sauna.
My favorite part of my stay at Alyeska Resort was the meal at the Seven Glaciers Restaurant. I enjoyed one of the ten best meals of my life. Believe me, after spending almost four decades writing about travel, exceptional restaurants come few and far between. The other surprise was the affordability of the meal and the availability of good wines for less than $30 a bottle. Of course, oenophiles can splurge with bottles from the largest wine selection in Alaska. Plus, with our dinner reservation the tram ride to the restaurant perched at 2,300 feet was free.
Our starters of carrot-ginger soup and a wonderful tuna tartare with raw Ahi tuna set atop a layer of diced smoked tuna and avocado dressed with seesame and a jalapeno/cilantro pesto drizzle were exceptional.
We stuck with seafood and ordered halibut and salmon. The poached halibut came prepared with a lobster potato hash, a vegetable ragout and a saffron chile oil. The Five-Spice Grilled Salmon was served with a prawn, bok choy, toasted peanuts and a hoisin glaze.
We split desert and a bottle of French Cote du Rhone white wine and the total bill with tip came to around $150. Proof that some of the best meals don’t have to cost an arm and a leg.