Image: Vehicles on mountain highway
Paul Souders  /  AP
Vehicles wind down the mountains from Eureka Summit on Alaska's Glenn Highway. The road affords incredible vistas, including nearby Matanuska Glacier.
updated 7/28/2006 7:34:25 PM ET 2006-07-28T23:34:25

The two-story chunk of blue ice crashed into the bay, showering its shards across the water. Seconds later, the roar of the calving glacier thundered across the canyon walls. But few of the 50 or so tourists on our boat were paying any attention. Instead, they were captivated by a black bear bounding along a cliff above an unsuspecting mountain goat. Would the bear see the goat? Could the goat escape in time?

Alaska is a place where nature still rules, even in urban settings, where soaring bald eagles are a common sight, jagged mountain peaks outline the sky and a rare bear attack is shrugged off. Yet Alaska's range of attractions and its size -- nearly as wide as the continental U.S., with the Arctic Circle cutting through the top -- make planning a visit a daunting task. That's why most tourists opt to see Alaska by cruise ship. But by doing a little homework, we were able to create our own unique, affordable vacation -- without the big ship.

Our group consisted of my energetic 65-year-old mother, my city-slicker husband, and me, a rusty camping enthusiast. We wanted to experience the wilderness but were nervous about going off alone, so we initially sought to join a hiking and kayaking tour. After some Internet research, we realized most tours use the same few guide groups. We'd have more flexibility if we booked directly with the guides and found cheaper places to stay on our own.

We bookmarked our nine-day vacation around three adventures -- a day of kayaking, a night in a state park cabin and a daylong boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. We used two towns as a base for our trips: Homer and Seward. Homer is an artists' community on the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula on Kachemak Bay. Seward, a quaint harbor town with plenty of gift stores, is a hub for glacier tours, hikes and the southern terminus for Alaska's famed railroad. Both towns are easy to get to with or without a car, and offer plenty of ways to see what the state is famous for: big animals, big mountains and big ice.

We had one rule about lodging: no bed-and-breakfasts with crocheted covers on the toilet paper. We managed to find simple, clean B&Bs to suit our taste, with innkeepers who even e-mailed trip-planning advice and let guests use their kitchens to prepare meals.

While many of the better-known lodges fill up during the summer, we saw hotels, B&Bs and even private homes with rooms to rent almost everywhere we went. Camping was available even in downtown Seward.

We flew to Anchorage and then grabbed a 45-minute flight over the mountains to Homer. The last leg offered an affordable version of Alaska's famed flight-seeing trips, while actually getting us to our destination.

At the Homer airport, the car rental desks were all unmanned, but one agent suggested over the phone that we grab the keys on the desk, take a company car and return to sign the paperwork after we'd settled in. Alaska may be famous for its natural wonders, but the small-town hospitality of its human inhabitants was equally impressive.

Just outside Homer, the Good Karma Inn boasted sweeping views of snowcapped mountain peaks from every room. The two-story log cabin was airy, modern and filled with classic Alaskan art. The cozy library was perfect for rainy days or watching a moose and her twins amble by. Downtown, inns and camping were abundant, with pricier remote spots across the bay.

Mako's Water Taxis offered easy transport from Homer across Kachemak Bay for a 4-mile round-trip hike to a glacial lake. The hike was remote enough that bear bells were recommended, but the trail was easy to navigate and close enough to civilization that an occasional human passed by. On the return, the captain treated passengers to a stop at Gull Island, where thousands of murres (birds that look like mini-penguins) make their home.

True North Kayaking Adventures proved an excellent choice for novice kayakers. The attentive guide shared a kayak with my mother, easing her worries about keeping up as the group paddled around Yukon Island. The leisurely island picnic and up-close viewing of bald eagles, curious otters and an occasional seal more than made up for the evening's sore muscles.

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We wanted to drive as little as possible, so we left the car at the Homer Stage Coach station and hopped the coach to Seward. Actually a minivan, it felt like the Pony Express, bringing fresh mussels to one lodge, picking up mail at another and dropping off a backpack for a forgetful hiker. The trip may have been longer than a car ride, but the lowdown on Alaskan history, wildlife and dining spots from the friendly driver made the time fly.

We stayed at the historic Ballaine House in Seward, a standout for its central location and the innkeeper's hospitality and local knowledge. She lent us rain ponchos, binoculars, even her car. She helped us get discounts for the glacier boat tour. Best of all, she took us to one of the most enjoyable meals of our trip, at Le Barn Appetit, where the Belgian owner and his daughter whipped up smoked salmon and reindeer crepes as they regaled us with stories of life in Alaska.

The following day, the rusty camper and city-boy husband set off on a 4.5-mile hike to a log cabin in Caines Head State Recreation Area, also reachable by boat from Seward. We'd reserved it over the Internet as our one night in the wilderness. My only regret was that we didn't spend more time there or camp elsewhere, as it was much easier than we'd imagined. The one-room cabin, with a nearby outhouse, was set in the woods a quarter-mile from Resurrection Bay, and there was a stream with a waterfall out front. After a hike and an afternoon on the beach watching the seals and otters swim by, we had dinner by campfire. With nearly 24 hours of sunlight, there was no need to worry about a chilly night.

Back in town the next day, we boarded a Major Marine Tours boat to see glaciers. Our guide, a ranger, was an expert on Alaska's outdoors and skilled at spotting wildlife. We'd been promised whale sightings, but we knew it was an unusual day when even the ranger grabbed her camera to snap photos of a mother humpback and her baby leaping through the air. Orcas swam under our boat, eagles flew above and black puffins nodded their orange-tipped beaks as they floated by.

While in Seward, we also stopped at the dog sled camp run by the 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. It turns out real sled dogs aren't Hollywood's plush huskies but small, lean creatures that look like they just slunk out of an alley. We rode the wheeled dog sled and cuddled the pups, but families with kids might enjoy this place more than grown-ups.

Last on our list was Exit Glacier, where you can get 50 feet from a glacier or -- if you choose to ignore danger signs, common sense and chunks of falling ice -- touch one.

The train back to Anchorage trudged through the snowy mountains high above the highway and past the blue-tinged glaciers, an occasional bear only feet from the windows. Two upper-deck cars offered sweeping 360-degree views of the countryside. Like most things in Alaska, what might have been a mundane ride, proved a breathtaking trip unto itself.

If you go

Transportation:

Accommodations:

Dining:

  • Homer: Cosmic Kitchen; 907-235-6355.
  • Seward: Chinooks Waterfront Restaurant: http://www.chinookswaterfront.com; Ray's Waterfront Restaurant: 907-224-5606; Le Barn Appetit: 907-224-8706.

Activities:

Tips:

  • Bring eye masks. It's light out about 22 hours a day.
  • Bear spray is just as likely to get in your eyes as on a bear. Bear bells and loud singing are recommended instead.
  • Pack layers and hiking boots. Even easy trails aren't kind on the ankles.
  • For camping, freeze-dried meals are easy to pack and prepare. And like most everything, they're cheaper in the continental U.S.
  • Enjoy glacier-calving from a safe distance, and remember, that exciting show is also a sign of global warming.

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