Heading Into the Kenai Peninsula

Turnagain Arm
Turnagain Arm, about 40 minutes outside of Anchorage

If you plan to explore the Kenai Peninsula by car, as we did, plan on a considerable amount of driving. If driving time is alright with you (the scenery is wonderful and wildlife sightings are common) then give yourselves at least two weeks to fully appreciate the area. We only had a week and felt we wasted a lot of time on the road with kids confined to their car seats ready to attack one another if not for the seat belts. Next time we’ll fly more and drive less. Alaska Airlines makes it easy (and affordable if you can use miles) with many partner flights on ERA Alaska aviation. Booking directly with ERA can be expensive but when planning your trip through Alaska Airlines, the extra “hops” to outlying areas are reasonable.

Having said all that, let’s talk about the size of our amazing 49th State in the Union. When looking at maps of Alaska, appearances can be deceiving to those of us in the lower 48. Please note:  the state of Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas. You could fit the entire states of Maryland and Connecticut into the Kenai Peninsula alone and still have over 500 square miles to spare. It’s big, people, really big.

Not wanting to make the 4+ hour drive to Homer on our first day in Alaska, we opted to stay at the well-known Alyeska Resort overnight. Set about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage, the size of this resort was startling as we came around the bend and saw the imposing three-story property. You won’t feel like you’re in the last frontier when entering the impressive lobby full of Alaskan Native artifacts, a stuffed polar bear and light display of the Northern Lights.

Alyeska Resort

Growling Boy facing Bear Sculpture
Getting in touch with his wild side

Our room was nicely appointed with very comfortable beds, lots of spots to tuck our suitcases away (a much appreciated a detail with four of us otherwise tripping over one another and stubbing toes on bags), and decorated with warm neutral tones and native Alaskan portraits.

Dining options are plentiful from the very casual Tramway Café, basically a coffee shop with quick breakfast and lunch options or The Pond Café if you’re looking for a sit-down breakfast experience. We had dinner at Sakura, the Japanese restaurant, one night and enjoyed excellent sushi in their one private booth. Another night we tried the Aurora Bar & Grill which offers more traditional kid’s options such as pizza. The food was good but service can be hit or miss, I’m afraid. At Sakura, our waitress was so charming that our kids eagerly tried her suggestion of udon noodles in a seaweed-laden broth without a blink while it was hard to even get a waiter to come by our tables at Aurora and The Pond Café.

Fancy Baked Alaksa Dessert at Alyeska Resort

Thankfully, the enormous baked Alaska was so lovely that the shortcomings in service were overcome by this delectable dessert enjoyed by all.

We weren’t able to get a reservation at the more formal Seven Glaciers Restaurant (call ahead especially if you are staying on a Friday or Saturday night, 907-754-2237) but the inclusion of a scenic Tram Ride with a dining reservation definitely makes it worthwhile. Otherwise, the Tram Ride is $50 or more for a family of four. From the Aerial Tram and the observation deck at 2,300 feet, you can see the Turnagain Arm (it is said to be named after Captain Cook’s repeated attempts to pull in only to have to “turn again” when the tides changed), multiple glaciers, and the glorious Chugach Mountain range. Be on the lookout for moose and bear from the tram as well. This is an excellent safe vantage point, unlike the trail where my husband nearly ran into a berry-eating black bear during his morning run (a good reminder that noisy kids are actually a huge asset in bear country, be noisy on the trails so you never surprise a bear).

Judging from the two wedding services we saw on the beautifully maintained grounds and the multiple rounds of the birthday song we heard in the restaurants, Alaskans especially like Alyeska for special occasions. We also hear that the indoor heated pool is fantastic but didn’t experience it for ourselves—we wanted to spend our time outside whenever possible plus we had to get back on the road again.

Speaking of road time, here are some worthwhile stops along the way between Anchorage and Seward and/or Homer:

Bird Point (Mile 99) or Beluga Point (Mile 110):  as the names suggest, these are great stops for wildlife viewing and Beluga Whales are often sighted (from both viewing areas) in the waters of Turnagain Arm. Also, if your timing is right (about 2 ¼ hours after low tide, see schedule here), you can even witness the natural phenomenon of a bore tide where a wave or several waves come down the Turnagain Arm and rapidly fill the channel as a mini tidal wave flows in.

Indian Valley Mine & Gift (Mile 104):  Even if you don’t strike it rich, gold panning is a memorable and uniquely Alaskan experience for just $1 per person at this funky little roadside attraction.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79):  If I were a wounded or abandoned animal in Alaska, this remarkable 170-acre center where I’d want to come for rehabilitation.

Let kids stretch their legs at the community-built playground at Soldatna Creek Park, 251 States Avenue, Soldotna, AK.  The only drawback is that it might be hard to get them back in the car once they start playing on all the cool Alaska-inspired structures.