It's July, so we're officially in "peak Alaska" season. The days are long and the air is warm. Flocks of travelers are headed north to escape the heat wave in the Lower 48. Perhaps some of them are bunking in your guest room.
Their plane probably will touch down around midnight. So I devote the first day to Anchorage: a strong cup of Alaska coffee at Kaladi's, then a visit to the Anchorage Museum or the Alaska Native Heritage Center. If they want to see some local flowers, stop by the Alaska Botanical Gardens. To stretch their legs, take them for a walk or a bike ride on the Coastal Trail — or for a hike up Flat Top.
Over the years, we refer to our close-in adventures as Tour A, B or C. They've served us well, particularly for first-time visitors.
Tour A: This is the day trip to Alyeska Resort and Portage Glacier. Take your time on your way out of town. Just as you pass Rabbit Creek, you get a beautiful view of Turnagain Arm. Pull over and let them walk on the boardwalk to see the fish and the birds that populate the wetlands. Then, stop at the end of the swamp on the right. It's the headquarters for Chugach State Park — but the old snow-blowing train is there. It's a great place for a photo. There are a bunch of places to pull out on the way to Girdwood to get a good look at the mountains and the water.
At Alyeska Resort, take the tram up to mid-mountain. Hike around and get some photos. It's a little early for blueberries — but there's a chance for a nice snowball fight!
The kids will love a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. It's 11 miles down the road from Alyeska on the right side of the highway. All kinds of Alaska critters wander around the park: wood bison, bears, moose, elk, musk ox, lynx among others.
Afterwards, take the cutoff to Whittier and follow the signs to the Portage Glacier cruise. Hint: if you get to the tunnel, you've gone too far. This is the best way to get a peek at the Portage Glacier, since you no longer can see it from the visitor center. The M/V Ptarmigan has five sailings each day and gets up-close to the glacier.
Here's an optional version: just drive to Portage from Anchorage to meet the Alaska Railroad's train to Spencer Glacier. After a ride up the Placer River valley, the train stops and you get out to hike up to Spencer Glacier. Well, not to the glacier, actually. But you get to the shore of the lake for a beautiful view. You also can book a package with the railroad to go kayaking on the lake or float down the river and get picked up by the train later.
Option number two: Drive down Turnagain Arm and through the tunnel to Whittier. There, take the 26 Glaciers Cruise ($159 base price for adults, $99 for children ages 2-11) up College Fjord in Prince William Sound. This is a fun trip on a fast boat.
Tour B: This features the same drive down Turnagain Arm, but continues on to Seward for the scenic cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. Sail with Major Marine Tours or Kenai Fjords Tours. Your visitors can decide if they want to do it all in a day (they can drive or ride on the Alaska Railroad). It's a long day. Encourage them to spend the night so they can explore a little of Seward, including the Alaska Sealife Center.
If they opt for the two-day plan, send them down to Homer. Tell them to drive out on the Homer Spit, then take the ferry over to Seldovia. This is a great way to see Kachemak Bay and to visit a remote Alaska community.
Tour C: This is for your visitors who want to see Denali in one day. Head north from Anchorage to Talkeetna. If you get there in time for breakfast, feast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Breakfast is their thing! Then, head over to the Talkeetna Airport for your flight to Denali. I definitely recommend getting a glacier landing, if the weather is cooperating. Three companies offer flights: K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi and Sheldon Air Service.
Options: If you'd rather stay closer to the ground, sail with Mahay's Jetboat Adventures up the Susitna River. Or, ride the rails with the Alaska Railroad on the "Hurricane Turn," the last flag-stop railroad in the U.S. If you love pizza, eat at Mountain High Pizza Pie on Main Street. Or, for something completely different, look for the polished Airstream trailer on Main Street. That's where they sell the delicious spinach bread.
Grand Circle Tour: Head north on the Glenn Highway to Glenallen. There are great views along the way. Stop for lunch or dessert at Sheep Mountain Lodge. Go all the way to Chitina. From there, you can decide to drive back to McCarthy or fly back with Wrangell Mountain Air. Stay a couple of nights at Kennicott and explore that slice of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Then, head south on the Richardson Highway to Valdez. Stop and check out Worthington Glacier. Then, after coming over Thompson Pass, check out the waterfalls in Keystone Canyon. Sail with Stephens Cruises out to Columbia Glacier. Then make reservations in advance to drive on to the Alaska State Ferry for the trip to Whittier — it's the shortcut back to Anchorage.
There are many other variations on these itineraries, but it should give you a handy guide to fill up a week-long visit. On the next trip, they can go deep into Denali National Park. Or, they can fly out to Katmai National Park to see the bears and go fishing.
Maybe you can go along. After all, you're their Alaska expert!