SEWARD -- Between October and April, visitors to this town on Resurrection Bay notice the hush almost immediately. Where summer daylight and near-constant arrivals and departures of seasonal cruise ships and fishing boats bring a cacophony of noise, winter brings serenity. Within this quiet some of the most meaningful family trips occur, away from busy schedules and closer to the stuff that makes Alaska famous, without high prices and enormous crowds.
Located beneath the craggy Kenai mountains, Seward is an old community with a rich history that appeals to families, and not just during the summer. Winter, with its combination of intriguing seaside weather patterns and outdoor recreation, provides kid-friendly adventures, whether snow has fallen, or not.
Alaska is in the middle of its warmest winter on record, and the sight of green grass and bare pavement is amusing enough for many visitors, including us. A recent long weekend with few options for skiing or snowshoeing in Anchorage, and an invitation from a typically summer-only resort, prompted us to make the three-hour drive south to see for ourselves how the community is making lemonade from this lemony Alaska winter.
Fewer visitors this winter
Cindy Clock, director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, says the lack of snow this year might make getting to town easier than ever, but fewer Anchorage visitors have made the drive.
"There's actually lower numbers (of people) coming down this year. With no snow that means no snowmachines and no nordic skiers. But, that said, temperatures are moderate, so hiking and exploring have a taken on a new ease."
A big advantage of winter travel to Seward lies in the availability of accommodations. Typically, Seward's largest hotels and motels are booked solid in the summer. Campgrounds and RV parks can be full too, but come winter, doors open with special rates and deals that appeal to Alaskans looking to escape the city for a night or two.
We stayed at Miller's Landing Resort, a collection of cabins and a beachside RV park along Lowell Point where sea otters and seals drift by on a regular basis, and lights from Seward flicker in the winter darkness. While Miller's can be a wild and crazy place during the summer, our visit was nothing but quiet, with lapping waves and chattering eagles filling the soundscape. Tom Miller, owner of Miller's Landing, says he decided to open two cabins and the RV park this winter as a bit of an experiment to take advantage of the lack of snow and an easy drive from Anchorage.
"I know people have all their toys parked in the driveway at home, and they could be down here camping right on the beach," he said in an email when I inquired about lodging.
Indeed, access to Seward beaches is a huge draw for families. Rocky shorelines with all sorts of natural treasures intrigued the children in our group. Birds paddled and pecked nearby, curious about these offseason visitors.
Ride fat-tire bikes on beach
Lowell Point is also home to Caines Head State Park and Tonsina Point, two well-loved areas for hiking and exploring. Even with snow, the area provides easy tread for young nordic skiers or snowshoers who don't want to venture too far.
In town, activities were surprisingly plentiful, even though ski trails were bare and snowshoes hung unused from front porches. The Seward Community Park bustled with neighborhood kids, and families walked along the waterfront trail under surprisingly warm sunshine. Some residents had even pulled their bicycles from storage and were riding the trail, and one business, Seward Adventure Company, recently started offering beach rides on trendy fat-tire bikes.
"Even if there isn't a ton of snow, I've been taking people out on the beach for some of the best riding around," says owner Karl Mechtenberg, who nonetheless hopes for a big dump of snow so he can usher guests along his favorite forest trails soon.
The Alaska Sea Life Center, a marine mammal rehabilitation center and hotspot for any Seward summer visitor, encourages locals to stop by during the winter months as well. Offering Alaska residents complimentary admission during their "FREE-zing Winter Wednesdays," the facility wants more families to take advantage of the world-class exhibits, hands-on educational activities, and opportunities to see marine mammals and birds up close.
It's not all land-based fun, either. One morning we strolled out to Caines Head and observed a small flotilla of kayaks preparing to depart for a paddle on the flat-calm water of Resurrection Bay. Why not? Curious, I contacted Adventure Sixty North, a year-round outdoor adventure company that uses comfy snow coaches for transportation along Exit Glacier Road for snowshoeing, skiing, and dog mushing. This winter, however, coaches have gone idle, and business has turned instead to winter guided paddles. Weather-dependent for sure, as wind and choppy seas often postpone or even cancel these offseason excursions, Adventure Sixty North staff told me they've done a pretty brisk business so far this year with their fleet of double boats that can accommodate most ability levels and ages.
It's adaptation and perseverance that will see us through, says Cindy Clock. Alaskans know how to switch gears should something go south. In this case, it appears that something is our snowy weather, but we'll get by.
Seward: If you take the kids
• Driving: Allow three hours between Anchorage and Seward along the scenic Seward Highway. Prepare for winter driving conditions and pack your vehicle with emergency supplies. Visit 511.alaska.gov for current road conditions and alerts.
• Lodging: The only hotel in Seward with a swimming pool, the Holiday Inn Express is open year-round. http://bit.ly/1yhaoC6?, (800) 315-2621. Miller's Landing offers two cabins, one with water and plenty of space, and one dry cabin with wood heat. Beachfront RV camping is also available, with electric hookups. www.millerslandingak.com, 907-331-3113.
• Dining: Apollo Restaurant is by far our favorite Seward restaurant, mostly because the kid-friendly menu exceeds our expectations, every time, and so does the service. Mediterranean/Greek cuisine, large portions, and a warm, comfortable atmosphere make this the perfect stormy-day destination. www.apollorestaurantak.com, (907) 224-3092. Chinook's Bar and Grill is located on the water of Seward's small boat harbor, and serves seafood, burgers, steak, and a Sunday brunch. www.chinooksbar.com, 907-224-2207.
• Activities: Alaska Sea Life Center is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with free admission each Wednesday for Alaska residents with ID. www.alaskasealife.org, 907-224-6300. Seward Adventure Company provides fat bike rides for adults and kids age 10 and up (bikes are 24" at minimum). 907-DO-A-RIDE. Adventure Sixty North offers winter kayak excursions around the nooks and crannies of Resurrection Bay. Weather-dependent, all double kayaks with guides. Best for kids age 8 and up. www.adventure60.com, (907) 224-2600.
Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with Children" and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage. Reach her at email@example.com