If there was one aspect of family travel in Alaska I’d shout from the mountaintops, it would be in praise of the hundreds kind people I’ve met during my criss-crossing of the 49th state. People who truly do exemplify the definition of friendly, generous, and considerate. It’s partly due to the nature of Alaska; hospitality is as much a part of life up here as eating and sleeping, going back to the early days of trapping and mining when cabins were left open and stocked with supplies for weary travelers, the only payment required a “pay it forward” attitude toward someone else. Fast forward 100 years, and that sort of caregiving spirit for cheechako visitors continues, especially with respect to families.
Alaska’s lodging options can appear rather spartan to many guests, with the exception of urban areas like Anchorage and Fairbanks or extremely high-end lodges catering to a mostly childless population. Especially in outlying communities, hotel, motel, and cabin accommodations are few on frills, and with good reason. Building materials are expensive and the cost of labor is high, so most hoteliers find it easier to rely upon customer service rather than fluff to attract guests.
Real people. People who might not know how to fold a napkin into dinosaurs for your kids or be up on the latest latte order but know, instead, that children and sled dog puppies just seem to go together, or that chicken nuggets with a puddle of ketchup go a long way toward dinnertime harmony.
AK Fam has met many such people over the course of our travels, and are finding even more during our current Inside Passage excursion. Our Juneau accommodations at the Driftwood Lodge, for example, did not look like much from first impressions, with a somewhat tired exterior and dated rooms, but spotless and possessing kitchenettes and more elbow room than I’ve seen in a long time. It was the staff, however, who made our stay special. Hot coffee, storage for our luggage before check-in and after check-out, a free shuttle, and endless assistance with a balky internet service. They smiled at me every time I wandered in to borrow their desktop computer and didn’t even mind my jumpy AK Kid hopping up and down the stairways and incessantly setting off the front door bell. Located next door to the fabulous Alaska State Museum and lovely Sandpiper Cafe (where we enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast upon our arrival), and around the corner from a local grocery store, the Driftwood was certainly more than first met our eyes.
Skagway, too, has provided for our family’s needs in the form of simple, endearing Sgt. Preston’s Lodge, located in the heart of this gold-rush era town at the end of Lynn Canal. Configured in a series of small buildings, Sgt. Preston’s is nestled in a garden flush with dark purple hollyhocks and orange nasturtiums that add to the cheer and atmosphere of this cozy motel. Within walking distance of a playground, museum, and the rest of historic downtown Skagway, Sgt. Preston’s location makes it ideal for the traveling family with or without wheels. Operated by an unpretentious family with two friendly dogs, the Lodge is an easy-going reminder of northern hospitality. It’s close to restaurants, too, especially the yummy Sweet Tooth Cafe on Broadway Street, where our courteous waitress provided us with Sunday specials of eggs benedict and breakfast sandwiches, and shook her finger at a local grump who spouted off one-too-many “goddam’s” within earshot of AK Kid. Now that’s good service and a little morality check.
Speaking of Skagway, there is one individual to whom every visitor should walk up and introduce themselves. Buckwheat Donahue is the local director for the City of Skagway’s Tourism Office, and has been schlepping AK Fam here and there for the last two days. A true character just oozing Alaskan personality, Buckwheat is a storyteller, tour guide, and evangalist of Alaskan travel. He likes his community so much, in fact, that he walked/canoed/biked from Florida to Alaska in support of the local medical clinic. Mentioned in Fodor’s travel guide, even, Buckwheat is a fabulous example of how “real Alaskans” live and work, and it is worth taking a few minutes to visit the driftwood-covered Tourism Office on Broadway Street, kitty-corner from the train depot. Tell him AK Fam sent you, and ask him to tell you a story.
The point is this: Look carefully inside a dark restaurant or beyond the worn-out exterior of the local hotel. As much as Alaska’s gorgeous scenery has the ability to take one’s breath away, so do its people.
We may not be pretty, but we’re pretty good. Maybe even pretty perfect.