I did a video too (Carole says I need to point out that the music can be muted!):
I did a video too (Carole says I need to point out that the music can be muted!):
There are endless opportunities for fun, excitement, and adventure in and around Homer, from sea kayaking and halibut charters to a day trip across the bay to Seldovia. But sometimes it’s a good idea just to see where the day takes you. Plus, we’ve booked what feels like the best accommodation in town so we decide to get our money’s worth and enjoy it a little.
Our three nights on Homer Spit are spent in the Captain’s Suite, a beautiful one room studio we found on Airbnb. Located on the west side of the Spit, its floor to ceiling windows open out onto a private deck overlooking the beach. This vantage point, 8 feet above the beach, means we can open the curtains and look out over the water towards the mountains beyond without leaving the comfort of our bed; It’s one heck of a place to wake up.
Eventually we force ourselves to get up, get dressed and go in search of breakfast. One particularly promising looking place has a handwritten note on the door: ‘Sorry. Closed for the season due to the fires. Thanks and see you next year.’ These devastating fires are a good 80 miles away but they are clearly impacting on businesses across the entire Kenai Peninsula.
A helpful lady in an adjacent store recommends The Bagel Shop as an alternative so we head into town for what turns out to be of the best breakfasts of our trip.
At the neck of the Spit, shortly before it reaches the mainland, we pass what is popularly known as the boat graveyard. This is a wonderfully photogenic collection of maybe 20 or so boats in various states of decay and disrepair. There are small fishing boats standing in dry dock cradles, larger vessels with artwork painted on top of rusting hulls, and assorted items maritime paraphernalia scattered around the place.
Most distinctive all is a rotting WWII supply boat with pirate flags at the windows. And this, it turns out, is home to the family that lives here and owns all the boats. In the 1990s, Bob and Judy Cousins arrived here with six children and bought these three acres of land and the WWII boat, and began to build a home in its remains. More boats were added to the collection over the years but they eventually moved back to the Lower 48. However, in around 2015, his eldest daughter Cassier and her husband Drew decided to make this their home and they now live here with their young child, and a niece and nephew.
The weather today is amazing, the continuation of an uncharacteristically hot summer (with all its consequences, good and bad), and we need only t-shirts when we return to the Spit for a leisurely stroll along the shore. The whole place has a pleasantly bohemian feel to it, with tents pitched directly on the beach and the remains of campfires waiting to be washed away by the tide.
We buy a coffee, and sit on a driftwood log to watch the world go by. Sometimes it really is best to do absolutely nothing.
I say ‘nothing’, but that’s until I get the overwhelming urge to run down the beach into the sea. After all, it’s not often that the weather in Alaska is conducive to a quick dip, is it? And all I’ll say on the experience is that the frigid waters of Kachemak Bay are probably best left to be enjoyed by the sea otters that bob along the shoreline.
After drying off we go over the road to Coal Point Seafood for our first taste of King Crab. We share a single leg and are suitably impressed; it’s far from cheap but one of those dishes that you really have to try when the opportunity arises to enjoy it fresh off the boat.
What else? We take a walk around the harbor, spot bald eagles on the rooftops, have a look around the many and varied galleries and craft stores, and then return to the Captain’s Suite to gaze out over the beach and chill.
One place I’ve been particularly looking forward to visiting is Homer Brewing Company, a brewery and taproom that has been operating here since 1996, and in the evening we call in on the way back from a trip into town to buy dinner. Like all good craft breweries, they do a flight sampler so I get to choose six beers from an impressively extensive list.
Sadly, while the assorted pale ales, IPAs and stouts are all great and the guy working there friendly, we’re his only customers so it’s not as buzzing as it might have been. Still, I drink the beer, get the t-shirt and return to our lodging ready for dinner and with my growing affection for Homer further enhanced.
From the bears and beer to its seafood and scenery, we have absolutely loved it here; it’s a place we’d definitely like to return to one day.
View From Our Room
On The Beach With The Captain's Suite Behind
The 'Pirate's Ship, Homer Boat Graveyard
Sunday Morning Strolls Don't Get Much Better
A Quick And Chilly Dip in Kachemak Bay
Salty Dawg Saloon
Want video evidence of the dip? Click if you dare!
You're a braver man than me !! I'm not on about the bears, you would never(ever) get me in that water ! Brrrrr
The report, photos and videos are outstanding and I'm loving every moment of it, can't wait for more ! Those bear photos are amazing !
Ditto, to everything Dave just said. A truly epic report! Speaking from the perspective of a fellow scrivener, you're doing a fantastic job of conveying the spirit of the experience, and the familiar sense of wonder that inspires all the rest of us. (That, along with photographic proof that you've got cast iron pelotas! Yow! I shrivel, I mean, that is to say, I shiver at the thought!)
I agree, an incredible trip report. Thanks for taking us along!
Your kinds words are appreciated. Just three days to go now ...
Once again we wake to brilliant sunshine and a crisp blue sky, the perfect end to our short but unforgettable stay on Homer Spit. We’re in no hurry to get off – our destination, a cabin just outside Soldotna, is little more than 75 miles north, a nothing distance even for a British driver – so we enjoy a leisurely coffee on the deck outside and take in the views.
Finally we tear ourselves away and begin the journey back up the Sterling Highway.
One place the guide books recommend along the way is Nikolaevsk, a small community of ‘Old Believers’, a Russian Orthodox sect that fled Siberia in 1666 to escape persecution after resisting forced changes to the church’s prayer book and traditions. Over the next 200 years, the Yakunin clan moved through China, Brazil and Oregon before settling on the Kenai Peninsula in 1968 and, since then, forging a good living out of fishing.
They continue to dress in traditional clothes – which certainly catches the eye in the Homer Safeway store – and some elders still speak little English, conversing in a Russian dialect called Slavonic.
Given their desire to live outside normal Western society, it feels wrong for Nikolaevsk to appear on the tourist trail (I felt much the same about the Amish communities of Lancaster County, PA., despite their obvious willingness to attract passing trade) but we overcome this feeling of uncertainty and follow the narrow, 9-mile road that winds its way into town.
Any concern we may have had about residents thinking we’re there to gawp at them is misplaced, because the streets are completely devoid of life. There are two things to see in Nikolaevsk: the photogenic Church of St Nicholas and the Samovar Café. The first, quite reasonably, is closed the public; the second is closed to one and all. We see a builder working on the town’s new church, who studiously ignores us, and a lady who waves at us as we drive away from the café, but that’s it.
To be fair, I think our experience may have been unusual: the town’s web site (or, maybe more accurately, the web site that claims to represent the town) suggests that visitor’s are more than welcome and reviews of the café are, with one or two exceptions, extremely positive. If you’re passing, see for yourself.
If Nikolaevsk is slightly weird, our next stop threatens to take things to another level. Back on the Sterling Highway at Anchor Point, we are immediately drawn to a ramshackle-looking store offering an appealingly eclectic range of antiques, used car parts, guns, bait and tackle.
We stop in the hope of maybe picking up an old licence plate or other such souvenir and anticipate spending no more than 5 or 10 minutes browsing through the assorted piles of dust- and rust-covered junk. But the guy running the place has a different idea and our conversation quickly switches from “Where you guys visiting from?” to “Ever seen a UFO?”. Over the course of the next half hour we learn that he is Alaska’s prime Ufologist; had his first close encounter as a child at junior school (an incident that was hushed up by the teachers); and has footage of a 2016 sighting on his phone if we’d like to see it.
What can we say? We watch the inevitably grainy and indistinct bright shapes moving around a fuzzy, dark grey background and make polite noises: Hmmmm … right … yeah … I see.
I’m certainly not dismissing the possibility of alien life visiting our planet – to my mind the chances of us being ‘alone’ in the universe are infinitesimally smaller than the contrary – but such obviously inconclusive ‘evidence’ just brings out the cynic in me. The truth may be out there but it’s not on the shaky screen of our new friend’s phone.
As a footnote to this encounter, I have since found a page on the UFO Hunters website (note: not that of New Scientist or the American Association for the Advancement of Science) that would appear to detail his sighting.
And on we go.
This part of the peninsula will seem familiar to visitors from the UK. The landscape is forested, green and gently rolling, pleasant in a non-spectacular way and a real contrast to … well, pretty much the rest of Alaska. It’s a coastal road but one that rarely offers views of the sea and were it not for the names of the towns along the way – Happy Valley, Ninilchik, Clam Gulch – it would be easy to imagine you’re in Cumbria or Northumberland in the north of England.
We detour into Kenai for lunch and take a stroll around the Old Town, a collection of cabins, houses, churches, stores and other buildings from the town’s early days (some date back to the late 19th century, the fire hall was built as recently as 1955). There’s also a short walk down to a sandy beach, which kills a little more time until we’re able to check into our cabin just outside Soldotna.
And to be honest, that’s how today feels: all we’re doing is killing time as we near the end of our journey. We still have another two full days before we fly home but after the excitement of the last three weeks, today has felt a little flat.
On a more positive note, if you’re looking for a romantic break, then the cabins at Escape For Two just outside Soldotna could be just the ticket. There are just two of them, both nicely rustic but equipped with every home comfort imaginable (including hot tub). There’s bubbly and chocolates on the side and rose petals scattered over the bed (which possibly takes the romance bit a step too far but you can’t say they don’t make the effort). Oh, and book Moose Cabin, not Dragonfly. The photos on the website may imply otherwise, but only Moose overlooks the lake; Dragonfly looks out into dense woodland. On the other hand, if petals on the bed ring your bell, the quality of view could very well be irrelevant.
The photogenic Church of St Nicholas, Nikolaevsk
An appropriately named boat outside oldest Nikolaevsk's building
Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel, Old Town Kenai
This is our penultimate day and, like yesterday, is really just dedicated to getting from A to B which in this instance is Soldotna, on the central west portion of the Kenai Peninsula, to Wasilla, in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley north of Anchorage, a drive of just under 200 miles.
The leg we’re most looking forward to is the section of Seward Highway that runs along the northern shore of Turnagain Arm, a stretch of highway reckoned to be one of the most beautiful in America.
First though, we must once again tackle the Sterling Highway, location of the Swan Lake Fire. And the prospects don’t look great as we draw to a halt behind a line of parked vehicles whose occupants are standing outside in the manner of people who know they’re not going anywhere in a hurry. And sure enough, we’re being held as the road ahead isn’t considered safe for traffic.
No-one seems entirely certain whether this is a complete and indefinite closure or something more managed, but it’s the only way through and there’s no alternative other than to sit back and wait.
Eventually, after maybe an hour or so, we see traffic approaching from the Cooper Landing direction, led by a slow moving white truck and, once they’ve passed by, we follow the pilot truck back east.
As we witnessed on the outbound journey, the effects of the fire have been devastating and it continues to rage. Flames still blaze by the side of the road and dense smoke reduces visibility to a matter of yards. For mile after mile after mile, those trees that are not actively burning are either smouldering or left burnt and blackened by the inferno that has devoured so much of this area.
These are dreadful scenes of course, and one can only have admiration for those tasked with keeping people and as much property as possible safe, but the shock of it all is tinged with a guilty sense of awe at the overwhelming, almost unstoppable power of this force of nature.
At Tern Lake the Sterling Highway turns sharply north and immediately merges into Seward Highway, and this takes us all the way up to Anchorage.
The drive along Turnagain Arm is indeed beautiful, although I’m not convinced it would squeeze into my Top 10 USA Drives. The road clings to the narrow strip of flat land that sits at the foot of Chugach State Park’s steep mountains to our right. To the left is Turnagain Arm, a branch of Cook Inlet and renowned for tides that see the water rise by as much as 40 feet or 12 metres. So quickly do they come in that this can create a 6 ft high, 5-6 mph bore tide that is a magnet for thrill-seeking kayakers and surfers. And when the tide goes out, all that remains are mud flats.
It’s in as we pass though so we pull over at a place known as Beluga Point to see if we can spot any of the eponymous white whales. We have no luck in this respect but a man notices our binoculars and points excitedly toward the higher slopes of the mountain behind us: “Look, you can just make out Dall sheep!”
It would be rude to do anything other than dutifully turn our attention to the hillside behind and scan the slopes for these distant dots of white, but I have to say that, in a country that’s home to such apex predators as bears, wolves and mountain lions, this fascination with sheep is a complete mystery. (Much the same can be said about Trumpeter Swans; I know it’s a park ranger’s job to enthuse about all God’s creatures but we have swans back home too you know? And don’t get me started on Canada Geese!)
The shoreline drive is only about 40-45 miles so it’s not long before we’re heading north once again, passing through Anchorage and recommencing the route we took almost three weeks and 2,000 miles ago, up the Glenn Highway.
We have chosen tonight’s lodging, Mat-Su Resort on Wasilla Lake primarily for its proximity to Palmer, where the State Fair is being held, but also based on its claim to be the Mat-Su (Matanuska and Susitna) valley’s “premier year-round destination”, a “boutique hotel” with an “award-winning fine dining restaurant”.
The reality is that it’s a slightly odd place. We approach it down what feels like the road into a quarry and are directed to a small residential-looking building that serves as the reception desk (and crèche for the child of the girl who checks us in).
The hotel itself a standard two-story building with external staircases, and our room is large, clean and perfectly fine. But boutique? There’s nothing wrong with the restaurant either (well, nothing that a couple more staff couldn’t fix – we get our drinks for free for remaining patient despite a frustratingly long wait) but again, they don’t do themselves any favours with the oversold “fine dining” boast.
Anyway, the beers are as good as the crab cake and fish’n’chips that follow, and we sleep soundly. Which is all you can really ask for. And that leaves us just one day to go.
Waiting to be guided along the Sterling Highway
Fires burning by the side of the road
Dense smoke on the Kenai Peninsulsa
Railroad by Beluga Point along Turnagain Arm