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The Other Alaska

The Other Alaska

Travel
posted: 08/08/2006

Tucked away in the Chugach Mountains, Alyeska strikes the ideal balance: big-mountain skiing in a friendly, down-home local.Girdwood, Alaska, population 2,000, is the kind of place where you make friends without trying. Nestled at the base of Mt. Alyeska, it's so small that if you spend a few days, you keep running into the same people; so small that it didn't have electricity until the late Fifties; so small that the postmaster knows everyone by name. And yet this sleepy little town that you can pass through without even realizing it is home to a world-class (if unknown) ski resort. The town of Girdwood and the ski resort hang in a delicate balance, fitting together like the Odd Couple—and therein lies the area's charm.

Driving along Alyeska Highway, the quiet two-lane access road, Girdwood feels like small-town USA—20 years ago. There's a medicalclinic, a small grocery store, a bakery and not much else. A few miles down the road, as Alyeska ski area comes into sight, the hills are dotted with classic chalet-style homes, up to their decks in snow. Some are luxurious, others bare and modest. Four-foot piles of white are pushed up against the sides of the road, and the air is crisp and pure. There isn't any activity—you likely won't even pass another car—and the entrance to Alyeska is a stark wooden sign that quietly invites you in without boasting of the area's greatness. But travel another mile, and the scenario changes dramatically.

Alyeska is anchored by the 5-year-old Westin Alyeska Prince Hotel. This 307-room behemoth juts abruptly from the landscape, at once surprising and welcoming. Not only is it high-end (entrées at the Katsura Teppanyaki start at $35, and the sprawling guest rooms come complete with slippers and robes), but it's also a self-contained activity hub. From the lobby, you can arrange to go cat-skiing, heli-skiing, sight-seeing by plane, dog sledding, or you can hop on the 60-passenger tram for a ride to Alyeska's 2,500-foot mark. Pretty luxe for a place that does about 135,000 skier visits per year—only a tenth as many as Breckenridge, Colo.

But then, everything here is a little surprising. Because the sun comes up later, the lifts don't open until 10:30 am, perfect for enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Lift tickets are amazingly inexpensive—an unheard-of $33 for hotel guests. Snowfall totals are unparalleled—1997-98 brought in just under 1,100 inches, 1998-99 delivered 470 inches by mid-February. And the base town of Girdwood defies the typical ski town definition.

There's nothing fancy or pretentious about Girdwood, not even when it comes to winter. "I don't really know what keeps people here," says Connie Hibbs, 55, Girdwood postmaster. "I never liked winter. Alaska would have never been my first choice. I came kicking and screaming with my family. But I guess it gets in your blood."

I agree with Connie. Alaska wasn't my first choice even for a visit—at least not for the reasons that it gets its reputation. All I'd heard was that it was cold, dark and hardcore. I wasn't prepared to become one with this capital of extreme, where young hucksters come to flex their muscles and establish themselves as freeskiing icons. I didn't want to throw myself down 50-degree faces or endure 30-below temperatures. In fact, when Mike Overcast, part-owner of Chugach Powder Guides, invited me for a day of heli-skiing, I politely declined. I had a sense there was a gentler side to this wild place, and I was determined to discover it. I trekked to the last frontier to find "everyone's Alaska"—and indeed it exists at Alyeska.

Start with Alyeska's 1,000 acres of skiable terrain, which, despite all the tales of Alaskan bravery, cater to the cruiser. Almost 75 percent of the terrain is rated blue. Add that to a mountain you can literally call your own. Day one was a Monday in late February, a brilliant sunny day that outsiders probably don't think could exist in Alaska. The slopes were practically empty, offering an amazing sense of freedom. No fighting for space, no defending a line, no waiting at the lifts. Just perfectly groomed snownd a temperature of 20 degrees at the summit. (Because of Alyeska's "heat inverted" weather, it was a cooler 10 degrees at the base.)

But you'd be mistaken to think Alyeska isn't radical in its own right. The North Face, opened in 1996, boasts six ungroomed runs ranging in pitch from 47 to 50 degrees, with 2,350 continuous vertical feet. (The North Face run is billed as the longest continuous double-black diamond in North America.) Plus, the mountains seem bigger and more majestic here than at resorts in the Lower 48, no doubt a function of the setting. Because Alyeska's base sits at an elevation of just 250 feet, you can see an inlet of the Pacific Ocean from the slopes, a visual feast that doesn't exist at any other resort in North America. On a practical note, this beauty also allows visitors to avoid the dreaded altitude sickness so common in the Rockies.

Alyeska opened in 1959 under the ownership of Francois de Gunzberg with a humble rope-tow and poma lift. The first chairlift was added the following year, accessing about 500 skiable acres. There was no lodging at Alyeska until 1968, when the 29-room Nugget Hotel opened in Girdwood. Alyeska didn't change much for the next 34 years. When the Prince was unveiled, a growth spurt took hold. Suddenly hundreds of people could sleep right at the base, and two years later, skiable terrain was doubled.

 

Alyeska says it isn't done growing yet. Resort boundaries stretch to 2,500 acres, and plans call for buildout to be reached within the next 15 years. The proposed expansion area is called Winner Creek, a wide-open space adjacent to the existing North Face, and current terrain for Chugach Powder Guides' snowcat skiing and heli-skiing. While snowcat skiing in Winner Creek, I felt like I was on top of the world.

Many people don't have to travel far to experience this. Eighty percent of Alyeska's visitors come from Anchorage, 40 miles away, and most are day visits. "Our winter market is Alaska," says Todd Clarke, Alyeska's mountain marketing and sales manager. "Summer is the rest of the U.S." It's obvious walking through the long empty halls of the Prince that in terms of destination business something didn't go according to plan. The idea was to build a massive hotel to serve a thriving Japanese market—which suddenly evaporated. In the early Eighties, there were more than a dozen international air carriers that stopped in Anchorage, giving Asian travelers a convenient skyway to Alyeska. But when Russian air space opened up in 1994, international travelers were free to fly direct to points west, eliminating Anchorage as a major hub. "It was a real blow," says Alyeska general manager Chris von Imhof. But things are looking up. The resort is working aggressively with Northwest Airlines to get some flights back—this past summer one flight was reintroduced. For now, their misfortune is your benefit. You won't find a less crowded ski resort or hotel.

The Prince is Alaska's only four-diamond-rated hotel. It's big and sprawling and elegant in an understated Asian way. All the posts and details are made of cherry wood, seats in the lounge are overstuffed leather. The hotel was built with attention to nature; trees were kept as close to the building as possible, providing a true winter forest environment. With huge pine trees marking the edge of the woods just a few feet from the windows, the view outside The Pond Café is surreal. Overall the hotel is sophisticated and attractive, yet it's somewhat mysterious in its emptiness. (It's only about half-full in the winter.) While you can drop lots of money planning endless athletic endeavors from the lobby, there aren't any shops where you can buy a Bogner suit or a new pair of Völkls. Despite its luxury, the Prince has a refreshing simplicity.

In a different way, the same goes for Girdwood. Girdwood is a funky little town, and though there are no neon signs, big shopping centers or high-end restaurants, it's definitely hip. It's hip because it's quiet and non-glitzy. It's hip because it has so much character. What's more, hanging out here doesn't take any getting used to. Girdwood is comfortable from the moment you arrive. Sit down at the Double Musky, a Cajun-style place known for its locals-only two-for-one appetizer nights, or Chair 5, a family-style pizza house, and you'll feel as if you've been there before. These spots are packed most nights, buzzing with more activity and warmth than you'd ever expect. Everyone knows each other, and if you're a new face, you're noticed—and special by virtue of being different.

It's the people you'd expect to be noticed who don't get much attention. Tommy Moe grew up near Girdwood and spends a few months of the year here. When he walked into Chair 5 one night, no one seemed to care. No hero-worship in this town. Tommy is a member of the community who happens to be an Olympic gold medalist, and he's still just one of the regulars. Hilary Lindh also spent her formative skiing years here. She grew up in Juneau, an island 650 miles from Girdwood, but trained and raced regularly at Alyeska.

Girdwood has grown in leaps and bounds. As late as 1952, the area still housed less than 10 families. Though there was never a major "boom," the most growth came in the late Seventies when the Alaska Pipeline was built. Numbers have continued to climb since then, but some would argue that despite all the growth, much about Girdwood has stayed the same. "I don't think Girdwood has changed that much," Connie says. "There are houses where there weren't before, but some areas look exactly the same." And then, with excited eyes, she mentions the people of Girdwood, clearly the heart and soul of this place. "People still have a get-things-done attitude; Girdwood is still a town for the free-spirited; and it's still a place everyone can call home."

Everyone indeed. "Locals here are as far left and as far right as any community could have," says David Bauer, owner of ReMax of Girdwood. "People who've been living here for 20 years don't like it being called a 'resort town.' And they're very convicted to delay change. They know it will happen. They just want to slow the process down."

Bauer admits that the balance is a good thing. "It's stimulating, it's challenging, and it encourages everyone to keep growing." But business is business and friendship is friendship, and most Girdwoodians coexist well. "Girdwood is a nice place to be what you happen to be," Bauer says.

 

That sentiment is being heard far from the town's boundaries. More than forty percent of the trophy homes that line the access road belong to second homeowners. Others are owned by telecommuters, retirees from the Lower 48 and professionals from Anchorage who are moving to Girdwood for a better lifestyle. As a result, home prices have skyrocketed, and while this is great news for the economy, it's problematic for local would-be buyers. "People who work at the resort are having a hard time buying," says George McCoy, managing broker at Prudential Jack White Real Estate of Girdwood. "There aren't many choices." Home prices are considerably more than those in Anchorage (the average is closing in on $200,000), and the quality of construction runs the whole gamut. Plus, right now, what you see is what you get. Expansion of Girdwood has almost reached its peak.

Yet there are plans to one day build a base village at Alyeska, à la Whistler, B.C. It's the dream of Chris von Imhof, Alyeska's managing director, a polished and warm German with silver gray hair, who has stuck with Alyeska since the beginning. He's so committed to building it into a winter empire that when he found his plans for the resort at odds with Alaska Airlines (owner from 1967 to 1980), he recruited a new investor. Seibu, Inc., headquartered in Japan, is a financial powerhouse that owns the resort and the Prince, along with 89 other Prince hotels in the U.S., Asia and Hawaii.

Von Imhof wants Albecause it's quiet and non-glitzy. It's hip because it has so much character. What's more, hanging out here doesn't take any getting used to. Girdwood is comfortable from the moment you arrive. Sit down at the Double Musky, a Cajun-style place known for its locals-only two-for-one appetizer nights, or Chair 5, a family-style pizza house, and you'll feel as if you've been there before. These spots are packed most nights, buzzing with more activity and warmth than you'd ever expect. Everyone knows each other, and if you're a new face, you're noticed—and special by virtue of being different.

It's the people you'd expect to be noticed who don't get much attention. Tommy Moe grew up near Girdwood and spends a few months of the year here. When he walked into Chair 5 one night, no one seemed to care. No hero-worship in this town. Tommy is a member of the community who happens to be an Olympic gold medalist, and he's still just one of the regulars. Hilary Lindh also spent her formative skiing years here. She grew up in Juneau, an island 650 miles from Girdwood, but trained and raced regularly at Alyeska.

Girdwood has grown in leaps and bounds. As late as 1952, the area still housed less than 10 families. Though there was never a major "boom," the most growth came in the late Seventies when the Alaska Pipeline was built. Numbers have continued to climb since then, but some would argue that despite all the growth, much about Girdwood has stayed the same. "I don't think Girdwood has changed that much," Connie says. "There are houses where there weren't before, but some areas look exactly the same." And then, with excited eyes, she mentions the people of Girdwood, clearly the heart and soul of this place. "People still have a get-things-done attitude; Girdwood is still a town for the free-spirited; and it's still a place everyone can call home."

Everyone indeed. "Locals here are as far left and as far right as any community could have," says David Bauer, owner of ReMax of Girdwood. "People who've been living here for 20 years don't like it being called a 'resort town.' And they're very convicted to delay change. They know it will happen. They just want to slow the process down."

Bauer admits that the balance is a good thing. "It's stimulating, it's challenging, and it encourages everyone to keep growing." But business is business and friendship is friendship, and most Girdwoodians coexist well. "Girdwood is a nice place to be what you happen to be," Bauer says.

 

That sentiment is being heard far from the town's boundaries. More than forty percent of the trophy homes that line the access road belong to second homeowners. Others are owned by telecommuters, retirees from the Lower 48 and professionals from Anchorage who are moving to Girdwood for a better lifestyle. As a result, home prices have skyrocketed, and while this is great news for the economy, it's problematic for local would-be buyers. "People who work at the resort are having a hard time buying," says George McCoy, managing broker at Prudential Jack White Real Estate of Girdwood. "There aren't many choices." Home prices are considerably more than those in Anchorage (the average is closing in on $200,000), and the quality of construction runs the whole gamut. Plus, right now, what you see is what you get. Expansion of Girdwood has almost reached its peak.

Yet there are plans to one day build a base village at Alyeska, à la Whistler, B.C. It's the dream of Chris von Imhof, Alyeska's managing director, a polished and warm German with silver gray hair, who has stuck with Alyeska since the beginning. He's so committed to building it into a winter empire that when he found his plans for the resort at odds with Alaska Airlines (owner from 1967 to 1980), he recruited a new investor. Seibu, Inc., headquartered in Japan, is a financial powerhouse that owns the resort and the Prince, along with 89 other Prince hotels in the U.S., Asia and Hawaii.

Von Imhof wants Alyeska "to be discovered on a larger scale," and though he's honest about the obstacles, he chalks them up to mere misconception. "People think it's cold and dark here. What they don't understand is that Alaska is a huge place with different climates." Indeed, Alyeska wasn't as cold as I had expected, and the days were far longer than I imagined.

Von Imhof thinks the village will bring Alyeska's offerings full circle. He visited Whistler in 1998, taking along the Anchorage mayor and several members of the Girdwood Resort Association. Now he imagines a bustling, vibrant village at the base of his mountain and a big jump in skier visits. It may seem outlandish on the surface, but in the age of adventure travel, von Imhof just may be on to something. Whether or not it happens remains to be seen. But this I can be sure of—visitors won't lose either way.s Alyeska "to be discovered on a larger scale," and though he's honest about the obstacles, he chalks them up to mere misconception. "People think it's cold and dark here. What they don't understand is that Alaska is a huge place with different climates." Indeed, Alyeska wasn't as cold as I had expected, and the days were far longer than I imagined.

Von Imhof thinks the village will bring Alyeska's offerings full circle. He visited Whistler in 1998, taking along the Anchorage mayor and several members of the Girdwood Resort Association. Now he imagines a bustling, vibrant village at the base of his mountain and a big jump in skier visits. It may seem outlandish on the surface, but in the age of adventure travel, von Imhof just may be on to something. Whether or not it happens remains to be seen. But this I can be sure of—visitors won't lose either way.

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