America's last frontier

Who would have thought that grizzly bears could be shy? Linda Green decided that if they wouldn't come to her, she would track them down at home

Gathering in the dining room of an Alaskan b&b is rather like attending a meeting of alcoholics anonymous. An American visitor sitting at the table nervously confesses: "Hi, I'm Ray and this is my first time at a bed and breakfast."

Within minutes the other American guests are "coming out" as b&b first- timers as well, prompting us to make reassuring "don't worry, you'll be fine" noises. For those of us who spent childhood holidays in Blackpool, unaware there was anywhere else to stay apart from a b&b, it's all rather strange.

But then, Alaska does strange things to people, particularly Americans. It may be the largest state in the union, but to most Americans it's a virgin territory which inspires them to do things they would never contemplate "back home".

This is the real America, the final frontier, and for those wanting a real experience, there is only one way to do it. Give the big tour operators that cruise the Inside Passage a wide berth and do it yourself with a fly-drive trip stopping off at b&bs and lodges along the way.

We are not talking about roughing it here, the accommodation would put many British hotels to shame, and you can see exactly what you are getting for your money on the hundreds of Alaskan b&b web sites.

Having been lured by pictures of sumptuous rooms at $100 (around pounds 63) a night, we found ourselves starting our holiday at the Glacier Bear Bed and Breakfast in Anchorage, where not only did Marge cook mean pancakes, she also willingly shuttled us to and from the airport and train station for no extra charge.

The airport and station are important as there is not a lot else in Anchorage. It is basically a gateway to the rest of Alaska and it's really not worth hanging around when the big country is out there waiting.

First stop was a trip on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Whittier for a glacier cruise on Prince William Sound, now fully recovered from the catastrophic 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The railroad had a school- trip atmosphere with passengers told to shout for the train to slow down if they spotted beluga whales off the Turnagain Arm or Dall's Sheep high on the rocky mountains.

The idea of yelling for the driver to grind to a halt so everyone could look at a sheep seemed quite bizarre at first and we kept checking for $100 penalty notices for stopping the train without good reason. But, with the encouragement of our excitable guide, Kyle, we soon entered into the spirit of it and just sat back and admired the spectacular coastal scenery.

Having already had a taste of the great outdoors we were itching for more and the next day we picked up our rented Chevy Blazer and set off along the Seward Highway which carves its way through the Chugach Mountains.

Within a few miles, our decision to travel to Alaska during the brief autumn season, when prices are cheaper and tourists scarcer, was more than vindicated. Golden autumnal colours and stunning reflections filled the horizon for the whole route and it was a genuine disappointment when we reached our destination - especially when we saw where we were supposed to be staying.

For at Seward our good fortune - or rather good planning - with our choice of b&bs ran out. Admittedly, Le Barn Appetit, a health-food store with accommodation above, was the one place we hadn't booked on the internet. But the guide book described The Passion Pit as "a funky room, with mountain views". In fact, on our arrival, the sprawling wooden building was locked and deserted.

An hour later two small girls arrived with a sheep on a lead and duly showed us to our room, which consisted of two single beds covered with a blanket each and a stainless steel sink.We were beginning to think it was a bad joke when they realised their mistake and lead us up to the real Passion Pit which, although it did at least have a double bed, was still more pit than passion. It was when one of the girls showed us the fire escape, a large rope dangling from our fourth-floor window, that we decided to make our excuses and leave.

Fortunately, just up the road we found Windsong Lodge, which for the same price, $100 a night, offered a clean, rustic room with en-suite facilities, although breakfast was an expensive extra.

Seward is known as the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. You can take a day-long cruise, walk right up to the face of nearby Exit Glacier or take one of the many hiking trails that lead off into the wilderness.

The advice given to all hikers is to sing loudly as you walk, as this is bear country and a startled grizzly is a dangerous one.

We started off enthusiastically with The Beatles back-catalogue but some time later, when we had descended to the depths of Paul McCartney's Frog Chorus, we met an Alaskan armed with a shotgun who informed us he had just passed fresh bear tracks on the trail. We decided to turn back.

Half a day's drive from Seward is the village of Homer, where we stayed in a snug, if rather twee log cabin at Spruce Acres b&b. Homer (which has nothing to do with The Simpsons), is instantly appealing, comprising two main streets full of art galleries and coffee shops and the dramatic Homer Spit, which stretches out into Kachemak Bay.

A walk along the spit, where sea otters and whales can be spotted just off shore, for a meal at an Italian bistro, was the perfect way to end the day. The waitress proudly informed us that the chef had come from a top hotel in New York. We were about to ask why when we looked out at the breathtaking sunset over the spit. Suddenly, it seemed a stupid question.

At this point in our holiday, the closest we had come to wildlife on land was seeing a dead porcupine in the road. The moose, Marge had informed us, were all hiding up in the hills as it was the hunting season and the bears were rarely seen in town. So if the wildlife wouldn't come to us, we would go to the wildlife.

Unfortunately, the grizzlies choose to live in places which are not easy, or cheap, to visit. We had to take a light aircraft and a float plane out to the remote Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park.

With two viewing platforms, one at Brooks Falls and the other at the mouth of the Brooks River, it is one

of the best places in the world to view grizzly bears fishing for salmon.

Consequently, accommodation in the 16 log-cabins during the main salmon run in July is frequently booked up more than a year in advance, and the viewing platforms are packed with photographers, all vying to get their tripods into the best position. But a visit in September, when the bears return to feed on spawned-out salmon, guarantees you a good spot on the viewing platforms and some relief from the mosquitoes which plague the area in summer.

On arrival we were immediately enrolled at the Bear Etiquette School to learn how to deal with closer-than-wanted encounters of the grizzly kind. We were told to ditch our Beatles songs for the favoured chant of "Hi bear, ho bear" and if we did run into a grizzly to wave our hands above our heads, talk nicely and back away slowly.

It all sounded fine in theory. Unfortunately the first couple who encountered a bear on the trail to the falls opted for the more instinctive "leg-it and hide" option which, although it got them out of a tight scrape, is not recommended.

When we plucked up the courage to take the trail to the falls platform the next day we were rewarded with the rare sight of three bear cubs sleeping happily in a tree. But this was nature, not Disney, and the ranger explained that they had been abandoned by their mother two weeks earlier and would almost certainly perish at the onset of winter.

Back at the lower viewing platform we had a last, lingering look at the bears fishing against the rich autumn backdrop. Sharing the platform was a hard-as-nails Leeds United-supporting female prison warder from Yorkshire. She was wearing teddy bear socks. But, then, Alaska does do strange things to people.

ALASKA

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights available from Britain to Anchorage. Until 25 March, United Airlines (tel: 0845 844 4777) is offering return flights from London Heathrow to Anchorage, via Chicago or San Francisco in the United States, from pounds 391 plus pounds 45 tax.

British Airways (tel: 0345 222 111) flies daily from London Heathrow, via Seattle in the US, to Anchorage. The return ticket costs from pounds 530 plus pounds 42 tax if you travel during April.

Alternatively, you could arrange to take a flight to Seattle and then book a separate connection onto Anchorage. The flight to Seattle costs from pounds 269 plus pounds 45 tax return with British Airways. Alaska Airlines (tel: 001 907 248 5600, or visit the website at www.alaskaair.com) offers onward flights from Seattle to Anchorage. The return ticket for this leg of the journey costs $280 plus $20 tax if you travel during April.

WHERE TO STAY

The Glacier Bear Bed and Breakfast in Anchorage (tel: 001 907 243 8818, or visit the website at www.touristguide. com/b&b/alaska/glacierbear/) offers double rooms with private bathrooms from pounds 55 per night, including a cooked breakfast.

Windsong Lodge in Seward (tel: 001 907 224 7116, website at www.alaskalodges.com) offers double rooms from pounds 60 per night, breakfast not included.

Spruce Acres Bed and Breakfast in Homer (tel: 001 907 235 8388, or visit the website at www.alaskaone.com/spruceacre/) offers individual cabins which sleep two people from pounds 50 per night, including continental breakfast.

Bear watching trips to Brooks Lodge can be booked direct through Katmailand Inc (tel: 001 907 243 5448, or visit the website at www.katmailand.com). A package which includes round-trip flights, including floatplane transfers, between Anchorage and Brooks Lodge, National Park entrance fees and accommodation for two nights costs from pounds 500 per person, based on two people sharing a cabin. Meals cost extra. Book early because accommodation is often reserved up to a year in advance.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The best-value holidays to Alaska are in the shoulder seasons of May and September. The Anchorage Convention and Visitor Bureau (tel: 001 907 276 4118, or visit the website at www.alaska.net/acvb) can provide all the information you need on accommodation, tours and travel and will send a visitors guide on request.

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