SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker took a tour of Seward, complete with glacier cruise and a deep dive in the “food and beverage” department. Here is her report.
One of my favorite things about Seward is that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and I mean that in the very best way. Seward manages to feel familiar year in and out, while gently ushering in new businesses so things never get static. The result: no matter the time of year, the weather, or whatever amount of time at your disposal, Seward is always welcoming, and never gets old.
On a recent visit, we visited our usual haunts, explored new venues, and enjoyed staying in a newly-opened hotel. The highlight of our two-day stay was an adventure into Kenai Fjords National Park with a plucky and capable Major Marine Tours crew. Major Marine is a locally-owned, family-run company with some 30 years of experience. Its award-winning wildlife and glacier viewing cruises run between 4-8.5 hours aboard the stable-sailing catamarans or smaller, craftier vessels made for navigating through big ocean water.
The company also operates two Seward hotels: the Harbor 360 Hotel, formerly a Holiday Inn Express; and the brand new Seward Gateway Hotel, which opened in 2021. Both hotels are centrally located, with lots of parking and great views. Harbor 360 sits right on the harbor, where guests board Marine Tours vessels. The Gateway is a few blocks west in the shadow of the epic Mount Marathon.
We stayed at the Seward Gateway and appreciated its brand-new cleanliness, fluffy pillows, free Wi-Fi, friendly staff, and delicious complimentary breakfast, served bright and early to accommodate those eager to get a jump on their Seward adventures. After breakfast, we made the straight-line, 7-minute walk down the road to Harbor 360 for our six-hour Major Marine excursion.
From our check-in experience to disembarking at day’s end, the Major Marine staff wowed us with their hospitality. Boarding the ship, we were cautioned the ride through the Gulf of Alaska to the park would be rough, and were encouraged to check out the galley’s offerings of seasick ailments. You don’t have to tell me twice: I happily paid $2 for chewable Dramamine, which turned out to be the best money I spent all day!
In addition to preventive seasick meds, our two-level vessel included a bar, snacks for purchase, free coffee, tea and water. Later, we enjoyed a delicious lunch consisting of a substantial deli sandwich, cookies, a granola bar, and a beverage.
As we chugged out of the harbor, our chipper captain talked about Seward’s temperate rainforest surroundings, its 70 inches of rain per year, and the incredible ecosystem of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords: “Wildlife is here because the water is incredibly abundant, and these waters are abundant because of these glaciers,” she said.
Soon we were leaving the safety of Resurrection Bay and plowing into the open expanse of the ocean, cutting across the choppy and rollicking eight-foot seas. I felt like I was on an episode of “Deadliest Catch,” while my husband – who actually worked on a crab fishing boat – took a nap in the galley.
From the outdoor upper deck, I enjoyed deep breaths of salty ocean air and trained my eyes on the horizon, enjoying the spectacular experience of plowing across the open ocean, despite the occasional lurch of my stomach dropping.
Some people actually got seasick, and Major Marine crew members were ready with paper barf bags and ginger ale, checking in with each and every traveler, a truly impressive display of customer service. Meanwhile, the reassuring captain regularly made chipper pep-talk announcements like, “Hang in there folks, you’re doing great!” or “Just think, you can tell your friends back home you traveled the open waters of the Pacific!”
Once we tucked into the picturesque fjords of the national park, it was calm waters, with an increasingly chilly breeze as we came to the face of the hulking and impressive Aialik Glacier, the ultimate destination of our voyage. We spent some time there enjoying different views. Passengers marveled at the thunderous, echoing roar when the glacier calved, water spraying up in smoke-like puffs.
While the glacier was the destination, the day included scores of wildlife sightings, including Dall’s porpoises, otters, several kinds of puffins, Steller sea lions, and plenty of bald eagles. But the two highlights were easily a lone orca, so sleek and unique with its black-and-white coloring; and a mighty humpback whale, which wowed us when it pushed out of the water into a full breach and twist in the air. Afterward it wiggled its pectoral fins, as though waving.
Later in the day, we watched another humpback bubble-net feeding: it uses air from its blowhole to push fish to the surface, then surges up from the water open-mouthed to catch the food in its baleen. Simply amazing. Our captain was full of fun facts about the animals we saw, also sharing information about the area’s geology and history throughout our journey.
Major Marine really presented an unforgettable experience. Other special touches: warm gooey brownies served near the end of the journey, a full bar that included margaritas made of glacier ice fished from the sea, and the option to buy a photo of yourself boarding with a life ring, the sales proceeds from those photos going to Seward’s SeaLife Center.
For more info, go to https://majormarine.com/.
I’ve long-intended to stop by The Cookery, an oyster bar and restaurant that has built an incredible reputation since opening in 2015 for refined plates featuring locally sourced, fresh ingredients whenever possible. Online reservations are available and encouraged; this place is popular!
We devoured the house-made warm spent grain bread with salted butter and a side of Brussels sprouts, and for my entrée, I chose the Ceci Chili, with green chickpeas, salsa verde, a cashew crema and cornbread croutons. With its unique ingredients and low-grade heat, the artisan chili was the perfect bowl of comfort food after a chilly day at sea.
The Cookery branched out in summer 2019, opening The Lone Chicharron, a taqueria on busy Fourth Avenue next door to my favorite Seward bar, the Seward Alehouse. The two entities recognized a golden opportunity: there’s now an order window inside the Alehouse so you can try your favorite tacos without even stepping outside.
Two other establishments worth mentioning: The Wine Bar and The Flamingo.
The Wine Bar is in Primrose Provisions, a homey and eclectic shop selling vintage goods, art, gourmet cheeses and more, occupying the 1917 Alaska Railroad Depot on the shoreline near the Alaska SeaLife Center.
The Wine Bar’s simple menu includes charcuterie boards, light shareable bites and interesting deli sandwiches. I’m still thinking about an appetizer we shared, two slices of toasted sourdough topped with honey and ‘nduja, a spreadable spiced Italian pork salami. From our bar stools, we enjoyed the views of stormy Resurrection Bay.
Around the corner on Fourth Avenue, for decades stood the venerable Thorn’s Showcase Lounge, a bar and restaurant that was beloved by many for its time-worn stylings, red leather seats, moody lighting, colorful bubble-letter signage, and its most famous menu item, the Bucket of Butt – fried halibut chunks, wink wink.
After owner Louis “Gene” Thorn died in August 2020, the lounge reopened earlier this year under new ownership as The Flamingo. Fans were apprehensive about the fate of their quirky community cornerstone. But remember, this is Seward: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
While The Flamingo brings a lot of new things to the scene – great food, and a unique craft cocktail menu –it’s also preserving all the aforementioned qualities that many held so dear. An understated wooden sign hangs before the front door announcing The Flamingo’s moniker, but there are no plans to take down the merry Showcase Lounge signage that’s a Fourth Avenue institution. Quirky interior décor remains. Even the Bucket of Butt stayed on the menu! I can attest it tasted delicious.
Flamingo is definitely a summer hot spot. It was packed and with a line out the door the Friday night we popped by, with tables full of folks enjoying hearty steaks and giant burgers. The interior that in the past could feel dingy and dated now shimmers with throwback kitschy coolness. The restaurant employs a hip crew that lends youthful energy to the venue.
Flamingo cocktails are speared with cute pink wooden flamingo-topped toothpicks. Later that night at the Yukon Bar across the street, a woman on the dance floor had a few of those flamingo toothpicks poking out of her upswept tasseled bun.
The Yukon is a fun place on summer weekends with live music, locals and tourists mingling beneath the ceiling papered with signed dollar bills. Even better, if you’re not feeling the vibe there, just head up or down the street to visit the Alehouse or Tony’s, another locals spot.
That’s the thing about Seward: so much to do, so many options! Ever-changing, and yet, oh-so-familiar.
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