Theres no doorbell at the Winterlake
Lodge. The honking from a family of loons on Finger Lake lets Carl
and Kirsten Dixon know when another group of guests has arrived at
Finger Lake, the
birds home, also serves as Winterlakes driveway. There are no roads
leading to or from the lodge; most people arrive from Anchorage via
seaplane, which sets down on the lake and is tied up at the dock.
From there its only a short walk to the front porch, where a few
comfortable chairs overlook the lake and the loons.
Maybe one of the
lodges resident black Labrador retrievers will come galloping by in
welcome. The orientation speech and welcome is given in the lodges
comfortable front room, where fresh-brewed coffee and Gruyere
cheese puffs are on the table.
an Alaska backcountry tradition. Anchorage does not have a Four
Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton, and Hilton has only four hotels in the
What Alaska does
have, however, is small lodges and inns (some of them offering as
much personal attention as a five-star resort) that celebrate the
best of what the state has to offer -- outdoor activities and
camaraderie between guests and hosts, as well as between guests and
their freeways and roads the road system. Thats important, because
in many cases the lodges are off the road system, which requires
guests to take a boat or a plane (or in winter, a snowmachine) to
get to them. Dropping by via seaplane is called a
In many respects
its the road less traveled. Its worth the effort to get there, said
John Kreilkamp, the vice president of Alaska land operations for
operators use phrases like off the beaten path, and road less
traveled (or, in many cases, no road) to describe wilderness
lodges, theres no clear definition of the term.
sister property, Redoubt Bay Lodge, for example, is a wilderness
lodge. Redoubt is located near Lake Clark Pass, and its primary
attraction is a local bear community. The lodge itself is a small
log cabin. In total, fewer than 20 guests sleep in the adjacent
At the other end
of the spectrum are the Princess Wilderness Lodges. The Copper
River Princess Wilderness Lodge, for example, can hold more than
eight times as many guests as Redoubt Bay. Its within a 200-acre
site near the Glennallen and Copper River area, has rustic details
like a giant stone fireplace and offers guests attractions like
hiking and dog sledding.
The Alaska Travel
Industry Association counts 55 members under the Wilderness
Lodges/Resorts category on its Web site, but the number could be
far greater. Winterlake and Redoubt Bay, for example, are included
under one entry, Within the Wild Adventure Lodges.
My definition of
a lodge is usually a place thats a little more remote than a hotel
or an inn. Its not an urban property, said Michelle Glass, director
of marketing for Alaska Unusual. In Alaska, its [usually] someplace
off the road system.Theres no room service, no parking; not a lot
of the typical things. Usually meals are included [and] activities
are included. Its really more of a getaway experience than just a
place to spend the night.
According to Bill
Pedlar, COO of Knightly Tours, lodges got their start when hunters
and fishermen came through Alaska. Today, there are several types
of lodges: those built for a specific purpose like fishing, hunting
or bear-watching, and those built just as exclusive
But Pedlar was
adamant about one point. In my book, if three meals a day arent
included, its not a lodge, he said.
He gave one
example. Glacier Bay Lodge just reinvented itself, and it is
marketing itself as a lodge experience ... Its all inclusive, he
said. Theyre trying to get [into] that true lodge aspect. While
they called themselves Glacier Bay Lodge in the past, I now
consider it a true lodge.
In an e-mail,
Kirsten Dixon, one of Winterlakes proprietors, said, A wilderness
lodge is located in a unique geographic area that offers unspoiled
My fly-in to
Winterlake started early in the morning with a trip to Rusts Flying
Service at Lake Hood in Anchorage. Rusts is like a taxi service --
not in the sense that you can just stick your arm in the air and
hail one -- but around here, flying is as natural as driving. Hop
in the Cessna, strap on your headset and go.
It takes about 45
minutes to fly to Winterlake over beautiful, scenic hills. New Age
music piped into the headset from the dashboard CD player added to
the sense of wonder. When we glided down onto Finger Lake, the
pilot guided the plane over to the grassy bank and tied it up to a
Winterlake is a
lodge, but its also the Dixons home, and it serves a variety of
year-round guests.When I arrived in late June, it was hosting
heli-skiers: a souped-up helicopter picks up the skiers each day
and flies them to the Tordrillo Mountains (cost: $6,750 for the
In the winter,
when Rusts exchanges the waterskis on its planes for snow skis, the
lodge is a stop on the annual Iditarod sled dog race between
Anchorage and Nome. Dog teams take a break on straw beds on frozen
Finger Lake as mushers pop in to the lodge for meals. Winterlake
has its own team of Alaskan huskies, and guests can take turns
mushing with them during the winter season.
helicopter and skiers had left for the hills, a calm quiet
descended on the property. Mosquitoes buzzed around (the Dixons
have extra-heavy-duty bug spray for guests) and the lake
activities for guests are kayaking on Finger Lake and canoeing on
nearby Red Lake. Guests can hike the Wolverine Ridge, which
provides views of
McKinley) and Mount Foraker. If the mosquitoes arent too annoying
the Dixons host picnics on the ridge. Theres heli-fishing, where
the chopper flies ahead and spots the fish.
And then theres
just plain-old relaxing in the main lodge, which is full of
comfortable, overstuffed couches and rustic touches. A book, a
glass of wine and a view of the lake round out the last
The Dixons also
built an extension on the lodge which is used for morning
And theres no
question that Winterlake is a true lodge as Pedlar defines it. Not
only are meals included in the price (as well as coffee and snacks)
but cuisine is a major focus of the experience. Kirsten Dixon is a
In her cookbook,
The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook, she recounts how she traveled to
France and marched up to the famous etched-glass doors of the
Cordon Bleu and knocked bravely.
In her big, homey
kitchen, a cluster of bar stools surround the counter, so guests
can pull up a chair. The lodge offers cooking-class-themed weekend
dinner tables, with cheerful, comfortable floral-print chairs, are
a focal point of the lodges main rooms.
In her e-mail,
Dixon called it perhaps one of the top exclusive lodges in
Rates start at
$987 per person for a one-night stay; see www.withinthewild.com for more information.
Unusuals Glass said that a one-night stay usually isnt enough time
to explore a wilderness lodge.
agents, a lot of time theyll say, I want to do a lodge for a night,
she said. Youre going to want to spend at least two nights, if not
more. We usually recommend a week. Its really a way to slow down
and get out of the mill, whether its daily life or the mill of
tourism. So many of these package tours are going, going, going.
And you see a lot but dont get to understand life of
arent inexpensive or easy places to run. The season is short; many
lodges are only open four months, between June and September. With
only a handful of beds, some places cant, or wont, buy into the
intense: At Winterlake, for example, things like lumber, fuel and
foodstuffs have to be flown in -- and garbage has to be flown out.
Then there are the natural elements: Winterlakes staff was, by
turns, amused and exasperated by a bear who was an occasional
And then there
are guest expectations.
these days say they want to rough it, those who really want to
rough it probably wouldnt stay at those lodges, Knightly Tours
Pedlar said. People who are staying there really want some creature
comforts. Those are expensive to do.
pointed to lodges such as Glacier Bay Lodge near Gustavus, the
Denali Backcountry Lodge near Kantishna and the Great Alaska
Adventure Lodge on the Kenai Peninsula. According to their Web
sites, these establishments offer per-day rates of $394, $380 and
bounce all over the place, he said.
Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel
Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].