End of the Road: Homer, AK
If you hop in your car and drive north to Alaska, the farthest west and veritable end-of-the-road is in Homer, Alaska. Homer is a small town located on the western side of the Kenai Peninsula. An eclectic little town, it is home to artists, fishermen, three fermentation industries (brewery, winery, and meadery), the Kilcher family, Russian-Americans, and of course, tourists. Like every other small community, Homer is a unique getaway perfect for anyone looking to get out of the madness of the big city of Anchorage.
We rarely visit Homer due to its distance from Anchorage and the fact that it is a complete and total cluster in the summer months. However, we finally got the rare opportunity to stay at the Bear Creek Winery B&B for a single night (they have a two night minimum in the winter months) and made the mad dash down to the End of the Road.
Driving the 225 Miles to Homer
Homer is about 225 miles south of Anchorage. The route follows the Seward and Sterling Highways along the painfully slow Turnagain Arm, through deep mountain valleys, and then ending on the mysteriously flat western side of the Kenai Peninsula. Normally, driving this route is a breeze, but lately Alaska has been getting slammed with massive snow storms. The Friday we intended to leave and make a pit stop in Seward called for knee-deep snow on the highway, followed by avalanche control, ditch divers, and near white-out driving conditions. As much as we are notorious for driving in awful conditions, we postponed until Saturday.
We left Saturday to a clear morning and headed out to Homer. Our first stop was several hours later in Soldotna. Due to the feet of fresh powder, stopping for a quick ski or snowshoe was not an option as we would have been digging out our own trail. Soldotna is home to two places we so dearly love: the sports bar and restaurant Buckets and the Kenai River Brewing Company.
Our first stop was Buckets to get our usual meal: a caribou burger for Krystin and an elk burger for Bixler. Anchorage, despite having 300,000 people, half of the state’s population, fails to provide an amazing burger in town. Instead, we head to Buckets for the best non-beef burger in Alaska.
After stuffing our pie holes, we headed around the corner to the Kenai River Brewing Company. Though we live several hours away from Kenai, we have become regulars at the brewery, with the owner actually starting to recognize us each time we make a stop. Kenai River Brewing Company started off as a small local brewery but has been quickly expanding. You can buy two of their best beers in cans (Skilak Scottish and Sunken Island IPA) and they are in the process of putting in a real tap room, instead of standing in front of the register to enjoy your beer. This was great news for two beer aficionados like ourselves! We got our usual growler of Arctic XPA after getting a free tour of the tap-room-to-be and sampling some of their fine ales.
We headed south along the Sterling Highway, which follows a bluff through small towns along the flat side of the peninsula. Clouds hung over the Alaska Range, but on a clear day one gets an astounding view of the many volcanoes that occasionally cause slight problems in south-central Alaska.
Along the coast we swung into the small town of Ninilchik that sits at the mouth of the Ninilchik River. Ninilchik is an old Russian settlement complete with Orthodox Christian church perched on the hill above the town (the picture is from a fall trip years ago – you’ll see those throughout the post).
In the summer, Ninilchik is a popular spot to go halibut and salmon fishing and digging for razor clams. In the winter, all you can do is admire the tiny little town that sits next to the water.
After browsing through Ninilchik, we finally hit Homer on the mouth of Kachemak Bay.
Homer Fermentation Tour
Since we arrived in Homer early, we decided to start the fermentation tour early. Our first stop was the Homer Brewing Company, the local brewery which features farmhouse ales and doesn’t bother to bottle or distribute outside of the town. The style of beer is simple, unfiltered beers to feed the town. You won’t find the crazy, overly-hoppy big beers at this brewery. Instead they have simple, delicious beers.
The brewery is located near the famous Homer sand spit somewhat in a neighborhood near the float plane lake. It is a small brewery, but one has no trouble finding it. Those working at the brewery are generally quiet, so you won’t be chatting too much about the styles. The upside is that there is an especially friendly chunky orange tabby named Cheech who will love your attention.
We tried several of their flagship and seasonal beers and finally settled on a nice rye lager to fill the other growler for our trip.
Our next stop was to find the Ring of Fire Meadery. Ring of Fire is one of two meaderies in the State of Alaska, offering various flavored and unflavored varieties with all types of honey. We meandered our way through what we thought was the Homer art district (we still have yet to find it) and found the place closed! Arg! Several feet of snow filled the parking lot and there was no sign of life, so we headed down to Homer’s famous sand spit to kill some time before heading to Bear Creek Winery.
The Homer sand spit is the actual End of the Road, terminating at Land’s End, both a resort and the name of the end of the road. We drove down the sand spit and admired the empty campgrounds, closed-up shops, hauled out charter fishing boats, and an iced-over harbor. Homer, like many Alaska towns, was closed for the winter. We walked around the docks admiring sailboats with feet of snow and ice engulfing them, missing our boat but happy we chose a warmer port to house Carpe Ventos.
Alaska’s Only Winery
After killing some time at the docks, we headed back into town to Alaska’s only winery: Bear Creek Winery. The winery is an offshoot of the owner’s house and includes a two-room bed and breakfast, outdoor hot tub, tasting room, and the original fermentation room. The grounds overlook Kachemak Bay and offer a luxurious (by Alaskan standards), romantic stay for couples just trying to get away.
We walked into the tasting room to check-in and were immediately greeted by the lady tending the wine tasting counter. She graciously checked us in and another girl showed us the grounds, introduced us to our room, and provided some smoked halibut courtesy of the owners. She pointed out the hot tub with a hilarious set of rules and the sauna before introducing us to our room.
Wow! Talk about an AWESOME room. We stayed at the Arctic suite, decorated with Alaskana relics and images from the owner’s previous life working on the North Slope, complete with old-time lacquered snowshoes crossed above the bed. The suite has a small kitchenette with complimentary K-Bay Coffee and Alaskan Chocolate Truffles. The bed was an enormous, comfortable godsend. The bathroom was just plain gorgeous with a monstrous shower. On the counter was the “House Swine,” a combination of all the dregs from their fleet of wines, which we consumed in the hot tub that night. Ironically, it was one of the best wines Bear Creek had to offer.
After unloading the car and marveling at the suite, we headed over to the tasting room for some wine tasting. Bear Creek Winery’s wines are not typical of, say, a Napa Valley Winery. Grapes do not grow in Alaska, so the winery purchases grape concentrate from the Lower 48 and ferments everything else that Alaska has to offer: raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, strawberries – the works. Their wines are delicious and sweet without that “furry tongue” feeling common to more tannic wines. Our favorites: Stag’s Leap Merlot, Raspberry Wine, Blu Zin (a blueberry-zinfindel mix), the new ice wine, and the decadent Chocolate Raspberry Port. If you haven’t picked up a bottle yet, try them, you won’t be disappointed.
We finished our wine tasting and blissfully headed back to the room to relax before dinner. Eventually we emerged and headed back into town to go to Fat Olives for delicious steaks and ribs, finished with lavender honey cheesecake. Since we don’t eat with our own generation (we eat early), we had time to spare and headed down to the spit to the famous Salty Dawg.
World Famous Salty Dawg
The Salty Dawg is a fisherman-bar-by-winter, tourist-trap-by-summer, located on the Homer spit. The Dawg sits in an old cabin originally built in the late 1800s that eventually was moved to the spit and ended up as a bar. It has lighthouse which is an official NOAA marker and the first step inside the bar is stepping back into history.
The Dawg is covered, and we mean covered, head-to-toe with dollar bills signed by wayward travelers. Inside we were greeted by a friendly bartender and two salty fishermen with the quintessential Alaska fishermen beards. We sipped Maker’s Mark bourbon (neat-no ice) while admiring the inside scenery. After finishing up, we crossed off the “visit a salty fisherman’s bar” off our to-do list and headed back to the winery for a dip in the hot tub, use of the complimentary bathrobes, and a deep sleep.
The next morning we awoke fresh and renewed in our bungalow. We scoured for an open restaurant to take our voucher (the winery doesn’t serve breakfast, but it is provided for free in town with a voucher). Given that it was Superbowl Sunday and the entirety of Alaska shuts down, we were lucky to find one place open on our list. After a filling and delicious breakfast at Duncan House Diner, we decided to find the Kilcher residence.
The Kilcher family has been just outside of Homer nearly a century and has recently been the subject of a reality TV series call Alaska: The Last Frontier. With Hollywood magic, the show makes it seem that they are in a remote location and life is unexpectedly hard. The Kilcher family does live on the original homestead and prefers to live off the land, but truthfully, Homer is just down the road a few miles.
We followed East End Road out towards the end of Kachemak Bay and promptly turned down Kilcher Road. The road branches unexpectedly in many directions, so we aborted on the idea and turned around. As we drove along, Bix thought he saw one of the houses in the show and backed up. Crunch! Our little green Element ended up with the right-hand side in the soft snow ditch (we didn’t drive off the road; just the right side of the car sunk into softer snow). No way out.
We tried everything for a good hour and half: waiving down cars, tire chains, backwards, forwards, branches. No luck. We were driving forward and backward in the same ditch hopelessly stuck. We contemplated calling a tow truck, but with the Superbowl just around the corner, the chance of getting a truck out the road was slim. Stuck and annoyed, we all but gave up when a couple in a small truck headed towards us down Kilcher Road. They just so happened to have a tow cable to help pull us out. As we headed back to car, another larger truck came up the road. He stopped aside us, rolled down the window, and our hearts skipped a beat. It was Otto Kilcher, just as he looked on the show. He asked us if we needed help. We said we had someone to help. He offered to return if they couldn’t get us out. At this point we almost wished the other truck was too small so we could say “we were trying to find the Kilcher residence when a Kilcher pulled us out the ditch.” However, the smaller truck managed to get us out and we started the long trek home.
The Road Home
We said goodbye to Homer and headed back north to Anchorage. We made a slight detour to a Russian village of Nikolaevsk located inland just outside of Homer. The town was founded by Russians in 1968 and still remains primarily Russian to this day. It is in the middle of nowhere, but sports a very small village atmosphere complete with a Russian Orthodox Church.
We headed back to the highway where it started raining. The cold grip that had been over Alaska for so long finally waned and the roads because small rivers. As we approached Anchorage, we were thankful for our quick weekend in Homer and all the adventures we had.