Alaska B&Bs -- a popular alternative to costly hotels

BEFORE my Alaska vacation, I had never stayed in a ``bed-and-breakfast'' (B&B) establishment. I soon discovered that in this state, as elsewhere, most are family homes with an extra bedroom or two. Meeting the host families became an enriching part of my trip. Best of all, these new-found friends shared their knowledge of local events, directing me to several unexpected adventures. I still can't believe that I almost missed visiting Katmai Peninsula, where for a whole day I watched dozens of wild brown bears catching salmon less than 50 feet away. If I hadn't stayed at the Seekinses' home in Homer, I never would have known how to arrange such a trip. Thanks to Gert Seekins, that day at McNeil River Game Sanctuary turned out to be the highlight of my entire Alaskan trip.

What began as a casual conversation about bears ended with a call to a local charter plane operator, an acquaintance of hers. The next thing I knew, I had a reservation that same day for the one-hour flight to Katmai.

For the past three years Floyd and Gert Seekins have opened their rustic hillside home to bed-and-breakfast guests from around the world. Their panoramic view of Homer and Kachemak Bay, alone, is worth a stay. The Seekinses also operate Homer Tours, guiding visitors to the city's major attractions.

Several times during my stay they proved to be quite helpful, suggesting a scenic hike, a good restaurant, or a special art gallery.

At the last minute, my two companions and I decided to spend a few days in Seward, about a three-hour drive east of Homer.

From Seward one can explore the glaciers, islands, and wildlife of Kenai Fjords National Park, an attraction several people suggested we shouldn't miss.

So with only a day's notice, Alaska Private Lodgings in Anchorage found us a comfortable home in Seward for two nights. Not only did Shirley and Lee Nelson serve a large and delicious breakfast for six guests at once, but they also gave us a tour of their jewelry manufacturing business. A few other guests and I spent a fascinating hour seeing how gold-nugget jewelry is made by a process called the lost wax technique.

All over Alaska the bed-and-breakfast movement is both popular and economical. Whereas rooms in the biggest hotels in the lower 48 states often cost more than $100 per night, B&B rates up here are generally between $25 and $50. B&Bs are located in downtown homes here, as well as rural cabins and homesteads. The hospitality of hosts can turn an otherwise superficial and impersonal visit into a warm, memorable experience.

Reservation services, matching travelers with hosts, are based in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, and Ketchikan. These services can also arrange visits to homes in many nearby small towns and villages.

For tourists with special interests or hobbies, the reservation services will do their best to find compatible hosts.

My friends and I first stayed with a local host in Alaska's capital city, Juneau, after a week of kayaking in nearby Glacier Bay. I was surprised and delighted upon arriving at our suburban destination to find a kayak lying across the front lawn. As it turned out, Shirley Campbell, our hostess, is an avid kayaker, and we enjoyed an immediate rapport as we traded kayaking stories.

Next on our itinerary were a few days in Anchorage, the state's largest city. I was looking forward to exploring the downtown area in search of Eskimo ivory carvings.

Once again my B&B host proved indispensable: Don Davisson manages the shop at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Because he personally selects the art works sold at the museum's shop, he knows many of the best local carvers and where their work is displayed.

Besides his store, Mr. Davisson recommended that I visit the Alaska Native Arts & Crafts Association (ANAC), a unique nonprofit cooperative owned and directed by native craftspeople. Many of the items sold there are found nowhere else in town. Items such as whalebone carvings and masks are in stock because only ANAC deals directly with artisans in several remote Alaskan villages. As soon as I walked into ANAC's gallery, I knew I had stumbled upon a real find.

Mr. Davisson and his wife, Julie Garfield, moved to Alaska from northern California about 11 years ago. They have been hosting B&B guests for about two years in their cozy, remodeled Victorian home. Their relaxed, warm style made me feel at home right away.

I had the chance to speak with another interesting Anchorage B&B host couple while I was in town. Pat and Frank Jasper's 45-year-old homestead is located about five mintues from the airport. With their six children and 18 grandchildren, they're used to visitors. About four years ago they began accepting guests and can entertain up to nine at a time.

When Mrs. Jasper isn't fixing breakfast or doing other household chores, she's often busy repairing dolls. For the past six years, she has run an antique doll business, most recently from a log cabin behind the main house. Although she admits she never played with dolls as a child, Mrs. Jasper enjoys learning and sharing the history behind each doll in her collection.

Hotels have their place, I suppose. But you'll never catch me at a reservations desk in a town where good B&Bs offer an alternative.

Too many doors were opened by my Alaskan hosts, and too many new friends made. Practical information B&B reservation services in Alaska:

Juneau: Alaska Bed and Breakfast Association, 526 Seward Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801; (907) 586-2959. They also handle homes in Gustavus, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Angoon, Elfin Cove, Pelican, Haines, and Petersburg.

Anchorage: Alaska Private Lodgings, PO Box 110135, Anchorage, Alaska 99511; (907) 345-2222. Homes on Kenai Peninsula or in Talkeetna (enroute to Denali National Park) can also be reserved.

Fairbanks: Fairbanks Bed and Breakfast, PO Box 74573, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707; (907) 452-4967.

Ketchikan: Ketchikan Bed and Breakfast, 525 Front Street, PO Box 7735, Ketchikan, Alaska 99901; (907) 225-3860.

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