Sunday, April 1, 2012

Girls Gone Local

During the first weekend of spring, the smell of lavender seeped into the air around me and heat soaked into my skin.  Yet, I was not in Minnesota or South Dakota where unseasonably warm temperatures were making the news and setting the stage for a Midwestern drought.  Instead, I was in Anchorage, Alaska happily undergoing my first spa treatment, the Sea Holistic, and heading toward the re-balancing and relaxation Allure Day Spa’s brochure promised.  Somewhere down the hall, my mother and my sister, Saree, were also being tended by massage therapists and estheticians.  I had joined my mom and sister for a weekend in the city and Saree, who hadn’t been out of Alaska since last fall, was fondly calling this our “staycation”.  It was only Friday, but we were off to an excellent start at Allure.  For fifty luxurious minutes the three of us lay on heated beds, suspended from Anchorage’s muddy breakup outdoors, getting stretched, massaged, exfoliated, and wrapped with cocoa butter, sea salt and oil, minerals, and mango and shea butters.  By the time we were released back out onto the streets of Anchorage, we all believed Allure’s claim that it was about the “experience” and not merely about making an “appointment”.

The idea for our weekend originated last October when Saree and I were trying to settle on an appropriate and effective motivation for staying fit through the dark and cold days of Alaska’s winter.  We eventually decided to book a room at the Hotel Captain Cook for a weekend, schedule spa treatments, and take in a concert.  The rest, we determined, would fall into place.  Mom agreed to join us and we had our girls' weekend set.

Captain Cook lobby
The Hotel Captain Cook, our base of operation, is a top tier hotel towering over downtown Anchorage.  The floors, even in the hallways, are covered in hardwood and the walls are adorned with woven blankets, dramatic paintings, and other Alaskan artwork.  Whereas the Hilton and Sheraton also offer fine lodging, the Captain Cook trots out character with its luxe surroundings.  In the summer, rooms are filled months in advance and rates are high.  During the winter, however, the Captain Cook offers great weekend deals with extras attached.  Saree booked us the 14th floor executive suite which consisted of two bedrooms and a shared corner living room with bar.  The views from the cushy sofa swept over Cook Inlet, the Sleeping Lady, the Chugach Mountains, and the Port of Anchorage.  In addition, our package included breakfast and evening hors d’oeuvres in the exclusive Captain’s Deck lounge on the 17th floor (you need a special golden key for the elevator to get there), free parking (which can run $30/day otherwise), and access to the hotel’s health club. 

After our Allure spa treatments, we checked into the hotel and later, our guests for the evening, my brother-in-law, Ted, and my dad, joined us for a light supper at the Captain’s Deck Lounge followed by a concert. 

“Down the hall, through the door, and turn right,” the smiling black-pants and white-shirt clad usher directed.  We found our seats near the stage and settled in for a fantastically energetic concert performed by Grand Dérangement, a youthful fivesome that delivered powerful sets of blues-, rock-, and folk-inspired Acadian music via acoustic and electric guitars, box drums, bass, vocals, and wildly rapid step-dancing.  At intermission, all of us had to catch our breath from the infectious vigor of the musicians and dancers.  The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, or PAC as it’s commonly called, is a downtown gem.  The facility, built during Alaska’s oil boom years, abuts the sidewalks of 5th and 6th Avenues and its decorative concrete walls reach to the sky.  An urban park fills the remainder of the block where ice sculptures stand amidst hillocks of snow and spindly trees are wrapped in sparkly blue and white lights.  The PAC is home to four theaters and every week is filled with performances ranging from Broadway productions, opera, and symphony to soloists, folk music, and dance.  If you can name it, you’re likely to find it scheduled at the PAC.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed out on a mission to discover new places – not easy when you consider that Saree has lived in the city for twenty years, Mom for over five years, and I’ve been in-and-out of town for the past seventeen years.  Among the three of us, we felt that there weren’t many shops, restaurants, or bakeries that at least one of us hadn’t visited.  But, with a little pre-weekend on-line research, we had created a list of 33 potential destinations that looked interesting, locally owned, and in some cases, new to us all.

Our first stop was Two Fish Gallery, a tiny historical house with two glass cases packed with beautiful handmade silver and gem-stone jewelry.  Two Fish products regularly show up at summer fairs and markets, but the visit to the quiet shop where the jewelry is fashioned was a different, less rushed experience than the bustling hubbub of, say, the Saturday Market.  Before leaving downtown, we swung by Skinny Raven, Anchorage’s premier running store.  While I tried on a pair of mid-sole striking Newton running shoes (white with pink accents), Mom and Saree evaluated the stylish Ibex layering systems on sale in the front of the store.  We all admired the Dansko shoes and Merrell boots as we wandered out. 

While we headed west on Northern Lights Boulevard, Anchorage’s breakup began in earnest.  Heaps of snow melted out, giving birth to roadway rivers throughout the city’s Midtown district.  Mom piped up from the backseat of Saree’s Subaru, commenting on the gray and brown rainbow of mud spray as we drove through a particularly deep trough, then, she backtracked quickly saying, “Now, that was not a complaint!”  After the near record-setting snowfalls of this past winter and the bone-chilling March mornings of late, all three of us in the car were thrilled to feel the above-freezing temperatures and see evidence that spring was coming—even in the form of this messy slush.
Saree purchases fair trade
products at local-owned

We stopped at REI, a required destination for any visit to the city, then walked three doors down to locally-owned Grassroots, a fair trade store selling wares made in developing nations.  We browsed the displays of soapstone Easter eggs, wooly children’s clothes, pottery, colorful metal and paper jewelry, woven scarves, and furniture crafted from recovered hardwoods while the cashier chatted up a customer about his volunteer work.  Saree purchased a pair of modern angular earrings with a coordinated necklace and a bar of fair trade dark chocolate, then we made tracks to our next destination:  lunch.

Settling into a table for three, we felt at home in the bright, big-windowed Sweet Basil Café, located in a remodeled Mexican-food chain restaurant.  What a find!  The café owners base their lunches on homemade pastas, including a delicious spinach-lemon fettuccini, fresh salads, and sandwiches. Both their standard menu and the specials are enticing.  We couldn’t resist buying smoked sea salt and we took away truffles and lemon bars to enjoy later.

Saree’s co-worker had recommended that we explore the Clothesline, a supposedly high end consignment shop.  We took the suggestion and, after parking in the back of a strip mall (opposite the tattoo parlor), we launched ourselves into the pleasing two-level used clothes smorgasbord.  Though we agreed “high end” might be a bit of an overstatement, we did find cute, fashionable pieces including shoes, jewelry, sweaters, and dresses (there are also kid’s clothes).  One member of our party even became inspired to consign some of her own back-of-the-closet clothing after the weekend and sold one item within the first day.

Ready to move on, we headed over to next-door-neighbors Sugar Spoon (selling t-shirts printed with the slogan “Legalized Frostitution in Spenard”) and Bella Boutique.  Here, we picked up more desserts (pumpkin flan with carrot puree, coconut raspberry cake, raspberry bars) then admired jewelry, notecards, and gifts.

Habitat house wares
The line-up of the Quilt Tree and Yarn Branch, Portfolio (professional clothing), and women’s athletic and outer wear retailer Sport Shop (beware their return policy!) were exhilarating, but our shopping muscles were exhausted, so we set off for our grand finale at the University Center, home of Habitat Housewares and the Natural Pantry grocery store.  Habitat is an Anchorage foodie institution with top-of-the-line kitchen appliances and implements.  I succumbed and bought expensive knives while Mom and Saree egged me on.  At last, we were ready to gather dinner supplies for a planned hotel-room potluck.  At the Natural Pantry, we loaded our cart with spinach quiche and roasted vegetables from the deli, dried apricots and figs from bulk foods, three kinds of organic chips (sweet potato, corn, and rosemary), salsa, pickled asparagus, fizzy pomegranate soda, grapefruit, and bananas.  Bone tired from shopping, we heard the Captain Cook, with its cozy terry bathrobes hanging in the closets, calling us back to the Inlet.  We heeded the call.

Natural foods potluck
in the room
Our weekend came to a close the next day, on a drop-dead gorgeous Alaska morning.  Over coffee, we watched the tide carry ice floes lazily out of the port and Denali’s summit peered at us from the far north horizon.  Fourteen stories below, Anchorage was just beginning to stir—a few people walked along the sidewalks, breath steaming in the chilly morning air, and a handful of cars motored by.  Lounging in our room for the last couple of hours of our girls’ weekend, Mom, Saree, and I compared notes on our favorite places.  All of us had been surprised and charmed by the wide range and high quality of the Alaska-owned enterprises we’d visited over the past two days.  From the hotel we stayed in, the spa where we were pampered, to the concert we enjoyed, the cafes and bakeries at which we indulged, and to the stores where we shopped, we’d found creativity, variety, unique products, good prices, and excellent customer service.  These places had provided an ideal backdrop for the time we’d spent together, savoring the company of mother, daughters, sister.

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