HOMER, Alaska -- The standard explanation for California's offbeat nature is that all the free spirits drifted west until they could go no farther. Well, much the same rationale could apply to the Alaska town of Homer, only here the syndrome concentrated in a single community.
This is the western extremity of the paved roadway system in the continental United States -- way out here in the shadow of longitude 155 degrees west. Homer lies literally at the end of the road, where the Sterling Highway peters out at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
And it is a true anomaly. There are an awful lot of nondescript, unsophisticated towns in Alaska, many of which string out along the highways; you're never quite sure when you're in the heart of them, or when you're through them, but you never feel as if you've missed much.
Homer, by contrast, has a distinct and vibrant nature, with art galleries, imaginative dining and the impressive Pratt Museum, along with breathtaking scenery across Kachemak Bay to the jagged peaks and creamy glaciers of the Kenai Mountains.
It's evident right away that while tourism is strong here, the businesses don't exist primarily for the visitors.
Although the Fritz Creek General Store is a log cabin with sun-bleached moose antlers displayed above the door -- the very thing that causes Alaska tourists to scramble for their cameras -- inside it's clearly a community gathering spot, where you can mail a letter at the post office,
Similarly, at the famous Salty Dawg Saloon out on the Homer Spit, the clientele is predominantly local -- fishermen just off the boat, in rubber boots and baseball caps. Embodying the spirit of similar watering holes peppered across the Alaska frontier, this is a low-ceiling, dark, cramped tavern, choked with cigarette smoke and festooned with dollar bills pinned to every square inch of wall and ceiling. Tourists venture in here, but usually only long enough to buy a sweatshirt commemorating the event.
Much of Homer's appeal can be attributed to the fact that it is not a cruise port. Yet. The vast majority of Alaska's visitors these days arrive by cruise ship, and the port towns -- particularly in the southeastern panhandle -- are swamped with shore-trippers daily in the summer, which has spawned businesses that cater primarily to them.
The prospect of welcoming cruise ships to Homer "has been talked about from time to time, even at the city council level," said Tina Day, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, "but there's always an uproar, because people don't want that here. There is economic benefit, but it really changes the character of a town."
Instead, Homer attracts independent travelers and weekenders from Anchorage -- at 220 miles from the city, it is akin to a Central Coast escape for Los Angelenos. It also stays open year-round, owing to relatively mild weather and snowfall -- at least for Alaska.
It's a young town. The historic buildings date only to the 1930s, while the Fritz Creek General Store and the Salty Dawg were built in the '50s -- when the Sterling Highway down the peninsula was completed.
Soon after, a fellow named Brother Asaiah Bates arrived, heading a group called the Wisdom, Kindness, Faith and Love Fountain of the World. Locals just referred to them as the Barefooters, for obvious reasons. Bates felt there was some kind of cosmic convergence here at the end of the road, and the seeds of Homer's personality began to germinate. Hippies followed in the '60s, camping out on the beaches of the Spit. Artists came next.
"I think it just kind of attracts alternative people," said the owner of the Ptarmigan Arts Gallery, who goes by the name of Jewels. "They are people who enjoy and are inspired by the beautiful surroundings and want to put the beauty back into their art or food (preparation). It just seems like it's always attracted artsy old hippies who want to live off-grid."
To revel in Homer's Bohemian spirit, you have to get off the Spit, a long, narrow, natural finger of land that projects into Kachemak Bay.
It caters unapologetically to visitors, with businesses perched high on pilings (the tide changes here are often measured in feet), and a glaring assault of signs hawking fish and chips, hoodies, half-day halibut boats, fudge, and gifts, gifts, gifts. There are RV jungles and tent encampments on the western beach, a wooden-boat graveyard on the eastern side. It's not unusual to encounter a local in town who says he hasn't been down there in months.
The town's real treasures lie farther inland.
Jewels' Ptarmigan gallery is a co-op of mostly local artists, and the media is all over the place -- pottery, painting, sculpture, jewelry, beadwork, masks, dolls. We carted home an expression of Homer's coast: a hanging piece made of fishing line, driftwood, colorful beach glass, gull feathers and a Japanese glass fishing ball in a net.
Another must-see is the nonprofit Bunnell Street Gallery, housed in a 1937 building of Douglas fir and cedar clapboard in Homer's historic district. It was once a general mercantile store, a hardware store and a boarding house -- all at the same time.
"We like to showcase mostly local artists, and certainly Alaska artists, with more of a contemporary style," said gallery manager Dana Roberts. A central exhibition space changes monthly.
Just up the street is the Old Inlet Bookshop, whose shelves are crammed from floor to ceiling with a wondrous selection of used paperbacks.
The Pratt Museum, meanwhile, delves into a little bit of everything -- native Alaskan arts and crafts, plus natural sciences and history.
At a marine tank, we watched a giant Alaskan crab being fed. In the basement, a "bear cam" was trained on a spot in the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary across Cook Inlet. Five brown bears (grizzlies in the lower 48) were in the camera shot at one time, wading about in the waters -- but, alas, not swatting any salmon out of the current.
Another exhibit addressed the Exxon Valdez tanker going aground on a reef in Prince William Sound in 1989. Visitors can don headphones and listen to Capt. Joseph Hazelwood's radio call to the Coast Guard. "Evidently we're leaking some oil," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. A colossal understatement. The ship spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude into the sound, the result of an unqualified seaman being at the helm (Hazelwood had been drinking in port).
Homer's topography rises to a tall bench just a short distance from the shore, and atop it, Skyline Drive provides some exceptional views across the waters. Kachemak Bay is renowned for its wealth of halibut -- 142 different charter operations stand ready to take you out to fish for it, according to Day of the Chamber of Commerce.
We were keen to sink a fork into some of that, but the Homestead Restaurant, at the east end of town, steered us to something else. First, it was an appetizer of side-stripe wild shrimp from Prince William Sound, which cooks up pink and delicious. Then our waitress enthused about local scallops, which are only available three weeks of the year in these waters. We enjoyed them in a simple grilled preparation.
The Homestead is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Alaska, transformed into a foodie mecca by Steve and Lisa Nolan in the early '90s. Rick and Sharlene Cline have been running it the last few years. The menu offers up local oysters, king crab, salmon, ling cod, clams and of course halibut, and the wine list prices are ridiculously low -- a bottle of Drylands Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, superb with the shrimp and scallops, was just $27.
Another favorite dining spot was the casual Two Sisters Bakery, which clearly has the busiest ovens in town. For breakfast, along with rich gourmet coffee, choose from among ham-and-cheese "savories," quiches with Canadian bacon and broccoli, Danish spirals and a wealth of other sweet treats. The posted "bread schedule" makes you wish you lived here, so as to snag a loaf of sunflower-oat on Wednesday or potato-and-lavender wheat on Saturday.
We were disappointed that another popular eatery, Cafe Cups, was closed because of an equipment breakdown, but we did enjoy lunch at Finn's on the Spit -- one of the few worthwhile places in the tourist zone. Elaborate pizzas are served with drafts of Homer microbrew, and the sun room upstairs overlooks the bay.
The Spit's finest view, however, is at the aptly named Land's End Resort. It's at the very tip of the Spit, and we delighted in two nights here. Lapping waves and cool breezes lulled us to sleep each night, and we routinely spotted sea otters floating on their backs, an occasional seal breaking the surface, and plovers prancing along the water's edge.
The gray-pebble shore provided good beachcombing at low tide: colorful seashells intertwined with kelp strands, and crab claws, butter clam shells and broken mussels discarded by the otters.
When the clouds lift a bit, the wooden deck of Land's End provides a unique perspective. Relax here with a local beer (don't bother with the food) and gaze across Kachemak Bay to the glacier-studded summits of the Kenai Mountains. An occasional sailboat will glide by. And, if you're really lucky, a pod of whales.
No wonder so many, arriving here at the end of this road, decided that they need travel no farther.
IF YOU GO
Most of Homer's businesses stay open year-round, but the days and hours of operation often change with the seasons. Homer has an average high of 60 degrees in July and August, an average low of 16 degrees in January. Chamber of Commerce: www.homeralaska.org, (907) 235-7740
BUNNELL STREET GALLERY: 106 W. Bunnell Ave. www.bunnellstreetgallery.org; (907) 235-2662.
CAFE CUPS: 162 W. Pioneer Ave. (907) 235-8330.
FINN'S: Cannery Row Boardwalk, Homer Spit. (907) 235-2878.
FRITZ CREEK GENERAL STORE: Mile 8.2, East End Road. (907) 235-6783.
HOMESTEAD RESTAURANT: Mile 8.2 East End Road. (907) 235-8723. www.homesteadrestaurant.net.
LAND'S END RESORT: 4786 Homer Spit Road. Bayside rooms from $150 per night in summer. www.lands-end-resort.com. (800) 478-0400.
OLD INLET BOOKSHOP: 3487 Main St. (907) 235-7984.
PRATT MUSEUM: 3779 Bartlett St. www.prattmuseum.org. (907) 235-8635.
PTARMIGAN ARTS GALLERY: 471 Pioneer Ave. (907) 235-5345.
SALTY DAWG SALOON: 4380 Homer Spit Road. (907) 235-6718. www.saltydawgsaloon.com.
TWO SISTERS BAKERY: 233 E. Bunnell Ave. (907) 235-2280.