northern exposure

United's impressive new jet makes cooling off in Alaska a breeze from Houston

United's new jet makes cooling off in Alaska a breeze from Houston

Ken Hoffman travel Alaska United new jet Boeing 737 Max
That pleasant aroma? It's called "Landing."  Courtesy photo

United Airlines recently debuted its latest jetliner, the Boeing 737 Max on its Houston to Anchorage, Alaska route, and invited a few media superstars to hitchhike along. This new plane can fly 19-percent farther on 14-percent less fuel, spits out less CO2 emissions, and is quieter than the Boeing 757s that United used to fly to Alaska. The Boeing 737 Max carries 179 passengers: 20 in first class, 48 in economy plus and 111 in economy.

I wanted to be aboard this maiden voyage, for a few reasons. One: I like being first. I once waited all night wrapped in a blanket on a lawn chair to be first to buy a Krispy Kreme doughnut in Houston. I also bought the first ticket to ride Houston METRO’s downtown train.

Two: More importantly, I had never been to Anchorage. I enjoy traveling, especially to new places.

And three...true story: In 1995, I was working at the Houston Post when it suddenly, without warning, folded. Shut down for good. I don’t like to brag, but it was the biggest newspaper in America to close. (I like to think I was a big part of why.)

The post-Post life
Like most Post Toasties, I wanted to stay in newspapers and I wanted to stay in Houston. While the Houston Chronicle yanked me around, making me interview — I’m not kidding — four separate times, I sent my clips and resumes to other newspapers in Texas and the southeast. I was raised in New Jersey and my first newspaper job was in Michigan. I never want to shiver or step in ice puddles again.

The Houston Post was a big newspaper, and I was one of its main columnists, so surely another paper would want to pick me up. But one by one, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Miami, all wrote back: Sorry, we don’t have an opening for a columnist. I was genuinely worried that I might never work for a newspaper again. Columnist jobs aren’t so easy to come by, especially with newspapers shrinking and cutting budgets.

Then an envelop arrived from the Anchorage Daily News. Huh? What do they want? “Dear Ken, thank you for your interest in our newspaper, but we don’t have a suitable opening. But we will keep your clips on file in case something becomes available.” Seriously? I had never applied to the Anchorage newspaper, never sent my clips there, had no interest in relocating my life to Alaska. And they’re still rejecting me? Things weren’t bleak enough?

On to Alaska
United Flight 1291 left Houston at 2:20 pm. The plane was spotless, with bigger overhead compartments, and not a smudge on the walls, not a Coke stain on the carpeting. It had the feel of sitting your butt in a showroom car. In fact, several passengers wisecracked, “Ooh, this plane has that new car smell.”

(How about instead of cracking jokes, you stop jamming the aisle with your Captain Obvious comment and sit down so we can leave on time?)

United’s shiny new plane did not have that new car smell. In fact, the airline has its own signature scent called “Landing,” that fills its planes and executive lounges. A United official describes “Landing” as an “herbal spa-like smell.” There are hints of orange peel, bergamot, cypress, sandalwood and leather. 

They should bottle “Landing” and sell it at the Chanel  counter at Macy’s.

Man: “You smell so sexy. What’s that your wearing?”
Woman: “I’m so glad you like it. It’s United Airlines.”

While waiting to board the plane, I got into a discussion with a United official also headed to Anchorage. I explained to the official that I changed my seat assignment from a window to an aisle. The official said, “Why? A window seat is much better. You can curl up and go to sleep.”

Really? It so happened that several United pilots and executives were standing near the gate. We took a poll. Those in favor of a window seat: just the one. Those preferring an aisle seat: everybody else.

We boarded through an archway of blue and white balloons, took off on time, and landed on time, 7 hours and 20 minutes later. Anchorage is 3,200 miles and three time zones from Houston.

It’s almost the summer solstice. Mid-June stays light until 11:30 pm and the dawn is breaking, it’s early morn at 5 am. (Thank you John Denver.)

Bright lights, big-city Anchorage
I went to an Alaska Baseball League game between the Anchorage Glacier Pilots and the visiting Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks at Mulcahy Stadium. The Alaska Baseball League has five teams comprised of college players with pro dreams. An Alvin Community College freshman named J.C. Correa plays second base for the Anchorage Bucs. He’s the brother of Houston Astros superstar Carlos Correa.

J.C. Correa is tearing up the league with a .368 batting average. I don’t need Charlie Pallilo to tell me that’s pretty, pretty good. (Correa has been drafted by the Houston Astros.) The Glacier Pilots vs. Chinooks game started at 7:30 p.m. and lasted three hours. They didn’t need to turn on the lights.

I took the Anchorage sightseeing trolley, $20 for a one-hour lap around the city. In 1964, an earthquake tore Anchorage apart. It registered 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the most devastating quake ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. At the trolley stop in Earthquake Park, the guide jumped out and ran down a steep hill to show how far houses were swallowed into the Earth. He ran so far, we lost sight of him. He huffed and puffed back up the hill, “I’m getting too old for this tour,” he joked.

Bearing with the moose
There are moose crossing signs along most highways in Anchorage. The guide said 300 Alaskans are killed each year in moose-related incidents. One day, two United reps and I took a hike along the Iditarod Historic Trail. A park official warned us, if you see a moose, turn and run, they’re ornery and dangerous. If you see a bear, however, just be cool and walk away. Bears want no part of you, either.

Halfway through our walk, other hikers told us, “we saw a bear about 100 yards up the path.” One of the United reps, excited to see a bear in the woods, took off running to see it. I said, I think that’s not what we’re supposed to do. (This was the same rep who likes the window seat on plane, so I wasn’t surprised.)

If you go hiking, wear long pants and sleeves. Alaska mosquitos are huge, as big as Texas roaches. The joke is, the state bird of Alaska is the mosquito. A swarm of Alaskan mosquitos can bring down a caribou. Alaska’s real state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan. The state flower in the Forget-Me-Not.

The annual Iditarod dog sledding race begins in downtown Anchorage. There’s a museum all about it. I didn’t stop in. I’m against this event. I agree with sports host Jim Rome. They should call it the “I-killed-a-dog race.” It’s not a sport if dogs die during it.

Chillin' out in summer
High temperatures this time of year in Anchorage are in the low 60s. Man, that felt good. The cold water faucet in my hotel shower was like an ice dispenser. I wore a sweatshirt and jacket even during the day. Meanwhile the locals were walking around in T-shirts, shorts and flipflops.

Alaska gets cheated on a lot of U.S. maps. It looks smaller than it really is to fit space in the upper left corner. Alaska actually is nearly three times the size of Texas. Alaska license plates say “The Last Frontier” and they’ve got a point. Only 700,000 people live in Alaska, about half of them in Anchorage.

Considering the city’s robust population, downtown Anchorage is small and quaint. It’s really a mile-long food court with hotels and souvenir shops. No fast food chains. You can’t get lost, numbered avenues go east-west, lettered streets go north-south.

A cutting-edge trip
I got a haircut at the 4th Avenue Barber Shop — “Established in 1943.” On the wall, there’s a poster with photos of “Haircuts of Today,” with every head the barber’s had the pleasure to know (thanks, Paul McCartney). I think the poster was from when the shop opened. The barber asked me to point to one I liked.

I said, “just take about a half-inch off,” and I never took my eyes off the mirror. I didn’t want to come out of there with the “short brush” from the second row. 

Went to dinner first night at Moose’s Tooth pizzeria. It’s rated the No. 1 restaurant in Anchorage, and it’s enormous, three floors, and packed with a long waiting list. I usually don’t wait at a restaurant, but this was worth it. Our large mushroom pie was all caps l-a-r-g-e. Wow, and really good. And very expensive at $26.

Prices are high in Alaska. Food is especially expensive because most items are hauled long distances by trucks. Gas is $3.35 for regular unleaded. But to ease the pain, there is no state income tax and no sales tax in Alaska.

Magnificent food
Next night at the 49th State Brewery, I had the “Mt. Magnificent Burger” with a half-pound patty, applewood-smoked pepper bacon, mashed potatoes, aged Cheddar, fried onions, and pickles with “baked blonde bbq sauce.” Pricey, too: $16.

Lines are long outside the Wild Scoops ice cream shop. I bought a double dip cone of chocolate with flourless brownie chunks and chocolate fudge shards for $7. Again, worth the wait.

Prices calm down once you get outside Anchorage. One guide said a house that costs $450,000 in Anchorage can be had for $200,000 in Wasilla, about 40 minutes north of Anchorage. Don’t get run over by your neighbor on a snowmobile.

What would Santa say!?
Reindeer hot dog carts are on many street corners in downtown Anchorage. I saw “Reindeer and fried rice” at a stand at the Saturday flea market. They even sold reindeer hot dogs at the baseball stadium and my cruise to go glacier-watching in Prince William Sound.

I’m not eating Rudolph. Or Donner or Cupid or Blitzen or any reindeer, period.  I want my Christmas gifts to arrive on time, too.