Homer, "the end of the road," is located about 200 miles from Anchorage on the gorgeous Kenai Peninsula. The town's modern roots date to the 1890s, when con man Homer Pennock attempted to lure others with promises of gold. Homer saw brief success as a coal mining town but was eventually abandoned, due to lack of demand. By 1920, 46 people lived in an area designated as Homer Spit and Vicinity, but it wasn't until the 1940s that it took on the makings of a bona fide town with an airport and general store. These days, more than 5,000 people call the "cosmic hamlet" home, and it is often considered one of Alaska's jewels.
On a clear day, Homer is straight out of a postcard, and from several vantage points, visitors might be able to see all five active volcanoes known as the "ring of fire." The Spit, a geological landform that stretches five miles into Kachemak Bay, has always been a place for travelers and drifters and is now home to campsites, tourism shops, bars and restaurants. Two theories exist for how the Spit was formed: tidal swells or receding glaciers. Either way, it is one of Homer's claims to fame -- that and halibut fishing.
The Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby began in the summer of 1986, and since then, the city has been declared the "halibut capital of the world." The annual derby takes place in the summer, and on any given day, fishermen can be seen cleaning and preparing the fresh catch at the Spit. The mild-tasting fish can also be found gracing the menus of seafood restaurants.
Homer has developed into an unpretentious foodie destination, and you'll find outstanding dining options with a wide range of cuisine -- many with local and organic products. The sustainability movement is established in the dining scene in Homer, but it has also found a place in tourism attractions and eco-adventures. Visitors can easily experience the natural beauty and wildlife of the area by kayaking, hiking and on boat trips to Alaska's first state park.
Cruise ships share the terminal at the Deep Water Dock on Freight Dock Road with the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. Cruises drop off passengers at the Spit, but you have to walk around the harbor to reach the main area where the shops and attractions begin (about a mile and a half). A shuttle that connects cruise ship passengers from the dock to the "main hub" of the Spit if they opt not to walk.
The ship terminal is really just an enclosed pavilion where buses and taxis pick up passengers: there's not much to it besides restrooms, and the harbor does not provide Wi-Fi service. Volunteers from the Homer Chamber of Commerce distribute the Homer Visitor Guide to passengers disembarking at Ramp 4, and there's plenty to see on the Spit if you don't want to wander too far. The rest of the town is about five miles away, and from there, the outlying areas offer impressive views of the harbor.
Hikers should use proper precautions: It is bear country. Tell someone where you are going, bring bear spray, and try not to startle them (singing as you go around hidden curves is an excellent idea).
There is no public transportation system in Homer, so to venture past the gift shops and restaurants on the Spit, you need to book a tour or other form of transportation.
By Trolley: The Homer Trolley operates seasonally from mid-June through mid-August from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Day passes are $12 for adults, $10 for children. It is a hop-on, hop-off service and stops at a number of key locations like the Pratt Museum, Land's End Resort and the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
By Water Taxi: Several water taxi companies whisk passengers to remote beaches for tide pooling and relaxation around stops in Kachemak Bay State Park. The water taxis are an experience of their own; there is an excellent chance of seeing otters, harbor porpoises and even whales along the way. Popular stops include Gull Island, home to thousands of seabirds, picturesque Sadie Cove (keep an eye out for goats and black bears) and kayak beach, a jumping-off point for hiking and kayak adventures (try Mako's Water Taxi, 907-235-9055).
By Taxi: Cab companies offer 24-hour service. Try Kache Cab (907-235-1950) or Kostas Taxi and Limousine (907-399-8008).
By Rental Car: The two big players in town are Adventure Alaska Car Rental (1368 Ocean Drive; 907-235-4022) and Pioneer Car Rentals (3720 FAA Road; 907-235-0734).
Believe it or not, Homer is still in America (it can seem worlds away), so U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Passengers may have difficulty finding places to exchange Canadian dollars, so if the ship visits Vancouver or other Canadian ports before arriving in Alaska, it's best to spend the currency in Canada. ATMs can be found on Homer Spit Road between Ramp 1 and Ramp 3. Smaller shops and restaurants might not accept credit cards.
English is predominant, but Alaskans use a number of terms unique to the state, some of which are lighthearted and humorous sayings and others that are practical. Alaskan lingo includes terms like snow machines (snowmobiles), cache (elevated storage cabins), the bush (area inaccessible by roads) and cheechako (a newcomer).
It's no surprise that halibut is the star of the restaurant menus in town, and you can get it fried, baked, on a sandwich, served in tacos or chargrilled -- to name a few preparations. Homer's culinary scene doesn't stop there, and visitors can find outstanding bakeries, Thai restaurants and new American fare. In short: You're likely to find an impressive meal in Homer.
The Little Mermaid: Although it's a newer addition to the Spit, The Little Mermaid has quickly become a local favorite because of its outstanding seafood and brick-oven pizza. The atmosphere is that of a cozy cafe, but the restaurant is usually packed at lunchtime. Menu items range from salmon burgers and fish and chips to rice bowls and hearty fish chowder. (4246 Homer Spit Road; 907-399-9900; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday)
Fritz Creek General Store: This old-fashioned institution features wood floors and serves as a post office, liquor store and deli -- with freshly baked bread, sandwiches and smoked barbecue ribs. (55770 East End Road; 907-235-6753; open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, deli usually closes about two hours before the store)
Captain Pattie's Fish House: This popular seafood joint has become a landmark for perfectly prepared fresh catches. For lunch, expect salmon sandwiches, Alaskan king crab, deep fried halibut and crab melts. (4241 Homer Spit Road; 907-235-5135; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.).
Maura's Cafe: For a twist on traditional salads and sandwiches, Maura's steps it up with items like Thai shrimp salad with pickled red cabbage cashews or "The Vermonter," a ham sandwich with caramelized onions, organic apples and white cheddar. There's an emphasis on local and sustainable products, and Bishop's Beach is just a few blocks away. (106 W. Bunnell Avenue; 907-235-1555; open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday)
The Chart Room: The main reason to visit this restaurant is the view. Located at the Land's End Resort at the very end of the Spit, it is easy to let time pass while relaxing outside on the patio or in the window-lined dining room. The lunch menu includes items like Alaskan bouillabaisse, Buffalo chicken sandwiches, steamer clams and barbecue ribs. (4786 Homer Spit Road; 907-235-0400; open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Two Sisters Bakery: This world-famous bakery serves sweet and savory treats like cinnamon rolls, scones, vegan muffins, brownies, quiche and focaccia sandwiches. The freshly baked bread selection changes daily, and everything is made from scratch. (233 East Bunnell Avenue; 907-235-2280; open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
Handmade artwork from one of Homer's galleries and a jar of delicious wild berry jam make excellent gifts.
Alaska is home to incredible breweries, so save the pina colada orders for the Caribbean and grab a quality pint. The Alaskan Brewing Company is one of the larger breweries, or if you really want to go local, the Homer Brewing Company has everything from pale ales to porters.