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Best of the Best From Anchorage to Fairbanks : Along the 360-mile George Parks Highway, cyclists find the finest in local color, lodging and meals.

August 01, 1993|JERRY GRISWOLD | Jerry Griswold is the author of " Audacious Kids " and teaches at San Diego State University

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The George Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks is the most traveled route in Alaska, and you can easily drive those 360 miles in a day. But why would you want to? Take a week or more. Get to know the place.

At the start of this summer, three friends and I explored this part of Alaska in a kind of microscopic fashion by bicycle, peddling north from Anchorage to Fairbanks in a week. Among us was an Alaskan native who often travels this route by more conventional means, and even for her this slowed-down journey was an eye-opening experience.

The leisurely pace of our trip not only gave us--two men and two women--a chance to study this route in detail, but to argue about what was good, bad and mediocre about the hotels, restaurants and points of interest along the way. From this unofficial, random survey emerged our "List of Bests" for others who travel to Alaska and find themselves on the Parks Highway. (The mileposts cited below mark the exact mileage north from Anchorage.)

* Best Local Character: Mary Carey. If you stay overnight at Mary's McKinley View Lodge (milepost 134; 907-733-1555) or stop for a meal, you're likely to run into Mary Carey in the gift shop where some of the 14 books she's written, including "A-Lass-Kan Adventure" and "Bank Robbers Wrote My Diary," are for sale. Mary is the real thing, a grizzled old-timer with experience in the Alaskan wilderness. Over a cup of coffee, ask her about her days as sidekick to the famous bush pilot Don Sheldon, her exploits on Mt. McKinley, her recipes for fiddlehead ferns, and the day she caught a thief in the gift shop (describing the event, a local journalist meant to use the word subdued but instead wrote that "Mary Carey seduced the thief until the police arrived").

* Best Gallery: Willow Wildlife Gallery. A few years ago, Dave Totten retired and moved from Southern California. He has since become a well-known, prize-winning wildlife artist. If he's not in his gallery (milepost 85.5; 907-495- 1090), you can sometimes find him and his work a few miles up the way at Sheep Creek Lodge (milepost 88.2, 907-495-6227)-- where you should stop, in any event, to look at the unique all-log bar, known as the Log Mahal.

* Best Gift Shop: Tatlanika Trading Company. There are a dozen gift shops between Anchorage and Fairbanks, full of all kinds of gee gaws, trinkets and multicolored ashtrays. But this place is special because it is partly a museum featuring an impressive collection of work by Alaskan natives. Alongside the Nenana River (milepost 276; 907-582-2341), it's also a good place to picnic.

* Best Breakfast: The Perch. Without question, order the blueberry sour cream coffee cake. Look for signs and follow a dirt road about one mile to a low promontory with a great view (milepost 224; 907-683-2523).

* Best Lunch: Chulitna River Lodge. There was some debate about this because one individual in the group insisted the steak sandwiches served at the bar farther north at the Clear Sky Lodge (milepost 280; 907-582-2251) made the best lunch. However, the majority favored the corn bread and homemade soup at Chulitna (milepost 156; 907-733-2521). Besides, the place is interesting. Ask the chef why he carries a handgun in a holster under his armpit.

* Best Dinner: Overlook Inn. Perched on a hill overlooking a ring of mountains in the Denali National Park area, the Overlook (milepost 238.5; 907-683-2641) has a bar stocking 52 kinds of beer and specializes in upscale cuisine. The salmon en papillote ($19.95) was extraordinary. It's the place to stop for dinner on any night of the week unless it's Wednesday and you're near Fairbanks. The great local secret is the all-you-can-eat crab dinner that night at the Cripple Creek Resort (milepost 352; 907-479-2500).

* Best Dessert: Bread Pudding at the H&H Restaurant (milepost 100; 907-733-2415). Worth the wait. Big enough for two.

* Best Hotel: Denali's Crows Nest Cabins (milepost 239; 907- 683-2723, fax 907-683-2323). A neat place with new log cabins. In fact, all of the furnishings (short of the toilet) are made of varnished wood. Since the cabins are perched on a hillside overlooking Denali National Park, it's not wheelchair accessible and you may have to carry your luggage up several flights of stairs. But the views (especially from the Jacuzzi) are terrific. The Overlook Inn ("Best Dinner") is adjoining.

* Best Motel with a Kitchenette: Backwoods Lodging. We grew partial to accommodations with kitchens, living rooms and TV. But the Backwoods Lodging in Cant- well (milepost 209; 800-292-2232, 907-768-2232) won our hearts because of its especially homey atmosphere and the fact that, it addition to our required amenities, it provided packages of microwave popcorn. If you stay here, visit with the owners, the Gilbertsons, and ask them about their sled dog teams and about their experiences making Suntory beer TV commercials with the Japanese.

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