Pros:Fascinating look at a completely different way of life
Cons:Weather, food, frontier mentality, booze
In August 1997, my wife and I drove from San Francisco to Anchorage via the Alaska Highway. As if visiting such remote places as Kitwanga BC and Watson Lake, Yukon wasn't exotic enough, we decided to take a 2 day "trek" from Anchorage to go some place REALLY remote. We chose an Alaska Airlines 2 day package that flew us to Kotzebue for the day, then to Nome for the night, and then back to Anchorage the next afternoon.
I've always been one of those dreamers who has long fantasized about escaping the rat race and moving to a truly remote place. Thus for years I've looked at the globe for remote places and dreamed about how cool they might be. Nome certainly was on that list. But nothing prepared me for our stay in Nome.
I think our tour guide described it best--Nome was built because there was gold there, NOT because it was a good place to build a city. In fact, it seemed like a downright lousy place to build a town. There are no trees anywhere to be seen (I think the nearest trees are 75 miles away), the weather was miserable, and the whole town sits on a bed of permafrost that makes it impossible to construct level buildings.
It's not much better as a tourist town. Let's count the problems:
* the weather. It was 45 degrees and blustery (not rainy, just misty and yucky) in mid-August. We definitely did not want to be outdoors.
* the food. Vegetarians are in real trouble here. We ate at the Polar Cub Cafe for dinner, on the banks of the very blustery Bering Sea. We were starved, and after surveying all of the restaurant options in town, this was the only one that looked like it might have something that I could eat. I ordered an eggs, toast and fruit meal. This was unbelievably bad--the eggs were soggy from being cooked in butter, the toast was some stale white bread, and the fruit was 2 canned peach halves in syrup. Gross, man! And this was the best of our options. Breakfast at the hotel's restaurant was OK. I'm just glad I brought some extra Power Bars.
* the beaches. This was one of the most fascinating aspects of Nome. There are actually gold seekers who camp on the beach during the summer. They send their dredge machines into the ocean and scoop up dirt from the ocean floor. There must have been a half-dozen tents on the beach. I couldn't believe people still do this. But it was kinda scary too, as apparently these gold seekers are a little territorial. Plus, over the years people have left their equipment on the beach rather than clean it up. Despite Nome's proximity to the beach, you're not going to want to hang out on the beach.
* the Frontier mentality. This is definitely a frontier town, with all of the attendant attitudes about exploiting animals and natural resources. We saw some racing dogs, which was kind of neat, but we were allowed to pet only the lead dog because as motivation the other dogs needed to be made jealous of all of the attention the lead dog gets. We also went to an old mine where we panned for gold through some tailings. Let's put aside the environmental aspects of the mine. We were assisted by a former mine worker who, when he came to help me with my pan (that I was botching), he immediately exclaimed "There's gold in there!" (I got 2 flecks out of it). He was so excited--visibly blinded by the thrill of finding gold. And finally, we visited Nome's enviromentally-conscious sustainable industry, a reindeer farm where we saw a reindeer whose antlers had been freshly cut off to be ground into an aphrodesiac for Japanese men. Remember, this is the "progressive" industry in town...
* the booze. We went on a Friday that also coincided with payday. Nome sells booze (the rap is that there are more liquor stores than churches) but the villages around Nome (linked by a 200 mile system of dirt roads) do not. So basically, what happened is that all of the remote villagers came into town to get tanked up. When we walked around town, we saw drunks laying in the streets. Then, we were awoken several times at night with drunks yelling at each other. It was actually very scary.
On the plus side, we stayed at the Nugget Inn, which was a competent hotel--certainly better than I might have expected. There was also a bizarre but fascinating overcrowded retail store carrying Russian goods (Nome is about 250 miles from Russia and has direct flights).
For more on Nome, the best site I've found is http://www.alaska.net/~nome/ . Check it out.
I learned a lot by going to Nome, and my life is definitely richer for having been there. But my life will not be poorer if I never go back.
June 26, 2000 update: I've noticed that some users are misinterpreting my critical travel reviews as disparaging the residents of the locale. I write my travel opinions to explain why I liked and didn't like a destination AS A TOURIST. I do not judge why people choose where to live or assess their personal worth based on those choices. I hope you find the review helpful in determining whether this destination is a good tourist destination for you.
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