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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2002

Some places may disappoint, but Land's End kept its charm

Change is all too often a dirty word in our lexicon, especially when we're talking travel and tourism.

Never mind that tired old triptych of domestic transport woes - air, road, and rail. We all recognize what pitiful condition they're in.

And regardless of how much money or political posturing is thrown around, those behemoths have long since reached their respective tipping points and are unlikely to recover in our lifetime.

We also know, all too well, the toll that time has taken on many of our once-favored destinations, and how these are often becoming just unattractive and overcrowded examples of mass tourism run amok as too many people chase too few places.

On a narrower focus, not only destinations but hotels and restaurants find themselves victims of external change and begin that apparently inexorable downhill slide from the marvelous to the mediocre - even to the miserable - in a few short years.

Every traveler must have a favorite example or two. We have dozens. Places we used to recommend unequivocally and enthusiastically that are now reduced to “cautious possibilities” shortly before slipping off our buy list altogether as their owners retire, move away, or sell out to a mega-chain whose interests run more to bottoms and bottom lines than to keeping up standards and serving faithful customers.

There are, of course, some examples in which the reverse is true. There must be. Somewhere. But we're unlikely to be aware of them. It's just not too often that we'll jump out of bed on a Saturday morning, slap each other on the back, and say, “Let's go blow a month's salary at that awful hotel we once stayed at - where the bedrooms are grungy, the service is sloppy, the atmosphere is obnoxious, and the waiters are all dumb!” Those kind of places rarely get a second chance.

Neither are we likely to continue providing long-time life support to once-trendy eateries whose food and drink and ambiance no longer appeal to either our palates or our pocket books.

No. The slope of change, in our experience, runs mostly downhill.

Which is the reason, as our motor vehicle turned toward the pointy end of Alaska's Homer Spit a few weeks ago, and took dead aim at the ultimate anchor, the aptly named Land's End Hotel, we were more than a little nervous about what we might find there.

How might it have changed since our last visit, in 1994? And why exactly had we been so determined to return to Homer in general, and to this hotel in particular? On one score, at least, we knew that the Land's End would still live up to our cherished memories.

With extensive beach frontage (albeit shingle and driftwood) and unencumbered panoramic views across the vast expanse of Kachemak Bay to a long, snow-draped mountain range, the hotel certainly had “location, location, location,” as real estate folks like to say. Nothing could spoil that.

We suspected, too, that we'd be captivated anew by the comings and goings of the picturesque skeins and trollers on their way to the halibut and salmon fishing grounds, by the endless flights of common murres skimming along in strict formation just inches above the waves, and by the lively antics of those totally charming and cuddly sea otters backstroking their way close to shore and cracking open the shells of mussels and clams.

The hotel, as we remembered it, was a long two and three-story wooden building, aging gracefully even then. There was a restaurant that served large portions of good wholesome food, a lively bar, and guest rooms that were clean and simply furnished, with private, peaceful balconies, drop-dead-gorgeous views, and almost unending daylight. Who could improve on that?

As we approached the commercial part of the Homer Spit at the end of a five-hour drive, we saw that business was brisk, to put it mildly.

The RV park was full to bursting. On both sides of the road outfitters were busy advertising their day's successes in the form of man-sized halibut while promoting the next big adventure, be it another day of deep-sea fishing or flight-seeing or kayaking or hiking.

At the famous Salty Dog Saloon, where dollar bills and business cards clothe the ceilings and walls, and pints of Fosters and Alaskan Amber flow all day and night, the stories of the big ones that got away were surely being told.

We began, frankly, to worry that one of our all-time favorite places had changed beyond recall.

But the instant we stepped inside the quiet of the Land's End Hotel, all our apprehensions evaporated. The place had gone from graceful aging to full makeover, for the better.

We had been assigned rooms in the smart new addition. Sea view, of course. A cheerful front desk staff stood ready to help with whatever services might be required. And the newly configurated restaurant and bar, with those pulse-racing vistas, had a brand-new menu and a staff of young, attractive, and attentive workers whose only concern seemed to be our pleasure.

And forecasters were calling for 72 more hours of sunshine.

Heaven, we decided, begins at Land's End, and change does not always have to be downhill!



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