Travel

Savour Alaska’s Grandeur at This Ultra-Remote Bar Worth Traveling For

Bundle up for unforgettable cocktails atop a glacier inside Denali National Park.

Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet

The tagline for Matanuska-Susitna, Alaska’s Sheldon Chalet is, “Experience grand.” It registers as a rarity in the realm of marketing: an understatement. Because in truth, you’ve never seen anything on the colossal scale of this ultra-luxe property.

It’s a five-bedroom mountain house perched atop one of the world’s largest glacial fields-with ice measuring up to 6,000 feet deep-under the shadow of North America’s tallest peak. Hidden high in the heart of Denali National Park, you can only reach the place by air transfer. And you can only stay here on a three night minimum, full-room buyout, which will currently cost you somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100,000. More like, “Experience one hundred grand,” amiright?

Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet

So, yeah, expectations are elevated in an environment like this. Since there’s absolutely no way the scenery is going to let you down, it places a lot of pressure on the staff to ensure that hospitality follows suit. To wit, guests typically enter via the main room of the lodge (after alighting on the adjoining helipad) and find the mother of all seafood towers waiting for them. It’s overflowing with caviar, king crab, caribou, and a whole bunch more alliterative delights. All of it is presided over by a chef who is something of a legend in these parts, a man who simply goes by Delicious Dave.

Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet

As masterful as Delicious Dave is at fashioning gourmet cuisine at high altitudes, he would never claim to be a mixologist. And these days, it doesn’t matter if your luxury lodge is atop a glacier or on the surface of the moon-you’re going to need some stellar cocktails. That’s where Ryan Sheldon comes in, the property’s official experience director, and, as you may have noticed, a person who bears the same last name as the lodge itself.

Of course, that’s no coincidence. Robert Sheldon, Ryan’s father, designed and built the chalet. His own father, Don-AKA Ryan’s grandfather-was a legendary Alaskan bush pilot who helped map out the area’s majestic terrain. Back in 1966, in tandem with his cartographical pursuits, the elder Sheldon built a homestead atop the nunatak on which the hotel now sits.

Sheldon Chalet
Sheldon Chalet
Sheldon Chalet

Today, Ryan carries on the family tradition as a pioneer in his own right, albeit one of flavour formulation. Sure, he can make you one helluva Manhattan. But he seems happier fashioning clever concoctions you won’t find anywhere else, spirited adventures that utilize gin infused with Alaskan spruce tips and garnishes formed out of candied pine needles.

“There really is no set drink menu,” explains Sheldon. “When clients book their experience with us, they are able to request various cocktails, wines, beers, and we’re happy to source it all for them. But when there are no specific requests, we take great pleasure in crafting menus around each guest’s tastes.”

Sheldon Chalet
Sheldon Chalet
Sheldon Chalet

It was thanks to one of these freeform explorations that Sheldon was able to conjure up one of the property’s newest signatures. Inspired by his family’s roots, he created a wondrous, wintery riff on the ever-popular Espresso Martini that combines Creme de Cacao, espresso, and vodka alongside several dashes of rhubarb bitters. It lives on as the Termination Dust.

“Rhubarb holds a special place in my heart, as we used to harvest it every summer growing up and still do today,” he says. “Not only is it commonly incorporated into delicious desserts, but it also represents Alaska’s tenacity: a hardy and useful stalk that grows against all odds in one of the world’s harshest climates.”

Sheldon’s palate is informed by his status as a self-styled wine aficionado with a penchant for Burgundy pinots, Rhone style blends, Chablis, and stateside selections from Paso Robles from producers like Booker and Saxum. He’s eager to mine balance and structure in his cocktails, and in the Termination Dust, it’s achieved through the interplay of roasted bitterness and creamy sweetness. The drink is served over ice in a rocks glass under a layer of white froth meant to evoke the first snowfall of the season-or, as Alaskan locals know it, termination dust, a phenomenon that marks the end of warm weather and sustained sunlight.

Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet

“The drinks program at the Sheldon Chalet is meant to reflect the creativity of our staff and surroundings while ensuring the integrity of the experience,” adds Sheldon. “We exist as one of the world’s most remote destinations, only accessible by air, atop the only privately owned nunatak in Denali National Park. Flying in all of our produce can prove to be challenging, so sometimes we add a touch of mountain magic.”

This last bit rings especially true when it comes to cocktailing. According to Sheldon, the Chalet’s staff will often break off small pieces of glacier ice to chill their drinks as an alternative to the less-inspiring freezer-made ice. On the flipside, it also means they can easily run out of standard garnishes. Sheldon is quick to point out that the nearest grocery store stocking Luxardo cherries is 100 miles away-perhaps that’s the perfect excuse to experiment with a new sort of embellishment, like, say, candied spruce tips.

Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet
Photo courtesy of Sheldon Chalet

But what’s a missing cherry when you’ve got a front row seat to the aurora as it dances down from the northern horizon, awash in luminescent greens and purples? At this bar worth travelling for, boozy creativity is merely what happens when you’re busy experiencing the grand.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.