The Iñupiat Heritage Center (tel. 907/852-0422) is the town's main attraction and one of Alaska's most remarkable cultural institutions. It is part museum, part gathering center, and part venue for living culture. Inside is a workshop for craftspeople where hunters build the traditional boats and tools they use and where drummers build their drums; during the summer, an artist is usually in residence for visitors. Storytellers and dancers have a performance space. In the museum area, displays of artifacts change regularly, while a permanent exhibit covers Eskimo whaling and the influence of Yankee whaling on it (the quiet pride here carries a real emotional wallop). Iñupiaq dancing and drumming demonstrations, a blanket toss, games, and a craft sale happen every afternoon in the summer from 1:30 to 3:30pm; these are the same programs that are the highlight of the escorted tours. The center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5pm (to see the program on weekends, call ahead). Regular admission is $10 adults, $5 students, free for seniors and age 6 or younger, with an added fee of $7 for the dance program.
The other site that's worthy of a special trip is NARL, as the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory is known. Now the nation's busiest year-round Arctic research site, NARL has interesting exhibits in the new Barrow Arctic Research Center, and the cafeteria in the Ilisagvik College building serves three good meals a day; it's open during normal business hours. The main tourism business in town is Tundra Tours (tel. 800/882-8478 or 907/852-3900; www.tundratoursinc.com). Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents the Iñupiat, owns the company and the Top of the World Hotel. Their tour introduces the town to visitors who arrive with little idea of what to expect. The 6-hour summer-only tour includes visits to an Eskimo skin boat, the cemetery, and the Arctic Ocean, for a dip of toes. The highlight is a visit to the Heritage Center with a cultural presentation, including Eskimo dance and a chance to buy crafts made by Native artists. The day-trip tour is $350 single occupancy, $505 double occupancy, for the tour and a night in Barrow at the Top of the World Hotel, giving you time on your own without the tour group; neither price includes airfare. Book the tour with Tundra Tours. If you buy the tour separately when you're already in Barrow, it's $135.
In season, during the spring and fall, Barrow is a good place to see polar bears. The bears are always around when the ice is in; they're dangerous and people take extreme care to avoid them. To find bears, you need a ride on an all-terrain vehicle with a guide beyond the end of the town's road system. There will probably be someone offering those tours when you arrive, but at the time of this writing, we couldn't find anyone. Call ahead to the visitor center or your lodgings to see if you can line something up.
Polar Bear Viewing
If want to be sure of seeing polar bears (weather permitting), Alaska Air Expeditions (tel. 907/694-4294; www.alaskapolarbeartours.com) offers the ultimate opportunity. Pilot Tim Cook takes just a few visitors a year: He contacts his Native village friends on the North Slope, finds out where the bears are, then flies there from Fairbanks with his guests. This is an authentic Arctic exploration, with prices and uncertainties to match, but he's never failed to find bears and, after landing, usually gets his guests within 100 feet of them. Prices start at $2,423 per person for an overnight, based on a group of five. Viewing is best mid-September through October.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.