For the fortunate few who travel for a living, we are able to experience feats of heroic wonder first-hand. Easily “The Seven Wonders of the World,” such as Egypt’s Pyramids of Gaza or Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer Statute, or a luxury cruise into Antartica (thank you always and forever Seabourn for the forever memories of my greatest trip) come to mind. But underneath these powerful, global images of penultimate travel destinations beats a layer of daredevil and sheer will to create something from absolutely nothing. Foremost among them is the creation of Sheldon Chalet in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
Sheldon Chalet is not one of The Seven Wonders of the World. Sheldon Chalet isn’t even remotely close to being a continent. But lest you think otherwise, Sheldon Chalet is not just any hotel either. In fact, it’s not just “a hotel.” At its heart, Sheldon Chalet quintessentially represents an image, a life-style, one so profoundly visceral that from the moment you helicopter into Sheldon Ampitheater, without knowing why these 4.9 acres is named “Sheldon,” you instantly feel like you’ve made it in life.
VIDEO: Watch on YouTube my experience flying into Sheldon Ampitheatre (c) Sery Kim
What makes Sheldon Chalet so special is its location: because everything else which brings the hotel to life is wrapped around this singular fact. Located on a nunatak, almost 6000 feet above a glacier (Ruth Glacier to be exact), Sheldon Chalet is a 30 minute helicopter ride from one of the World’s cutest small towns Talkeetna (population 876). In order to get to Sheldon Chalet, you can’t drive or walk or take public transportation. It’s not like picking a flight out of Washington, D.C. to Anchorage where you have re-occurring flights four times a day, every day, 365 days out of the year. If the winds are too high, then you can’t fly. If there is too much snow, you can’t fly. If there isn’t enough pressurization in the atmosphere for whatever other reason, you can’t fly. Literally the only way to get to Sheldon Chalet is via helicopter on a flying-worthy day.
PHOTO: Fly Alpha Air resting on the Observation Deck of Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
Additionally, to bring SOMETHING from NOTHING, literally every single item used to build and service Sheldon Chalet is flown in by helicopter. Every nail, every piece of steel, every piece of glass and every personal amenity like toilet paper is flown in. Most incredibly, there is a soapstone fireplace in the center of the main floor from Europe which weighs tens of thousands of pounds which they flew in by helicopter. Incredible. In fact, the only item not flown in is the water at Sheldon Chalet which the staff painstakingly make every few days. Image … making your own water from snow to drink, to wash your teeth, to cook and shower. Fascinating, frightening and fabulous all rolled into one!
PHOTO: The incredible Sheldon Chalet soapstone fireplace (c) Sery Kim
To understand how this dream of building a hotel in the middle of nowhere came to fruition, it is important to understand what drives the current owners Robert, Marne and Kate Sheldon. Children of one of the world’s most famous pilots — to hear anyone tell the tale(s) of their father (Robert and Kate are the children, Marne married Robert and is the daughter-in-law) — Don Sheldon *IS* Alaska. And if you read the seminal autobiography on Don Sheldon, Wager With the Wind, you understand why.
Don Sheldon didn’t just fly, nor did he just have a business. What Don Sheldon did with his life is to place his life constantly at risk to save members of the military, climbers of Mount McKinley (aka Denali) and anyone else who needed his particular brand of help. No excuse was sufficient enough to keep him away from aiding others: not bad weather, not any damage done to his airplane(s), not lack of gas and certainly not the physical limitations of the human body — reading how Don Sheldon didn’t sleep for two full days and two full nights so he could rescue everyone stranded in the narrowest of narrow gully’s in Alaska will move you to tears. He embodied the spirit of Alaska and through his sheer will he became as much of the adventuring pioneering spirit of those who scaled Mount McKinley, aka Denali.
PHOTO: Flying into Ruth Glacier on Fly Alpha Air (c) Sery Kim
So for Don Sheldon to chose to homestead on a glacier it represents something powerfully visceral … and gives you a piece of his fearsome and inspiring spirit. And to build a hotel in such a remote part of the world is equally inspiring.
PHOTO: Exterior of Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
When you chose to stay at Sheldon Chalet, what you receive is not just another night at a great hotel. What you are choosing for yourself is to be INSPIRED. What Don Sheldon’s children (Robert, Robert’s wife Marne and his sister Kate) have built is not a hotel but a place where you go to live your best life. Additionally, what makes Sheldon Chalet special is not just the location — although the sheer feat of building in that icy, desolate location is clearly the greatest advertisement of exceptionalism — but what makes Sheldon Chalet special is the utter seamlessness of their hospitality.
PHOTO: Glacier trekking at Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
I didn’t have the pleasure to meet Kate Sheldon, but I can say having met Robert and Marne Sheldon I would vote them into any political office, trade any favors to have them be my parents and generally want them to move to D.C. so we can be best friends. They make everyone, not just me, feel special and important. And it is this gift of hospitality which should drive any service person, let alone an owner, to really get into the business of owning a hotel. When you purchase a night at the hotel (three night minimum), what you are purchasing is a fully concierge experience where you are treated like family.
PHOTO: Some of the stunning and fresh food at Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
PHOTO: Gorgeous Alaskan honey and prosciutto (c) Sery Kim
PHOTO: Amazing baked goods at Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
The family feel is heightened by the intimate nature of the hotel. Five bedrooms can sleep ten comfortably in a cocoon of luxury, with views of Denali all-around. Two full-sized bathrooms serve all five bedrooms, with wonderfully smelling Kiehl’s products, as well as the hottest of hot waters (my most required element for any hotel bathroom as I dearly love scaldingly hot showers). I have only on two occasions stayed at a hotel where I actually didn’t need to turn the dial all-the-way to hot. One was at the Four Seasons Bosphorous in Istanbul. The other was at Sheldon Chalet. One was in the middle of one of the 10 largest cities in the world. The other was in a place where the hotel makes it own water. Really beyond impressive. Also, astonishingly enough, there is a sauna with lovely spa amenities for those who would like do sweat in the cold.
PHOTO: My luxurious bedroom at Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
The price tag of Sheldon Chalet, currently $2,300 a night, seems like a lot but it is in fact a steal. The price includes the helicopter ride into the property, basic activities like hiking on Ruth Glacier and all food-and-beverages inclusive. In fact, I would pay double that just to experience all I did during my stay!
PHOTO: The best Sausage and Biscuits in my entire life (c) Sery Kim
Speaking of the food-and-beverages, it is worth coming to Sheldon Chalet just to eat Dave Thorne’s cooking. “Delicious Dave” as he is known around Alaska — and “Doctor Delicious Dave” for those of us who like to tease him even further — is, in my opinion, currently the best Chef in the country. Nothing I say could match the perfection of this Food and Wine article of him, but what I can say is he makes every dish effortlessly (and powerfully) zing with flavor and imagination. I ate more food in my three days and three nights at Sheldon Chalet than I have in the rest of this year AND I STILL LOST WEIGHT!!!! “It’s all the trekking you did on the Glacier,” Marne Sheldon sweetly encouraged me. My goodness!! If I could eat Delicious Dave’s food every day and lose weight, I would seriously trade my political career for that, 100%!!!!!
PHOTO: Fresh lean Cod with Miso Morten Chili Thread Glaze, Jasmine Rice, Beets Chiyoga poached in Vanilla Sauv Blanc wine, Romanesco with Chinese Five Spice and a Brush Stroke of Sweet Ginger Stroke Glaze (c) Sery Kim
While it may seem excessive to caption everything I ate as “the best of,” this is what Dave Thorne inspires and the entire team at Sheldon Chalet inspires. They make everything easy for you even though you can literally clearly see that it is not. If you ask for water, you know it’s because they got up at night, melted snow, filtered it, stored it and then served it to you. If you ask for Banana Bread, it’s because you know Robert, Marne and Kate Sheldon went to the grocery store, purchased every ingredient individually, packed it into a helicopter, flew it 30 minutes to a glacier and had one of the world’s best chefs make it specially for you from scratch. This is the very definition of luxury.
PHOTO: Wontons with Alaskan Sockeye Smoked Salmon and Wasabi Aioli garnished with Onion Microgreens (c) Sery Kim
And it’s not just the indoor activities like eating and drinking which Sheldon Chalet does so well. Part of the joy in traveling there is to indulge in your adventuresome spirit and get outside. Sheldon Chalet has a wide-variety of outdoor sports they can help indulge your adventuresome spirit in, and even if you aren’t in great shape (me) or aren’t much of a mountaineer (also me), Sheldon Chalet can easily accommodate any physical skill.
Most at least attempt the initial hike between the Mountain House (the original homestead base Don Sheldon built) and Sheldon Chalet, but even the basic” trekking on Ruth Glacier is awe-inspiring and worth the effort.
PHOTO: Author making the initial trek between Sheldon Chalet and the Mountain House (c) Sery Kim
For me, the coolest outdoor activity I did was enjoy a 4.5 mile trek on Ruth Glacier to an outdoor picnic in the middle of literally nowhere. I still have no idea how Nicolai Windahl and Terrell Moore carved out our “picnic,” in the freezing conditions on Ruth Glacier one night, but what they produced was yet another once-in-a-lifetime experience at Sheldon Chalet.
PHOTO: Artic Ruth Glacier picnic courtesy of Sheldon Chalet (c) Sery Kim
PHOTO: A hamburger at 8’F on Ruth Glacier (c) Sery Kim
Truly, if you want an experience which exceeds expectation, then you definitely should go to Sheldon Chalet. If you don’t take my word for it, read VOGUE Magazine’s account, Conde Nast Traveler’s account, Bloomberg’s account and (if you love fashion) pick up the latest Anthropologie catalogue with Sheldon Chalet as the backdrop! Until again, thank you a million Robert, his wife Marne and his sister Kate Sheldon! I had the time of my life!!!
PHOTO: Author enjoying her beer at Sheldon Chalet’s curated picnic (c) Sery Kim