Alaska’s Halibut Cove on Ismailof island is a quietly beautiful artists colony

More often than it should, my mind slips away to Alaska. To follow, you’d need to fly to Anchorage, rent a car, then drive to Homer, as I did in the summer of 1994.

Homer is nice — a quirky hamlet on the Kenai Peninsula where eagles fly, bears swat at leaping salmon and your halibut might outweigh you. But Homer is only the jumping-off spot for my daydreams. My happy place is six miles across Kachemak Bay: Halibut Cove, once a fishing settlement on the island of Ismailof, then a ghost town, now an artists colony and summer apparition.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you catch the twice-a-day ferry from Homer and arrive at a compound that includes two art galleries and a lone restaurant called the Saltry. The buildings are on stilts above the shallows and connected by a boardwalk. No roads, no cars, floating post office. Janet McNary, who manages bookings for the ferry and restaurant, estimates the summer population at 85 to 95, which fell last winter to “about 14.”

Anyway, summer is brilliant. By ferry, private boat and float plane, locals and visitors drop by to browse in the Experience Gallery (a local artists’ co-op) and Diana Tillion’s Cove Gallery. (Tillion, who died in 2010, liked to catch octopuses, extract their ink with a hypodermic needle and paint with it.) Some visitors hike trails in Kachemak Bay State Park. Overnighters hole up in a handful of lodges and cabins.

The Saltry, open only in summer, serves locally farmed oysters, fresh-caught black cod, salmon and halibut — about 100 meals a day, lunch and dinner. My lunch back in 1994 was a tremendous plate of halibut Veracruz.


Afterward, on the boardwalk, I paused to listen as 9-year-old Nicky Riordan practiced his cello, sending minuets across the water and into the Alaskan wild. Good moment. But it needs amending. One of these summers, I’d love to give my wife and our 9-year-old their chance to see, hear, smell and taste Halibut Cove.