“What next, a summer retreat in Arizona?” Those were the words of a friend of mine, when I told him that my idea of Christmas & New Years is a trip to the subzero temperatures of Alaska! No, I wasn’t planning a home production of Survivor, rather an attempt to view the masterly Northern Lights forced my hand on the schedule. These natural dancing light displays, also known as the Aurora borealis have always fascinated me and better time to view them in the Northern Hemisphere are the long dark nights of the winter. So, it had to be that – Winter, I was coming! So began one of the most adventurous weeks of my life. I spent a fair amount of time on research for the trip, so hopefully this blog can help some of you in planning a beautiful hassle free trip to a pristine white Alaska.
The main points on our itinerary was entry at Anchorage and exit from Fairbanks. And to snoop around various locations around these two cities.
We began by hitting Anchorage on Day 1 in the afternoon before sunset, flying Alaskan Airlines all along the West Coast. We were renting a 4X4 all wheel drive SUV, I’d say a must for driving on those snow clad roads at that time of the year. Since we were novices to driving in these conditions, we made it a point to arrive well before sunset and get used to the roads on the first day.
We stayed at the cozy little bed and breakfast, Copper Whale Inn. This is a pretty unique location, that’s in Downtown Anchorage and also has some of the best natural views of the region. Our room fitted the bill perfectly, with amazing views across the Cook Inlet to the ice capped Alaska Range. The prices were pretty reasonable too, and so was the availability. If you are heading there in the summer, I’d suggest reserving far ahead of time though. The owners, were warm and friendly and it helped that they lived right across the street, since we did splendidly manage to lock ourselves out of our room!!
We headed out on town for some food at the Glacier BrewHouse a few blocks down the road. The food was great – we ticked off Moose sausages at the first opportunity. And what was one glass of cognac soon turned into a little bar hopping expedition, since almost every second business was a quaint little watering hole.
The next day, we took an early drive out to outside of Anchorage to take a flight seeing trip to Denali from the air. The views were breathtaking, and just the feeling of being in one of those planes with the chilly wind blowing from end to end was a great humbling force of nature. The sheer size and beauty of the ice fields that are the source of these glaciers puts into perspective all the climate change talk we’ve often had. I’d definitely recommend taking one of these tours. A must-do, there is no other way you can experience the vastness and enormity of Alaska. There are various ones available to different routes of glaciers, and some even allow you to land on the glacier. We were unable to land due to the weather conditions on the day, but if you’re lucky…that would be definitely an experience for a lifetime. We got back and then visited the Anchorage Smithsonian Arctic Museum. I had read a fair bit of the Alaskan history before the trip, but knowing some of the intricacies of Native Alaskan heritage was very moving and revealing.
That night was New Year’s Eve and we somehow found this interesting house party-ish place that was basically a farm house off a street close to downtown. Looked non-descript from the outside, but once inside had a true lounge vibe, a large dance floor right next to sheets of snow, with hookah and drinks flowing next door. There was a costume theme too, since a whole bunch of people were in togas, pjs, and skirts. Our costume revealed our San Dieagan antecedents: 6 layers of clothing….each one thicker than the rest. Met a lot of locals and had some great conversations, always a good way to begin a new year!
Day 3 involved a decision to drive to Seward, a hundred odd miles south of Anchorage. We thought long and had about this one, since the road conditions weren’t great due to a storm the previous night. But this was our last day in Anchorage and we were really keen to see the Exit Glacier, a marvelous blue piece of roadside ice!! Look it up! So off we went. That drive from Anchorage to Seward was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve been on. And I frequently drive down the CA 101! The Chugach Mountains bathed in sheets of snow to one side and the Gulf of Alaska to the other, we were spoilt for choice when it came to a good view. The drive was dangerous due to the icy roads, and soon enough we were driving through a snowstorm. There were moments when our car was literally swaying from side to side, but a few good driving skills kept us OK. All in the quest for the elusive Exit Glacier. We also visited the Seward sea life center before having yet another exhilarating drive back home to the inn.
Day 4, we flew to Fair banks. We thought about driving up, but decided discretion is the better part of valor. The train would have been great too, but it just takes much longer. But for those who aren’t on a time crunch, do consider the train. We were staying at the world famous Chena Hot Springs resort outside in Fairbanks. The resort is literally at the end of the road, a road 30-40 miles off an exit on the freeway, through a very remote isolated single road. Mobile phone signal is nonexistent there, but just keep driving and you’ll hit the resort.
This was what we were here for! The mysterious Northern Lights. The next three days/nights revolved around finding these colorful night time sky patterns. Late in the night, we took a Snow Mobile, a vehicle that looked straight out of a Bond movie, to the top of a mountain. We stayed up late, in what looked like a huge community tent and just waited! A note here about Aurora watching; it’s boring for the most part because all you’re doing is watching paint dry on the sky. But once the lights flicker on, its magic unraveling right in front of your eyes. And soon enough…..around 1am, the sky lit up and painted a canvas that will be hard to ever forget in my life.
The week we were there, each day had 6 hrs of daylight. Luckily, the hot springs there, were a great place to unwind at. Imagine moving from -20 ambient temperature to a hot steaming bath right in the middle of the mountains. We guys loved the experience and spent awfully long stretches of time there. The fun part was when you leave the pool and the water droplets on your body and hair freeze immediately…..made for quite a few crazy selfies.
The resort also had other activities, a big dog mushing course….that the dog lover in me immediately took to. I have grown up around big dogs, and being around a few dozen odd huskies put me right in my comfort zone!
For anybody visiting Fairbanks, even if you’re not staying at the Chena Hot Springs, I’d definitely recommend a day trip there to visit the actual hot springs, and the very unique Ice Museum. A huge room of multiple intricately made ice sculptures.
On the last day, we also got to visit Santa Claus House on 101 St. Nicholas Dr., North Pole :). It’s a place that honestly rewinds you to the kid in you, that longed for Christmas gifts and lived in the magical world of chimneys, sleighs, and jingle bells all around! Here, you can also arrange to send personalized letters from Santa every year to your friends, relatives, kids…anywhere in the world. That was quite an apt end, to what was truly a magical trip. The thrills, the adrenalin, the calmness of nature that spellbounds you, the adversities. The trip had it all, and would gladly plug it for anyone looking for a winter trip that’s a little edgy, but has a brilliant fulfilling trade-off.
ICE ICE BABY – A martini glass being made from ice, at the Ice Museum, Chena Hot Springs
Magical skies of Alaska!! Santa Claus house @ North Pole, Alaska
Please do comment here, I’d love to know your views on this post and your experiences travelling.