Borealis. It’s a destination so inspiring and audacious that you’ll want to be outdoors, regardless of the weather, to do all you can while you’re there. The problem? The state is so big, there’s so much to see and do, that you won’t get to it all in one trip.
A good starting point is Anchorage, the bustling port town located in the south central region of Alaska. It’s a mellow city with a latent metro vibe that surges to life in March when it plays host to the Last Great Race, The Iditarod. The ultimate endurance race against the elements, The Iditarod traces a harsh, solitary 1,000+- mile path across desolate, treacherous terrain, from the starting point in Willow through 24 checkpoints to the finish line in Nome. The race was formed to help preserve the sled-dog culture, due to the increased dependence on snowmobiling for transportation. Teams typically consist of 16 sled dogs, one musher, a sled packed with food, gear and supplies, and the indomitable will to survive fatigue, loneliness and exposure to the elements for more than a week. This year’s winner, 25-year-old Alaska native Dallas Seavey, set the Iditarod record to become the youngest musher to ever take the title, crossing the finish line in nine days and four hours.
Since spectators can’t follow the mushers’ entire route, everyone attends the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage to cheer on their favorite teams and enjoy the city’s biggest outdoor party. There’s unique local food (don’t miss the reindeer hot dogs), frothy beer and plenty of entertainment:
the Fur Rondy Festival features outdoor carnival rides and games and the famed “Running of the Reindeer,” where reindeer run loose through the streets as costumed spectators race the hoofed traffic, transforming downtown Anchorage into a frozen Pamplona for the day.
You wouldn’t associate Anchorage with fine dining, but the “work hard, play harder” culture definitely appreciates upscale cuisine, paired with fine wines and craft beer. Follow the crowd to the Whale’s Tail Bistro and Wine Bar, a chic spot in the Hotel Captain Cook for a glass of wine — or 32 — poured by Alaska’s first self-serve wine dispensing system, along with some small plates to share. For more contemporary dining, reserve a table upstairs at The Crow’s Nest, a Four-Diamond restaurant featuring contemporary French and New American cuisines with exceptionally prepared and artistically plated entrees and stunning views of Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains.
However, the best inlet views aren’t from indoors. Muster your will, strap on your crampons and go ice climbing in nearby Girdwood, a scenic 45-minute drive from Anchorage along the picturesque Seward Highway. There you’ll find the outpost for the hiking and climbing tour, Ascending Path, near the Turnagain Arm section of Cook Inlet, where the 50-foot frozen waterfall awaits. Owner and operator Matt Szundy ensures a fun, safe and challenging climb for all levels. You’re harnessed, geared and coached — even if you’ve never climbed before. The esprit de corps will get you to the top.
Rest up at nearby Alyeska Resort, the upscale 304-room chateau-style hotel sheltered in a valley of peaks and glaciers, the ideal base camp for winter (or summer) excursions, with an average snowfall of 650 inches a year. Amenities include a world-class spa featuring the signature Glacial Facial, a saltwater pool and fitness center, plus the renowned AAA Four Diamond-rated Seven Glaciers Restaurant, perched at 2,300 feet and accessed by a complimentary scenic tram ride to the top. The seafood entrees and wine pairings do not disappoint.
Fans of the former hit 90s TV show, “Northern Exposure,” must make the short flightseeing trip to Talkeetna, the rustic, “tune in, drop out” haven nestled at the base of North America’s tallest peak, Mount McKinley. The downtown area is dotted with bear-pelted dive bars, humble food joints, hand-hewn log cabins and quirky locals who play caricatures of themselves. It’s a sleepy town during winter months — most places shut down for the season — but life emerges during early spring and summer when climbers register their Denali ascent at the Talkeetna Ranger Station and cruise ships dump passengers off for the day. The local hangout is The Roadhouse, an inn for wayward travelers looking for no-frills lodging and hearty, delicious meals and desserts. It’s the best place to chat up locals, friendly folks who will talk about life off the grid as they check e-mail and charge their laptops, since their cabins don’t have electricity.
Fairbanks was our last stop, hailed as a top spot to view the Aurora Boreali,s due to its location in the “Aurora Oval,” the ring-shaped position near the North Pole. The best viewing months are from December through April, on clear-weather nights, during the early morning hours; many hotels offer guests wake-up calls when the lights are active. The go-to viewing location is at Chena Hot Springs, a year-round resort located 60 miles outside
Fairbanks with 80 lodge rooms, yurt rentals and camping sites. Visitors from around the world come to soak in the natural outdoor hot springs at Rock Lake, known for its healing properties and spiritual surroundings. It’s a one-stop shop for the outdoor adventurer, with tons of activities like snowmobiling, dog sledding and sleigh riding and other tours such as the geothermal renewable energy facility and the Aurora Ice Museum tour, a kitschy-cool year-round castle maintained at a brisk 20 degrees. Everything inside is carved from ice, including the crystal chandelier to the corner bar, serving chilled Appletinis in ice-sculpted martini glasses. If cold temps don’t bother you, rent a private guest room overnight in the museum and cozy up in ice-carved beds, blankets included.