Due North

Escape the winter doldrums in Alaska
by Glenda Winders // photography courtesy of Alaska Travel Industry Association

Here’s an idea: This winter, when the temperatures plummet and snow piles up so high that you can’t make it out of the driveway and your every waking dream is about getting away, why not consider a vacation in Alaska?


This is when the subarctic cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks come to life with a variety of special activities you wouldn’t be able to enjoy if you came at a balmier time of year. Just remember to pack your warmest clothes and some vitamin D supplements, because the temperatures might be lower and the days might be shorter than you’re used to back home.

“A visit to Anchorage during the winter is easier and warmer than some may think with average temperatures in the 30s,” says Julie Saupe, president and CEO of Visit Anchorage. “Anchorage is a winter-lover’s playground with all kinds of outdoor adventures from skiing and ice-skating to dog-mushing and snowmobiling and vibrant winter festivals like Fur Rendezvous.” 

What to do
Bundle up and head outside for every kind of winter fun you can imagine. At Chugach State Park, the third-largest state park in the nation with 500,000 acres, plan to hike, view the scenery, watch the wildlife and trek on a glacier with no need for a guide. While you’re here, hike up Flattop Mountain, the most frequently climbed mountain in Alaska and with good reason. The 1.5-mile trail starts just 20 minutes from downtown and takes you to a flat peak where you can enjoy views that range from Denali to the Aleutian Islands.

Or sign on to a backcountry snowmobile excursion around the city or in the surrounding Chugach National Forest. Tour operators will also take you trekking on Matanuska Glacier and others of the 60 glaciers within a 50-mile radius of the city. If you’re really adventuresome, try ice-climbing up glacier walls and frozen waterfalls. For this you’ll need the cleats, harness and helmet that outfitters can provide. Several tour companies will also take you ice-fishing, whether you want to go for the day or overnight.

For the ultimate in sightseeing, try flight-seeing, which takes you aloft for aerial views of the city and its surrounding landscapes. And for the ultimate in skiing, have a helicopter drop you off in a remote spot with fresh powder untracked by other skiers and far away from crowds and lift lines. Not that advanced? Alyeska Resort (with the world’s longest continuous double black diamond run), Hilltop Ski Area and Arctic Valley ski area welcome skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels.

The colorful Fur Rendezvous festival — known to locals as “the Rondy” — is scheduled this year between Feb. 22 and March 8 and includes events such as the Rondy Carnival, Running of the Reindeer, Outhouse Races, snowshoeing, hockey and much more. Alaska Ski for Women is North America’s largest women-only ski event, held annually on Super Bowl Sunday to raise money for combating domestic abuse. On March 7, the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will begin in Anchorage with an 11-mile route through the city before racers head toward their Nome destination some 1,000 miles away. On March 8, cross-country skiers will suit up for the Tour of Anchorage, a scenic marathon that begins in East Anchorage and ends with a party at the Cook Inlet.

When it’s time to come inside and warm up, the Anchorage Museum — Alaska’s largest — is the first place to go for its exhibits about art, science and culture. The Smithsonian Institution has loaned hundreds of indigenous artifacts curated by a native elder to the museum so that they can be in their place of origin and available for artists, scholars and visitors to study. And that’s just one of the exhibits. To soak up high-quality pieces created by local artists or shop for some to take home try Sevigny Studio and its sister location, 7E Studio, or Dos Manos. Insiders say one of the best sources of native artwork is the craft shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

Where to eat
Snow City Café has the reputation of being the best place in town for breakfast, and it also serves lunch. The menu includes pumpkin pancakes and the vegetable-filled Fallback Omelet, all served in a cheerful, art-filled dining room, possibly with a mimosa. Wild Scoops serves handcrafted ice cream in Alaska-centric flavors: Apple Cider Donut, Sitka Swirl, Redoubt’s Revenge and Yukon Gold, among many others.

In this city of more than 291,000 people, there are lots of good places to have dinner. Options range from pizza at Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria to contemporary comfort food (fish and chips, ribs, reindeer pizza) at Spenard Roadhouse and Pacific Rim cuisine at Ginger. Or make an evening of it at Moose’s sister venue, Bear Tooth Theatrepub & Café, where you can dine as you enjoy a movie. The Bubbly Mermaid offers fresh oysters and champagne; regulars know that if you sneak through the back hallway you’ll find a taqueria with excellent tacos prepared by a Mexican chef and beer for $3.

Twelve breweries are located within the city limits, including a micro-cidery. If you plan to visit more than one, you might want to let Big Swig Tours do the driving. Still looking for nightlife? Wine bars, karaoke bars, dance parties and sports bars abound.

Where to stay
The Historic Anchorage Hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is conveniently located right downtown. Breakfast is included, and so is the ghost said to haunt the 1916 establishment. If you’re here to ski, the Alyeska Resort in the ski village of Girdwood might be your best bet. Take the tram to its Seven Glaciers restaurant and see views of, well, seven glaciers. Visitors can sit around fire pits and wait to see the northern lights, or they can go to bed and the concierge will call when the show begins. Turnagain View Lodge is a great spot for wildlife viewing and a good base for day-tripping.

A bit farther north, Alaska’s second-largest city is situated under the Auroral Oval, that is, a ring-shaped region around the North Pole where the northern lights are most frequently seen.
“Fairbanks’ latitude on the globe makes this one of the best places on Earth to see the captivating light of the aurora borealis,” says Amy Geiger, director of communications for Explore Fairbanks. “You can also view incredible outdoor ice sculptures, experience the exhilarating sport of dog-mushing, not to mention the multitude of other winter activities, celebrations and sporting events happening during an energy-filled winter season.”

What to do
A good first stop here is the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center located in the downtown area and open seven days a week. You can pick up free information, watch films and see exhibits that will familiarize you with the people, land, history and culture of interior Alaska. You’ll want to visit Running Reindeer Ranch, but make sure you contact it ahead of time because guided tours are by appointment only. Here an Alaska native will walk you through a birch forest to observe the animals and their habitat up close, and after the hour-long experience you’ll go inside for homemade cookies. It’s also possible to stay here in a chalet where reindeer graze just outside your door and a deck overlooks the Alaska Range.

For an adventure you for sure couldn’t have back home, why not try dog-mushing. Companies such as Paws for Adventure and Just Short of Magic Sled Dog Tours enable you to take rides that range from half an hour to overnight, visit their kennels and learn to dog-mush. Alaska Aurora Adventures and other such organizations will arrange an overnight outing where you can see the northern lights at their best. Some offer fire pits and s’mores; others will house you in a cozy lodge where you can watch the display through a window.

Fairbanks is just 12 miles from the Alaskan city of North Pole, so a visit to Santa Claus House is naturally a must. Established in 1952 as a general store by Con and Nellie Miller, before Alaska became a state in 1959, the inventory includes Christmas decorations, Alaska-made items and unusual toys. Children from all over the world mail their letters to Santa here and get a response, or they can come and tell him their wish list in person.

“I think Con and Nellie would be amazed what a landmark it has become over the last 67 years,” says Paul Brown, the current owner and husband of the Millers’ granddaughter. “Millions of people from all over the world have visited over the years. It’s so cool to be able to meet people from so many different places and especially at Christmastime to hear about the different cultural traditions around the holidays.”

For more indoor fun and learning there’s the University of Alaska Museum of the North with its multiple galleries filled with Alaskan art, archaeology, ethnology and history. Or check out the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum at the Wedgewood Resort for 95 rare autos as well as vintage fashions and historic photos.

What to eat
For healthy casual food in an art-filled setting, Venue is the place to go. Munch on fresh wraps, smoothie bowls and gluten-free breads while you browse Alaska-made furniture, home goods and art pieces, all for sale. Locals say Lavelle’s Bistro sets the standard for fine dining. Menu offerings include wild-caught Alaska king crab legs, honey apple halibut and potato-crusted salmon along with steaks, chicken, lamb and a 25-ingredient meatloaf.

The Pump House Restaurant and Saloon on the Chena River will be a treat for history buffs. The setting is a pump house restored in 1978 that re-creates the ambience of the gold rush of the 1890s and is outfitted with Victorian relics from that time. Pop in at the historic Senator Saloon, which boasts “the world’s most northern oyster bar” with oysters flown in daily from Seattle. Then dine on Alaska-caught salmon and dishes such as fresh, steamed clams with reindeer sausage and elk sliders.

Where to stay
A Taste of Alaska Lodge is family-owned, dating back to 1947 when the original owners came here to homestead and now operated by their grandson and his wife. You can choose to stay in their lodge or for more privacy opt for the Log Cabin, Spruce House or the Cottage. Fantastic views of the Alaska Range from the rooms are an added plus here.

You’ll need to drive for an hour to the Chena Hot Springs Resort, but when you arrive you’ll be rewarded with a lot more than a comfortable bed for your effort. The resort has Alaska’s only year-round hot springs as well as the Aurora Ice Museum, also year-round. Locals claim it’s also one of the best places around to see the northern lights, and the hotel will arrange your tour.

A most unusual spot from which to see the lights is Borealis Basecamp, a 25-mile drive from Fairbanks that will deliver you to a pristine boreal forest far away from light pollution and people. Your lodging will be a fiberglass dome like those used by polar researchers, and you’ll feast on local flavors in the dining yurt. Best of all the domes have huge windows in the top so that you can watch the colorful lights play from the comfort of your bed.