Why Alaska is still on my bucket list

Oh Alaska. How I long to be back in the last frontier with your freezing temperatures, snowy landscapes, and jaw dropping sunrises.

Alaska is one of those places that I had always wanted to visit, but never got around to because it was too far away, too isolated, too insert-other-silly-excuse here.

By now you all know how I feel about a winter holiday, so when we started planning ours late last year, I didn’t hesitate in adding Alaska to our list of destinations.

Visiting during the winter months doesn’t come without it’s challenges. Getting from A to B can be difficult, temperatures hover between -15 and -1 degrees C, and the average number of daylight hours is around five.

BUT, the sunrises and sunsets, the spectacular landscapes, the super friendly locals—our check out operator at the supermarket even welcomed us to the area and gave us a list of suggestions for things to do, for goodness sake!—and the Northern Lights, make Alaska a destination that will stay in my heart for a long time to come.

PLUS, I still have some unfinished business…

Getting to Alaska

We flew into Anchorage from San Francisco. The five-hour flight was largely uneventful, until around the last hour and a half where we experienced the worst turbulence of our lives. The plane seemed to drop in the air multiple times, it shook violently from side-to-side, and at one point I was bracing for the aircraft to break into pieces. Somehow we made it through, and I almost ran to the cockpit to hug the pilot when we finally landed.

After talking to locals, it sounded like the turbulence we experienced was much worse than normal, and the pilot himself joked upon landing that we wouldn’t be charged for the rodeo ride!

After spending the night in Anchorage, we had an early start on the train to Fairbanks, where we spent the next four days in a true winter wonderland.

We hired an SUV in Fairbanks which made getting around that much easier, once we got used to driving on the right-hand side of the road, that is.

Pro Tip: get car insurance! Insurance in the USA is very different to here in Australia, and it is so worth getting that extra piece of mind, especially when driving on the opposite site of the road and in difficult conditions (read: freezing temperatures and icy roads). Yes, it is expensive; but if you are involved in an accident like we were (we were unfortunately rear-ended by a local), it more than pays for itself.

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Lodging

Anchorage
Our night in Anchorage we spent at the Lakefront Hotel. It was pitch dark out when we arrived, and then again when we left first thing in the morning; so I can’t tell you anything about the external landscape and features.

But the inside is cosy and filled with an array of stuffed wild animals (think: deer, moose, wolf, goat, bison, and bear). Our room was spacious and well-equipped, and the bed was comfortable!

Fairbanks
In Fairbanks we chose to stay in a log cabin in the outskirts of town. It housed two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a full kitchen, and an outdoor spa. It had everything we could have wanted—including a tripod for my camera—and gave us a real taste of how it would be to actually live there.

Because we had hired a vehicle, it was no trouble for us to drive out there, and didn’t take long to find our way around without looking at the directions!

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What’s for Eating?

Anchorage
We dined at the Flying Machine Restaurant, situated in the Lakefront hotel. It was a Friday night, there was live music, the food was delicious, and the environment was warm and cosy. And our drinks went down nicely after such a hair-raising flight!

Fairbanks
The great thing bout our Fairbanks accommodation is that we were able to cook all meals for ourselves.

Usually I am more than happy to dine out, but after two weeks of doing so, it was nice to be able to prepare our own food. We popped into the local Fred Meyer supermarket nearly every day—which was an adventure in itself—and stocked up with enough supplies for our breakfasts and dinners.

I am always fascinated with the sheer amount of options for just about everything in American supermarkets, especially compared to the ones you find in New Zealand and Australia. The only downside is that we see so many things we’d like to try, but just never have the time to!

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Activities

Aurora Winter Train

We boarded the Aurora Winter Train at 8.30am in Anchorage and travelled north, arriving in Fairbanks at 8pm.

Granted, during much of our time on board it was dark outside due to the short daylight hours; but when the sun shone we were treated to vast and impressive landscapes, moose sightings, and learnt a bit about the people who live in the outback of Alaska.

The train has a dining carriage, and served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had bought some snacks with us, but did pop in for a delicious burger for dinner.

Note: The Aurora Winter Train only runs once per week during December and January. It travels from Anchorage to Fairbanks each Saturday, and then returns to Anchorage each Sunday; so you do need to plan your trip around the schedule somewhat.

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Northern Lights

Alaska is one of the go-to places for seeing the elusive Northern Lights. And, to be honest, one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.

So, each night we set our alarm to go off in half-hourly to hourly intervals; we constantly checked our Aurora Forecast and weather apps; we set the camera and tripod up ready to go; and fell asleep staring out the window at the night sky.

And each morning we awoke tired and disappointed.

Unfortunately there was a lot of cloud cover while we were in Fairbanks, and the Aurora never graced the sky in the area we were staying.

Somehow I managed to get a snap of a small Aurora as I was playing around with my camera settings, but it wasn’t visible to the naked eye.

In hindsight, we should have gotten in the SUV and drove up a hill, but we figured if the Aurora showed, we would see it. And, I’m sure we would have.

Hence, unfinished business.

BUT, we were greeted with spectacular sunrises each morning at around 10.30am, and beautiful sunsets at around 4.30pm. The stars were bright in the sky above us—I’ve never seen so many—and we made wishes on shooting stars.

It was magical.

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North Pole

If you’re visiting Fairbanks, then a trip to the North Pole is a must! Only a 15-minute drive away, the North Pole is, of course, home to Santa and his reindeer.

Unfortunately, Santa was taking a break after his busy Christmas schedule, so we didn’t get to see him; but we were more than impressed with his house of Christmas goodies. There were ornaments, decorations, fairy lights, and nutcrackers galore.

I fell head over heels for one of the nutcrackers, and after a few minutes deliberation, had a true #YOLO moment and took him home with me. No regrets. I’ve named him Radagast, as he reminds me of Radagast the Brown from the Lord of the Rings series.

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Chena Hot Springs

A trip to Fairbanks isn’t complete without a dip in the Chena Hot Springs.

An hours drive away, the hot spring is situated in the Chena Resort, and offers a naturally heated pool in the frozen outdoors. Parts of the pool were a little hot for us, but overall we really enjoyed relaxing in the warm water, with steam all around, and an expansive mountain range in the distance.

The drive out there is also really breathtaking—Alaska is largely untouched, and we really loved seeing all the endless snow-covered trees, the mountains, and the frozen rivers.

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Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Tripadvisor told us that the Auto Museum was the top attraction in Fairbanks, so we were keen to check it out, and it did not disappoint.

There were so many restored and magnificent old cars to look at and learn about. I especially enjoyed seeing how much the cars had changed over the years. The first cars in Alaska were more like powered sleds, and could easily navigate over the snowy roads.

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Snow Shoeing

Our lodging in Fairbanks came with two pairs of snowshoes, so we strapped them on and trekked around the nearby forest. The snow was so deep in places, and it was a great way to explore the area and have some fun!

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Murphy Dome Road

We drove up Murphy Dome Road for our final sunset and were rewarded with the most spectacular views.

We didn’t manage to get all the way up to Murphy Dome, as the road was very icy in parts, it would be dark before long, and we didn’t know the area well; but we were super impressed with what we did see, and are keen to explore this area further next time.

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Reindeer

Aside from the Northern Lights, Reindeer were something I was so excited to see in Alaska.

We spotted a small herd at the Fairbanks University, but weren’t able to get close enough for some decent photos. There were also some living at the North Pole, but again, we only saw them through the fence.

I had planned on booking us in for a Reindeer tour, but unfortunately the owners were away on holiday during the time we were there, so we missed out. Hence, unfinished business.

Overall

Fairbanks is a beautiful and friendly place that we are definitely keen to come back to.

Aside from our unfinished business, we really enjoyed our time here. Fairbanks gave us a chance to unwind, relax, and take it easy—due to the shorter days—but also gave us the snowy winter wonderland that we love.

And that’s why it is still on my bucket list.

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Have you been to Alaska before?
Where would you go?
Is Fairbanks now on your bucket list?

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Why Alaska is still on my bucket list

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Author: Michelle

Michelle Harvey is a kiwi traveller, writer, photographer, list-maker, coffee drinker, and wanderer. Winter holidays are her favourite kind.

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