It’s America’s last frontier, as remote and exotic as you can get without using a passport. Alaska offers some of the most magnificent wildlife experiences in the world, yet it remains a mystery to many. Its sheer size is daunting and there is a distinct lack of roads. But with the 100th anniversary of the National Parks focusing attention on the great outdoors, now is a great time to visit a state with vast, untrammeled wilderness. The keys to enjoying an Alaskan vacation are to let go of the idea of seeing everything and focus on just one or two destinations (and choose by lodge rather than location). Start by deciding between mountain lakes or saltwater inlets—or a combination of both. Here are 10 more things to know about planning an Alaskan vacation.
1. There’s a lot more to do than fish.
There’s a misperception that casting and trawling are the only reasons to visit. But only 10% of people who come to Alaska do so to catch fish. You can also hike, mountain bike, heli-ski, kayak, paddle SUP boards, raft, flightsee, watch bears or birds and even surf. There are lots of high-end fishing-focused lodges, but plenty of others have more diverse offerings in addition. Owned in part by an Olympic gold medalist, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is the base for superb heli-hiking and skiing. Favorite Bay Lodge has spectacular bear viewing, and if the owner is in residence, as him to take you mushroom foraging. www.tordrillomountainlodge.com; www.favoritebay.com
2. You’ll have to get over your fear of flying.
Nineteen-fifties-vintage floatplanes and helicopters are to Alaskans what cars are to the rest of us—and they are the only way to reach many places. It’s not just transfers; adventure lodges like the spectacular Ultima Thule and the homey, fishing-forward Crystal Creek base their activities around two- and four-seater planes. If you’re prone to motion sickness, pack ginger candies or Dramamine. ultimathulelodge.com; crystalcreeklodge.com
3. Understand the seasons.
Summer in Alaska is short, touching only June, July and August, but May and September are less crowded months to visit (and rates are lower). Winter is a good time to travel so as to see the Northern Lights. Spring is prime heli-skiing season. (Note that Alaska skiing is virtually all backcountry; there’s just one lift in the state.) Indagare Tip: Around the equinoxes, sunrises and sunsets shift by nearly 10 minutes a day, so the transitions between seasons are abrupt—a week can make a big difference.
4. Pack layers and rain gear.
The old “four seasons in a day” cliché holds true here. Guides are undeterred by rain, so it’s best to be prepared to play along. Hand warmers come in handy during shoulder season and at elevation. Bring waterproof boots for wet landings via boat or floatplane.
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5. Pad your itinerary.
Small planes don’t fly in the fog, which is common here. Long flight delays are another inevitable occurrence. Don’t count on getting from a remote lodge to Anchorage right before a long-haul flight, or even from one lodge to another in the same day. Like it or not, it’s best to embrace Anchorage and any overnights you have to spend there. While the city has no fabulous hotels, the Lakefront Anchorage is a comfortable place to crash near the airport and seaplane base, and the Captain Cook downtown has some local color and is within walking distance of many restaurants and bars (millenniumhotels.com/en/anchorage/the-lakefront-anchorage; captaincook.com). The Bubbly Mermaid Oyster Bar (417 D St; 619-665-2852), 49th State Brewing Company (717 W 3rd Ave; 907-277-7727) South (11124 Old Seward Hwy; 907-770-9200) and Simon and Seafort’s (420 L St; 907-274-3502) are good places to eat and drink.
6. Book early and don’t wing anything.
The luxury lodges of Alaska are small and sell out far in advance. The same goes for flights (which the lodges generally book for you) and roadside cabins. Rental cars can be expensive and hard to book last-minute, and tours fill up. And if you’re driving, don’t ever assume you’ll see another gas station anytime soon, so take fuel precautions. Overall, remember that Mother Nature calls the shots, so be prepared to go with the flow.
7. Taking a cruise doesn’t mean being confined on a huge ship.
UnCruise Adventures’ Alaska ships hold fewer than 100 passengers, and their programming focuses on getting guests off the boat and into the wild (www.uncruise.com).
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8. The best place to see the Iditarod is Winterlake Lodge.
The property is the first mandatory checkpoint on the 1,100-mile dogsledding trail, and the family that owns it are mushers themselves (they host an ice cream social on the first night of the race) (withinthewild.com/lodges/winterlake). Winterlake and its sister lodge, Tutka Bay, serve hands-down the best lodge food in Alaska (withinthewild.com/lodges/tutka-bay).
9. The culture can be as interesting as the nature.
Put that time in Anchorage to edifying use. The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center within the Anchorage Museum is excellent, as is the Alaska Native Heritage Center (anchoragemuseum.org; www.alaskanative.net).
10. Dressing up means putting on a clean fleece.
Don’t bother bringing anything fancy, even when traveling on a cruise ship.