Travel

Holiday air travel has been headache-inducing. Here are options for exploring Alaska’s winter wonderland instead.

The aurora borealis, pictured near Fairbanks

It’s been a really tough season for airlines and air travelers.

Between snowstorms, freezing rain, flight cancellations, lost bags and stranded flyers, it’s fair to say the Grinch stole Christmas for a lot of travelers this year.

So when a friend called last week and asked if he should stick to his plans to visit the Lower 48, what did I say?

“Run away,” I said.

Looking at the mess at Sea-Tac, I encouraged him to reschedule for another time and enjoy a relaxing holiday here in Alaska.

The two of them treated themselves to a day at the new Nordic Spa at Alyeska Resort.

“The hydrotherapy package is definitely the most popular option at the spa,” said Miranda Fafard, the resort’s marketing director. “The cost is $119 per person, and you have access to the hot, cold and warm pools from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” she said.

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If you need some extra help to relax after abandoning your air travel plans, book a massage. But you’d better plan ahead for that. “The massage appointments are filling up,” said Fafard. There also are yoga classes that Fafard calls “yoga with a view,” since there are floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the mountain.

Staying here in Alaska is a better idea than flying through Seattle, Portland or any Lower 48 gateway right now. Let the airports and the airlines clean up their collective mess for the next week or two.

The white snow is a different feel than the sandy beach, that’s for sure. But layer up and check out some of the adventures north of Anchorage.

Up in Talkeetna, Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey offers tours where you can mush your own dog team. After getting a lesson about dog sledding, you can drive a dog team for 45 minutes on Seavey’s private trails. Take some time at the end to meet some Iditarod champion sled dogs — and play with the puppies.

Talkeetna has an extensive trail system around town. The Talkeetna Gear Shop, located next to the airport, rents fat bikes, skis or snowshoes so you can get out and see the country.

Alaska Wild Guides operates a daily trip from Talkeetna on snowmachines up to a big yurt with a view of Denali. There, Iditarod musher Rick Casillo will meet you in the yurt to give you a primer on mushing a dog team. Then, you can try it out with one of the teams. Hold on! Not all tours offer the sled-driving option, but all include a chance to see the dogs!

Alaska Wild Guides also offer daily snowmachine trips from Girdwood up to Spencer Glacier. All your gear is included, so you’ll stay warm and dry.

If you want a real wintertime adventure, why not take the Alaska Railroad’s weekly Aurora Winter Train to Fairbanks? The northbound train leaves each Saturday morning. After an overnight stay in Fairbanks, the train comes back each Sunday morning. The 12-hour ride is a lot of fun, but I’d risk a trip to the airport rather than spend another whole day riding the rails on the way back.

You can bring your own snacks on board the railroad for the trip. The train stops from time to time, whether to drop off passengers or to view a particularly stunning vista.

Up in Fairbanks, the big attraction is viewing the aurora borealis. There are a number of ways to do that. If you’re staying in town, check out one of the nightly tours that will pick you up and take you to where they think you’ll see the lights.

Aaron Lojewski of Fairbanks Aurora Tours captures some amazing images and posts them on his Instagram page. Lojewski favors the mobility of the van, since sometimes the best viewing locations are cloudy.

Northern Alaska Tour Co. offers a selection of aurora-viewing tours. One goes north each evening to Joy, about 90 minutes north of Fairbanks. Grab a hot cup of coffee inside where it’s warm, while waiting for the northern lights to come out.

Northern Alaska also offers a more extensive trip up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot, in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Although the company offers a one-day fly/drive package, serious aurora hunters budget a couple of days to see the lights, in case it’s cloudy.

Check with Explore Fairbanks for a long list of other activities in the area. Choose from more dogsled tours, a walk with reindeer, ice fishing, skiing, snowmachine tours and even some curling.

In February, Fairbanks will host the annual Ice Carving Championships. And all winter long you can see ice carvers at work up at Chena Hot Springs, 60 miles outside of Fairbanks. It may be chilly on the drive out there — but the water is nice and hot if you want to warm up. Near the hot spring pools is the ice museum, where the husband-wife championship ice-carving team of Steve and Heather Brice are working. They’ll carve you an ice glass. That way you can sit at the ice bar in the ice museum and have a cocktail.

Exploring Alaska’s winter wonderland is fun. But hey — I’ve got a couple of trips coming up and all the planes go through Seattle. So, along with many other travelers, I’m waiting and watching for air operations to become more dependable again.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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