To fall back on an overused but oh-so-apt cliché, Alaska really is one of the world’s last great untamed wildernesses. I’ve been lucky enough to visit this vast, gobsmackingly beautiful state twice – the first time on a road-trip through the southeast a few years back, and again a few months ago as an attendee of an Adventure Travel Trade Association conference in Anchorage. On both trips, I was blown away by Alaska’s dramatic landscapes and amazing wildlife. But, as I found out for myself, there’s plenty more to Alaska, along with with some particularly good reasons to get there quick. Here’s six of ’em.
Alaska’s craft brew scene is going gangbusters
Alaska might still be a bit behind in the culinary arena, but its microbrew scene has got serious game. There are now about dozen microbreweries (and counting) throughout the state, brewing everything from ‘breakfast beer’ (Kenai River Brewing Co) to life-changing IPAs (Denali Brewing Co). If you’re passing through Anchorage, make time for a pint at the 49th State Brewing Co Brewpub. Aside from being a cool bar, its Solstice IPA is seriously good. I also had a chance to check out HooDoo Brewing Co in Fairbanks. The industrial-styled brewery on the edge of town has a nice big beer garden out front, perfect for throwing back a few of their signature American IPAs (yes, I like IPA) with the locals.
Alaska has become one of the best places in the world to see polar bears
Thirty years ago, it wasn’t particularly common to see polar bears hanging out on Alaska’s Arctic Coast. But in less than a decade, they’ve been appearing around the Inupiak Eskimo village of Kaktovic in such big numbers that a whole tourism industry has blossomed around it.
When the sea ice retreats in the summer, polar bears have to decide whether to retreat with it, or come ashore until it freezes again. Lured by the opportunity to gnaw on the bones of bowhead whales harvested by the subsistence-living community each spring, many bears in the Kaktovik area decide to come to shore during this period (which, due to the effects of global warming, is gradually increasing every year). Bear numbers fluctuate each year, but during the still-short tourist season (mid-August to mid-September), sightings are guaranteed.
Tours are conducted by boat, which allows you to get quite close to the bears that hang out on the small islands near town without bothering them. At S$1799 per person for a day trip from Fairbanks with Northern Alaska Tour Company, it’s not cheap (or particularly carbon-friendly). But having done it myself, I can guarantee you won’t regret it if you have that kind of money to spend. If I had the chance to go again, I’d look into doing a multi-day trip with more of an opportunity to interact with the local community and learn more about how they survive in such an inhospitable environment. Locals value their privacy in Kaktovik, so remember to ask permission before taking photos around town.
Alaska’s glaciers won’t look this good forever
Alaska is at the forefront of global warming, which has come as both a (short-term) blessing and a (long-term) curse for tourism. On a positive note, the ‘last chance’ tourism trend is luring travellers to Alaska in steady numbers. And longer summers caused by rising temperatures means a longer, more profitable, tourist season. Problem is, unless the world makes some big changes, Alaska’s glaciers will continue to retreat until there won’t be enough of them left to make it worth the trip to see them. And they are melting at an alarming rate – check out this amazing time-lapse of the retreat of Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier to see for yourself. Down in Kenai Fjords National Park, the Exit Glacier has retreated almost two kilometres over the past 100 years. I’ve had the privilege of doing a heli tour over the breathtaking Knik Glacier, 80km east of Anchorage, which was breathtaking. But the five kilometre-long, 120m-deep lake exposed at the glaciers’ face wasn’t there 20 years ago. And it’s getting bigger every year. So, as depressing as it sounds, it’s really worth seeing these glaciers in all their glory while you still can.
Anchorage is actually a pretty cool city
Anchorage is often dismissed as boring, ugly or unfriendly – or all three. And it has an unfortunate reputation for gun crime. But don’t write it off as a city break destination – or as as worthwhile base for day trips around the area – just yet.
I admit I wasn’t immediately enamoured by Anchorage – at first glance, the city is an unattractive jumble of concrete blocks, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much going on. But Anchorage definitely grew on me after a few days. First, it’s got one of the most stunning backdrops of any city in the country, with superb views of the Chugach Mountains to the east, and the Alaska Range rising up across the Cook Inlet to the west, which you can admire from the brilliant coastal trail that winds from downtown to Kincaid Park (where you’re bound to see a few moose). There is beauty amid the concrete, too – wandering through the city, you’ll spot a handful of huge, colourful murals that take up the whole sides of buildings. There are still some quaint family homes nestling between the high-rises, which adds a bit of novelty value. In terms of cultural attractions, the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center are both totally worth your time. And while it might not be the coolest city in the US, even Anchorage isn’t immune to hipsterfiation: earlier this year, a Prohibition-style speakeasy, Blues Central, opened downtown, and despite a proliferation of Starbucks, there’s a solid local coffee scene. A little more diversity (and affordability) in the city’s culinary and hotel offerings wouldn’t go astray, but it feel like its only a matter of time. Factor in the endless list of excursion options from the city, and Anchorage doesn’t look so bad at all.
Alaska has some of the best powder in the world
It ain’t all about summer fun in Alaska. But with the resorts of British Columbia and Colorado in closer reach for most skiers and snowboarders, why bother with Alaska, right? Well, if you’re halfway serious about riding, you’ll love powder. And virtually nowhere else on earth is it so soft and plentiful as it is in Alaska, which counts for a lot these days as the duration and intensity winter snowfall becomes a lot less predictable everywhere. The state is home to seven ski resorts, but the big draw here is heli-skiing, with most operations based out of Valdez and Haines. Alaska is famed for its steeps, so you’re likely to clock more vertical on a day heli-riding here than anywhere else in North America. You can expect to pay around US$1000 for a day package including six or seven runs, which is a bit cheaper than you’ll pay in big heli resorts like Whistler and Aspen, but there are some awesome multi-day deals going ‘round (Alaska Heli-Skiing in Haines offers five nights all-in including 18 heli-drops for US$3999).
Alaska is more culturally diverse than you might think
Thanks to reality TV, it’s easy to think that Alaska as a whole is – how shall I put it – a bit redneck. But things are changing here. As the 2016 Presidential Election proved, it’s still a conservative majority state. But Alaskans are actually more liberal than ever, according to a study by Alaska Survey Research over six years prior to 2016. Sure, you’ll still encounter people here with, er, different values, but you’ll meet plenty more open-minded folk along the way. Visiting an isolated Native community (not to mention the bizarre cemetery in Eklunta that blends Russian Orthodox and Athabascan Native burial traditions) on my last visit certainly opened my eyes to Alaska’s cultural diversity. I also met a lot of people who have moved to Alaska from other places for a variety of reasons, which adds another interesting element to the state’s unique cultural dynamic. Alaska is also an increasingly gay-friendly destination – check out Out In Alaska for more info.