Travelspot: How Alaska stole my Heart!

"To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world." - John Muir

I have travelled to a lot of very different places over the years. After each trip, I have a coffee table book printed with all the photographs of the holiday, and it is amazing when I look through these albums every few years, to see how many beautiful places I was fortunate enough to explore.

Generally I am a city girl. When I land in Rome, London or New York, I feel at home right away. It is just something inside of you that starts tingling, and make a smile appear on your face. Over the years, some of my favourite places have become like a person, whom I miss fondly from time to time, and yearn to visit again. 

Alaska from the airplane
Having said that, nothing could have prepared me for how Alaska would blow me away, steal my heart, and change the course of my entire life forever. Move over Rome and New York, I am in love!

I always wanted to tick Alaska off of my Bucket List, but from South Africa, that is probably one of the farthest points you can ever travel to. Our journey took about 40 hours with all the lay overs! (South Africa to London, then to Canada where we joined my parents, from there to Seattle, because that is the only point from where you can fly into Alaska, and another few hours to Anchorage). Subsequently this makes an Alaskan trip for us very expensive, but trust me, so worth it.
Waterfalls everywhere!

We went in July, so it was during their four months summer period that we experienced this untouched, beautiful, serene destination. From the moment we stepped off of the plane, everything was different: The wildlife, scenery, vegetation and even cloud formations were spectacular. It sounds so corny, but the absolute truth is that literally every moment took my breath away - granted we were there in summer, and we were very active... ;-)

Mountains & pink flowers
During this time of year, there is no night. Yep, 24 hours of sunshine delight, and they really take advantage of that. You can go play golf after dinner, and the vegetables grow like crazy with 24 hour sunshine to benefit from. I saw a cabbage so big that I couldn't even pick it up with my two hands! After the fourth day, we were so exhausted, and only then realised that we are cramming too much into a day, just because we are fooled by the constant sunshine!

These are also their top (or rather only) tourism months, so just beware, because the price of everything is four times the normal price! 

I am not a big fan of the general shallow American lifestyle, but the Alaskan people are different. They are very in touch with nature, and believe in sustainable living. They live under extremely harsh conditions, and are very dependent on their communities, even though (or especially because) they might be 50 miles apart from their neighbours. 

It is like stepping into a different era, a time before we all became so totally disconnected by technology and our many social connections. Historically, Alaska is a place that has attracted those fed up with conventionality - I think I can fit right in...

The most prominent thing I remember about Alaska, is the clear blue sky, the snow capped mountains, the melting snow that created literally thousands of mile high waterfalls, constantly flowing every few meters, the green mountains, the pretty pink flowers that are just scattered over the whole earth, and quite a lot of moose crossing the roads. For sheer majestic geography and sublime scale, nothing beats Alaska.

Harbour @ Seward

We started in Anchorage, a charming little city and very central to almost everything you can think of doing. From there we went to Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords, Girdwood and Seward, on scenic one day trips. We also went on a few boat trips to see the wildlife and glaciers in the area. It was incredible to see the wild life that we are not used to in Africa, like the Otters, Puffins, as well as the Mountain Goats. The one trip we did had 28 glaciers in one bay to view! Just remember, even though it is summer, everything on or near the water is still a bit chilly.

Alaskan Liquid Gold
We visited their History Museum, and it was sad to see that even they have had a very long, sad history. From where America bought Alaska for next to nothing from Russia, the subsequent animosity and struggles, and how they had to adapt to harsh weather and social and economic conditions to self-preserve. 

I also didn't realise how much money they are making from their fur trade. They call it liquid gold. When you visit their art galleries, I found that everything had a dark, almost sinister undertone, testament to what it takes to survive in this wilderness. This is truly the last frontier.

The next day we travelled up to Denali, where we stayed for a few glorious clear sunshiny days. Denali is one of the highest mountains in the world, quite spectacular, and always covered in snow and under clouds. They say you have a bigger chance of bumping into a bear, than actually seeing the mountain, because of the weather and clouds. We were so fortunate so see Denali for the entire four days we were there! Not a cloud in sight. Truly magnificent...

We also went water rafting in a glacier river. That was quite an experience as you make your way for four hours through some of the most spectacular scenery. Every time the water gets a bit rough and you get a splash in the face, you are reminded that this water is really coming from a glacier, freezing cold. They call it a "Glacial Facial". I love the turquoise colour of the glacier water all over Canada and Alaska.

Inuit Village
Our next stop was Fairbanks. This is is a place where I can definitely live! We went on a Mississippi boat trip on the river, and had quite an interactive show from the locals on the shore all along the river! 

We saw a husky breeding farm, which was started by Susan Butcher, a remarkable woman who is an Alaskan legend. She won the Iditerod race seven times, when nobody even thought she had a chance to survive the first one. She died recently of cancer, but her husband is continuing her wonderful legacy. The huskies gave us quite a show I must say. Next on the river, we visited an Inuit village, and learnt about Salmon farming and drying (that is how they feed their animals during the cold winter months). They also had a water plane take off next to us, and the houses we viewed on the riverbank was absolutely spectacular mansions, each with their plane and boat docked outside on the river.

One evening we went to a local theatre, where they did a musical about the history of Fairbanks. Being a musical fan, I must say that I did not expect much, but went anyway. Boy did they surprise us! We were clapping along, laughing out loud, and all around just had the most memorable night on the trip! The singers were especially good, and the piano player in the corner made us travel right back into the olden gold digging days, with a decent shot of humour!

Santa's House @ North Pole
From there we went up to the North Pole. No, not the geographic al North Pole (although it is pretty far north anyway), but a tiny little town outside of Fairbanks, called the North Pole. The whole town has Christmas all year long! The road signs are all candy bars, and Santa has a house there, complete with reindeer and sleigh, where you can go visit him and buy Christmas decorations all year round (yes, apparently Santa is real, and he he has the papers to show for it)! There are letters and requests from children all over the world on display, and you can post a letter from Santa's very own post office box right there in the store!

If you want to do boat cruises to see wild life and glaciers, the best place to do it is around the Prince William Sound area. We did two cruises: one from Whittier and one from Seward. Both were spectacular, and I would do both of them again. It is quite different seeing glaciers break into the sea on television, and then experiencing it in real life... It was indescribable! Passing by thousands of waterfalls, jellyfish, otters, seals, puffins, and countless glaciers, all in a days work. Truly a memory for a lifetime. 

Afterwards we visited the sea life centre in Seward, and although small, they had everything we wanted to see. On our way back, we stopped at a little village named Girdwood, where we went up in a cable car to admire the views of this very European-like ski resort. It's picturesque scenery also makes for wonderful day of hiking, if you have enough time.

Next it was off to the Wildlife Conservation Centre, to see whether the bears are just an Alaskan rumour... It is a brilliant, vast, well kept "sanctuary" where they have Bison, Elk, Moose, Brown and Black Bear, Musk Ox, Eagles and more in huge contained areas, where they can roam free, but safe. You can walk or drive this route, it is perfectly safe and not too big to walk around.

On our way back, we ended up next to an elderly man on the plane who just went salmon fishing in Alaska for two weeks with his friends. He showed us amazing photos of the bears and other wildlife he encountered. He told us his story, and it is exactly the same story that we have heard from so many other people on our visit: he came for a once in a lifetime experience, and then came back every year since. People seem to do Alaska as a bucket list item, but then fall in love with the place and keep on returning every chance they get.

I get that. I left a piece of my heart in Alaska, and barely a day goes by that I do not think about, or long to go visit it again. Why is it that Alaska crawled into my heart? I guess after being there, I realised that I am secretly dreaming of a simpler life. A life where everything still has value, where time goes by slowly, and where e-mails don't have to be attended to hourly.

I am dreaming of returning soon to this spectacular, breathtaking place, that stole my heart so unexpectedly....

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