In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I've embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.
You know you've considered it: "What if I went skiing this year... in Alaska? But then, the inevitable list of excuses rolls in: the flight's further, it's more expensive, none of my friends would come, I can't reasonably drive it should I want to, etc. Pish posh. Utah may lay claim to The Greatest Snow on Earth, but Utah hasn't met Alaska. Girdwood, Alaska -- just 45 minutes outside of Anchorage -- is home to Alyeska Ski Resort & Hotel, an increasingly luxurious stop for those who've grown tired of the challenges found in America's Mountain Time Zone. What's most staggering about Mount Alyeska isn't the near-4,000 foot top elevation, but the 250 foot base elevation. Going from 250 feet to nearly 4,000 is truly a sight to behold -- it's not everyday that you find a ski resort with its base at sea level, you know? Read on to find out a little more about winter gem, and why should most definitely bring an appetite while visiting.
An overview and peek inside of Hotel Alyeska, plus a ride up the scenic tram
Frankly, Alyeska has a lot of things going for it. For one, it's located in Girdwood. It's just a 45 minute haul to ANC, but it feel miles apart. It's definitely got that "ski town" vibe, much like Whitefish, Montana. Forget about dodging the haughty and uppity here -- Alaska wouldn't be caught dead trying to be Park City. Girdwood's also served by a Glacier Valley Transit shuttle, which is free to use for Alyeska guests. It'll take you to a number of locally owned (and infinitely cute) eateries, with The Bake Shop, Chair 5 and Double Musky earning high marks from the locals. You'll also be able to scoot down to the Tesoro station, home to Coast Pizza, a killer ice cream stop and the Tourist Trap Gift Shop; contrary to its title, the latter is also home to Glacier City Snowmobile Tours, which is a discussion deserving its own attention.
Secondly, there's Mount Alyeska, which is surrounded by its colleagues in the Chugach mountain range. What else can you say? The scene is just gorgeous. There's just something about being at sea level and looking up at a peak that's three-quarters of a mile high that takes your breath away. Those postcards and screensavers you've seen of Alaska? Yeah, a good portion of 'em are right here. The mountain is in impeccable shape, and while the majority of runs cater towards advanced and expert skiers, there's a sliver of novice courses as well. 'Course, those who are really looking to get crazy can select from a myriad heliskiing operations in the area. The weekends are bolstered by night skiing, and with one of the longest ski seasons in North America, you won't have to squeeze your ski trip into the months of January and February (unless you're keen on it).
Then, there's the hotel. If you're coming to Mount Alyeska, you might as well stay at a ski-in / ski-out property, right? Aside from having an GVT shuttle run by the hotel every so often, you're also able to pick up the Alyeska Tram or just walk right out and catch a lower lift from the rear of the hotel. During my stay here, I couldn't have been more pleased with the layout. The recent renovations (2007) are immediately noticeable -- the lodge and common areas are simply gorgeous, and you'll find more food options that you'll know what to do with. I was also a bit taken aback by just how kind the staff was -- they aren't charging 5-star prices here, but you'll have no issues getting waited on should you need anything. The pool and spa area was also a real boon for weakened, weary bones after a day out on the slopes, and the rooms themselves were both modern and well-equipped. Free bottles of Alaska's own Glacierblend water at night? Check. A Serta pillowtop mattress (one to die for)? Yep. Free in-room Internet? It's there, as is free Wi-Fi in the commons areas. It's hard to put a price on being able to walk right out of the hotel and into the snow, but for those who've dealt with de-gearing and making an hour-long trek back to a resort after skiing, you'll probably have an easier time assessing a value.
Finally, there's Seven Glaciers. Oh, Seven Glaciers. The whole experience of this place is second to none. First off, you have to grab a ride in the Alyeksa Tram to get to it. It's a AAA Four Diamond, mountain-top restaurant, which means that you'll be eating while looking out at the Chugach mountain range. Quite honestly, this along would warrant a visit even if the food were horrific, but I'm happy to report that it's the polar opposite. Not only is the food beyond outstanding, but Chef Jason Porter does an immaculate job with the presentation. Service is top-notch, the wine list requires a book of its own to peruse, and if you're terrified of food being "faniced up" just for the sake of charging you an arm and a leg, you'll be happy to know that your fears are no good here. This really is Alaskan dining at its finest, and even southern legends like Paula Deen have dropped by for a bite. If you're desperate for a recommendation, I'd say make a reservation (that entitles you to a gratis (and redicuously beautiful) ride on the tram) and grab the scallops or Wagyu beef.
You've probably heard mainlanders gripe about how Alaska's "dark all winter," but that actually couldn't be further from the truth. I saw daylight from ~8am to ~6:15pm during my stay in late February, and couldn't have been more thrilled with the weather. If you're not into skiing or snowboarding (or you're traveling with someone who fits that description), you'll find plenty to do nearby: gold panning at Crow Creek Mine, bore tide viewing, dog sledding, snowshowing and hiking / biking. My suggestion? Push aside any hesitations you may have had about trekking to The Last Frontier in the winter -- you'll dodge the crowds, savor the snow and have everyone back in Utah teeming with envy. We kid, we kid... sort of.