Travel

Mother and son take in Alaska's winter wonders

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Last winter, my 10-year-old son and I headed to a destination that had friends and family wondering if we'd lost our minds. We went to Fairbanks. In February.

We hoped to see the northern lights, although we knew there were no guarantees. If you stay three nights in the area, locals say, you have a 75 percent likelihood of witnessing the phenomenon, but cloud cover or snow falling can ruin your chances. We got lucky and saw them twice in three nights.

We also did so much more. In Fairbanks, we visited an ice park, saw ice sculptures and toured the Museum of the North. At Chena Hot Springs Resort, about 60 miles from Fairbanks, we went dogsledding and snowmobiling, soaked in an outdoor hot tub surrounded by snow, and visited an ice museum and a geothermal energy plant.

We don't get much snow in New York City, where we live, so the trip also cured our snow deficit. My son Nathaniel loved rolling down snowy hills and climbing up snowpacked river banks.

We'd been to Alaska once before — in the summer, like most tourists. We fell in love with the landscape and wildlife, and we became obsessed with everything about the state. We read books, talked endlessly about our trip (him in school, me at work), showed off our photos, and quizzed anyone we met who'd been there.

Only about 250,000 tourists venture to Alaska from October to April, compared to 1.7 million summer visitors. Most winter tourists are like us — 75 percent are making their second trip to the state, according to the most recent data from the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program.

My husband and teenage son declined to accompany us, although they had been on the summer trip. Husband said he had to work; teenager headed to a warm beach with a friend's family. I wondered whether they were right to take a pass when I checked the weather in Fairbanks a few weeks before our trip: Temperatures in early February had set record lows in the minus-50s.

We bought and borrowed heavy-duty outerwear, and we hoped it would warm up. It did, with temps in the 20s and 30s. We were fine outside for hours at a time.

We also experienced a cultural immersion. Alaska gets thousands of Japanese visitors each winter. Seeing the northern lights is "on their life list," Chena spokeswoman Denise Ferree said.

My son and I shared the Japanese tourists' exclamations of joy when we spotted the northern lights.

If all this gets you dreaming of your own visit to Alaska this winter, the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau can help (www.explorefairbanks.com or 1-800-327-5774). Meanwhile, here are highlights and practical information from our trip.

Day 1: We landed in Fairbanks in late afternoon and headed to our hotel for dinner and a nap (Alaska is four hours earlier than Eastern Time). We arranged for a 10 p.m. pickup to see the northern lights at the Aurora Borealis Lodge (www.auroracabin.com. (907) 389-2812. $75 a person; overnight accommodations, $169-$224). Lodge owner Mok Kumagai picks guests up at hotels downtown and takes them away from city lights to see the aurora. We stayed at his home until 2 a.m., napping in his loft before being awakened by exclamations of "Aurora!" from his Japanese guests when the light show began.

Days 2 and 3: We previewed Fairbanks' Ice Park, where the World Ice Art Championships take place. The park has slides and other playground structures made from ice, along with larger-than-life ice sculptures. (Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Feb. 24-March 22. www.icealaska.com.) The sculptors chisel and carve Feb. 24 to 26 and March 1 to 6, and the creations are finished and lighted on Feb. 27 and March 7.

Then we headed to Chena Hot Springs Resort. Our visit included dogsledding through snowy woods, and playing with sled dogs and their puppies; snowmobiling with a guide; dips in the hot tubs and hot lake, where the water is 165 degrees (children are not allowed in the lake); and tours of the resort's Aurora Ice Museum and geothermal energy plant. The resort also offers horse-drawn sleigh rides, "flight seeing" and massage.

Chena Hot Springs, open year-round, was discovered in 1905 by surveyors and enjoyed by gold miners of the era. The resort uses the springs' naturally hot water to generate all of its energy; indoor temperatures are toasty, and my son learned about the science behind the power plant on a tour.

The ice museum looks like a giant igloo. Inside are whimsical ice carvings of animals, chess pieces and furniture. I had an appletini in a glass carved from ice, at a bar carved from ice. Colored lights infuse the place with psychedelic hues.

A few tips: You can rent parkas and boots from the resort. There is no town nearby, so you'll eat all meals there. We found the food good and reasonably priced; lettuce is grown in a geothermally heated greenhouse.

The water from the springs is sulfuric, and some people don't like the odor. We were too taken with the novelty of sitting outside in our bathing suits, surrounded by snow. Internet service is available only in the activities center. (www.chenahotsprings.com. (907) 451-8104. Room rates start at $179 a night; packages available. Van transportation from Fairbanks can be arranged 72 hours in advance for a fee.)

Day 4: Back in Fairbanks, my son had a blast climbing the snowy banks of the Chena River. Then we headed out to the Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska campus. My son was fascinated by displays on Alaska's animals, from mammoths and mastodons to bears and wolves. I liked the history of the gold miners, the frontier era and native culture. The museum has a sound-light installation called The Place Where You Go to Listen. Computers create sounds and images using real-time data from seismic stations and magnetometers that track earthquake and auroral activity, and the colors and sounds change with the position of the sun (www.uaf.edu/museum). Museum winter hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Admission $10. It's a $15-$20 taxi ride from downtown, or take the Airlink shuttle from the airport.)

Fairbanks' many restaurants include 25 offering Asian cuisine. We ate at Lemongrass, one of 10 local Thai eateries, before heading home.

There was no snow when we got home; we put away our ski gloves. And the trip didn't cure our Alaska obsession. We're still reading about Alaska (my son surprised his fifth-grade teacher by tackling Jack London), and we're dreaming of our next trip — to the Arctic Circle.

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