Trips to Alaska

The state of Alaska is one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48 states (those below Canada) and is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined. If you were to superimpose Alaska onto the lower 48, it would stretch from coast to coast. Here, big really means gigantic.

Alaska's name is based on the Eskimo word Alakshak meaning great lands, or peninsula, and with over 33,000 miles of shoreline and 586,000 square miles of terrain, there is certainly a lot to see. From sheer mountain peaks and fjords to rolling Arctic tundra and meandering glaciers – the geography is astounding.

With some of the most varied heritage and history in North America, Alaska is one of the greatest states to explore, including sights such as the former capital of Russian America and the last remaining settlement of the indigenous Nunamiut Inupiat Eskimo in Alaska.

The three largest state cities are Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, with the latter being the state capital. In addition, there are numerous small towns, villages, hamlets and farmsteads, all combining to make a population of just over 730,000. No matter where you travel to in Alaska, you'll be made to feel extremely welcome and you are sure to fall in love with the relaxed pace of life.

Furthermore, the abundance and diversity of wildlife within this part of America is incredible. Amongst others, huge numbers of bald eagles, brown and black bear, caribou, moose, whales and porpoises can be found throughout the state. Even if you're not a wildlife enthusiast, the sight of a whale's fluke (tail) coming up and out of the water, or a brown bear catching salmon with its paws is sure to leave you feeling closer to nature than ever before.

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Geography and climate
Alaska forms the top rim of the 'Ring of Fire' that surrounds North and South America, as well as New Zealand, Southeast Asia and Russia and it is here, where two major tectonic plates meet and some of the most spectacular scenery on earth has been created. Home to 17 out of the 20 highest peaks in North America, roughly 100,000 glaciers, the third longest river in the U.S. (the Yukon), and the easternmost, westernmost and northernmost points in the United States: Alaska has a lot to boast about.

Within an area as vast as Alaska, you can travel through a huge array of landscapes: from a polar region in the far north to a temperate rainforest in the southeast - with a multitude of glacial fields, rocky islands, fjords, mountains and wild plains in between.

A common misconception is that Alaska only experiences bad weather. This is far from the truth, as the state has a short, temperate summer climate that often averages between 14-32° C with many visitors finding the weather to be better than expected. However, it is wise to remember, that without a bit of rain, Alaska would not be so unbelievably stunning and the sightseeing opportunities would be far less spectacular!

Wintertime can see extreme temperatures (ranging from roughly -2 to -30° C) depending on which part of the state you are in. Huge amounts of snow and ice create beautiful frozen landscapes of lakes, mountains and tundra that are just as breathtaking as anything that summer has to offer.

A third of Alaska lies within the Arctic Circle and thanks to its high latitude; the summer sees long daylight hours, with the Midnight Sun visible in certain parts. Equally, in the winter, most parts only receive a few hours of daylight, with the most northern parts experiencing 24 hours of darkness. Again, thanks to the high latitude, Alaska is an ideal place to hunt for the Aurora Borealis with a viewing season stretching from September through to mid-April; although the dead of winter is often regarded as the best time to hopefully spot them.

Food and drink
Most of the state's culinary styles come from the traditional cooking of its native people, which utilises the vast array of natural ingredients that are available.

Alaska's cold-water seafood is the centrepiece of their cuisine. With arguably the world's best wild salmon, as well as world-famous Alaskan King Crabs, halibut, cod and shrimp, the seafood on offer here is top quality. The Alaskans certainly know how to cook and you can quite happily eat a different kind of fish cooked a different way, each and every day you are here.

It's not all about seafood, however, as the Alaskans are also famed for enjoying large game animals through their permitted hunting rights. Animals such as moose, caribou and elk are commonplace and often provide enough food for families to last the year.

In the summertime, Alaska enjoys a plentiful supply of wild berries, including blueberries, cranberries and salmonberries that help to add to any dessert...or a peckish hiker's lunchbox. Alaskans are also known for their ability to bake. Here at Artisan Travel, one of our favourite spots is the Talkeetna Roadhouse: renowned for their in-house bakery and café, with giant cinnamon rolls, sourdough hotcakes, fresh breads, pies and cookies. This is where mountaineers come to eat in the morning, prior to the arduous climb up the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, which is a sound testament to their food.

The state offers numerous top class cafés, eateries and restaurants that make use of the region's quality food by serving traditional dishes and more cosmopolitan style menus. Your dining choices are endless.

Food is not their only strong point: Alaskans are beginning to build a reputation for some of the best micro-breweries in North America. From Sitka and Juneau in the southeast, Anchorage and Talkeetna in south-central, and Fairbanks in the interior: their beers vary in taste and style. The best way to try them is to buy a 'flight' of 4 or 5 beers in 5oz glasses.

So, whatever your food and drink preferences, you are sure to find something to please whilst you are in Alaska.

Economy and culture
It is believed that Alaska's native people originated in Asia, crossing over the Bering Land Bridge over 12,000 years ago and settling within the state. This rich heritage is still prevalent today, wherever you travel. Native communities and their culture and traditions can be experienced and understood throughout the area, with beautiful totem poles, ceremonial costumes and exquisite artwork found up and down Alaska.

It was not until 1784 that the first non-native settlement was established by Russian whalers and fur traders on Kodiak Island. The Russians quietly exploited the area's natural resources and built up a lucrative trade selling fur to the Chinese. They established the capital city of Sitka on Baranof Island, southeast Alaska and this became a thriving trade hub.

Over 80 years later, in 1867, America purchased Alaska from Russia. Then, in 1959, Alaska officially became the 49th state.

Alaska is renowned for ushering in the gold rush era when the first big find was made by Joe Juneau in 1880. This sparked the rush and brought in a wave of people, machines and infrastructure - the evidence of which is still visible today.

Nowadays, Alaska's most important revenue source is the oil and natural gas industry, accounting for over 25% of the oil produced in the United States. Indeed, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline moves up to 88,000 barrels of oil per hour. Second to this, Alaska's largest industry is fishing and seafood, with tourism a close third.

Alaska is regarded as America's 'Last Frontier' and so it is to be expected that this part of the world and the people that live here have a slightly different approach to life. They pack in as much as they can during the summer months, making the most of the long daylight hours, preparing themselves for the winter ahead. If unprepared, the terrain and climate can be harsh and unforgiving, but with the right approach, it can also be incredibly rewarding and beautiful beyond belief.

There's so much to see and do that the hardest part is picking where to go. You could spend months exploring what Alaska has to offer and still only scratch the surface. The possibilities are endless and the opportunities are unbelievable.

Image credits: © State of Alaska & Michael DeYoung, Frank Flavin, Nicole Geils, Visit Anchorage, Matt Hage, Chris McLennan, Sherman Hogue & Explore Fairbanks, Nicola Geils

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