City slicker: Fairbanks

This week in Fairbanks, Alaska, just 180 miles south of the Arctic Circle, they're coping with less than three hours of daylight and temperatures of -35F. Still, things aren't too bad in the run-up to Christmas - Santa lives down the road

The home of Santa: The community of North Pole, 15 miles out of Fairbanks, celebrates Christmas every day of the year. It took its name in the Fifties, in an attempt to attract toy manufacturers to locate here, with the idea that they could label their goods "Made in North Pole". None came, but the Christmas theme was taken up in other ways: a fully decorated 90ft tree stands in the middle of town all year round; streets have names like Santa Claus Lane and Kris Kringle Drive and shops never take the tinsel and lights down.

Santa Claus House is a superstore-sized gift shop that keeps every sort of Christmassy gift, and there's always a fat guy with a white beard and a red suit wandering around. The local post office gets busy at this time of the year with hundreds of letters coming in each day addressed to Santa Claus, North Pole. All of them eventually get answered by local schoolkids.

Downtown Fairbanks: The city itself is a disappointing flat sprawl. Nevertheless, as the only sizeable community in interior Alaska - it has some 80,000 residents - it is a good base for exploring not just the home of Santa but lots of other less contrived attractions.

Premier sight: The Fairbanks area is generally considered one of the best places in North America to view the aurora borealis. This swirling show of purples, reds, greens and yellows is best seen between October and April, and now is a particularly good time because of the many hours of darkness.

Getting around: Cars and snowmobiles tend to freeze up when it gets to -60F. So, on days like that, choose between snowshoes or dog sleds. Fairbanks claims to be the dog-sled centre of the world and they've got a museum dedicated to the great dog-mushers (as sled drivers are referred to round here) to prove it.

Drinking: A few whiskeys prove useful during the winter months, but Fairbanks downtown boozers are invariably rough spots. The Howling Dog Saloon, 10 miles north, is a fun roadhouse bar, especially good in the summer when there's always a midnight game of volleyball going on.

Day trip: A rather pointless, but popular, excursion is to take a minibus ride 180 miles north to the Arctic Circle. The road is unpaved for much of the way and the only other traffic is huge trucks speeding with little, or actually no, regard for smaller vehicles - most rental companies forbid their vehicles being used on this road. The point where the highway cuts the Arctic Circle is marked by a small picnic area with a big sign for the happy snappers.

Climate: While it's dark and freezing in December, Fairbanks, in the heart of the Alaskan land mass, warms up during the summer, with days of 90F not uncommon. There's also the advantage of the midnight sun, and all sorts of events go on in June, including a 10k-run starting at 10pm and a baseball game, featuring the local pro team, the Goldpanners, beginning at midnight on 21 June, when there's 22 hours of daylight and two hours of fairly bright twilight. By comparison, Barrow, on the north coast, gets 84 days of continuous light.

Wildlife: Drive out of downtown Fairbanks in any direction and it shouldn't be too long until a gangling moose comes into sight. The real treat lies just 120 miles south in Denali National Park, six million acres of tundra, glacial valleys and the 20,320ft Mount McKinlay, the highest peak in North America. Roaming the vast expanses of bleak moorland are bear, giant herds of caribou, Dall sheep and Arctic foxes. In summer, the place is thick with mosquitoes, with 25 different varieties to choose from.

TIM PERRY

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