A ski trip to the edge of the world
You're crazy, said Stephen Roe's friends. Alaska in the middle of winter will be cold, dark and miserable. He decided to go anyway. And, in a country just being discovered by the British, he wasn't disappointed with what he found
Sunday 02 November 1997
A short while earlier, we had taken off from the airstrip at Alyeska, an Alaskan ski resort carved out of a forest and surrounded by the Chugach mountains, just an hour's drive from Anchorage.
Within minutes we had buzzed a herd of caribou grazing close to the Turnagain Arm waterway, before climbing to skim the surrounding glacier peaks.
This was my first visit to Alaska and my first chance to ski through powder snow with superb sea views. Curiously, the resort base is just 250 feet above sea level but due to Alaska's extraordinary latitude, skiers can count on getting an average of 46 feet of snow each season. Another bonus is that skiing at sea level eliminates any of the debilitating effects associated with high altitude resorts.
The whole idea of travelling for some 17 hours to test the ski slopes in this remote US state had raised eyebrows among friends and colleagues who were convinced that my enthusiasm to explore new territory had finally gone too far. Why visit Alaska in the winter? Surely it would be dark and cold. In fact, it was neither.
And I was not alone. To the cynical smirks of its competitors, Crystal Holidays introduced package winter holidays to Alaska last year, partly as a publicity gimmick. Demand from those hardy Brits, always looking for a new experience, surprised even its own marketing team.
British winter sports enthusiasts are, it would seem, prepared to go to any lengths to gather new experiences and seek out fresh territory. Alaska - not only America's largest state but bigger than the next three biggest states combined - is so sparsely populated that there is almost one square mile available for each inhabitant.
In Alyeska you'll savour the whole Alaskan experience. Where else in the world can you take a day trip away from the ski lifts to watch seals playing in the surf and the occasional surfacing whale? It is well worth hiring a car to take the 90-mile drive through the Chugach National Forest to Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, trying to spot bald eagles, moose and mountain goats along the way.
At Seward, climb aboard one of several available guided launch trips to view sea otters, dolphins, seals, sea lions and, if you're lucky, a whale or two.
Taking the extensive cross-country ski trails through Alyeska's surrounding woodland you can travel for hours without seeing another soul. Sometimes you get the feeling that perhaps you really are treading ground where no one has been before.
If cross country becomes too energetic, follow the example of the locals and try skijoring, which involves being pulled along on skis by a healthy husky dog who seems all too happy to take the strain and certainly knows the way home better than you will.
Under strict instruction, I was able to drive a team of huskies, steering by yelling the Eskimo words "yee" and "haw" which the dogs understood to mean left and right, although admittedly, I couldn't always remember which was which.
Snowmobiling is another highly popular activity in Alyeska. It is fascinating to watch perfectly mild-mannered visitors from Surrey taking on the image of Hell's Angels as they mount these powerful machines as if they were Harley Davidson motorcycles and roar off into the sunset.
Heli-skiing is an easily accessible activity in Alyeska for the more adventurous, providing endless opportunities to ski some magnificent off- piste virgin snow territory. From the air, Anchorage is an awesome sight with snow-covered mountains in every direction. There are 39 ranges in all, including 17 of the highest in the USA.
For less than $50 you can take an Alpine Air ski plane through the wilderness of the surrounding hanging glacier, glacial lakes and river flood plains of Twenty Miles valley, spotting moose, caribou and, wolves and grizzly bear.
When I arrived at Alyeska's Westin Prince Hotel, I was immediately asked whether I required a wake up call if the lights appeared.
They were referring, of course, to the Aurora Borealis, a magnificent natural night sky display of shapes and patterns in shades of green, yellow, purple, red and blue which can frequently appear without warning in the winter months during the early hours of the morning. Don't miss it. It is worth losing a few hours sleep to view something you may never get a chance to see again.
You can always catch up on lost sleep with a late morning lie-in. Fortunately, early starts are not part of the Alaskan winter culture since the ski lifts don't open until 10.30am, which is when the sun rises at the beginning of the season. But, as the season progresses, the days get longer and by the end of April it can be light until 10pm.
By contrast, summer visitors experience virtually no darkness at all and the local golf course allows visitors to tee off for a four-hour round as late as 10pm.
At the centre of the resort the 300-room four-star Prince Hotel provides access to the high-speed tramway cable car which takes you directly to the 2,300 foot level of the main ski areas. From here the choice is between cruising intermediate runs with magnificent sea views or the North Face, an ungroomed and quite intimidating double diamond black area for experts only.
Despite its compact appearance, there are 62 ski runs served by six chair lifts in addition to the tramway and the resort rises from its base of just 250 feet to 3,939 feet.
The downside of coastal weather is that snow conditions are unpredictable and can sometimes be sticky. Fogs can often appear quite unexpectedly and on one sunny day I suddenly hit a swirling cloud and it felt like I was skiing inside a light bulb.
Apres ski is limited in Alyeska, with most activity centred on two rustic bars known as Chair 5 and Max's, patronised by some lively and friendly locals. Reindeer burgers and caribou steaks are on the menu at the Double Musky Inn, named for the double shots of muscatel favoured by early gold miners.
More serious entertainment can be found an hour's drive away in Anchorage, but this does require hiring a car since local taxis can be prohibitively expensive over this 40-mile distance.
Apart from the very international- style Prince Hotel which has excellent restaurants, an indoor pool and fitness centre; self-catering condominiums, cabins and bed and breakfast with some of the more friendly locals are also available.
While most of the locals are welcoming, they can be so laid back as to be almost distant. Some say it is the result of years of winter "cabin fever", being cooped up through long dark nights. Others claim it is the unusual imbalance between the sexes. The harsh climate and male-dominated job opportunities has created a marked shortage of females.
But enthusiastic young ladies who visit Alaska in search of a mate are warned: "The odds are good but the goods are odd."
Despite its unique appeal, after a week's ski-ing in Alyeska I was more than ready for a new challenge. The ideal choice would be to combine a visit to Alaska with a second resort as part of a two-centre holiday. There are good flight connections to resorts in California and western Canada which can be booked as part of an inclusive package from the UK.
WHAT worries me about the possible decriminilisation of cannabis is that people will have one less reason to travel. Going abroad in search of dope is one of those honourable traditions that Bohemians, hippies and new-age travellers will one day look back on with tears of nostalgia.
All backpackers worth their salt know what it is to sleep in smoky Bombay dormitories with self-righteously dirty Austrians and Germans, who suddenly whip crafted pipes out of their clothing just at the moment your eyes were about to close in sleep.
The elaborate lighting-up ceremonies, the smoky suckings and puffings, the silent offering around of the pipe like a sacred talisman; these rituals mean as much for travel as Delhi belly and the InterRail card.
And look at those generations of students riding the waves to Holland every Christmas vacation. As we all know, ragged young intellectuals do not cross the North Sea for tulips or the Van Gogh Museum. They go for dingy peace cafes where spliffs appear on the menu next to the mushroom quiche.
In years gone by, the further you travelled the further the view disappeared into aromatic smoke. Before the war the place to smoke a pipe was China. Shanghai was so sinful that a blast of opium before bed was as respectable as a glass of sherry.
In the Fifties it was Saigon and Hong Kong that filled with travelling dope-smokers, while the Sixties saw dope shops spring up on the road to Goa like garrison cities on the Silk Road. Istanbul's famous Pudding Shop was where you stocked up on the stuff before taking the long dope road to India and Nepal. And if you couldn't make it to Katmandhu you took the short cut to Marrakesh instead.
Otherwise you went to countries where the whole local culture revolved around "substances". Countries such as Columbia where a mouthful of coca leaves was the local equivalent to a mid-morning coffee, or the Yemen where cabinet ministers chewed qat to discuss the national budget.
Meanwhile, airports from New York to Singapore crunched to the sound of dope being walked on, hidden inside travellers' shoes, while rucksacks swilled with cannabis fragments disguised as bits of dirt. Personally I call it madness, but there is no end to the madness of people who associate dope with travel.
And yet how things have changed. Smoking dope in Tony Blair's Britain seems such a tame affair compared to the same, heart-stoppingly dangerous offence in, say, King Hassan's Morocco or Lee Kwan Yew's Singapore.
It won't be long before long-haired dropouts from the universities of Delhi and Bombay start making pilgrimmages to British seaside resorts, where they will play didgereedoos and relax naked under the stars. The curious residents of Bournemouth and Brighton will earn pocket money by selling dope to naked junkies.
Still later, in a long overdue act of retribution, the Chinese will send their gunboats and force us to buy dope by the tonne, whether we like it or not. We will no longer need to travel for our dope and the tides of cultural history will have changed yet again.
alaska fact file
There are no longer any non-stop flights to Anchorage from the UK but Northwest Airlines (0900 561000) operates daily one-stop services from London Gatwick via Minneapolis. Journey time is around 17 hours.
Flight-seeing tours of varying durations can be booked from $49 through Alpine Air (Tel: 001 907 783 2360 or Fax: 001 907 754 1504)
Chugach Powder Guides have heli ski-ing from $225 (Tel: OOl 907 783 4354).
The Westin Alyeska Prince Hotel (Tel: 001 907 754 1111 or Fax: OOl 907 754 2200) has double room rates from $133, including breakfast and also has packages including lift tickets and other facilities.
Self-catering apartments and cabins can most easily be booked through Alyeska Accommodations (001 907 783 2010) and bed and breakfast houses can be reserved through Alyeska B&B (001 907 783 1222).
Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144) has two weeks at the four-star Westin Prince Hotel, Alyeska, in December from pounds 615, including scheduled flights. Four people sharing a room.
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