Some Motzai Shabbos reading:
Imagine driving down an empty smooth two lane highway winding through towering mountain ranges in mid-summer. The mountain peaks appear in every shape and size (except small) some covered in the greenest rain-forest, some bare exposed granite and some crested with glistening white snow. The road dips and turns and going downhill the mountains are suddenly so high you cannot see the peak.
The windows are wide open and the great crisp outdoors is pouring into the car. The temperature blends perfectly with the spotted sunshine to drench you with a cocktail of absolutely perfect weather.
It is 10:30 PM.
Although it is peak tourist season, the highway is blissfully empty aside from the occasional RV chugging along. Lining the road is an endless parade of patches and clumps of tall purple flowers, bright fireweed laying out a royal welcome mat in a vivid display of color.
The occasional moose traipses across the road in search of some greener grass.
As the road dips down, you drive along wide rushing braided rivers, heavy with melting mountain snowfall and glacier ice. Looking high up, you can see dozens of rivulets run down the side of green mountains meeting together at the bottom in a rushing waterfall right at the side of the road, so close you can practically reach out the window and dip your hands into it's crystalline waters.
Every few miles a creative and unique display of mailboxes belies the seeming emptiness as it indicates the hidden presence of some collection of homes. Homes that vie with each other for the claim of living in front of the most incredible views mankind has ever been privileged to contemplate.
The road meanders through small towns and patches of homes. Every home is unique, appearing to have been lovingly handmade by some backpacking adventure seeker who accidentally stumbled into Alaska and suddenly knew they were never going back home.
Suddenly you crest a hill and floating in the distance appears a shimmering white mountain. Enormous, it appears to hover in the haze, bigger than any tourist guide could have prepared you for. It looks down seeming to mock every mountain you thought was huge until now. Every turn you make, it floats into view towering above the clouds so high you're not sure where the mountain ends and the bright sky begins.
It's now 2:00 AM and it's finally dark. Well, only if you're facing southeast. Turn around and you can see the eternal twilight of the midnight sun. The horizon is sprayed with orange light and half the sky is a dim light-blue color. It will stay that way for a couple of hours and then the sun will rise again for an incredible 19 hours of bright sunlight.
This is Alaska as I, along with my wife, discovered it, this past July.
We scored tickets with this deal: http://forums.dansdeals.com/index.php?topic=19249.0
on Alaskan Airlines a year ago and settled a short while later on the PHL to ANC via SEA redemption with the two long flights (between Philly and Seattle) in first class and the short ones (ANC - SEA) in economy). Alaska Airlines does not offer any kind of specialty meals. Instead they offer many different courses so that there will be something for everyone. Not very helpful at all. The tickets ultimately (after a surprise $75 per ticket booking fee) costed about $440 per person round trip. Not a bad redemption when you consider that economy tickets seem to go for about $650 from the little research I did.
I actually started off the flight a bit depressed. I had spent the entire previous year researching Alaska and I thought to myself that was a bit of a shame since I felt I already knew Alaska and there would be no surprises or adventure. I had already 'seen' all the places. Boy was I ever wrong. NOTHING could have prepared me.
The flights went smoothly. We took off at 10:30PM from SEA in darkness heading north and 20 minutes later I could see a small band of blue light on the horizon. It got brighter and brighter as we approached Anchorage until when we landed at 1:30 AM the horizon was streaked with the orange/red dusk of the midnight sun. Before we landed I could clearly see the black silhouette of Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at a stupendous 20,000 feet or 17 times the height of the Empire State Building, framed against the red sky, 145 miles to the north. Beneath us, a maze of white capped mountains, ice fields, and glaciers spread out into the distance in a tangle of rock and ice.
We landed and hailed a cab to the Sheraton hotel in downtown Anchorage, the only SPG property in Alaska. There are no Hyatts in Alaska. There are quite a few Best Westerns, though. I stepped into the one in Seward to buy a drink and it was easy to see why prices were over $300 per night. IHG has some hotels in Alaska as well.
The cab driver was friendly and told us which bars to go to for the best seafood. We listened politely. He also informed us that practically everyone in the city spent the winter months smoking marijuana. The fare cost about $20.
We used SPG points at the Sheraton, 6 nights at 7000 points each minus 7000 for the 'fifth night free' promotion. The room was clean and nice although it seemed unable to hide its age with a bathroom that looked a bit dated. I would definitely recommend it. The staff was very helpful regarding helping us get into our room on Shabbos. I bet they don't get too many religious Jewish people staying there.
The next morning we made our way to the Avis three blocks away. They were super helpful. Our biggest expense in Alaska other than the flights, we rented a Toyota Highlander. They definitely don't allow any driving off road though, so the usefulness of renting a four wheel drive is very debatable. Gas prices were approximately $4.
We packed up and headed south to the tiny town of Whittier. An hour twenty from Anchorage, this town wasn't always accessible by car. That only happened as recently as 2000 when the DoT turned the train tunnel into a shared one lane highway/ railroad. Cars have to line up for a once per hour chance to drive through. It is the second longest Highway tunnel in N. America at 2.6 miles long.
The drive south of Anchorage is a destination itself. The Seward highway has the highest scenic designation in the U.S. It is an All American Road and it easily lives up to that. The drive is stunning. Green and granite mountains on either side and a bay in the center, you can see glaciers nestled between the peaks and waterfalls everywhere. Every turn demands a photograph but there isn't a single picture that can do it justice.
Whittier is tiny, a former military base, but we didn't get much time to explore because we had to catch our day cruise, a five hour tour of stunning Prince William Sound to Surprise glacier by Major Marine tours.
Town of Whittier
The tour was narrated by an elderly, very entertaining Alaska forest ranger. Every time some wildlife was spotted the boat stopped for people to take photos. It was quite cold on the upper outside deck - although it was warm on land there was a need for thick sweaters especially near the ice fields and glaciers.
Wildlife included sea lions, stellar sea lions, sea otters, a huge salmon hatchery which consists of a bunch of small boats and fisherman reeling humongous nets full of fish and handing it over to the mother boat for processing Also, an enormous and incredibly loud rookery with thousands of squawking sea birds and their young hungry ones. And eagles. We cannot forget the eagles. We didn't see any whales though.
The final destination was the enormous tidewater glacier, Surprise glacier. As you get closer, the water begins to fill with ice floes and small icebergs. If you are lucky you will see huge house sized chunks of ice plummet into the water with an accompanying Boom like a crack of thunder. This is the epitome of the trip for many people but we only got to see a bit of that from a distance.
Ridiculously loud bird Rookery
Feed us Mommy!
Sunglasses are a must almost everywhere in Alaska and the many hours of sunlight is another reason to get a good pair.
After the cruise we headed to the tunnel and after waiting ten minutes to be let in, we headed south to Seward. Once again, the drive was stunning, this time turning away from the water and heading through the mountain ranges.
One interesting thing is that everywhere we went, the road signs were riddled with bullets. i guess there isn't a lot to do during the long winter months, or maybe they just hunt moose and have horrible aim.
The drive is about two hours long and all the way we passed small homes that looked as though they'd been hand built by nature lovers and mountain hermits. We arrived at the coastal town of Seward at about nine o'clock pm, or as it's known there, 'mid-afternoon'.
We checked into the Hotel Seward, a very interesting hotel with prices that were certainly not commensurate with what we got. We paid $130 on hotels.com for a tiny room with two shared bathrooms down the hallway. The bathrooms were neat and clean but the room was insufferably hot since the day was warm and the room lacked any air conditioning. One saving grace was that the room had a sink and a fan, but I barely got any sleep because of the heat, the first of many sleepless nights to come.
The hotel itself has a really fascinating lobby, filled with stuffed animals, Alaskan tchotchkes, and paintings and maps. I would have hung out there longer but the coldly polite staff made us feel less than welcome. I'd give them one star for being in a nice location and having a cool lobby. I could see being happy though, if they lowered the price a bit.
I got up around seven on Friday morning and threw on some clothes and a camera. It was a one block walk to the bay. It still felt like pre-dawn, the town was empty and fog hung everywhere, rolling down the mountains and hovering over the bay. There were seagulls flying overhead though, and some early riser fishing boats were heading out to open waters through the bay.
Early morning fog hangs over the Seward bay
There were also ravens wandering the streets, making a racket and that's where I got this shot, one of my favorites from the trip:
We had planned on leaving Seward early and going to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood which is about halfway back to Anchorage, but the town was so beautiful that we just stayed and wandered the streets making our way downtown where a giant cruise ship had docked and it's passengers were browsing the tourist traps downtown. Going into the Safeway supermarket there, I heard a little girl behind me say "Look, Mommy, there are Jews in Alaska!" (Why doesn't my baseball cap ever work?
Kidding... I assured them that I wasn't a local.
With all the activities we did, I think my wife and I agree that our favorite place was Seward. Peaceful, calm and surrounded by outrageously beautiful scenery, I feel like I could have stayed there for a month and not notice the time go by.
Tall Purple Fireweed
Fog is gone from the Seward Bay
However, at about 4:00pm we reluctantly left and headed north to Anchorage. Although Shkiyah in ANC was around 11:30pm, there was only one community there and that meant we were subject to the time they brought in Shabbos and that was at 9:15. Besides, we had made reservations to eat both meals with the Greenberg family. Rabbi Greenberg is the local Chabad Shliyach and the secretary had called to inform me that I was completing the minyan for Maariv.
The drive back was, once again stunning and the road was quite empty although we could see the opposite lane full of RVs as they headed out for the weekend.
We got back to Anchorage about an hour before Shabbos, checked into the Sheraton and explained that we'd be needing help getting into our rooms on Shabbos. They were very accommodating and I'd bet they don't get too many orthodox Jewish people staying there for Shabbos. Then a Shabbos miracle happened and it seems their automatic doors broke just for Shabbos and they had to be kept open the entire day. Thank you Hashem for that, because there were no service doors available to use.
We drove to the Greenberg's home and davened there, followed by a delicious Homemade Shabbos meal. There were lots of interesting people from all over who joined us there. Most of them had booked hotel rooms nearby but the Sheraton was just under an hours walk. We walked through the city at 1:00am uneventfully, a walk made easier by the midnight sun which meant that even at that hour, the sky was stuck in a permanent state of post sunset.
Shabbos morning it was raining but we made the wet trek (an hour fifteen) to the beautiful new Chabad center. Shachris was followed by a boisterous meal in which a day camp from Michigan joined us. We slowly wandered back to our hotel taking a very long detour through the city and a peaceful park. By now the sun had come out and was high in the sky by the time we made it back to the hotel at 7:00pm. We went to sleep, waking up after 12:00am and around 1:20am we walked back to the Greenberg's home to hear havdalah and pick up our car. Then we went back to the hotel to sleep.
About the midnight sun: I didn't understand what the 'midnight sun' was exactly, before the trip. Basically the sun moves extremely slowly, dipping over the horizon at 11:30 for a few hours before coming back up. It slowly gets darker until the night peaks at about 2:00 am (when we were there). It never goes too far down though, so throughout the short night there is an eternal twilight on the horizon. I guess it can get pretty dark if it's cloudy or if you are facing the opposite direction.
Taken at 2:50 AM:
Now, although it may not sound overly impressive, it was VERY weird to experience it. I can't really explain it, but maybe it's like a never ending jet-lag. I kept marveling every time I looked around late at night and the horizon was well lit. Also, the long daylight hours trick your brain to think it is mid afternoon at 9:00pm so that although your body may be exhausted, your brain thinks it's supposed to be wide awake. This slowly caught up with us until by the end of the trip we had gotten barely any sleep and were both utterly exhausted.
To be continued...
P.S. A word about the state:
Alaska is not 'like the rest of the U.S. just with mountains'. It is very different, exotic even. Everything is different; the trees, the plants, even the weeds. Certainly the scenery everywhere is breathtaking. The Kenai peninsula, (where Seward is), is an actual rain-forest.
Along with glaciers and waterfalls everywhere and the fact that barely anyone lives there (the population of Alaska, an area twice the size of Texas is less than 3% of the NY metro area) the sense I got was that I was truly in another world, the last great wilderness.
Thus, I think it is a mistake to leave the U.S. looking for exotic locations internationally when you have a wonderland like this in your own backyard. Well - maybe your backyard's backyard.