Destination of the Day: Alaska

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alaska_0664Try telling an Alaskan that size does not matter. The state is more than twice the size of Texas, 560,000 square miles. On its own it would be the 19th biggest country in the world just behind Iran, twice the size of Turkey, three times the size of Spain, 17 and a half times the size of Ireland.

It is also EMPTY, home to less than the population of Dublin.

It is a challenge to visit somewhere so big. I had two important pieces of advice to follow.

DON’T go by cruise ship.

SPEND time inland. A lot of it.

seward_0750I was curious about the first bit. More than half of Alaska’s tourists come on cruise ships, hop off for a shore excursion and are back by sundown.

What do they see from the sea? Luxuriant coastlines dropping dramatically to the sea, green Sitka spruce and western hemlock faced off against barren mountain and cake-icing snow capped mountains. Island after island, under the low grey sky. Then, a revelation, the first streaks of blue and the white mountains getting ever whiter.

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seward whale watching_0661When I stopped by at the state capital, Juneau, to see its famous (retreating) downtown glacier the first of the cruise passengers of the five month season had yet to arrive, the only noise was the rumble of the waterfall, and the bears seemed pleased. “A trip up here puts you in your place pretty fast,” Elizabeth Arnett from the town tourism body said.

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On one side of the city is the Juneau ice field, a frozen wasteland where hikers can dare, and on the other the largest temperate forest in the world, two thirds the size of Ireland.

The state capital is the city paved with gold. They only got 80pc of the gold out of the quartz in their local low grade mine, local tour operator John George explains. And seeing as the entire town is built on mine filings, the streets ARE paved with gold. And, he adds with that air of triumph, if you see a rainbow up here, there is gold at the end of it.

alaska_0733Tourists are told they can pan for gold in the local creek, and sometimes people do get little nuggets from it. But the real gold in Juneau today comes in three varieties, MasterCard, Visa and American Express, and all summer long those nuggets get handed in.

Up to 600 cruise ships a season stop by. Alaska does not produce jewellery, it just sells a lot to day trippers from the cruise ships, scrambling onshore to the choice of 42 shore excursions.

South Franklin Street, once the red light district, is lined with jewellery shops. “The red light district used to be legal,” John George says. “We closed it down in 957 in the hope Congress would be impressed before we got statehood in 1959. Now we know a little more about Congress we think we might have kept it open.”

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The captain on the whale watching trip out of Seward Tim Fleming, or, as his colleagues call him, the whale whisperer, brings us out in quest of porpoises and greys and humpbacks.

We saw two humpbacks in tangent, like synchronised swimmers. It would be a bonus to see an Orca. Everyone’s dream is to see a Blue Whale. Tim has only ever seen one.

Anchorage is a lively place with more pubs and restaurants than a Cork-sized city might suggest it could support. My favourite is the F Street Station bar, where Diane is serving pints of amber to a lively clientele. There is a block of cheese on the counter where customers help themselves. When the local health authorities objected, they put a “for display reasons” only sign atop.

It is jumping off point for one of the great tourist experiences, the flight over Mount McKinley.

Willis Thayer welcomed me to Rusts flying service and loaded me on a Cessna 206 where we took off at 140mph to see north America’s highest mountain, McKinley for the Americans or Denali for the native Alaskan people.

We flew across Susitna valley and watch the roads and civilization stop and entered the roadless part of the state.

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Roadless means snowmobiles in winter, one of the unforgettable sights you see the figure skating marks on all the frozen lakes, the tracks caused by snowmobiles, the playground expands when the ground goes white.

It seems to go on for ever, which is not unreasonable. A few more hours flying time over the north Pole and I would be home.

Big and empty, in every direction.

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Eoghan Corry flew to Los Angeles with Aer Lingus and Jetblue and to Juneau and Anchorage with Alaska air, www.alaskaair.com fly to 91 destinations and operate from the Irish gateway of Chicago

He was hosted by the Alaska Division of Tourism www.travelalaska.com

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