There's no time to hibernate; Anna Harrison soars and soaks up some culture before cosying up to a moose
If you're lucky enough to have clear skies when flying into Anchorage, a pretty spectacular sight awaits you. The city sits on the banks of Cook Inlet and is surrounded by the towering Chugach Mountains. When it snows — which is a lot; it's covered to ground level six months of the year — most of the inlet is iced over and the toy houses are lidded with snow.
Once you've landed, most of the action takes place indoors; there are shops, restaurants and bars aplenty but it can be hard to tell if they're open with the doors shut against the cold. But there's plenty to do outside too, so wrap up warm and try these ideas.
This is a great one for the kids (and adults who get excited about these things) or if you're on a budget. Anchorage has 1500 resident moose living on the edges of the city. Locals find them hanging out in their backyards, nibbling at trees. You can spot them in the wooded areas on the side of roads out near the airport — there are even moose gates to stop them wandering on to the road or runway. So keep your eyes peeled as you're travelling around, or head to Kincaid Park to increase your chances. But forget about getting a selfie with a moose — these seemingly placid beasts can be dangerous if you get too close, especially if they're protecting their young so keep your distance.
For those with a bit of money to spend, take a scenic flight. Lake Hood is the largest and busiest seaplane base in the world. There are no roads to reach more than half the places in Alaska, so light aircraft are essential to getting around. Fortunately for visitors, going up in a small plane also offers incredible views of the region's more than 60 glaciers, its icy rivers, the rugged Chugach Mountains and out to the fjords of Prince William Sound. You can even take a flight north to Denali, America's tallest mountain, and take in the grandeur of the frozen landscape. Anchorage.net
If you want a bird's-eye view but the thought of a small plane makes you queasy, take a drive up Flattop Mountain instead. It's one of the more accessible peaks behind the city and from there you can enjoy views out to Cook Inlet. Look out for Mt Susitna, known as the Sleeping Lady. Many of the easier mountain trails in the area start from Flattop although they are easier to walk in summer than in the winter snows — if you do decide to go for a walk, make sure you're well prepared and check the avalanche advisories.
If the cold is getting to you, head along to the Anchorage Museum. The main exhibition has more than 600 artefacts representing 11 Native Alaskan groups. It features everything from ceremonial masks to hunting weapons — as well as the stories of the people who created them. Keep an eye out for the waterproof parka made of seal intestine — yes you read that right; as these resourceful people live so close to the land, no part of any animal is wasted.
Before you leave, stop by the hands-on Imaginarium Discovery Centre with the kids, where you can create bubbles the size of a person and experiment with the air cannon. The Culture Pass also gets you entry to the Alaska Native Heritage Centre where you can see dancers, artisans and demonstrations of native games. Outside is a life-size village of traditional houses designed to shelter those who live in the extreme cold — including some that look like a marae. Make sure you check online for their winter hours.
STRAP ON SOME SKIS
Anchorage is pretty flat and when it's covered in snow, you can cross-country ski along the coastal trail down by the waterfront and on to the many wooded trails through Kincaid Park. Or if you want a more alpine kind of skiing experience, the cosy resort town of Girdwood, about an hour south, is where all the locals and tourists go. The Alyeska Resort has 76 trails, from a few beginner slopes to the experts' challenging double black diamond North Face run. Make sure you stop in at The Bake Shop for their tasty cinnamon rolls and toasted sandwiches that will warm you right up, ready to hit the slopes again.
Also near Girdwood is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, which takes in injured and orphaned animals. It's a huge park that you can drive around to see different wildlife in their natural habitat. Watch the wolves growling at each other, huge bison lumbering around and a lynx lazing about on a tree. Young bucks challenge the biggest elk in a fight for dominance, heads down, clacking antlers together. And the attention-seeking brown bears will pose for you if they aren't hibernating for the winter. It's here you can finally meet a moose up close — with his big fleshy lips, droopy neck and stately antlers — and get your selfie.
Getting there: Alaska Air flies direct to Anchorage from many
Further information: See anchorage.net