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Alaska The Final Frontier

Story & Photos by Henry and Elaine Levy

Alaska comes from the Aleut word "Alyeska" meaning The Great Land. It is so vast that one could not hope to view all the natural beauty, or to capture the essence of the land or the people who inhabit it in a single visit. This past summer, we spent two weeks experiencing some of the wonders of this most unique and extraordinary state.

We wanted our first visit to include the interior as well as a cruise along the southeast coast. Our first stop was Fairbanks, which is a six-hour drive from Anchorage (or a one-hour flight). Winter is eight months long in this area, and temperatures average 8 to 20 degrees below zero! With harsh winters a reality, it is a wonder why an active Jewish community of eighty families, known as "The Chosen Frozen", would choose to live there.

Fairbanks' gold rush history draws many visitors each year. Next July is the 100th anniversary of Felix Pedro's discovery of gold in the area. The El Dorado Gold Mine, Ester Gold Camp and Gold Dredge No. 8 will take its tourists back in time, teaching them about the gold rush experience while allowing them to pan for gold.

In addition to the annual events that take place in Fairbanks, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and rafting are always at your fingertips. The Fairbanks Visitors and Convention Bureau is an excellent source of information for things to do in the area as well as places to stay. They can be reached at (800) 327-5774 or visit www.explorefairbanks.com.

In Fairbanks, be sure to make dinner reservations at Pike's Landing Riverfront Restaurant. The seafood is fresh and delicious, the portions are big and the prices are moderate. The owner, Jay Ramras, is very active in local affairs, and is a member of the Jewish community. For more information, call (907) 479-6500.

We found the art and handicrafts of the First American and native cultures in Fairbanks to be the most reasonably priced of all the other Alaskan cities that we visited. If you are interested in purchasing native art, be certain to ask if there is a bio of the artisan or a certificate of authenticity as that could add to the value of your purchase.

Fairbanks is also the gateway to several natural hot springs. Not to be missed is an overnight stay at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is about a two-hour drive north from Fairbanks. Swimming in these waters is both relaxing and invigorating. The rooms in the resort are comfortable, and there is a restaurant right on the premises. The phone number for Chena Hot Springs is: (800) 478-4681 (www.chenahotsprings.com).

One of the main reasons we chose to begin in Fairbanks was its proximity to Denali National Park. The park is about a three-hour drive from Fairbanks, and is certainly worth the visit! No private vehicles are allowed inside the park. The park offers tour buses that depart throughout the day. We took the eight-hour tour, and were fortunate enough to have a very informative, and friendly bus driver. Not only did we see bears, moose, caribou, sheep, foxes, wolves, hares and marmots, but we were also able to see part of Mount McKinley. Passengers on the tour bus are permitted to leave the bus at any one of its stops, explore the park on foot, and pick up another tour bus at a later time. For more information about activities, camping, ranger tours, etc., call: (800) 622-7275 (www.nps.gov/dena/home).

Not far from the park, one can board a small plane and fly over the summit of Mount McKinley! We had arranged through Pere Air Tours to take such a flight. We boarded a twin engine plane with eight other brave souls, and took what was probably our most exciting flight! Guy Pere, an experienced bush pilot in the area, flew us up approximately 22,000 feet over the highest peak in North America! This 1-l/2 hour flight was nothing short of remarkable - we were immersed in the blue skies and snow covered mountain peaks and ridges as we passed over the north and south peaks of Mount McKinley at every conceivable angle. We even spotted mountain climbers making their ascent to the summit. This is a once in a lifetime experience, and highly recommended.

For information about Pere Air, call (907) 683-6033 (www.pereair.com). Traveling around Alaska is no easy task. Direct access between destinations can be a problem. We had to arrange to get from Fairbanks to Vancouver, BC to pick up our cruise. The only way we were able to do this was to fly from Fairbanks to Seattle, and then make a connecting flight from Seattle to Vancouver.

Once we arrived in Vancouver, we began the process of boarding the Norwegian Wind. It was clear from the efficient way Norwegian Cruise Lines conducted this procedure that we were going to have a very pleasant experience at sea. The cruise along the southeast coast and inside passageway of Alaska was another highlight of our trip. It was our first cruise, and it will not be our last. When you are treated as royalty, have a smorgasbord of activities to choose from, and a staff attentive to every detail, it is hard not have a great time. One of Norwegian Cruise Lines' recent innovations is free style dining. This enables the passengers to select any one of its five dining areas each day rather than to be confined to the same dining room and table for every meal. In addition, one has the option of dining with different passengers at each seating. We enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the passengers and to make new friendships aboard the ship. The food was delicious and plentiful, and the dining room staff was very accommodating. Norwegian Cruise Lines will arrange for Glatt Kosher meals as long as they have advance notice. In fact, one of its sister ships, The Crown Odyssey, is equipped with a Kosher kitchen, and travels throughout the world. Friday evening services are performed on ship complete with candle lighting, wine and prayer books. Norwegian Cruise Lines has a policy of having a rabbi on board to officiate services on each major Jewish holiday. (For information about Norwegion Crusie Lines call 800-327-7030 or visit www.ncl.com)

We were given the honor of joining Captain Einar Lindrupson at his table for dinner. The captain was delightful, and after spending an evening with him, it was clear that his passengers were in very competent hands. The meal we were served was delicious, consisting of Norwegian Seafood Gift, a combination of seafood mousse wrapped with fresh smoked salmon, Wild Mushroom Bisque soup, and a choice of Crisp Crouton-Crusted Grouper, or Fillet of Beef Tenderloin "Wellington", followed by the Pastry Chef's special, all of which is available each evening at the ship's elegant restaurant, The Bistro.

The Norwegian Wind offered all the amenities of a floating hotel, as well as a new menu of activities aboard the ship each day. Of course, it was great just to walk around the deck and breathe in the fresh ocean air, take a swim in the pool, or relax in the hot tub. I couldn't resist joining a few basketball games, while Elaine was working out in the state of the art gym. A library, game room, casino, computer room where you could retrieve your email messages, a children's activity center, and of course, shops offering great buys were also available. Each evening a different type of show was presented ranging from comedy, to magic, to a Broadway-style production. There was dancing to live music each evening at several of the ship's lounges.

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