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Explore Alaska on the Aurora Winter Train

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Alison de Souza on 21 Dec 2019

The Straits Times

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ALASKA - That whole thing about how it is the journey and not the destination that counts? Most travellers do not really buy that - unless, of course, they have a thing for trains.

 

My mild obsession with scenic or unusual train trips peaked with an unforgettable jaunt on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing many moons ago.

 

And it is the reason I stumbled across a relatively obscure train ride - Alaska Railroad's Aurora Winter Train - that led to a series of other memorable experiences, including seeing the Northern Lights, going dog-sledding and soaking in a snowy hot spring.

 

Extended train trips can take more time and planning than just flying in and out of one place. But it makes things smoother when there are easy flight connections at either end.

 

The Singapore Airlines non-stop service to Seattle launched in September makes it more convenient than ever to reach Alaska and the rest of North America's Pacific North-west.

 

From Seattle, it is a short-hop flight to Anchorage, Alaska, where from now till mid-May next year, you can pretend Christmas never ended by taking the Aurora Winter Train service to Fairbanks, a city within striking distance of the Arctic Circle.

 

A popular way to see Alaska are the wildlife, glacier and fjord cruises that take in its coastline, many setting sail from Seattle.

 

The Aurora Winter Train, on the other hand, remains curiously under the radar except among rail enthusiasts.

 

And Alaska Railroad's customer service staff flatly told me I would never get a seat on the sold-out spring dates I wanted, neglecting to mention that spots may become available if you call back, which I did four times to nab a pair of tickets.

 

But the trip was worth all minor hassles. From Anchorage - where you can also catch the epic Iditarod Sled Dog Race beginning here every March - it is a 12-hour journey north through a magical winterscape.

 

There are stops in tiny towns with names such as Hurricane and Wasilla.

 

The latter is where controversial former United States vice- presidential candidate Sarah Palin was once mayor, and the train conductors - who, like many Alaskans, seem to have a wonderfully dry sense of humour - are happy to share horror stories about her.

 

At one point, the train winds through an 80km stretch of backcountry with no roads, which means those who live there can flag it down like you would a bus, even with no designated stop or station.

 

This happened on our trip, the engine shuddering to a sudden halt when hailed by two locals who had snowmobiled right up to the tracks - looking like they had walked straight out of Northern Exposure, a hit 1990s television series about a quirky Alaskan small town.

 

All the views from the train have a bit of a dream-like quality. A thick blanket of snow gives trees, river banks and bridges that pristine, wintry gleam.

 

And if you are lucky, you might spot a moose or two or even the majestic peak of Denali - the highest mountain in North America - in the distance.

 

The cars are warm and comfortable, but step out and duck between the carriages and you get a lungful of bracing winter air and a faceful of snow - both delightful experiences.

 

Back inside, the dining room serves piping-hot reindeer sausage along with biscuits and gravy. Or you can take along your own food and sip on a hot chocolate or beer.

 

More fun awaits once you get off in Fairbanks later that evening.

 

Stay overnight in the town and, the next morning, rent a car and drive 95km to Chena Hot Springs Resort - a geothermally powered hotel where you can swim in natural hot springs.

 

If you stay there, you can view the aurora borealis or Northern Lights from the warm embrace of its pool.

 

Close by is Just Short of Magic, which offers a variety of dog-sledding experiences with teams of adorable Alaskan huskies that pull you on a sled through snow- covered forests of spruce and birch.

 

No dog-mushing experience is required and, for dog lovers, the highlight of the trip will be getting to meet the animals themselves - a breed full of personality - when the ride is over.

 

Finally, join a tour that drives visitors out at night to see the aurora - a sight words never quite do justice to. Or you can head to the Arctic Circle itself, 300km away by road, for more winter fun.

 

GETTING THERE

 

Fly non-stop from Singapore to Seattle on Singapore Airlines, then take a 31/2-hour Alaska Airlines or Delta non-stop flight from Seattle to Anchorage.

 

The Aurora Winter train can be booked at www.alaskarailroad.com. On weekends, the service travels northbound from Anchorage to Fairbanks on Saturday and returns on Sunday. There are also mid-week departures from December to March. A sample one-way adult fare in January next year is US$216 (S$290).

 

Alaska Railroad also runs special event trains along other routes, including a Christmas train where Santa Claus makes an appearance; and a beer-train pairing views with Alaskan brews.

 

TIPS

 

• The Aurora Winter Train does not run daily, so if you want more time in Fairbanks than the schedule allows, get an Alaska Airlines flight back to Anchorage instead of the train.

 

• Sightings of the Northern Lights are not guaranteed and their appearance is hard to predict. You need dark winter skies to see them, so winter months with long and dark nights are a better bet.

 

March is a popular month because it usually has less frigid temperatures and some speculate that because it is an equinox month - when the Earth's tilt aligns with the solar wind - you are more likely to see the lights.

 

• If you are not used to driving in the snow, do your homework and consider transportation options before arriving in Fairbanks. If you decide to drive, book your rental car well before you arrive and make sure it is one with all-wheel-drive capabilities in case of snowy, icy roads and poor visibility.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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