Before Alaska freezes over in winter, it's time to make a quick trip up north. Flying there from New York isn't really quick. There's no non-stop to begin with. When American Airlines sent me an e-mail offering a targeted fast-track to elite membership on their AAdvantage program, that's where things got more exciting for me. Not only will I see America's last frontier again, I'll also be be snagging a status with one of the world's pioneering frequent flyer programs.
From New York, I flew about an hour and a half on American Airlines to Chicago where I connected to a code-shared flight with Alaska Airlines. It's my first time flying an airline named after a U.S. state so I'm thrilled. Flying time between the Windy City and Anchorage is about 6 hours - almost like halfway on the "great circle" route to Asia (many of my previous flights to Asia overflew Alaska). The Russian Far East is in fact closer from Anchorage than Chicago is!
|Starbucks onboard. Sorry, no Venti.|
|One of Kluane National Park's many glaciers|
|The Chugach Mountains near Anchorage|
Knowing in-flight meals on domestic flights are only available for purchase, I was prepared to bring my own but then I got curious about Alaska Airlines' menu. Among the $6 offerings, I opted for the "Hungarian Beef Goulash" which turned out to be a pretty good meal - never mind if it looked like one of those pre-cooked meals sold in frozen sections of a grocery store. One caffeinated bonus is the complimentary cup of steaming Starbucks coffee which was served 3x during the flight.
In-flight entertainment in the main cabin is also not free. For $10, one could rent a portable media player filled with movies, TV shows, games, even access to discounted WiFi. Not wanting to pay just to get entertained, I was happy reading a Paul Theroux book I bought with me. Fortunately for me on this B737-800 aircraft fitted with 3-seats abreast, no one was seating in the middle to give me and the other fellow more elbow room.
Several hours later, as the plane made its way above Canada's glaciated Kluane National Park, my sights were turned downwards on this vast icy wilderness. This went on and on until descent at the Chugach Mountains now closer to Anchorage. Seeing glaciers in this increasingly warm planet we live on was surely one great free entertainment while flying.
|A clear day over Anchorage with a rare view of Mt. McKinley - highest peak in North America|
|Anchorage is a major flight hub|
|Like a migratory bird, this Somalian taxi driver spends his winter in Africa|
|Anchorage City Hall|
Burdened only with a carry-on, I quickly exited Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and into a brilliant 63-degree Fahrenheit early afternoon. A lanky immigrant from Somalia wearing an ill-fitting suit ushered me to his metered Yellow Cab right beneath a hanging sign that says Taxi Service. It's about 15 minutes to downtown.
"Looks like a great day to be here", I told him.
"Lucky you, it was raining two days straight before", he responded.
"Really? I'm prepared"
"First time here?"
"No, my second"
"Are you from the Lower 48?"
"Huh? Oh... yes, of course".
For a nanosecond I thought about the question. Having been based in the contiguous United States for years now, I almost forgot about Alaska's placement in the latitudinal sense of the hemisphere. While the 49th State is technically within the North American continent, it lies far in the Northwest separated from the motherland by the Canadian province of British Columbia. Hence, Alaskans always use the term "Lower 48" when talking about the contiguous United States.
|Lobby display at Anchorage Hilton. Many of the guests checking-in were air crews.|
|View of Cook Inlet and snow-capped mountains from my 10th floor window|
|Yummy Reindeer sausage. Now Santa isn't pleased with me.|
|Souvenir shops and tour peddlers are just two of the thriving businesses during Alaska's summer|
Home to almost 300,000 residents, Alaska's biggest city might as well be the northerly stepping stone between the East and West. Besides commercial flights, numerous cargo planes flying between Asia and the "Lower 48" stop by Anchorage. Almost a hundred years ago, Anchorage wasn't even existing in the map. It merely grew from a tent city during the early years of railroad construction which began in 1914. The city's economy basically relied on railroad business until aviation came into the picture later on.
Today, tourism plays a big part in the local economy. Most visitors fly in and out of Anchorage, stay in hotels & hostels, eat in its varied restaurants, drink in its pubs, shop in its numerous tourist traps, and book tours & trips among its many local operators. Selling experiential endeavors isn't difficult in a place like Alaska since given the time required just to get there and the immense natural bounty it already offers, makes the proposition so enticing.
As soon as the driver brought me right in front of Hilton Anchorage (where I'm staying for free), I knew just what kind of "experience" I'll get myself into after settling in. As someone traveling from the "Lower 48", I'm always ready to hit the ground running.