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Alaska
No one can appreciate the beauty of the north until they visit: It's hard to imagine what it's like to cruise into Seward by boat, to hike through Denali National Park, or to stay up until midnight watching the sun set. Because Alaska is America's largest state, you won't see everything in one visit. Start in Anchorage and explore the ultra-modern museum at Rasmuson Center, then head to the secluded Kenai Fjords or magnificent Chugach National Forest. If there's time, swing down by Juneau or north to Fairbanks to hike atop a glacier, canoe along a misty river, or find a lodge and just relax.
Your Alaskan experience will depend hugely on the time of year you visit. Summer sees cyclists touring the Kenai Peninsula, rife with caribou, bald eagles, and moose; hikers trekking Juneau's luminous, baby-blue Mendenhall Glacier; cruise ships exploring the awe-inspiring Tracy Arm Fjord; and kayakers pushing between unspoiled mountains surrounding Prince William Sound. But Alaska in winter is a whole other story. Then, you can fly down Alyeska's gargantuan ski slopes or cozy up in a secluded lodge, watching the heavenly northern lights flicker outside your window. Whether you rough it by the campfire or book a few nights in a comfortable, warm lodge, there are accommodations for every type of traveler.
Alaskan meals are characterized by hearty fare: It's all about fresh fish and thick slabs of meat in belt-loosening portions. At breakfast, try the state's famous gourmet reindeer sausages seasoned with white pepper and coriander, or crab cakes doused in creamy Benedict sauce. Break off a piece of fresh sourdough bread from any local artisan bakery, a historic staple for natives of the Arctic climate. For dinner, indulge in fresh Pacific fish, such as pan-seared cod, smoked salmon, or fresh halibut cheeks sprinkled with lemon and cilantro. If you still have room, complete your meal with akutaq—Eskimo ice cream—and one of Alaska's one-of-a-kind craft beers or barley wines.
Alaska is rich with the full gamut of American heritage, and appreciation in the state is strong for the indigenous tribes that have long made Alaska their home: You can catch a traditional Tlingit dance at Anchorage's Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, shop for delicate golden Aleut jewelry, or head to the Alaska Native Heritage Center for an interesting and enlightening display of northern tribal life. You can also tour a real old-fashioned Klondike-era gold mine, witness Anchorage's historical Earthquake Park, enjoy the small-town flavors of Homer and Wasilla, and, if you're visiting in winter, gawk at the impossibly sophisticated ice art that draws international attention to Fairbanks each year.
Alaska almost seems like two different states, split between summer and winter. Anchorage in July sees sunrise near 4:30 a.m. and sunset just before midnight, while winter is mostly dark, with daylight between around 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Winter temperatures hover around 5 degrees in Southcentral, though the inside passage around Juneau is significantly warmer at 20 degrees. Summer is warmer than most visitors believe, often in the mid-60s and quite green. Most flights arrive at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, while cruises tend to dock in Seward on the Kenai peninsula. The best option to get around is to rent a car or RV. If you plan on camping outdoors alone, basic survival skills and bear spray and canisters are crucial.