ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Average winter temperatures here are, well, pretty cold. It's a far cry from tropical Caribbean beaches.

But, Alaska tourism officials say when it comes to winter tourism, don't count them out.

This is predicted to be a good year for viewing the northern lights and, in March, the annual Iditarod dogsled race will kick off from Anchorage.

To be sure, Alaska's winter season is not going to draw many clients to agents' doors, but, according to Al Koch, general manager of Anchorage-based AlaskaTours.com, extreme temperatures are what some "extreme" clients look for.

"To experience minus 35 degrees to see the northern lights, that's a big draw," he said.

The best times to see the aurora, according to Matt Atkinson, marketing coordinator for the Northern Alaska Tour Co., are the first two weeks of September and the middle three weeks of March.

"It needs to get dark," he said, "so, potentially, it could be anytime from the end of August to mid-March."

The Northern Alaska Tour Co. offers excursions from its home base in Fairbanks to a town inside the Arctic Circle called Coldfoot, where auroral views, Atkinson said, practically are guaranteed when the sky is clear.

Atkinson said the aurora borealis has been a major attraction for years with Japanese tourists.

Now, he said, the winter market is starting to attract U.S. visitors, especially those from west of the Mississippi River.

Northern Alaska also offers an overnight trip to the northernmost U.S. community: Barrow, a town of 4,000 people on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Guests are provided with parkas, and Atkinson said local stores will rent visitors winter gear for daily rates. Commission on the trips, which start at $564, double, is 10%.

For more information, visit www.northernalaska.com.

The Iditarod begins March 1 from Anchorage and ends 1,049 miles away in Nome. Tracking the race via plane can be done but is extremely expensive, according to tour operators.

And since there is no way to predict the finish time, it's difficult to build a package around it.

But clients can catch the start of the race and then head up to the town of Wasilla for the "restart" -- a second kickoff to the race.

AlaskaTours.com's Iditarod package, at $1,539 per person, double, includes tickets to the annual mushers' banquet dinner, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Iditarod communications center, viewing of the Anchorage start, transfers to Wasilla for the restart and a trip to an Iditarod checkpoint.

The company also offers dogsled tours in which clients can participate. One eight-day tour takes beginning mushers to the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle. That tour starts at $2,350 per person, double. The tours are commissionable at 10%.

And, as one operator pointed out, dogsled races happen nearly every winter weekend.

Clients who want to fly into Alaska for a winter vacation might want to time their trip to coincide with the annual Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, a two-week-long winter carnival now in its 68th year.

Although tour operators and "Fur Rondy" officials say the festival draws more Alaskans than out-of-state tourists (Alaska Airlines offers a discounted rate for travel within Alaska to the event), it can be coordinated with other trips -- perhaps with a flight upstate for aurora viewing or skiing on Mount Alyeska.

The Fur Rendezvous starts Feb. 14 with fireworks and its "official" kick-off party, the Jim Beam Jam. New to the festival this year is a Cajun/Creole dinner with live blues music.

In addition, the World Championship Sled Dog Race takes place in Anchorage during the festival.

Tickets for some of the events can be purchased on www.tickets.com. Hotel deals are available; ask for the "Rondy Rate." For more information, call (907) 474-1177.

Next year, an event spokeswoman said, the Fur Rendezvous will be shifted to later in the month and will coincide with the Iditarod kickoff.

Hotels with fur rendezvous deals

Aspen Hotels
Phone: (888) 506-7848

Anchorage Marriott Downtown
Phone: (800) 228-9290

Anchorage Grand Hotel
Phone: (888) 800-0640

Best Western Barratt Inn
Phone: (800) 221-7550

Diamond Center Hotel
Phone: (866) 770-5002

Hampton Inn
Phone: (907) 550-7000

Hilton Anchorage
Phone: (800) 245-2527

Inlet Tower Hotel Suites
Phone: (800) 544-0786

The Historic Anchorage Hotel
Phone: (800) 544-0988.

The Hotel Captain Cook
Phone: (800) 843-1950

Long House Alaskan Hotel
Phone: (888) 243-2133

Ramada Limited
Phone: (866) 480-7000

Westmark Anchorage
Phone: (800) 544-0970

Dates and prices vary with each hotel.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI