United States, Alaska, North Pole-Chena-Fairbanks
One of those magic DML moments was listening to Foreign Ministers from arctic nations giving Finland’s then-days-old Foreign Minister grief about which country had the most power, before all of the diplomats concede that Alaska ruled the world because I have Santa Claus as one of my favorites on my cellphone, and when I dial Santa he calls me by name and obviously knows who I am. That, they quickly agreed, was real power.
Of course we are referring to Santa Claus, the former president of the North Pole Chamber of Commerce and at this writing a member of the North Pole City Council. He was kind enough to offer up a live Christmas Day recap of Christmas Eve activities for me when I anchored ABC/FOX Alaska news. On the deadest day of news, no one can compete with that coverage. I’m a big grateful
One will find exactly what you expect to find at the Santa Claus House - a dozen reindeer mulling about the yard, a giant sleigh, a workshop where the elves make toys, candy, stockings, Christmas decorations, and, of course, the Santas.
There are remarkably few toys for sale, but tons of Christmas-themed merchandise. If you think this through it shouldn’t shock you.
The selection of Christmas books is exquisite, and one is encouraged to have both Santa and Mrs. Claus sign The Night Before Christmas.
The jolly and accommodating Claus couple will also pose for photos and say a few choice words on video if you would like to make a recording for a special someone. There is no charge for the Santa love, and if you think that through it shouldn’t surprise you for the same reason.
When my daughter hit a certain age she argued with her classmates that Santa was real - Casmir had been to his house in the North Pole, several times, fed the reindeer carrots, and got a letter from him every year. I love that.
Santa decorates the arctic entries of his house with the letters he has received from children all over the world. I love that too.
Set up for the tourist trade, you won’t find any great shopping deals here. What you will find is the spirit of Christmas that you can bottle up and take home with you. The variety of themed Christmas goods on the market it impressive, and the merchandise offered turns every year. I am envious of their shopper.
Inside scoop; Target has apparently swiped the ‘big red balls in the parking lot’ idea from Santa. Brilliant.
Discovered in 1905 by minors who used these slightly sulphuric-smelling waters to cure their aches and pains, the Chena Hot Springs Resort gathered all their relics and created a must visit destination.
WARNING: Chena is a rustic location that is as charming as it is dusty, will well meaning but poorly trained staff. If you met the owner you would understand that the Alaska version of Caractacus Potts has opened his workshop to the public, so adjust your expectations and embrace Chena for what it is - a place to rest and relax.
After an hour-long drive with jaw-dropping scenery, one arrives at Chena hungry, so the restaurant is stop one. The vegetables are grown on-site using geothermal energy and are very flavorful.
The staff are ernest and sweet, but are a bit clueless as to American restaurant service norms. All of the soup in our section was delivered a sloppy mess that the server never considered tidying up, and my grilled cheese/tomato sandwich was luke warm. Consider that the site’s water source leaves a light oily residue on the glasses, and everything, before you decide to just have ice water to drink.
There is an ice house hotel/bar, but the springs were calling and we forgot to consider that proper protocol is ice house first, springs second, and not the other way around. Didn’t care to be cold after being warmed to the bone in the hot spring lake - so we will save the ice for another visit. Also on that to-do list: horseback riding, dog sledding, ATV and side-by-side rides, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and a river float tour.
Randomly, there is also an airplane that is being used as a sculpture. I don’t quite know what to say about that, but, why not?
The pool doors open at 7:00AM and close at midnight. Day visitors pay $5 for a towel hot from the dryer, 50 cents for a locker, and $15 for a pass to the indoor 90 degrees fahrenheit salt water pool and chlorinated hot tub, the outdoor chlorinated hot tub and the reason why we are here - the outdoor hot springs.
The pea gravel bottom is easy on the feet, the large granite stones that define the edges hold heat and provide privacy, a place to anchor oneself for a nice float. The depth ranges naturally as does the temperature, but it stays around four feet deep and 106 degrees fahrenheit. The clientele is very cosmopolitan and respectful.
Soaking in the springs while ones hair is frozen and the northern lights are dancing above is a most quintessential Alaska activity.
The experience is so spectacular spectacular that folks in iceland try to copycat - but Iceland charge twice as much to use their hot springs and barely gets below freezing the winter. Chena doesn’t raise an eyebrow for ten below zero and whiteout snowstorms so it easily scores more adventure points.
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA, MUSEUM OF THE NORTH
One of the first orders of business by the Alaska Territorial Legislature was to set up a school of mines in Fairbanks. Move forward a hundred years and you will discover some jaw-dropping finds in that school’s natural history museum.
Yes, there is the large-enough-to-be-made-into-a-bathtub-for-four-people dark green jade boulder. Yes, there are large remnants of petrified palm trees and dinosaurs - all kinds of arctic dinosaurs - from back when Alaska was tropical and no one was complaining about global warming.
Global warming, they keep promising but never deliver. Why people think it is a great idea to keep my country stuck in an ice age is beyond me. It was not what gawd intended. Alaskans for Global Warming - because freezing/starving isn’t fun.
I could go on all day about the dinosaurs, it is worth the trip for just for them.
Who could not love the quirky, frightening, giant beasts that tromped around with Yukon horses, musk ox, and … yes, there is frickin’ ginormous Blue Babe, a Paul Bunyan-sized steppe bison mummy and the details of what big cat took it down, and Effie, the cutest little baby woolly mammoth mummy you have every seen.
You can read about these discoveries, as I do with relish as anyone who follows my Facebook feed will attest. It is another thing entirely to view them up close. Experience the wonder.
You really need to pack a lunch and plan to spend all day and do a deep dive because the natural history they have collected is worth the time investment.
The Museum of the North has a worthy holding of 4,000 pieces of Alaska fine art that includes several of my favorites - Steve Gordon, Rockwell Kent, Ken DeRoux, Alvin Amason, Eustace Ziegler, Jules Dahlager, and Sydney Lawrence.
There is a whole floor dedicated to stuffed animals, vintage finds, and collectibles including an incredibly ornate outhouse that is Insta-perfect.
They have an entire bowhead whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling, which is fantastic, and that stupid bus 142 that the poor sap from stateside died in. No, I didn’t read Into the Wild or see the movie, that kind of obvious-Darwinian activity is to pathetic to be interesting to me.
Fortunately, the museum is open seven-days-a-week from 10AM-5:30PM and is only $12 for Alaskans, up to $16 for everyone else to get it. Well worth the price of admission, and I love that the lowest price point is for locals to encourage us to visit our own musuem.
Scoop: The museum gift store carries jewelry. The offerings are from all over the State and I’ve never seen such high quality, great range of offerings and cheap cheap cheap prices. While the museum has a great virtual presence for its exhibits, the offerings for its gift shop are subpar at this writing, which is a crime.
Seriously, I spent what I would normally spend on one pair of earrings and came out with - this is me bragging - teal Neptune gneiss with nickel ore beads from the Alaska range that have a natural gold sparkle from mica crafted by Curvin Metzler; a pair of sea otter fur hoop earrings, three pairs of seal fur hoop earrings and a stunning sea lion strip earring by Inpuiat Marcus Gho that made me put away my pearls during my Fairbanks stay; amber bead earrings by Don Forest of Two Rivers; two porcupine quill and bead necklaces, gold Alaska state map earrings, and, by far my favorite, a pair of earrings made from glass beads strung over a walrus whisker with thin gold wire. Average price, $20 per pair, no lie.
Also no lie, the sign on the whopper 5,498 pound Dan Creek copper nugget in the hallway encourages you to touch it.
Hidden in the Gold Rush section of Pioneer Park you will find the bequeathed collectibles and artifacts of members of the Pioneers of Alaska.
Most will walk in the door, turn left, and be ready to leave twenty minutes later. Lots of Alaskana, not particularly sophisticated in how it is presented - although it is displayed with a lot of love and respect.
If you are an early railroad aficionado, you will be well pleased and may even be able to assist in the restoration of Alaska Engine Number 1. Admission is free.
Insider Tip: - show up between 11:30-3:30pm Memorial through Labor Day, walk in the door, pay $4.00, and turn right. This is the hidden gem.
Every hour on the half-hour hour you can listen to the iconic radio voice of Alaska State Poet Laureate Ruben Gaines take you through The Big Stampede - the 1898 Klondike and 1902 Fairbanks gold rushes.
The theater seating turns with the story, as seen through the 15 large oil dioramas by Magnus Colcord “Rusty” Heurlin. The Alaska 49ers Hall of Fame inductee influenced later artist Fred Machetanz. Heurlin died at age 90 in his cabin in the gold mining town of Ester.
The Fairbanks Pioneers say this is the last theater of its kind that is still working, and their volunteers have done an exceptionally fine job of maintaining it and the paintings. Show your appreciation in the donations box.