Whether arriving by cruise ship or airplane, few Alaskan visitors stray from the ports around Juneau, the city of Anchorage, or the beautiful Denali National Park. But we have lots of love for the state’s more rugged pocket of Fairbanks, another 100-plus miles beyond Denali. From surprisingly diverse cuisine to truly remote respite, here’s why we think the region inhabited by just 32,000 is worth the distance:
1. Surprising Cuisine and Brews
Of course, you’ll find plenty of crab legs here and typical AK fare here. Through mid-September, Alaska Salmon Bake in Pioneer Park serves all-you-can-eat salmon fillets baked over an open fire — plus more entrees like prime rib and cod, a salad bar, rolls, baked beans, and desserts — all for just $31.95.
But who knew Fairbanks is also home to a staggering number of Thai restaurants? To be exact, we found 15 at last count — including Lemongrass, which serves up dishes like Gaeng Paar “jungle curry” with Alaskan halibut or scallops. There’s no shortage of early morning options, either. You can jumpstart your day with reindeer sausage and eggs, dished up at the three-year-old Loose Moose Café. For a hearty Sunday brunch, the buffet at the historic Pump House Restaurant comes with great patio views of the Chena River.
For afternoon and evening diversions, drop by Tanana Valley Farmers Market on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday (through mid-September) to pick up artisanal food souvenirs like Diving Duck coffee beans and birch syrup, tapped from Alaska’s boreal forests. Another pleasant surprise is the craft brew scene. Fairbanks’ newest is HooDoo Brewing Co., open since November 2012. There, it’s hipster-central on Tuesday through Saturday, when pints are tapped at the brewery and locals refill their growlers.
Cap off your culinary adventure with a scoop of ice cream from Hot Licks, where farm-to-cone flavors include Alaskan blueberry and, in a partnership with Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling Co., Silver Gulch Forty Below Stout.
2. All the Space You’d Ever Want
Of course, one of the best reasons to travel farther is to really get away from it all. While much of Alaska is so expansive that you typically wouldn’t feel crowded, Fairbanks’ natural offerings bring serene solitude to a whole other level — not least of which includes fantastic Northern Lights viewing opportunities come late August. Thanks to the high latitude, spots just outside the city limits like Ester Dome and the University of Alaska Fairbanks are highly popular for Aurora hunting.
In colder weather, we also love stretching out in the soothing waters at Chena Hot Springs Resort, which encompasses a spacious outdoor hot spring as well as indoor and outdoor hot tubs ($15). If you’re feeling a bit more active, the resort offers seasonal activities like mushing — or dog-sledding — after the first snowfall, as early as late September. There’s also plenty of space to glamp it up with wine and hors d’oeuvres paired with either a short run or overnight camping, via nearby outfitters like Paws for Adventure.
3. Cool Celebrations
Speaking of cold weather, when in Alaska, might as well embrace the chill with no reservations. One of the best ways to do that is to time your visit to the awe-inspiring BP World Ice Art Championships, which brings some of the most talented ice sculptors from 30 countries all over the world to create impressively intricate and large-scale creations. The festival typically launches at the end of February and run through March — from February 23 to March 29 for 2015.
Visiting outside of those weeks? Chena Hot Springs has its very own ice museum and hotel, complete with a bar where visitors can enjoy a frosty cocktail that’s of course served in a glass made of ice. Back downtown at Fairbanks Ice Museum, you’ll have the chance to swoop down an ice slide and catch a demonstration in addition to admiring the life-size sculptures.
4. Vibrant Culture
A mecca of local art can be found at Downtown Market in Golden Heart Plaza, where you can meet local crafters and purchase their wares each Monday between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. For other artsy souvenirs, drop by Two Street Gallery in downtown Fairbanks, after checking out the latest exhibit at Well Street Art Gallery in the city’s industrial district. The Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus is also among the state’s best cultural institutions ($12). Its second-floor gallery celebrates Alaskan art while a new ground-floor exhibit, “Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq, is interactive to the core in introducing the school’s research vessel.
So long as you’re on campus, animal lovers should sign up for the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station‘s daily tours, which provide opportunities to get up close and personal with musk oxen, reindeer and caribou. Or if it’s history that tickles your fancy, step back into the 1900s and pan for gold like many did during the Gold Rush. Try Gold Daughters ($19.95) or Gold Dredge 8 ($39.95).
Where to Stay
Lodging choices in Fairbanks run the gamut from affordable B&Bs to cabin rentals to traditional hotels. You’ll find plenty of choices within the $100-$150 range. Even rates at Fairbanks’ finest accommodations — Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge — start from just $125 in high season (and dip as low as $99 come late September). For something a little different, we love settling into a refurbished railcar at Aurora Express Forget-Me-Not, at $145-$160 per night.