Head out on the highway… in Alaska
Wild camping, bear spotting and toasting marshmallows… we find out what happened when a family squeezed into a motorhome and hit the road on a self-drive in Alaska. Words & photographs: William Gray
Several years ago, we did a big motorhome tour in New Zealand with our children (twins, now aged 13). Alaska held the same appeal: spectacular scenery, the promise of adventure and a well-established network of roads and campsites for touring. Plus new flights have launched with Icelandair which meant we could reach Anchorage on a relatively short 6.5-hour flight from Reykjavik (a three-hour hop from London).
What did you do?
We rented a motorhome (known as a recreational vehicle, or RV, in Alaska) and spent 10 days driving a loop east from Anchorage to the Wrangell Mountains and Saint Elias Mountains, south to Valdez, west across Prince William Sound (on the ferry) and on to Homer before heading north back towards Anchorage. We didn’t have a fixed itinerary, nor did we pre-book any RV parks, the beauty of this kind of trip is the flexibility and freedom it offers.
What were the highlights for the kids?
The great outdoors — and the sense of exploration. They became addicted to simple pleasures such as berry picking, fishing, skimming stones and toasting marshmallows over an open fire.
Best place you stayed?
Many of the RV parks in Alaska have everything from electrical hook-ups and hot showers to coffee machines and wi-fi. But one of our most memorable nights was at a ‘wild’ campsite called Liberty Falls in the Wrangell Mountains, where the only facilities were a fire pit and basic ‘vault’ toilet. We simply parked our RV next to a beautiful river. We found another wonderful spot at the tip of Homer Spit, with panoramic views of the mountains across Kachemak Bay.
What was life in the RV like?
It was perfect for travelling with kids. You have everything — bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and dining room — rolled into one. You can stop when you like, cook when you like (and what you like) and you only have to unpack once. This all means it’s easy to get everyone involved in day-to-day life — from cooking to planning the day’s route. Our RV wasn’t a top-of-the-range model but it still came with a flush toilet, hot shower, microwave, cooker, fridge-freezer, barbecue and fishing gear. Although there were only four of us, we went for a seven-berth motorhome for extra comfort.
Was the RV difficult to drive?
As long as we took our time and drove slowly, our 27ft-long behemoth was quite straightforward to drive. We just had to remember it had a very wide turning circle and much longer braking distances than we were used to. Top tip: always get someone to hop outside to guide you into parking spaces, particularly when reversing.
How did the kids cope with the long drives?
We didn’t choose an over-ambitious route. In total, we drove around 900 miles, breaking down each day on the road into manageable chunks with plenty of stops. You can’t drive far in Alaska without something of interest catching your eye. At one point, we pulled over to hike to stunning views over the Matanuska Valley; another, to climb to the frozen blue snout of the Worthington Glacier. The national park visitor centres were always worth a stop. We also lingered several days at a few places, so we could explore the area in more detail and arrange excursions.
What was your best day?
While we were in Homer, we caught a water taxi to the road-less Kachemak Bay State Park to join a guided sea kayaking tour. We got to within a few metres of a resting sea otter and even saw a black bear feeding along the shoreline. The wildlife in Alaska is incredible — particularly along the coast, where it’s easier to see than in the vast inland wilderness reserves like Denali. On other boat trips, we spotted humpback whales, sea lions, bald eagles and tufted puffins.
Were you ever concerned about bears?
Travelling in a motorhome in Alaska is obviously less risky than camping. However, we were still careful when cooking outdoors, making sure we used bear-proof bins for our refuse and leaving no sign of food that might attract them. On one hike, we did encounter several piles of alarmingly fresh-looking bear dung — a good excuse for a family singsong to alert any bears of our presence (surprised bears are often the most dangerous).
What else did you do in Alaska?
Anchorage made an excellent base for a few days at the start of our trip when everyone was recovering from jet lag. We feasted on waffles and smoothies at 4th Avenue’s Snow City Cafe before hiring bikes and pedalling the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which runs from downtown Anchorage along the waterfront to Earthquake Park (featuring displays about the 1964 Good Friday Quake). Another day was taken up with visits to the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Anchorage Museum — both full of imaginative, interactive exhibits for children.
The one thing families should splash out on?
It’s eye-wateringly expensive for a family day out (£360 per person), but a floatplane excursion (flyrusts.com) to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve with lunch at a wilderness lodge and a bear-watching boat safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We flew from Anchorage out over Cook Inlet, our six-seater Cessna circling low over a large pod of beluga whales, before touching down on a remote lake. Transferring to a small motorboat, we pottered around the lakeshore and saw no less than five black bears, including a mother with two cubs.
Best for: Families with an adventurous and independent spirit who don’t mind making up an itinerary as they go along. Would suit children as young as five, although many of the activities in Alaska are more suited to older children.
Highs: The head-spinning scenery, the bears and the oh-so-cute sea otters. And the moment we discovered freshly picked wild raspberries stuffed inside a marshmallow toasted over a campfire could taste so good.
Lows: Grappling with the sewage hose at a dump station when the RV’s waste tanks needed emptying. Also, the ‘no-see-ums’ (Alaska’s notorious biting midges) that plagued one campsite.
Joe: “The flight to Alaska was amazing. We could look down on Greenland, with its icecap and icebergs.”
Ellie: “I really enjoyed the freedom of travelling around and setting up camp at different, remote places.”
How to do it: A tailormade 12-night family package from Discover the World costs from £1,875 per adult and £1,690 per child under 12, based on four people sharing, including return flights, 10 nights in a large motorhome, including unlimited mileage, and two nights in Anchorage’s Ramada Hotel. An RV park with electric and water hook-up costs around £25 per night. Unleaded fuel costs in the region of £2.32 per gallon; a typical RV does between 10-12 miles per gallon. discover-the-world.co.uk
Mad for the Monashee… in Canada
Tucked away between the Canadian Rockies and the Pacific Ocean, the Monashee Mountains have perfect powder, ski-in ski-out cabins, husky trails, mild weather and innovative ski schools. Words: Sarah Barrell
It’s snowing in fierce horizontal flurries when the old yellow taxicab pulls into the Silver Star Mountain Resort. It’s late and we’re starving. Bags are dumped, ski trousers fished out, then we head straight for dinner. Walking through the resort’s central ‘village’, past brightly painted wooden buildings on white-blanketed streets, is like stepping into a Disney snow globe. “The ground’s twinkling, mummy!” Ella exclaims. And it is. The Monashee Mountains, inland from rainy Vancouver and the Pacific, has some of the driest, lightest powder snow in North America. Kick your boots through the stuff and it scatters like glitter.
Inside Long John’s Pub, bobble-hatted families eat plates of mash and ribs. The crackle of an open fire is just audible under the Creedence Clearwater Revival-style band playing by the bar. A glass of local Okanagan red wine later and I’m feeling no pain. Revived by a mountain of mac ’n’ cheese, Ella is mesmerised by the snow banked up against buildings outside — it looks like the scene in Ghostbusters after the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man has exploded. Giant mounds of white almost obscure the view of starry skies and distant tree-bristled peaks. Perfect.
Perfect is the word for the following day’s skiing, too, which gets off to a swift start, what with the ski school and hire shop being mere minutes from our apartment — most of the resort’s accommodation is a short shush from the village. Our start would’ve been swifter still had we not been seduced by our balcony’s giant hot tub — complete with piste views. Despite being snow-sure, the Monashee’s handful of ski resorts are a good deal milder than the often bitterly cold Rockies. In characteristic form, Ella’s already trying to shed a layer the minute I’ve dropped her at ski school.
Instructors do an expert job of cheerleading the day’s activities — nursery slope games, obstacle courses and some magic carpet ski lift rides. There’s a generous child-to-teacher ratio, so, bathed in attention, Ella barely gives me a backwards glance, leaving us able to team up with one of the Mountain Hosts. These guides offer free tours to help uncover hidden stashes of powder, find the best runs or, in my case, help regain snow legs after a couple of years off the slopes. A rather stoic snowboarder called Bob leads our group — just my other half, Tony, and I. Of retirement age, Bob handles a board with the ease of a veteran surfer — a quiet grace reflected in his guiding, which is charmingly reserved. It’s a while before he reveals he’s of pretty unusual stock: half First Nations, half British.
Under Bob’s expert supervision, my snow legs return promptly and I’ve worked up a mountainous appetite by lunch. Being overly cautious, we’d booked Ella in for a morning lesson rather than a full day. We have to prise her out for lunch, but she’s instantly placated by soup, served in a bread bowl, at Bugaboos. The flaky pastry treats at this cafe-patisserie are a testament to the skills of jovial Dutchman owner Frank Berker, who had to relearn how to work yeast to get his creations to rise at mountain altitudes.
Ella is fascinated by the voluminous creation outside: the world’s largest snowball, standing almost 12ft tall, with ski-booted legs comically protruding like the aftermath of a cartoon collision. As we set off for our afternoon’s cross-country skiing, we leave the school instructors to expertly answer her hows and whys. Turning our back on the village hubbub, we set off into the sparkling silence of the woods. Silver Star is famed for its cross-country terrain: 65 miles of groomed trails, winding in and out of the trees. The Swedish cross-country team train here and while I’m woefully far from their level of fitness, once we reach a rhythmic stride, we’re soon slipping silently through the backcountry, branches releasing snowy confetti as we pass.
The pace picks up at the Tube Town Adventure Park later that night. Tony, an ex-pat Canadian, has been sucked into into a scrappy game of ice hockey on Silver Star’s frozen pond. Ella, meanwhile, has been reunited with kids from ski school and we spend the next hour screaming our way down a near vertical ice slide, seated in giant inner tubes. If the Monashee’s resorts were any closer to home, I’d happily turn my back on the Alps, so enjoyable is their small-village vibe. At Big White Ski, a ski resort located a couple of hours from Silver Star, we find another home from home. Our generous-sized apartment, again, comes with a hot tub and piste views, and Ella slots happily into ski school, despite joining midway through the week.
Voted ‘Best Place to be Abandoned by Your Parents’ by Ski Canada Magazine, the Big White Kids’ Center comes with a creche (for ages 18 months and over) and a children’s ski hire and play area. Instructors will even collect kids from their accommodation, clip them into their boots and whisk them off to school, leaving you to enjoy an early piste run — or your pillow. The centre’s cafe not only produces breakfast, lunch and snacks — including homemade cookies I find hard to keep my mitts off — it also runs kids’ pizza-cooking sessions. On piste, ski schoolers (two years and up) are issued with a satellite tracker, allowing teachers to keep tabs on even the most independent adventurer and parents to map their child’s progress over the mountain at the end of each day.
Over half-a-foot of snow falls during out first 12 hours in Big White; it’s living up to its name. Mist sits low over the roads and snow hangs in the air like smoke. This resort definitely delivers the mountain-scape drama you might be missing from the Alps, notably the ‘snow ghosts’ that haunt higher altitudes. Sadly, Ella’s class don’t make it high enough to see these surreal windblown, iced-over trees, which tower like prehistoric polar bears over the pistes. But she’s not feeling deprived. Along with ski school, we manage to fit in snowshoeing, dog sledding, ice climbing and one of the resort’s regular fireworks displays. Ella ends the week triumphant. She’s beaten Big White’s mascot, the Loose Moose, in the 100-metres dash. Could anything be more Canadian than that?
Best for: Families who want easy mountain access and tons of different snow sports.
Highs: Superb snow conditions and great family facilities, with most accommodation right on the slopes, and a family-friendly atmosphere.
Lows: It’s a long way from home: London-Vancouver (a 9hr direct flight), then, weather permitting, a day’s drive to the slopes. Or an hour’s flight to Kelowna, followed by another hour’s resort transfer. The airfare is hefty but book early enough and resorts offer great deals on kit hire, lift passes, accommodation and ski school. Plus it’s great value: mountain restaurants serve large portions, slopes are fairly empty, with virtually no lift queues, and accommodation is spacious and well-equipped.
Tip: Add on a few days in Vancouver at the beginning of the trip. This not only allows time to get over jet lag but also provides the makings of a pretty legendary family holiday. Before we even began our ski trip, we’d already packed in winter surfing and exploring the giant redwood forests of Vancouver Island, biking the city’s Stanley Park and a visit to its excellent aquarium.
Ella: “I loved the hotels. The beds were really comfy and we had hot tubs! The snow was brilliant. So much everywhere. I loved racing the giant moose, too — I beat him!”
How to do it: Travel with Ski Safari from £5,425 for a family of four in an apartment (five nights in Stonebridge Lodge, Big White Ski Resort; five in Snowbird Lodge, Silver Star Mountain Resort), with Air Canada flights and domestic Air Transat flights. skisafari.co.uk
More info: britishcolumbia.travel
Son & snow… and Italian Dolomites
Getting away with your kids doesn’t have to end once they’ve flown the nest. Bond over frozen waterfalls and fine dining during a skiing trip to the Italian Dolomites — it won’t be your last. Words: Paul Gogarty
On that first day back on the slopes, we gobble up the miles like all austerity-rationed skiers. The sun is shining, the snow fresh and Max, my 24-year-old son, can’t get enough of it. Swooping down the Gran Risa, the Ski World Cup giant slalom run, my thighs are beginning to burn and my stomach is growling. “Shall we just do one more hour?” Max, suggests. “No,” I reply, playing the assertive-father card. “Lunch.”
Max was just six when I booked our first family ski trip. Only on arrival did we discover our hotel was half-a-mile downhill from the lifts and slopes. The crucial lesson was learned the hard way, with me swearing under my breath as I attempted to carry three sets of skis while simultaneously pulling Max on a sledge and explaining to his older sister, Larne, why I couldn’t give her a shoulder ride.
We were, however, back the next year. And the next. The bad experience didn’t inoculate us against ski fever. One year, we even managed to persuade my wife to give skiing a go despite her Alpine-sized reservations. She lasted two days before withdrawing to a book and a local spa and I was back to solo ski parenting.
Next, it was time for Larne to break ranks. A gung-ho instructor took her to the top of mountain and a precipitous red run in a white-out on her first day back on the slopes. She had a bad fall, damaged her ligaments and refused point-blank to ski again. Since that day, the annual ski sortie has been a boys-only affair and now that Max has reached adulthood and left home, the trips have become more important than ever.
This year, we’ve decided to book Corvara in the Italian Dolomites for the first time. The vast skiing area is one draw (the Dolomiti Superski card gives us access to the world’s largest ski area covered by a single pass) but the region is also marketing itself as a foodie destination for skiers bored with the ubiquitous spag bol or hot dog and chips served up for a king’s ransom across the Alps.
Slope Food is its brilliant new initiative, taking the street-food concept up the mountain. Giving skiers a gourmet taste of local ingredients are a dozen feted chefs (including British celebrity chef John Burton-Race), each of whom has devised a special dish served with a glass of local wine for anything from €8-18 (£6.70-15) at a dozen mountain huts. The problem, I soon discover, on viewing these marvellously whimsical creations, is they’re amuse-bouche-sized and look like they’d be more at home in an art gallery than fuelling a father gamely trying to keep up with his fully-grown son. I order the spag bol instead.
Before hitting the slopes that first day, it had snowed solidly for 14 hours and conditions were still perfect the following morning when, aching but eager, we decide to ski the classic Sella Ronda, a 16-mile route round the Sella massif through three provinces and four valleys beneath snow-glazed forests and a jagged coronet of peaks.
As we swoop like birds over the white stuff, we discover that although the Dolomites are thin on black runs (and what blacks there are would only be designated reds in France), there’s virtually no queuing for lifts, which makes it a perfect choice for families.
Later in the week, we join an Inghams ski tour of the Lagazuoi massif. The cable car takes us from a point close to the Cinque Torri where Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double had hung perilously in the film Cliffhanger while the macho star himself reputedly nursed his vertigo in his trailer. The five-mile piste must be among the prettiest long runs on Earth and our group only have to share it with each other and the ghosts of soldiers who battled here in WWI.
In yet more sunshine and more virgin snow from the previous night’s dump, we snake our way past shattered pinnacles, frozen waterfalls, sentinel trees and an outcrop shaped like the petals of a flower. To our right are ice-filled caves, dug by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. Today, these wartime refuges are only accessible during the summer melt. Not far from them is a poignant and lonely shrine to the 160,000 who lost their lives during three years of fighting.
After our sprint finish, we celebrate at the Capanna Alpina Restaurant with Bomardinos (half advocaat, half brandy, served hot with whipped cream) and then all 21 of us, still wearing our skiis, are pulled by two herculean carthorses to the next lift. It’s also at some point during this day, as we ski out of Arabba, I realise the ski baton has been invisibly but firmly taken over; Max is now not only the better skier but has also taken up responsibility for map reading and planning.
Another area that Max has painlessly eclipsed his father in is the culinary arts — he’s experimental, fearless and passionate while I’m predictable and stick to the bankers. Our week together climaxes with a three-hour, seven-course Cook the Mountains tasting menu in the neighbouring Hotel Rosa Alpina at the two Michelin-star St Hubertus, where we linger lovingly over such taste-bud explosions as whitefish tartar with ice salad and horseradish snow; and mountain hay tempura with grey cheese gelato. My own favourite is a melt-in-the-mouth risotto with quince apple, glazed oxtail and foam of celery.
On other evenings, we retreat to the hotel games room where we lock horns in gladiatorial table tennis and pool matches. Fortunately, wins and losses end up even and I suffer no further damage to my male ego. Over subsequent days, the sun waxes and wanes, I wax and wane but Max never flags; often putting in another hour after I retreat to ease my aches in the hotel’s sauna and Turkish baths.
On our final morning, standing on the 10,826ft-high terrace overlooking the Marmalade Glacier, with bubbling white domes rising out of the clouds, we even plot the outline for a schlock horror movie starring a demented night pister, which pretty much guarantees we’ll be skiing again next year, working up the sequel.
ESSENTIALS Italian Dolomites
How to do it: Inghams offers seven nights half-board at the four-star Hotel Col Alto in Alta Badia from £999, including return flights and transfers. Six-day lift pass from £174 for adults and £124 for ages 8-15 (free for under-7s). Group tuition with ski school from £169 for adults, including one daily lesson for five days. Children’s group lessons from £169. One daily two-hour snowboarding lesson for three days from £119 per adult or child. St Hubertus’s Cook the Mountains tasting menu from £118 per person. inghams.co.uk rosalpina.it altabadia.org
Read two further snow adventures in the Spring 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family