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There are lots of ways to spend your time while waiting for your return flight from Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska

Tourists to the Great Land can find themselves with the Great Problem as they wait to depart: how to fill that last day.

Airlines flying east and south to the Lower 48 often leave Anchorage, location of the state's major airport, after 9 p.m., even after midnight. The planes gain hours heading away from Alaska's own time zone, which is four hours behind Eastern time. But such departures can leave visitors with a full day to fill if their trips to Denali National Park or cruises have ended the day before.

There are plenty of choices to occupy this extra time. Depending on your interests, you can spend a few hours in the fine Anchorage zoo, which offers free shuttle service from downtown, daily narrated tours that bring you closer to the polar bears and tigers (yep, non-natives) and has a petting zoo to keep youngsters entertained.

For something deeper, head to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which chronicles the lifestyles of the state's 11 indigenous tribes. You will learn about how one tribe uses the moose for food and clothing, view handicrafts from basketry to modern art, hear storytellers and singers and watch dancers.

Or you can hop a train to leave the city and enjoy more scenery and animals.

Step aboard Alaska Railroad's new, self-propelled, single train car and head to Spencer Glacier aboard the Chugach Whistle Stop train. There, you can take a ranger-led stroll on a nearly flat, gravel path for 1.3 miles through the meadows of the Chugach National Forest. The walkers arrive at the lake formed by meltwater from the glacier; icebergs float just a few yards from shore.

You can also walk or bike a longer route. A third option is to buy a rafting trip. Spencer is the first of five whistle stops being planned by the Forest Service in cooperation with the railroad.

After walking or rafting, you can ride the train back north into Anchorage or return by bus, which saves a couple of hours and returns you to the city before 7 p.m.

For a longer day, ride the train about four hours and 125 miles south to Seward. This route was recently selected one of the world's most scenic rail trips by the Society of American Travel Writers.

In Seward, you board a tour boat for a six-hour cruise through the gorgeous Kenai Fjords National Park. You're likely to spot humpback whales, pods of orcas (killer whales) and sea otters.

The captains head to small granite islands that hold immense rookeries of seabirds such as black-footed kittiwakes and puffins, which induce choruses of "ooohhs."

The boats also stop by rookeries of Steller sea lions, where the males — who can grow to 1,500 pounds — are constantly grunting and roaring to impress the females. It sounds like a belching contest among basso profundos.

The train's departure is keyed to the tour boats' return. You're back in Anchorage by about 9 p.m., still time enough to make that midnight flight.

There are lots of ways to spend your time while waiting for your return flight from Alaska 08/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:19pm]
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