HONOLULU To some, a vacation in the tropics involves sipping mai tais poolside at a five-star resort. To others it's surfing lessons or snorkeling on a colorful, fish-filled reef.
To Francis Mitchell and Joanne Mehl of McGrath, Alaska, vacation paradise is the modest second home they have built atop a barren, windswept lava field on the Big Island, Hawaii's youngest and most volcanically active island.
The couple have lived for years in a remote cabin, without running water, in the wilderness of interior Alaska. Each year they, and thousands of other Alaskans, board flights bound direct to the Hawaiian Islands for a break from the cold and, in some places, absolute darkness of a northern winter.
"Hawaii balances Alaska because it is so soft and gentle compared to how hard Alaska can be," said Mehl, 56, who volunteers with rural firefighting crews in the summer and has worked a variety of jobs in her town of 320 people. "At this point, I couldn't live year-round in McGrath because of the cold and the darkness."
McGrath, about 221 miles northwest of Anchorage, is known for hosting dozens of dog teams during the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The community gets less than four hours of sunlight during the shortest winter days. Temperatures there can fall to minus 60.
"I like the winter, and if it wasn't for Joanne, I'd probably be spending the winter in McGrath," said Mitchell, 70, who retired from the rural development program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "But we love Hawaii. We swim and snorkel and do quite a bit of hiking. There is a pristine white sand beach just 2 1/2 miles from our place."
For Alaska's largest air carrier, the annual winter exodus from the 49th state to the 50th is a predictable and attractive market.
Alaska Airlines began flying the six-hour route from Anchorage to Honolulu for the first time in December, when reasonably priced seats to Hawaii sell out fast. The flights, each carrying just over 150 passengers, leave once a day.
The airline also acquired the assets of rival carrier Hawaiian Vacations Inc., which had based its entire business on the route for about 20 years. Northwest Airlines gave up direct service between the two cities this year, soon after Alaska announced its plans, but would not say why.
"Our customers and our employees have been asking about the possibility of Alaska Airlines flying to Hawaii for years and years," said Amanda Tobin Bielawski, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. "It was the No. 1 destination out of Anchorage that we didn't already serve."
On a recent flight in December, about 150 passengers boarded Alaska Airlines flight 870 at 3 p.m., just as the sun was disappearing behind the jagged white peaks of the Alaska Range. The temperature was 8 degrees, and the baggage handlers' breath lingered in the air as they loaded bright floral luggage and boogie boards onto a plane with a lei-bedecked Eskimo painted on its tail.
Many Alaskans on board said they travel to Hawaii for the same reasons as other residents of the western United States. Besides the obvious charms of the well-marketed Pacific islands, the flight time is just five to six hours and does not involve passports, money-changing, or the other hassles of international travel.
"I just love the atmosphere and the people are great," said Palmer resident Ted Perdue, who arrived at the Anchorage airport wearing a tastefully muted green Aloha (or "Hawaiian") shirt. "It's the closest you can come to being in a foreign country, but still be in the U.S."
Perdue, who owns a construction business, was making his fourth trip to Hawaii with his wife, Jeanette, and their two children, Jack, 9, and Chantel, 10. The family travels to the Hawaiian islands every two years around the holidays.
This year, they are spending eight days on the Big Island and another eight days on the smaller, and generally rainier, island of Kauai.
"I've already gone to the tanning salon six, seven times this month to prepare my skin. That's my routine and I get my hair highlighted too," said Jeanette Purdue, who wore a T-shirt from an Anchorage comedy club that read "Alaskans for Global Warming."
"I have a tank top on under this," she said. "I'm ready to strip down."
Alaskans make up a tiny fraction of the total number of visitors to Hawaii each year, according to Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. But they stay longer on average than visitors from any other U.S. state 13.04 days, according to figures from 2006.
And in Alaska, it seems that most people either go to Hawaii in the winter or know at least one person who does.
As the pilot announced the start of the descent into Honolulu, Kate Kignak of Barrow, Alaska, said she has long been anticipating a 10-day stay on Kauai with her husband and two children.
"It's always been our dream to go to Hawaii," said Kignak, who works at the elementary school in the mostly Inupiat community. "I've heard all about how beautiful, and nice, and sunny, and warm it is." Barrow, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, is the northernmost community in the U.S. It is also in the midst of 24-hour Arctic night.
The temperature at Honolulu International Airport was 77 degrees when the plane landed on the dark runway. For many Alaskans, the warm temperatures are a treat, but for one reason or another, the far north will always be home.
"I feel like I need Hawaii, but after a while I long for what McGrath gives me," said Mehl, who plans to stay on the Big Island for four months. "There's something so solid and so wilderness about Alaska. As beautiful as Hawaii is, it's still dominated by humans. For us, it's really nice to live someplace that's not."