(from the February 2015 issue)
Whittling down Alaska’s abundant offerings in five port towns
[by Daliah Singer]
Southeast Alaska’s mountainous topography and piercing blue, glacier-fed waters are as dramatic and unique as the region’s history. Settled by the indigenous Tlingit people and Russians who migrated over the Bering Land Bridge (an exposed swath that has since been covered by seawater), the Alaska Panhandle’s small towns overflow with remnants of days gone by. From a scenic railroad trip along the path taken by hopeful prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush to high-caliber salmon and halibut fishing, a trip here affords visitors a firsthand look at how a region mired in the past has evolved in order to survive.
Beyond the historic tours and restaurant menus filled with fresh salmon chowder (and sandwiches and stir-fry), bountiful outdoor recreation opportunities encourage exploration of the temperate rain forest (expect some rain) where astounding views of vertical rock walls, verdant forests, and seemingly endless glaciers start right from port. The majority of Southeast Alaska sits in the Tongass National Forest—the largest in the United States. You’ll find hiking, fishing, dog sledding, and more offered almost everywhere, but each borough has a unique character, as you’ll discover in this guide to five of the Panhandle’s main port cities. Note that rates listed here may vary, and booking them through your cruise line may yield better pricing. Whether you’re a thrill-seeker who’s not afraid of heights or a day-tripping passenger searching for a more relaxed experience, Southeast Alaska delivers.
The snowy, hollowed peak of dormant volcano Mount Edgecumbe serves as a regional landmark in the island-studded waters surrounding Sitka, which bears many obvious Russian and Tlingit influences. (Sitka Alaska Outfitters offers ocean-rafting tours to the volcanic coastline of Kruzof Island.) Fun fact: Sitka’s Castle Hill is where Alaska was formally handed over to the United States from Russia in 1867.
In the center of downtown sits St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral, an active Russian-Orthodox church. It’s a replica of the original, which burned down in 1966. Townspeople salvaged more than 95 percent of the artifacts during the fire. The Old Sitka State Historic Site seven miles north of downtown, a Russian settlement in the early 1800s, is now a national historic landmark.
Wildlife viewing is magnified at Fortress of the Bear where visitors get up-close—as in, within 25 feet—to a small population of brown and black bears that the nonprofit has rescued and rehabilitated. Gallant Adventures’ wildlife tour ($125) takes animal enthusiasts to observe sea otters, humpback whales, and—the highlight—puffins on St. Lazaria Island, a federally protected bird sanctuary. Kids, in particular, will also enjoy trips to the Alaska Raptor Center and its 24 residents (admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children 12 and younger) as well as the Sitka Sound Science Center’s three touch tanks and Sheldon Jackson hatchery ($5). A stroll along the Sitka Seawalk, a recently improved walkway around town, will take you past both of these venues. Jackson’s name will begin to sound familiar, as Sitka is also home to the Sheldon Jackson Museum. Its namesake was a Presbyterian missionary who later became General Agent of Education in Alaska; he was also an avid collector of Alaska Native objects.
Amble along Lincoln Street—Sitka’s main drag—and pop into shops and galleries. (Tip: Look for a “Sitka Crafted” decal on store windows.) Dining options include Mediterranean-influenced eats at Ludvig’s Bistro, which also serves seafood caught by local fishermen, or a choose-your-own adventure experience at Homeport Eatery, a gourmet food court that houses cafés serving everything from crêpes to paninis. Keeping with what appears to be an Alaska theme, Sitka does have a brewery: A favorite brew at Baranof Island Brewing Company is the Baranof brown ale.
While fishing, flightseeing, sea kayaking, and ATV trips are available here like in other port cities, easy-access hiking is a big draw in Sitka. Deborah Lyons, executive director of Sitka Trail Works, recommends entering the trail system via Baranof Street, which will take you to the Gavan Hill trailhead just a few blocks from downtown. Here you can start a trek of less than a mile or up to five miles as the trail connects to many others—all well marked with quick access back into town. Regardless of your chosen route, you’ll walk a fairly level path through forestland and past muskegs (swamps or bogs covered in moss). More dedicated hikers can take Indian River Road just outside of downtown to Indian River Trail, a 4.5-mile (one-way) excursion to an unnamed waterfall, before heading back to the cruise dock.
Fishing may as well be Alaska’s state sport, and there’s almost nowhere better to cast a line than Ketchikan, where colorful hillside buildings greet visitors arriving in the state’s second largest port city. Ketchikan Charter Boats’ guided sport fishing tours (prices vary based on length of trip) pair your group with knowledgeable and friendly local fishermen. You’re almost certain to leave with salmon or halibut (have the company ship it, so it’s on your front porch when you arrive home) and action shots of dive-bombing bald eagles.
If fishing isn’t for you—or you’re planning on it at another port—Spirit of Alaska Tour’s World Class Anan Creek Bear Viewing excursion is worth the $499 (and up) price tag. The four-and-a-half-hour adventure includes a floatplane ride, a short hike, and an incredible perch from which to watch bears catching and feeding on pink salmon as they head upstream to spawn. Another option: Numerous companies offer outings to view the vertical cliff faces and icy waters of postcard-worthy Misty Fjords National Monument by boat or plane.
When your feeding time approaches, you can’t go wrong with a blackened halibut sandwich at Alaska Fish House. Or grab a seat at Annabelle’s Famous Keg & Chowder House—renowned for its (surprise!) smoked salmon chowder. If you’re done with fish for the day, keep your eyes peeled for one of the handful of traditional Filipino restaurants. In town for dinner? Take the tram from Creek Street to Cape Fox Lodge; the decadent baked Brie and crab dip is a local’s favorite.
Like most of Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is infused with rich Native culture: More totems are said to be located here than anywhere else in the world. Now that your blood sugar levels are back on track, you can explore 14 of the carved artworks at Totem Bight State Historical Park; preserved 19th-century poles and other artifacts at the Totem Heritage Center; and more at Saxman Native Village, where you can also watch carvers at work. The impressive arts community represents vast styles, from Native to contemporary pieces. Visit Crazy Wolf Studio for everything from co-owner Ken Decker’s ceremonial drums to hand-woven baskets and carved glass, all sold under the watchful eye of shop dog Roscoe. A half-mile away, Soho Coho gallery carries owner Ray Troll’s quirky fish-focused paintings and drawings. (You’ll also find Troll’s handiwork on the logos for Raven’s Brew coffee.)
Travelers with mobility issues—or anyone who is just tired after a long day of excursions—can hop a free shuttle that weaves around town and stops at every cruise dock. Creek Street in the heart of historic downtown is a must-visit stop. When the first Native settlers arrived in what is now known as Ketchikan, this area is where they set up summer fish camps. (It was also the city’s red-light district.) Wrap up your day with a step back in time at Dolly’s House Museum, the preserved home of madam Dolly Arthur, where you’ll uncover secret caches used to sneak booze into town during Prohibition.