Icy Strait Point, one of Alaska’s newest ports of call, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and that may not mean much. Certainly, more established tourist stops, like circa-19th-century Skagway and Juneau, would seem to have the historic advantage.
But to our surprise, our first-ever visit to Icy Strait last week felt more historically layered and genuine than any other port on our Alaska cruise itinerary.
Located on Chichagof Island, Icy Strait centers around the historic structures that remain from one of Alaska’s abandoned salmon canneries. The Hoonah Cannery operated from 1912 to the 1950s, providing the people of Hoonah — Alaska’s largest Huna Tlingit village — with jobs and support for their fishing boats. When the business moved elsewhere, Icy Strait and Hoonah languished.
Fast forward a few decades: In 2004, the still-standing structures were given new life by the Tlingit-owned Huna Totem Corporation, which wanted to create a cruise destination that combined recreational activities with museum-style attractions. The result is a port that — while man-made — is a far cry from the manufactured fun-and-sun private islands and ports you might find in the Caribbean.
My visit to Icy Strait proved to be the hit of my Alaska itinerary last week on Oceania’s Regatta (which also included stops at Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Sitka, and British Columbia’s Victoria) for a number of reasons.
I had a blast on the world’s longest zip line, toured the homely but unpretentious and intriguing city of Hoonah, ate a fresher-than-fresh halibut burger at The Cookhouse Restaurant, foraged for genuinely Alaskan-made crafts, artwork, books, and clothing in its handful of shops, and took a cooking class to learn how to prepare salmon.
I even had a little time to take a hike in an old forest, sit by a cozy, blazing outdoor fireplace (much needed; temperatures were 50 degrees, even in June), spot a few whales breaching the strait, and watch numerous eagles perching just-this-close.
As our ship was the only one “in town”, there were no crowds, no congestion and no lines (though we did have to tender as there’s currently no dock yet at Icy Strait; plans are to build one next year). Other lines that are among the 70 ships that visit each summer include Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas, Holland America and Celebrity.
Sure, the village was recreated. But it seemed far more authentic than the more historic ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan because of its lack of crowds (the other ports receive up to four ships at a time), chain restaurants and shops.
Tour options. Icy Strait has a nice variety of excursions that celebrate both its Tlingit culture and its heart-pumping recreational activities. These include more sedate options like riding a tram through the forest, attending a native dance demonstration, and watching whales and marine life from a sightseeing boat. You can also hike for brown bear sightings, take an ATV ride, go sea kayaking, learn to cook “Alaskan,” and, for the most adventurous types, try the zip line. Icy Strait is just 22 miles from Glacier Bay National Park, and flight-seeing options are available.
Note: All tours are operated by Icy Strait. You can purchase them onboard your ship, via cruise line websites before you depart, or at the cannery itself; price is the same either way.
Zip line. At $175 per person on our Oceania cruise, the zip line isn’t cheap. But boy, was it exciting! The excursion starts off with a 45-minute bus ride to the top of the mountain (some 1,800 feet above sea level with a 1,300-foot vertical drop); our guide took us through Hoonah and offered humorous commentary along the way about life in the region. Then he dropped us off at the highest point, and we wandered down a narrowly descending path of switchbacks to the zip line itself.
The Icy Strait zip line is the world’s longest at about a mile long. I’ll admit, there were a few moments when this virgin zip-liner wondered, “What was I thinking!?” In the end, the ride was not half as scary as anticipated, and more than mostly magic. Consider me a convert to the zip line phenomenon.
Hoonah. The town is just 1.5 miles from the port, and readily accessible via a lovely coastal walkway (you can also take a shuttle bus for a $5 fee). Take a meal at The Chipper Fish for either the apple bacon cinnamon rolls at breakfast, or the fabulous salmon tacos for lunch.
Want a quiet (and cheap) day? There’s plenty to see on Icy Strait without signing up for a tour. Among the possibilities: beach-strolling, hiking through forests and my favorite — the always-burning campfire, right on the coast, that’s an invitation to sit, rest, and chat with fellow passengers or even Hoonah locals who wander by. I also enjoyed prowling around the shops, none of which sell the same merchandise and much of which is original art, jewelry, ceramics and even quilts (fortunately there are some fun, not-too-expensive trinkets, too).
No chains. There’s not a Diamonds International outpost in sight, which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. I think it’s a good thing.
Restaurants. We had a hard time deciding which of the Strait’s four restaurants to try – the Mug Up! Snack Bar, for casual fare (their donut shack emitted the most tempting smells). But it was the three seafood joints that were really captivating. The Landing (located at the foot of the zip line) had fresh-grilled daily specials and great people-watching. The Cookhouse had burgers for the non-fish fans and a pretty, covered porch complete with propane heaters. The Crab Station features umbrella-covered tables along a small pier and was the most atmospheric – alas, a sudden rain storm drove us to the cozy confines of The Cookhouse.
If there’s one caveat to the Icy Strait experience, it would be that it’s an expensive place and most of the cruise lines, which individually set prices with Icy Strait, are often vague about the costs. The prices aren’t readily available on most cruise lines’ websites.
One exception is Royal Caribbean, which lists the ATV Expedition at $156, kayaking at $115, and the water and marine mammal boat trip at $168. On Oceania’s site, no prices are given. The price for the zip line tour, which we booked ashore, was the same as the cruise line at $175 apiece — in contrast to what Royal Caribbean charges ($139) for the same experience. And on Holland America’s site, which goes by a cost-oriented star system, most tours are in the two-star range, broadly set between $50 to $150.