Prince William Sound
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Where? You're forgiven if you've never before heard of Whittier. Although it's a gateway to the glacier- and wildlife-filled Prince William Sound, most people have had no reason to go there. Except -- and this is a big except -- Whittier has experienced a Gold Rush of sorts as an alternative embarkation and disembarkation port to ship-crowded Seward.
Despite the sound views, quaint it's not -- the feel is very industrial and military. (The town holds a strategic position on the Alaska Railroad and at the head of a deep fjord; during World War II, it was a key port in the defense strategy for the state.) Weather is often nasty, with whipping winds and lots of rain, particularly in the winter.
Still, the tiny city of about 180 residents is a natural benefit for cruise lines sailing Alaska itineraries, actually more than an hour closer to Anchorage than Seward. (It takes about 90 minutes to get to Whittier from the Anchorage airport.) Both Princess and Carnival are in town, and Norwegian Cruise Line also visits this port of call. Some 200,000 cruise passengers are a part of the Whittier scene each summer.
How an increased cruise presence has changed this scene is unclear. What visitors will find today, however, is a really odd-ball place, where nearly all residents live in a single, 14-story concrete apartment building. (Most others live in a second building.) Kids in the apartment building don't even have to go outside to go to school in winter. A tunnel leads to their classrooms. (The average amount of snow on the ground on any given day between December and April is 33.8 inches!)
Getting into town is, however, one of the highlights of a visit: The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is like no other. You enter what looks like a Swiss Chalet structure and ride for 2.5 miles on a railroad track through the narrow pass cut into a mountain. The tunnel is actually shared by rail and vehicle traffic -- when one is inside, the other is not; they switch every half hour.
If you are planning an overnight stay before or after your cruise, we highly recommend staying in Anchorage because there is much more to see and do in town, and there are more accommodation options. However, we have also included a few suggestions for places to stay in Whittier if you are feeling a bit adventurous.
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Other Alaska Cruise Ports:
Anchorage • Glacier Bay • Haines • Icy Strait • Juneau • Ketchikan • Petersburg • Prince Rupert • San Francisco • Seattle • Seward • Sitka • Skagway • Vancouver • Victoria • Whittier • Wrangell
Shopping isn't a draw in Whittier. Perhaps the best souvenir is catching a huge sockeye salmon to ship home or, if you're lucky, catching video of Blackstone Glacier calving in Prince William Sound.
English is spoken there.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar. We advise getting your cash onboard -- there are no ATM's nearby.
Where You're Docked
The new cruise-ship terminal, located at the mouth of Whittier Creek, doesn't offer much, other than efficient check-in and disembarkation facilities; a rack offers brochures on tours, eateries and the few existing shops. Passengers disembark in the heart of a tiny business/residential district.
Whittier has more use as a staging ground for getting out on Prince William Sound. The town itself is rather industrial. There is a cruise-ship terminal, where you can pick up a guidebook. There are a few restrooms around the small boat harbor.
For people who are coming independently from Anchorage and do not have a cruise-line transfer, check out The Magic Bus, which departs from the Anchorage Museum of History and Fine Art at 7th and A streets at 9:45 a.m. daily, May through September; the trip takes about 90 minutes, includes narration and picture stops, and drops at Princess dock at noon. For reservations, call 800-208-0200, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.alaskatravel.com. You can also get there by train: Call the Alaska Railroad at 800-544-0552, or visit www.alaskarailroad.com; the trip takes about 2.5 hours.
Once in town, there is no need for taxis or shuttles -- everything in town is within walking distance.
Watch Out For
It rains a lot in Whittier; bring your rain jacket. Most goods and foodstuffs are flown or shipped into Alaska, so prices are bound to be higher than average.
Begich Towers is the main residence in town and is what you'd expect of a 1940's military structure, including dark, narrow halls. Although you obviously cannot enter residents' apartments, anyone can go inside the building: Everything in town is located there, including the grocery store on the first floor and a medical clinic on the third. This is an unusual setup, even for quirky Alaska.
Go fishing. About 30 charter fishing boats operate out of Whittier. The Whittier Harbormaster keeps a list (call 907-472-2337). You can arrange to have your catch shipped home.
Prince William Sound Museum focuses on Whittier's military history, specifically that of World War II and the construction of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The small museum shares space with the Anchor Inn.
Been There, Done That
Head off in search of glaciers. Phillips' Cruises and Tours (800-544-0529; www.26glaciers.com) offers a 4.5-hour, 26-glacier cruise of the Sound on a fast, three-deck catamaran, counting the glaciers as they go. Major Marine Tours (800-764-7300; www.majormarine.com) operates a smaller, 149-passenger vessel that visits 10 glaciers and puts an emphasis on food (for an extra fee) with an all-you-can-eat salmon and prime rib buffet.
See a whale. Sound Eco Adventures (888-471-2312; www.soundecoadventure.com) features a retired wildlife biologist who specializes in whale-watching tours.
Head to the waterfront to dine at one of the few restaurants. There's a good Chinese place, the Korean-owned China Sea (907-472-2222), which features specials like Kung Pao halibut.
Lazy Otter Cafe & Gifts (907-472-3000) is the place for espresso, breakfast, lunch and ice cream.
Your best bet is to stay in Anchorage. Here are a few options:
Best for Families: Consider the newly refurbished Millennium Hotel (4800 Spenard Road; 866-866-8086). Children younger than 17 stay free in the same room as their parent(s), and the property is located just one mile from the airport.
Middle of the Road: The Westmark Anchorage (720 W. 5th Ave.; 800-544-0970), six miles from the airport, offers private balconies in every room for reasonable rates; the hotel also features a sushi bar and tour desk.
Best for a Splurge: Hotel Captain Cook (4th and K Streets; 800-843-1950), six miles from the airport, offers luxury accommodations, a salon and spa, and several sophisticated restaurants.
If you decide to stay in Whittier:
Live Like the Locals: On the top two floors of Begich Towers, June's Whittier Bed and Breakfast Condo Suites (Begich Towers; 888-472-2396) allows guests to experience the local way of life, which includes great views and hummingbirds feeding at the windows. All 10 condos have full kitchens.
Local Hub: In the center of Whittier is Historic Anchor Inn (Whittier St.; 877-870-8787), which houses guests in the historic Army Communications and Headquarters, which date back to Whittier's World War II military days. Each unit has a kitchenette, dining table, telephone and television. Downstairs are a restaurant, laundromat, convenience store, lounge and museum.
Staying in Touch
You'll have to use your ship's Internet cafe.
Hunting and Fishing Tours: Hunt or fish with experienced, registered guides at Gas and Time Alaskan Outfitters.
Kayaking Tour: Guided kayaking trips from Whittier are provided by Lazy Otter Charters. Explore Blackstone Bay up close then enjoy lunch on the beach or boat.
Flightseeing Tour: Tour the rocky fjords of Prince William Sound from the air, including a glacier landing, with Alpine Air Alaska. The tour takes about 90 minutes.
For More Information
Visit the Official Web site of the City of Whittier, www.ci.whitter.ak.us
Visit the Whittier Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.whittieralaska.com
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--By Fran Wenograd Golden, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.
Photo of biker is copyright ATIA/Frank Flavin.