Brown Bear, Near Icy Strait
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Icy Strait Overview
The creation of Alaska's newest cruise port, Icy Strait, represents a win-win collaboration between local communities and the giant cruise corporations that make big profits from visitors eager to experience America's "last wilderness."
The new facility -- just down the road from Hoonah, Alaska's largest Huna Tlingit village, and 22 miles southeast of Glacier Bay National Park -- has been a lifeline for a community in crisis, providing a much-needed alternative source of income for locals afflicted by a downturn in their traditional businesses of fishing and logging. Millions of dollars have been invested in creating a facility that offers cruise travelers an authentic "wilderness experience" and a refreshingly noncommercialized alternative to the usual run of Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Sitka.
What they've created is an attractive new destination expressly for cruisers that's manmade but not commercialized. Icy Strait offers pretty woodland walks, an insight into Tlingit history and culture, a wide range of back-to-nature adventures and high-quality restaurants. Upmarket craft shops feature artisan crafts and locally made goods like woodland berry jam and confectionery, rather than the "made in Taiwan" good so prevalent in, say, Juneau. Buildings are constructed from sustainable local timber and built by local Tlingit workers in traditional style.
Although the port receives ships from Royal Caribbean and its higher-end subsidiary Celebrity Cruises, as well as Holland America Line, the Tlingit corporation Huna Totem -- which owns Icy Strait Point -- has wisely limited ship calls to ensure high passenger satisfaction.
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Other Alaska Cruise Ports:
Anchorage • Haines • Icy Strait • Juneau • Ketchikan • Petersburg • Prince Rupert • San Francisco • Seattle • Seward • Sitka • Skagway • Vancouver • Victoria • Whittier
It's not the souvenir, but the delivery. Much of the original 1912 cannery equipment has been restored and stands ready to can your souvenirs at Icy Strait Point Company Store. Your items can be vacuum-sealed to shrink them down and then canned for mailing home or to friends and relatives.
Souvenir-hunters happy to dent their credit cards will find plenty of temptation in the Icy Strait Point shopping center, which surrounds the Icy Strait Museum, stocking everything from foodie treats (smoked Alaska salmon, preserves made from local berries) to well-made craft goods (throws, paintings, wooden carvings, glassware) and pretty jewelry with an ethnic twist.
English is spoken there.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar. We advise getting cash onboard your ship. There's no bank in Icy Strait, and with no bank, laws make it difficult to have an ATM, so there isn't one. Because Icy Strait is a new port specifically designed for cruise-ship passengers, the most you'll need in cash is a few bucks to cover a burger and a couple of beers; all the shops take credit cards.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor off Icy Strait Point in Port Frederick Bay. At present, cruise visitors tender onto a wooden jetty, but the port owners are seeking millions in federal funding to build a cruise-ship dock so vessels can moor alongside.
Icy Strait is not your "typical" sprawling cruise port with lots and lots to do, other than excursions or a stroll around the main site. Due to Icy Strait's compact nature, nothing on the main site is more than a 10- to 15-minute stroll away from the pier.
The immediate area around the tender dock is easily explored on foot, and nowhere is further away than a 10- to 15-minute walk. There are no taxis or rental cars there -- yet. A few enterprising locals might start offering ad hoc rides along the shoreline from Hoonah when there's a ship in town, but that's about it. Otherwise, transportation is available only through cruise lines' shore tours.
Clearly marked walking trails will take you along the seashore, into deep rain forests and around the edges of mist-wreathed lakes. A covered tram takes visitors further afield on a two-hour Forest and Nature Tour.
Two-hour bike tours are also available, but they're heftily priced. A bus tour is also offered around the distinctly unexciting village of Hoonah, the highlight of which is a visit to its cemetery! Don't waste cash on this, as Hoonah is within walking distance.
Watch Out For
Alaskans -- and visitors -- tend to pay higher-than-average costs for food and other essentials since nearly everything is shipped in from the "outside."
Icy Strait strives to be a sustainably managed port, so don't expect luxuries that might unduly impact the land, water or wildlife.
Icy Strait provides a pleasant experience for cruise passengers who want to explore the Alaskan hinterland a bit, browse a few decent shops and have a light lunch. If folklore is your thing, spend an hour at the Native Heritage Center Theater, watching traditionally costumed members of the Huna Tlingit Dancers troupe enact their tribal heritage through song, dance and storytelling.
Even if you don't want to see this, take a stroll over to the center anyway; its elaborately carved totem poles are well worth a closer look. So, too, is the free-to-enter Cannery Museum, which is crammed with various historic bits of fish-processing paraphernalia. The best way to make sense of the machines is to take a Historical Cannery Tour, on which you'll be given a souvenir timecard before donning a fish-cutter apron and starting a factory worker's "shift" -- which will teach you every stage of the canning process, including can-testing and filling.
More interesting -- to me, at any rate -- were the "fascinating Alaska facts" cunningly concealed behind wall-mounted, "Alice in Wonderland"-style wooden doors. Did you know Alaska's longest day starts on May 10 and lasts three months, while its longest night starts on November 18 and lasts two months? I discovered, too, that Alaska boasts 52 percent of the world's earthquakes, 100,000 glaciers and 29 volcanoes. Astounding as it is to visit, I wouldn't be keen to live there all year.
The 2.5-hour Remote Bush Exploration and Wildlife Search, led by a native guide, gives you far more of an insight into the wit, wisdom and forest lore of the Tlingits than any number of heritage floor shows. Our tour was escorted by Dennis, a cheerful half-Irish member of the Tlingit Eagle Clan, who makes his living from fishing and logging -- unless a cruise ship is in town.
As our school trip-style bus rattled its way past Frederick's Bay, he pointed out whales and harbor seals and told us sea otters and bald eagles are also at home there, as are four types of Alaska salmon, which -- together with crab, halibut and black cod -- formed the mainstay of the Tlingit community's fishing industry when the Hoonah Trading Company cannery was founded in 1893. He had some entertaining tales to tell of Hoonah characters and history. And, when we left behind the clapboard houses of Hoonah's main street and reached the rain forest for the start of our nature walk, his knowledge of the woods and wildlife proved even more fascinating.
He gave us a taste of huckleberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries; showed us the differences between deer and bear trails; and explained how plants like the devil's club and the skunk cabbage are used in Tlingit medicine and cookery. Best of all, he showed us deer feasting on kelp at the borders of a tidal river, and as we headed back toward Hoonah, we spotted a brown bear lumbering through the skyscraper-tall pines of Christmas Tree Pass. For a fabulous, back-to-nature experience, it was hard to beat.
Been There, Done That
Flightseeing over Glacier Bay: This tour lasts nearly two hours. Hourlong flights depart from Hoonah Airport and take passengers across the whale-dense waters of Icy Strait to see the spectacular ice fields, forests, lakes and waterfalls of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Saltwater Salmon Fishing: This is a three-hour excursion to fish the densely populated stretches of Icy Strait. Warm, waterproof clothing and deck or rubber-soled shoes are essential, and the minimum age is 10. Caught fish cannot be stored on your cruise ship but can be locally processed and shipped to your home at extra cost, negotiable and payable onsite.
Whale and Marine Mammals Cruise: This two-hour tour aboard a sightseeing vessel takes passengers 17 miles out through Icy Strait to the Point Adolphus area, a prime feeding ground for humpback and orca whales. An onboard naturalist will offer commentary on the habitat and behaviors of whales and other local wildlife, including stellar sea lions, bald eagles and harbor seals. Wear warm, waterproof clothing and sturdy nonslip shoes for the open-air observation deck.
Don't expect anything too grand in down-to-earth Icy Strait Point. There are currently a snack bar, a crab station and two casual restaurants in town. Espresso & Snack Bar is a quick spot for espresso drinks, cold beverages and made-to-order sandwiches, salads, muffins, brownies, chips and candy.
The Crab Station offers only one thing on its menu: fresh, wild Dungeness crab, served two ways -- a whole crab or a half. The crabs are taken right out of the water, put in the pot and put on a plate. You can't eat them fast enough.
The cafe-style Cookhouse Restaurant is in the cannery's original dining hall. It serves wild Alaskan seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab, shrimp and a variety of side dishes.
Landing Restaurant & Bar offers a 240-degree view of Icy Strait and the surrounding mountains. Getting its name from its location next to the zip-line landing pad, it offers sandwiches, burgers, chili and chowders. Finishing off a local amber beer after our lunch, we spotted three humpback whales in succession -- none of them more than half a mile from the carved-wood bench on which we were sitting.
It's all simple fare, but then, in this close-to-nature place, anything more elaborate would be over-egging the pudding; the point is to eat hearty, get to know the friendly locals and let them introduce you, however briefly, to their world.
Staying in Touch
At the moment, the only free Wi-Fi hotspot is at Landing Zone Restaurant & Bar.
Kayaking Tour: A 2.5-hour tour along the coastline and past the village of Hoonah may provide glimpses of sea otters, puffins, whales and more.
ZipRider Tour: Get a panoramic view of Port Frederick, Icy Strait and the surrounding wilderness. Beginning with a bus tour, you'll learn about Hoonah history and culture from a local driver/guide while traveling to the zip-line's start, 1,300 feet above sea level. It's nearly 5,330 feet to the base near the beach below.
ATV Expedition: Explore the rugged backcountry of Chichagof Island on a 4x4 Kawasaki Mule on this guided, 2.5-hour adventure tour. Several vantage points along the brush-lined route offer views of Icy Strait. The local guide will provide a brief history of the area during the bus ride to the departure point.
Wild Alaska Culinary Extravaganza: This interactive, two-hour culinary class lets participants make smoked salmon dip and learn about traditional methods of preparing and preserving the ocean's bounty. Local experts share the art of filleting halibut and salmon, which guests marinate and barbecue for lunch. Crab and side dishes complete the meal.
For More Information
Contact Icy Strait Point at 907-789-8018.
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.
All photos appear courtesy of Icy Strait Point.