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Over the centuries, Sitka -- easily Alaska's most exotic port -- has reinvented itself over and over again. It's been home to the Tlingit Native Americans, the Russian empire and a former booming pulp mill. The region also has served as a center for commercial fishing. Through it all, its residents have always figured out a way to get the best out of their resources. Today, the 8,900 locals still rely on their natural surroundings, but with an eye toward the burgeoning tourism market.
From the moment you arrive in Sitka, greeted by the New Archangel Dancers, who represent the culture of Russia in vibrant floral garb, you'll notice that Sitka is different from the rest of Alaska. It's not just the Russian influence that makes Sitka unique. In addition to the usual industries such as commercial fishing and tourism, Sitka's economic livelihood also relies on drinking-water exportation, healthcare and education. (The Alaska State Trooper Academy is located there.)
That said, Sitka is still primarily a fishing community, and it's not uncommon to see the locals wearing rubber XTRATUF brand boots everywhere -- including restaurants. In fact, each September the residents hold their annual "Running of the Boots" race, a symbolic "goodbye" to the summer's visitors and "hello" to the returning salmon -- all the while donning rubber boots and zany costumes.
Sitka is located on the west side of Baranof Island -- a 100-mile-long island in the state's panhandle -- and is only accessible by air and sea. The Tongass National Forest covers the island, except the inhabited area around the town, with roads extending along the Pacific coast about seven miles in either direction from Sitka. Watching over the city is Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano and Mount Fuji lookalike.
A bit of history: In 1799, Alexander Baranof, general manager of the Russian-American Company, moved his operations from Kodiak to Sitka, but he was met by resistance from the Tlingit people. In 1802, when Baranof was away, the Tlingits burned down his fort and massacred the Russian settlers. When Baranof returned, he reclaimed and rebuilt the fort, and for more than six decades, this was the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. Its residents enjoyed the riches of sea otter pelt sales, and Sitka was coined the "Paris of the Pacific." In 1867, after the sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. The Russian flag was lowered, and the Stars and Stripes of America were raised over newly renamed Sitka, Tlingit for "People on the Outside of Baranof Island." The thriving community faltered during the next 50 years, and in 1906, the capital of Alaska was moved from Sitka to Juneau. The move was a direct result of the gold rush: Sitka didn't have any, and Juneau did.
Boom times came and went in Sitka as the Alaska Lumber and Pulp Company operated a pulp mill near the city, employing 450 Sitkans from 1959 to 1993. Today, the former site of the pulp mill holds many new purposes. The Sawmill Cove Industrial Park's tenants include a water bottling plant, a processing plant for salmon and herring, an ecotourism company, the city's recycling center and a refuge for orphaned bear cubs. And although each summer the port welcomes 120,000 cruise passengers who provide economic stimulus, Sitka is primarily known for the quality and quantity of seafood harvested from its waters and processed in its plants.
Sitka's main attractions are located within walking distance of downtown. Lincoln Street is approximately one mile long, starting at city's southeast corner (featuring the lookout at Castle Hill) and ending at the Sitka National Historical Park visitor center to the north. The street passes by the historic onion-shaped domed architecture of St. Michael's Cathedral and the Russian Bishop's House as it follows the Sitka Sound waterfront and Crescent Harbor (the multi-slip marina). The other main street is Katlian Street, a road that follows the waterfront of the Sitka Channel, featuring colorful fishing boats, weathered houses and the essence of a working harbor town.
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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
Shop at Russian American Company (134 Lincoln Street) for traditional matryoshka nesting dolls and other Russian-made products.
For handmade Tlingit items, the shop at the Sitka Historical Society and Museum (330 Harbor Drive) features a unique selection. You can pick up an intricately carved and hand-painted potlatch bowl, a Tlingit symbol of celebration and gift-giving.
English is spoken by just about everyone, but many Sitkans are also native Tlingit speakers.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the U.S. dollar. There are several banks and ATM's around town.
Where You're Docked
Although a new deepwater dock was recently completed at Halibut Point Marine to accommodate Panamax-sized ships, no cruise lines are using it yet. Instead, large cruise ships use the anchorages in the Eastern Channel of the Sitka Sound and tender passengers to town between one of two different docks. One tourist float is located in Crescent Harbor, adjacent to Harrigan Centennial Hall (330 Harbor Drive), and the other is located under the O'Connell Bridge. Small expedition ships use a variety of other docks near downtown.
Because passengers are tendered right into the heart of town, they'll find many top attractions just a few blocks away. The tender pier at Crescent Harbor is steps from the Harrigan Centennial Hall, which is home to the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Sitka Historical Museum and the New Archangel Dancers. The tender pier under the bridge sits adjacent to Castle Hill (where Lincoln Street and Harbor Way meet) -- a perfect spot to take some photos.
On Foot: From the dock under the O'Connell Bridge, walk straight up Lincoln Street for a few blocks, passing Castle Hill on the right, then St. Michael's Cathedral on the left. Lincoln Street also passes the Russian Bishop House, Crescent Harbor and ends at Sitka National Historical Park. Pick up maps, brochures and advice from the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau, located in Harrigan Centennial Hall near Crescent Harbor.
By Bus: Visitor transit buses run on days when cruise ships of at least 1,000 passengers are in town, stopping at major sites like Sitka National Historical Park, the Alaska Raptor Center and Sheldon Jackson Museum. The cost is $10 for a hop-on, hop-off pass.
By Bike: An active, yet convenient option is to rent a bike from Yellow Jersey Cycle Shop (329 Harbor Drive). They offer a variety of bikes at $25 for the day.
By Car: Hank's Taxi & Tour Service (907-747-8888) offers private cars. Or snag a rental from North Star Rent-A-Car (800-722-6927).
Watch Out For
Frequent rain is a fact of life in Alaska, and Sitka is no exception. A water-resistant coat and shoes are a must.
The Sitka Historical Society and Museum is located within Centennial Hall along with the visitor center. Discover Sitka's history and international connections since the 1800's through exhibits and artifacts about the Tlingits and the Russians, as well as Sitka's lumber and fishing industry.
When cruise ships are in town, the New Archangel Dancers perform lively, authentic folk dances from Russia. (Harrigan Centennial Hall)
Watch a traditional dance performance at the Tlingit Clan House. The performance begins with a resonating box drum as visitors gather around a burning cedar fire pit. For 30 minutes, native Tlingit dancers of all ages perform a number of traditional songs. (200 Katlian Street)
With its commanding view of Sitka Sound, Castle Hill, a 60-foot-high promontory, was once the site of a two-story log mansion referred to as Baranof's Castle (after Russian Gov. Alexander Baranof). The original structure burned in a fire in 1894, but this is also the site where the Russian flag was lowered and the American one raised. Although there are no remaining structures on this site, it's a great place to take pictures (accessible from Lincoln Street).
Built in the mid-1800's, St. Michael's Cathedral was destroyed by a fire in 1966. As the building burned, residents formed a human chain to rescue the precious Russian Orthodox icons and religious objects that were stored in the church. Today, visitors can tour the church rebuilt to its 1844 specifications, complete with its onion-domed architecture, and view many treasures of Russian art on display. (240 Lincoln Street)
The Russian Bishop's House, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1842 as a residence for the Orthodox Bishop. It is one of the oldest examples of Russian architecture in the U.S. (105 Lincoln Street)
The scenic 107-acre Sitka National Historical Park (known locally as Totem Park) preserves and interprets the site of a Tlingit fort and the battle fought between the Russians and the Tlingits in 1804. A free self-guided oceanside trail leads past numerous carved totem poles to the site where the Tlingit fort once stood. (106 Metlakatla Street)
Located within the National Historical Park, the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center is a unique working artist studio that provides a chance for visitors to watch native artists creating hand-chiseled totem poles, silver carvings and beadwork.
Visitors can experience eagles up close at the Alaska Raptor Center. This world-class wild bird hospital rehabilitates rescued birds of prey, such as eagles, owls, hawks and ravens, and features an educational center with more than a dozen raptors in their natural habitats. See eagles flying in the state-of-the-art flight center, and watch the injured birds receive medical treatment. (1000 Raptor Way, off Sawmill Creek Road)
The Sheldon Jackson Museum, a National Historic Landmark, was the first concrete building in Alaska when it was built in 1895. It houses a collection of native art and Russian artifacts, including indigenous masks, boats and hunting tools. Check out the rain gear made of walrus intestines that was once worn while butchering whales. (104 College Drive, just off Lincoln Street)
Been There, Done That
Harris Aircraft Services operates a floatplane business that takes visitors on flightseeing tours over the scenic backcountry and glacier ice fields of Baranof Island. You'll get to experience a water landing on a remote lake. Flight times and prices vary by itinerary. (400 Airport Road, 877-966-3050)
Want to see brown bears up close? Fortress of the Bear was founded to create a humane home and natural setting for nuisance bears. This refuge also provides an educational experience for visitors. The 3/4-acre bear refuge is located at the Sawmill Cove Industrial Park. (4639 Sawmill Creek Road)
A 10-minute walk from downtown Sitka brings you to the fringe of true wilderness, with access to numerous marked hiking trails. The Gavan Hill Trail offers a moderate to strenuous hike with boardwalks, an elevation gain of 2,000+ feet and, after about three miles, an excellent view of the Sitka Sound. (For those looking for a briefer walk, the first quarter-mile of this trail, which starts from the Baranof Street trailhead, is ADA-accessible.) The Indian River trail (4.1 miles each way) makes an easy, gradual climb to a waterfall. You can pick up hiking trail maps and information at the office of the Sitka Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. (204 Siginaka Way, off Katlian Street)
For such a small town, Sitka offers numerous quality restaurants. Although many eateries are within the downtown area, some good ones are located on the outskirts and are worth the trip. Seafood is a staple of this thriving fishing community, with halibut and salmon served up as fresh as can be, and water-view restaurants are the norm. Also, consider that Sitka doesn't rely solely on tourism, so the evidence of year-round residents in any of the restaurants is a great barometer of consistent food quality and service. You know when a restaurant is popular with the locals by the number of pickups parked out front at lunchtime.
Victoria's Restaurant in the Sitka Hotel features locally caught halibut served a number of ways. This friendly small-town diner is decorated with Victorian-style knickknacks and lacy curtains, and the menu is simple and budget-friendly. Try the king crab bucket or the halibut and chips. (118 Lincoln Street, by Katlian Street)
Another local favorite is the Backdoor, a cozy downtown coffeehouse filled with local artwork and serving custom-roasted espresso, homemade soup, bagel sandwiches and pastries. (104 Barracks Street, behind Old Harbor Books on Lincoln)
The upscale Channel Club boasts 20-foot-high ceilings, large windows that overlook the Sitka Sound, and walls adorned with black-and-white historic photos of Sitka, along with local artwork. The owners have a processing license, which guarantees customers Alaskan seafood at its freshest. The locals consistently pack the 126-seat restaurant, indulging in perfectly cooked steaks, fresh Alaskan halibut, salmon and King crab legs. The restaurant's various fish and seafood chowders earn rave reviews. Because the place is a little bit out of the way, it offers a free courtesy van to pick up patrons. (2906 Halibut Point Road, 907-747-7440)
Stop in at Bayview Restaurant and Pub for burgers, locally caught fish and craft beers from independent breweries in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Got little ones in tow? There's a kids' menu (macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, grilled cheese), plus coloring books and board games to keep them occupied. (407 Lincoln Street)
Staying in Touch
The Highliner Coffee Company offers Internet access with a side of gourmet coffee and fresh-baked pastries. (327 Seward Street, by St. Michael's Cathedral)
Best Overall Tour: Most cruise lines offer a combined walking and motor coach excursion that features a tour through the Raptor Center, a visit to the Sitka National Historical Park, a performance from the New Archangel Dancers, a drive by Castle Hill and a stop at St. Michael's Cathedral.
Best for Active Travelers: The Sitka Bike and Hike tour includes a four-mile guided bike ride along the shore, as well as a one-mile hike to Thimbleberry Lake, including a stop at a waterfall. Looking for a unique tour? Dry-suit snorkeling, offered by most of the cruise lines, provides a chance to explore the underwater world of Sitka Sound in the comfort of a buoyant dry suit that fits right over top of street clothes (approximately 2.5 hours).
Best for Anglers: Most cruise lines offer some sort of salmon or halibut fishing excursion. Sitka's unique position on the outside coast makes the chance of catching a fish here very high. The best part is that your catch can be processed locally and shipped home.
Best for Nature-Lovers: For a guided hike, most of the cruise lines offer at least one option. The Tongass Rain Forest Nature Hike covers two to four miles and includes mountain views, a boardwalk section through the Starrigavan Estuary bird sanctuary and a walk along a beach (approximately three hours).
Best for Families: See Sitka from the water by taking an escorted sea-kayaking trip. The "Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure" features a 1.5-hour guided tour in two-person kayaks for participants as young as 6. An alternative tour is the two-hour excursion to the "deep" via a semi-submersible boat. Sea Life Discovery Tours' semi-submersible excursion features large underwater viewing windows, providing you with up-close encounters with the undersea world, including jellyfish, crabs and starfish.
For More Information
Sitka Convention & Visitors' Bureau: 907-747-5940
On the Web: www.sitka.org
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IndependentTraveler.com: Alaska Travel Guide
--by Sarah Schlichter, Editor for Cruise Critic's sister Web site, IndependentTraveler.com
--photos appear courtesy of the Alaska Travel Industry Association