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Take a snapshot of Petersburg, Alaska, and show it to your friends. They'll probably think it's a picture of a Norwegian coastal village. That's because the fishing town's Norwegian roots are readily apparent. They show through in the town's neat, white houses -- some located on piers and pilings -- which are decorated Scandinavian-style with carefully tended window boxes full of flowers. Scenic tableaus of brightly colored fishing shacks, surrounded by boats in the harbor behind and set against glacier-covered mountains, are as common there as in the Old Country.
Petersburg, located on Mitkof Island in Frederick Sound, was founded in 1890 by Norwegian immigrant Peter Buschmann, who came to the area to open a fish cannery. Many of the 3,030 locals still make a living fishing for salmon and halibut in the fish-rich waters. The town has several fish processing operations -- some small and family-owned and others that are larger.
It's a town where everyone knows your name. The toy store on Sing Lee Alley (a tiny street on the water) even has a chalkboard where local children's birthdays are posted each month. Four blocks of Nordic Drive make up the main drag, where you'll find family-owned businesses that include grocery and hardware stores. Beyond that are residential neighborhoods, rain forests and water.
And despite all the blond Alaskans of Norwegian descent you'll meet there, a federally recognized Tlingit tribe also lives in the community. About 7 percent of the residents are of Native American heritage.
Petersburg is an isolated place with its nearest big neighbors -- Juneau and Ketchikan -- each about 150 miles away (10 hours or more by ferry). Not surprisingly, the main attraction for cruise-ship visitors is the surrounding natural scenery and wildlife. The town is only 25 miles from the calving LeConte Glacier, the southernmost saltwater terminating glacier in North America. And hundreds of humpback whales make the Frederick Sound their feeding grounds every summer.
Since only small cruise ships can visit (the harbor is not deep enough for the big ones), you won't encounter crowds in Petersburg. What you will find are friendly locals, cheerfully welcoming visitors to their remote Alaskan outpost.
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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
Pick up locally made items like knitwear, quilted products and canned, smoked salmon.
English is the most widely spoken language.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
U.S. dollars are used, and ATM's are available at First Bank and Well's Fargo Bank on North Nordic Drive.
Where You're Docked
The small ships that visit use various docks within walking distance of the town center. There's not much to do near the pier except watch the comings and goings of the fishing fleet, take in the view and scan the waters for seals and other marine animals.
Head to the wooden boardwalk of Sing Lee Alley for quaint little shops and small-town, seaside ambience.
By Taxi: If you need a cab, try Midnight Rides (907-772-2222) or Viking Cab (907-518-9191). It's a pretty sleepy town, so taxis aren't readily available unless you call.
Renting a Car: There's an Avis car rental desk at the Tides Inn (307 N. First Street, 800-665-8433), which is within walking distance of the cruise ship docks.
On Foot: Petersburg's docks and tiny downtown area are easily explored on foot. It can be fun to wander the docks and watch fishermen cleaning their vessels.
Watch Out For
Items you think are made in Alaska should be stamped "made in Alaska". Otherwise, they may have been made in China or elsewhere.
A must-do photo stop is the giant model of a Viking ship in front of Sons of Norway Hall (23 Indian Street on a wooden dock near Sing Lee Alley), which dates back to 1912 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's used in the annual, four-day Little Norway Festival, when locals celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day (May 17, 1814).
Nature and wildlife are the big draws of Petersburg. If you want to book your own fishing excursion, kayak tour, whale-watch or flightseeing trip, the place to contact is the Viking Travel agency on the corner of Nordic Drive and Sing Lee Alley (800-327-2571). For information on outdoor activities or to pick up hiking trail maps, head to the Visitor Information Center -- operated by the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce -- at the corner of First and Fram Streets (open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m.). You can also see a list of the area's most popular hikes in the downloadable visitor guide on PetersburgPilot.com.
Stock up on gifts at the shops on Sing Lee Alley. You'll find the work of local artists, as well as art and craft supplies at the Party House, 14 Sing Lee Alley (907-772-2717). WildCat Quilts, in the other half of 14 Sing Lee Alley (907-772-4848), sells quilted table runners and wall hangings. Purchase smoked salmon and halibut (or have them shipped home) at Tonka Seafoods at 22 Sing Lee Alley (888-560-3662). Sing Lee Alley Books, at 11 on the same street (907-772-4440), has a great collection of books on natural history and Alaska.
Been There, Done That
To learn about seafood processing, visit Tonka Seafoods (22 Sing Lee Alley, 888-560-3662). Tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and are repeated at 3:30 p.m. if there's a crowd. The smoking and canning process is detailed on the free 20-minute tours.
The Clausen Memorial Museum, at Second and Fram Streets, is the place to learn about the town's history. The collection includes obsolete fishing gear, old nautical equipment and outlawed fish traps. (Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Join a ranger-guided walk to Sandy Beach (information available at the Visitor Information Center in town), located three miles southeast of town on Sandy Beach Road. Despite its name, the beach is not for swimming, but it does offer, at low tide, the remains of ancient Tlingit fishing traps and petroglyphs on nearby rocks. Beachcombing is also a favorite activity there. You can find shells, driftwood, buoys and more, or observe the skittering crabs (a great activity with kids).
Just within walking distance on the edge of town, on North Nordic Drive, Eagle Roost Park is a city park with picnic tables, grassy areas and nice views. It's also home to the local bald eagle population. You'll see them roosting on trees and on the water, looking for discarded fish parts from the nearby cannery.
Dining options are few in tiny Petersburg, and most of them offer some form of seafood -- the local specialty. Because many food items have to be flown or shipped in from other parts of the country, prices can be on the high side.
If seafood's your thing, it doesn't get much fresher than Coastal Cold Storage, which is both a restaurant and a seafood processor. In addition to fish dishes like halibut bites, the small menu also includes sandwiches and wraps. (306 N. Nordic Drive; open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 877-257-4746.)
For a quick bite, try Papa Bear's Pizza for burger baskets, wraps and, of course, pizza. Try the crab bait pizza, which comes loaded with everything but crab: pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, Italian sausage, black olives, pineapple and bell peppers. (219 N. Nordic Drive; open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 907-772-3727.)
Staying in Touch
The Petersburg Public Library, 12 Nordic Dr. (907-772-3349), has a bank of computer work stations you can use, free of charge, on a first-come, first-served basis. (There may be a wait; take a number from the librarian.) The library also offers wireless Internet access (though, in our experience, it doesn't always work).
Editor's Note: The small-ship cruise lines that call on Petersburg differ widely in their shore excursion options. The tours described below are representative of the offerings but may vary depending on your particular sailing. Excursions generally last an hour or two.
Best for Norwegian Culture: Some cruise lines include complimentary performances by the Leikarring Dancers -- a costumed local dance troupe, featuring kids performing traditional Norwegian folk dances at the Sons of Norway Hall. The show is delightful, and the women of the organization offer complimentary (and very yummy) homemade Norwegian cookies and pastries.
Best for Nature Lovers: A few cruise lines offer nature walks through a local muskeg, or bogland. The muskeg is a common habitat in Alaska in which the highly acidic soil creates a distinctive landscape of stunted trees and dark pools.
Best for Adventurers: The Stikine River Jet Boat Tour takes passengers up a local river for views of glaciers, mountains and plenty of wildlife.
Best for a Splurge: For an adrenaline rush and some spectacular views, take a flightseeing journey over the LeConte Glacier, the Stikine River ice field and/or the Devil's Thumb, a 9,000-foot peak that's visible from downtown Petersburg.
For More Information
Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information Center: 907-772-4636 (Call 866-484-4700 or visit PetersburgPilot.com for a visitor guide.)
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