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Seward is a picturesque harbor town sporting the catchy motto "Alaska starts here." What that means is that Seward really is the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park, a vast treasure trove of marine life. It's the launching point for kayaking and fishing adventures. And it's the start (or end) of the Alaska Railroad and the historic start of the famous Iditarod sled dog race.
You'll find Seward about 125 miles south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula and standing at the head of Resurrection Bay. For most cruisers, Seward is an embarkation or disembarkation port. You'll likely fly into Anchorage to meet your ship, or arrive in port after a cruise tour to Denali. True, the port of Whittier is closer to Anchorage and is challenging Seward for cruise traffic, but there's no comparison when it comes to sightseeing, staying and playing. More than a quick port stop or mere point of embarkation, Seward makes a handy, not to mention charming, base for exploring the peninsula and its quirky small towns.
It's well worth spending two or three days poking around this area. It offers a taste of the best of what you've come up north to experience -- calving glaciers, gorgeous fjords, wildlife spotting on land and sea, husky dogs and the great outdoors. If you're into fishing, casting for salmon doesn't get any better than on the Kenai River. You can drive to Kenai to browse through the galleries and shops. Soldotna is home to Kenai River Brewing Co. Artsy Homer is doable in a long day.
Seward was named for President Lincoln's secretary of state, William H. Seward, the main man in negotiating the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Not everyone was happy about the deal. Some dubbed it "Seward's folly." The city was founded in 1903, thanks to its envious position as a year-round ice-free harbor. It is well situated for transporting freight arriving by rail from the interior. It was (and still is) the end of the line for the Alaska Railroad.
That's good news for cruisers. You can easily get there from the Anchorage airport by more ways than one. If your ship embarks in Seward, you'll likely have a group transfer to the port by motor coach. Independent travelers can make arrangements to get to Seward the same way or they can come by train. If you want to drive, one-way Hertz rental cars are available for the pretty, two-and-a-half-hour road trip from or to Anchorage.
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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
For adults: Yummy salmon you've caught yourself, had processed, packed up and shipped home.
For kids: A cuddly toy sea otter from the Alaska SeaLife Center.
English. Many adventure guides and seasonal workers come north from the lower 48 to spend the summer.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
U.S. dollar. ATMs are available in banks and at Safeway.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the north end of town on Port Avenue. The small boat harbor where Kenai Fjords tour boats depart is less than a mile's walk south. The downtown area is roughly another mile further down the road.
There's not much happening right at the cruise dock. But you'll find everything -- shops, restaurants, tourist information, tours -- at the small boat harbor.
Getting to the port: If you're traveling on your own from Anchorage (the airport gateway), Alaska Tour and Travel has bus service to Seward twice a day (800-208-0200). If you don't mind getting up early, the Alaska Railroad departs from Anchorage at 6:45 a.m., and arrives in Seward at 11:15 a.m. Leaving Seward, it departs at 6:00 p.m. and arrives in Anchorage at 11:05 p.m. (800-544-0552).
On foot: The two main walking areas are the historic downtown and the small boat harbor. They are within a mile of each other, and both have souvenir shops and cafes.
By Shuttle: A free shuttle bus runs from the cruise dock to the tour boat docks, Alaska SeaLife Center and downtown. It's available daily, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The schedule is posted in various shop and cafe windows.
By Car: Taxis gather near the cruise dock or can be flagged down in town. However, there are only a dozen or so in service. For car rentals, call Hertz (907-224-4378; 600 Port Ave.)
Watch Out For
Getting seasick on small boat tours around the islets and inlets of Kenai Fjords National Park. Most operators provide meds if you feel queasy, however the pills may put you to sleep. It helps to watch what you eat and spend some time outside in the fresh air.
Kenai Fjords National Park: The park is an incredibly scenic series of islands, rock outcroppings and fjords to be visited by small boats. Trips range from a half day with lunch included lunch onboard, to a full-day cruise with an island stop for a salmon and steak barbeque. Along with the spectacular fjords and glaciers, there's an excellent chance of seeing puffins, bald eagles, sea otters, mountain goats, seals, whales and occasionally bears. If you spot orcas, the captain may lower a mike below the surface so you can listen to their amazing calls. Several operators cruise into the park, including Kenai Fjords Tours (888-478-3346; 1304-4th Ave.) and Major Marine Tours (800-764-7300; #2 Boardwalk).
Alaska SeaLife Center: This state-of-the-art aquarium and marine life rehabilitation center gives visitors a view of the local sea life from above and below water level. Check out the puffin habitat and see the birds "fly" underwater. Meet Woody, an enormous male Steller sea lion. For a few extra bucks, you can join a behind-the-scenes tour and watch an orphaned sea otter pup getting groomed by its human "mom." The center opened in 1998 and was partially funded by the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement.(301 Railway Ave.,800-224-2525).
Exit Glacier: Follow the footpaths for an up-close encounter with Exit Glacier. Weather and safety concerns determine just how close you are allowed to get. Parts of the path may be roped off. The glacier is noticeably receding (check out the date markers), making the hike to the ice longer each year. Currently, it's just under a mile, partly up hill. Exit Glacier is outside of town, so a guided ship tour may be the easiest way to see it.
Been There, Done That
Kayak Close to Otters: Paddle with a guide around Resurrection Bay. With luck, you'll glide up to otters or whales. Tours begin with a sea kayaking lesson. Check out Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking (907-224-4427).
History 101: A visit to Resurrection Bay Historical Society Museum (907-224-3902; 336 3rd Ave.) fills you in on the colorful history of Seward. Did you know, for example, this was the original starting point of the Iditarod (today, the competition starts 30 miles north of Anchorage in the town of Willow)? You'll also discover what happened to the town in the devastating 1964 earthquake and see a display of native baskets.
Fish On!: Salmon. Halibut. Cod. Whatever fish is your favorite, there's a time and place to catch it. Join a charter boat tour and try your luck. Seward Fish Company (907-947-3349) will get you geared up. Guides will even bait your hook, if you're the squeamish type.
Soar Over a Glacier: Get a sweeping overview of the massive, 700-square-mile Harding Ice Field from your seat in a small plane. Contact Scenic Mountain Air (800-478-1449).
Christo's Palace (907-224-5255; 133-4th Ave.; from 11:00 a.m. daily) is a little bit Mexican, a tad Greek and totally Alaskan fresh fish. Try the halibut quesadilla or a shrimp salad. Christo's is located across the street from the SeaLife Center.
Railway Cantina (907-224-8226; 1401 4th Ave.) is good for a quick, inexpensive Mexican meal or to-go snack. The tacos and burritos come with fish as well as the usual meat and chicken.
Resurrection Roadhouse Restaurant (907-224-7116; 31772 Herman Leirer Rd.; lunch from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. daily) is part of Seward Windsong Lodge. Drop in for burgers, chowders, salads or fish and chips on your way down the road to Exit Glacier or a dog mushing adventure.
Ray's Waterfront (907-224-5606; 1316-4th Ave.; from 11:00 a.m.) features dining with a view of the small boat harbor and snow-capped mountains overlooking Resurrection Bay. The location couldn't be more appealing or convenient. Prices are on the high side, but the delicious fish is worth it.
Editor's Note: Look for the daily fish and seafood specials on the chalkboard of your chosen lunch spot. Restaurants are scattered around town. Come as you are. Everything is casual.
Passengers embarking or disembarking in Seward will find plenty of lodging options for their pre- or post-cruise stay.
Best for getting away from it all: Seward Windsong Lodge (907-224-7116; 31772 Herman Leirer Rd.) has 180 rooms in 15 lodge buildings scattered throughout a tranquil, wooded area on the road to Exit Glacier. The hotel features all of the modern amenities, including free Wi-Fi and guest computers in the lobby.
Best for couples with or without kids: Breeze Inn (888-224-5237; 303 North Harbor St.) offers newly built rooms with harbor views and kid-friendly dining. Couples may want to celebrate by booking a Jacuzzi suite.
Best for nostalgia fans: Hotel Seward (907-224-8001; 221 5th Ave.) is in the heart of the historic downtown. Various rooms have bay views, a fireplace, fridge or microwave. Even those in the historic section boast free Wi-Fi.
Staying in Touch
Have your coffee and Wi-Fi too at The Sea Bean (225 4th Ave.). Seniors can also access the Internet at the Senior Center (336 3rd Ave.).
Family Fun with Sled Puppies: Do you know what mushers wear to keep warm during the Iditarod race? How do you dress a dog team for cold weather? You'll learn all about the famous dog sled race at Ididaride (800-478-3139). The family-friendly activity is run by three generations of Seaveys, top contenders ( and one winner) in the real Iditarod. Kids will love holding Husky puppies. Everyone gets to ride behind a dog team. The sled is a wheeled cart, and you ride through the woods on dirt paths.
Wildlife Watching: Hands down, Seward's star attraction is Kenai Fjords National Park. Take the ship's tour and you'll share your experience with a whole group of new friends. And if you miss getting that shot of a whale breaching, you'll know who to ask to e-mail you photos.
Editor's Note: Seward is generally a turnaround port, and ship-sponsored excursions tend to cover the "Don't Miss" attractions. If time is short, you may find it more convenient to visit the SeaLife Center, Kenai Fjords National Park or Exit Glacier on a ship tour, rather than on your own.
For More Information
On the Web: Seward Conference and Visitors Bureau, 907-224-8051
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--by Ginger Dingus, a San Francisco-based cruise writer whose work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Porthole, World of Cruising and New York Daily News. Her contributions to Cruise Critic include ship reviews, port profiles and destination features.