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Carnival Spirit: Alaska
Day 1: Embarkation: Whittier/Anchorage
Day 2: Cruising the Fjords
Day 3: Sitka
Day 4: Juneau
Day 5: Skagway
Day 6: Ketchikan
Day 7: Cruising the Inside Passage
Day 8: Debarkation: Vancouver
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Day 3: Thursday, Sitka
SitkaSitka, our port of call today, is a great walking city and the Russian and Native American influences genuinely make it one of Alaska's most exotic destinations. For wildlife lovers, the Alaskan Rapter Rehabilitation Center is a great place to get up close and personal with the majestic birds (demonstrations by bird handlers are offered), not to mention all the sea creatures in the water here.

We arrived at Sitka (Alaska's capital until 1900) around 9:15 a.m. Sitka is a tender port and, as is customary, those booked on tours ride the first tenders. Then Carnival used a system where you have to get a number to get on a tender. We waited until 11:30 to disembark to avoid the crowds, which proved a good strategy -- it took us about 10 minutes to clear the line and the tender trip was only five minutes.

While some headed out on fruitful wildlife expeditions (those on the whale-watching tour were treated to the sight of Orcas breaching) or visits to the aforementioned Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center (which I've enjoyed several times), Erin and I decided to explore the town on foot. It was still cloudy, but warm (high 50's/low 60's), and fortunately there was no rain. Carnival provided very little port information beyond pointing out a couple of jewelry stores.

But having visited before, I know the "drill." This town is replete with history, with a heritage that includes the Tlingit Indian tribe and Russians who settled here in the 18th century. The Tlingits lived in and around Sitka centuries before the Russians -- or Americans, for that matter -- ever set foot here. But in the mid-1700's, Russian vessels began arriving in Sitka, and as news of the fur trade (and possible wealth) spread, traders, trappers and explorers flocked here. Alexander Baranoff, the general manager of the Russian-American Company, established a fort here in 1799, though Tlingits resisted the invasion and attacked the Russian outpost in 1802; Baranoff retaliated (and essentially "won") two years later, and the Russians owned the territory until the United States purchased it in 1867.

Sitka's Russian heritage is still evident today with the Russian Orthodox St. Michael's Cathedral, a resident Russian dance troupe (there is also a native Tlingit troupe in town, and both often perform for cruise tours) and Russian dolls; Baltic amber can be purchased in many stores.

Speaking of stores, we made a beeline to my favorite shop. Sitka Rose Gallery, located about a block from the pier, sells Native American and other local crafts items at fair prices. It's atmospherically located in a Victorian house (it's at 419 Lincoln, next to the mini-mall known as MacDonald's Bayview Trading Co.). At Sitka Rose, Erin snagged a lovely pair of fossilized walrus tusk earrings for $29, while I got an "I love you, Mom," comment from her (parents love to hear that!). I also got several bars of fragrant homemade soap ($4.95 each) from the soap shop in the back.

We walked toward "downtown" and St. Michael's Cathedral, and were waylaid by a shop called Tea-Licious Tea House (315 Lincoln) where we bought lattes and I snagged a nice amber ring for $59 (big and showy "bling").

After a quick stop at the church (admission to see the icons and gold ornaments inside is $2) we continued into town, stopping at Ben Franklin Five & Dime for a supply of Dramamine (after a rough night last night). Walking down the street and starting to get hungry, we were attracted to a sign that said Crab Feast $12. Behind a store called Brenner's we found a tent and picnic tables and cold crab for sale. Erin and I shared a whole one with drawn butter, $12 plus 50 cents for butter. The outdoor place is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. when cruise ships are in town.

Back on the main drag we passed Harry Race Pharmacy which still has a 50's-style soda fountain (and sells ice cream). But we were most attracted to another street vender sign, this one for spicy clam chowder. We bought a cup for $4.95 at the Ludwig's Bistro stand and enjoyed it under the totem pole in the nearby waterfront park.

Next we headed the few blocks back toward the pier and in the opposite direction, passing the Russian Bishop's House (open for guided tours for $4) and the Sheldon Jackson Museum which now has its own espresso bar. Neither was of great interest to Erin who wasn't in a museum mood (the Bishop's House was built in 1842 for Bishop Innocent Veniaminov who translated scriptures into Tlingit and trained deacons here, and is now operated by the National Parks Service; the Sheldon Jackon Museum is located on the grounds of a college founded by its namesake Presbyterian missionary, and contains Native artifacts). I've been to both before, so we headed across the street from the museum to what proved to be the excellent, and free, Sheldon Jackson Aquarium.

Erin being a scientist-in-training (she is studying neuroscience in college) had to be pried out of the aquarium some 25 minutes later. The few closed tanks with small local fish and anemones were okay but the big attraction were five touch tanks filled with bright anemones, starfish in shades ranging from red/orange to purple (some huge), also found in local waters, and which here you could pick up and examine. They were slimy (and some sticky) to the touch, especially the anemones which actually shoot off little drops of poison not harmful to humans. Outside was a hatchery with baby king salmon.

We headed on to Sitka National Historic Park (about 10 minutes from the pier) to take a pretty one-mile trail into the forest and past (reproduced) totem poles. We also walked down to the rocky beach where you can spot sea anemones at low tide.

I asked Erin about her initial impression of Alaska ... and it was intriguing to hear her response. She noted that she has been having trouble remembering that it is part of the U.S., particularly because of the amount of time it took to get here from Boston. "I keep expecting it to be a foreign country but it's not, and add to that this is a side of our history I don't know," she said. "And the landscape is as gorgeous as I expected."

For me, in returning to Sitka, I was just thrilled to see not much as changed. And in this growing tourist destination, I think that's a really good thing.

Back at the pier, we used our newfound expertise to point out starfish under the pier, and viewable from the gangplank, to other passengers.

And now a word about our fellow passengers: They are pretty friendly, mostly over 50 and mostly couples, hailing from the South and California predominately, but with some as well from the West, Midwest and East Coast (we even met a couple from Boston). There are even a few from Australia. There are few families but then again it's not yet summer vacation season. We've also spied some multi-generational groups, grandparents with their kids and their kids. While there are a few singles in their 40's (closer to my age) there are few in their 20's (Erin's age).

Our first dining room dinner was a bit of a disappointment. We were assigned to a big table all by ourselves (perhaps there were other tablemates expected, but they never showed). We dined alone but made a note to ask the maitre d' to change us to a table with people.

We actually were getting a bit bored with each other after dinner and went in search of a party. But we discovered this is not exactly a party-hearty crowd. At around 11:30 p.m., we found the disco pretty sparse (maybe about a half dozen on the dance floor), the casino about 1/3 full (and by the way, we are now in the hole $30, grr), about 25 people listening to country western in the atrium, and a good-looking younger crowd of mostly crew members watching jazz musicians improvise at the cigar bar. The lovely Asian-style piano bar was nearly empty every time we checked. The biggest and loudest crowd (about 50 people or so) was in the lounge next door watching karaoke.

But who could blame the passengers for heading to bed early? We had spent a full day in Sitka and touring is both thrilling and exhausting.

Tomorrow: Joy in Juneau. Erin and Fran hike around Mendenhall Glacier (gorgeous in the bright sunshine), explore the city's Gold Rush ambience and do some great eating on land and at sea.

Photo appears courtesy of the Sitka Rose Gallery.
Day 2: Cruising the Fjords red arrow Day 4: Juneau

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