Sitka (Photo:Ramunas Bruzas/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Gayle Keck
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Sitka

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, an outpost of the Russian empire and the one-time capital of Alaska. The region is still 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 8,830 locals still rely on their natural surroundings, but with an eye toward the burgeoning tourism market.

From the moment you arrive, you'll notice that Sitka is different from the rest of Alaska. It's not just the Russian influence that makes the town 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, including the Alaska State Trooper Academy.

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, donning rubber boots and zany costumes -- a symbolic "goodbye" to the summer's visitors.

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 vast Tongass National Forest covers the area outside of town, which only has a roadway along the Pacific coast about seven miles in either direction. Watching over Sitka from across the sound 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 fur-trading 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 killed the Russian settlers. When Baranof returned, he reclaimed and rebuilt the fort, and for more than six decades, Sitka (then known as New Archangel), was the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. Its residents enjoyed the riches of sea otter pelt sales, and New Archangel was nicknamed the "Paris of the Pacific."

In 1867, after 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, from the Tlingit "She-it-ka," meaning "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 gold, 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 pulp mill site is repurposed; its most surprising tenant is a refuge for orphaned bear cubs. And although each summer the port welcomes 158,000 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 historic attractions are located within walking distance of downtown. Lincoln Street is approximately one mile long, starting at the 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. To visit the two wildlife attractions, Fortress of the Bear and the Sitka Raptor Center, you'll need transportation.

About Sitka


Pro

A rich heritage is celebrated in Sitka with a totem pole park, cultural center and traditional dancers

Con

The port is only accessible on certain cruise itineraries or by air; not a place to do independently

Bottom Line

Blending native Tlingit with Russian roots, Sitka is an illuminating window into a remote part of Alaska


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Port Facilities

Your ship will either be at anchor and use tenders or it will be docked about six miles outside of town at the Old Dock at Halibut Point. There are two tender piers: the one at Crescent Harbor is steps from the Harrigan Centennial Hall, which has free Wi-Fi, restrooms and a tourist information desk; the other is adjacent to Castle Hill (where Lincoln Street and Harbor Way meet). So, if you tender, you'll end up right in town. If you're docked, you'll find a small terminal with several shops (souvenirs, jewelry and fur apparel) and a tent housing the Halibut Point Crab & Brews restaurant; the ship terminal also has restrooms, free Wi-Fi and a free shuttle service that will drop you in town at Centennial Hall.

Good to Know

Frequent rain is a fact of life in Alaska, and Sitka is no exception with an average of 95 annual inches. An umbrella, water-resistant coat and shoes are a must. It's also a good idea to dress in layers.

Opening hours -- particularly at St. Michael's Cathedral -- can be capricious, despite the posted times.

Getting Around

On Foot: Once you're dropped off, Sitka is extremely walkable. Pick up maps, brochures and advice from the information desk located in Harrigan Centennial Hall near Crescent Harbor. You can easily walk to shops, restaurants, St. Michael's Church, the Russian Bishop's House and other attractions.

By Bus: There is a Sitka bus system called The RIDE, but it's primarily designed to serve locals. Busses run from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, with three route loops. All routes leave the downtown Crescent Harbor parking lot at 45 minutes past the hour; the Green route also leaves Crescent Harbor parking lot at 15 minutes past the hour. Fares are $2 per one-way ride for adults; $1for seniors (age 60 or older), children (ages 6 to17), or persons with disabilities; children under age 6 ride free with an older passenger.

Several tour companies run shuttles to the Raptor Center and other attractions. Look for signboards in front of Centennial Hall.

By Bike: An active, yet convenient option is to rent a bike from Yellow Jersey Cycle Shop (329 Harbor Drive, across from Centennial Hall). They offer a variety of bikes at $25 for the day.

By Taxi: There are several local taxi companies whose cabs congregate at Centennial Hall (you won't find any at the Old Dock). They include Hank's Taxi & Tour Service (907-747-8888), where you might get a song thrown in with your tour; Baranof Taxi and Tours (907-738-4722); Sunset Cab (907-623-0979); and Checkered Tours (907-738-9417), which operates a classic Checker cab.

By Rental Car: With the limited local roads, there's really no reason to rent a car in Sitka -- but if you insist, there are some options. If you arrive at the Old Dock, inquire about rental car availability from the shuttle driver. You can also rent from Sitka Car Rental (907-738-2282), located downtown; other rental agencies are located at the airport, which isn't convenient for cruisers.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The local currency is the U.S. dollar. For current currency conversion figures visit www.xe.com. Three banks with ATMs are located on Lincoln Street, between St. Michael's Church and Centennial Hall.

Language

English is spoken by just about everyone, but many Sitkans also speak Tlingit or other native languages.

Food and Drink

For such a small town, Sitka offers some interesting eateries. Seafood is a staple of this thriving fishing community, with Dungeness crab, halibut and salmon served up as fresh as can be. 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 spot is popular with the locals by the number of pickups parked out front at lunchtime. The food truck trend has also hit town, a boon to time-constrained visitors trying to see all that Sitka has to offer. If you're a craft beer aficionado, be on the lookout for brews by local Baranof Island Brewing Company (it's also possible to visit the brewery, located 1.5 miles from downtown).

Ashmo's: Arguably Sitka's best food value, this white food truck serves up creative dishes like salmon mac and cheese, fresh black cod tips over coconut rice, rockfish tacos with cabbage slaw, local-beer battered halibut, and fish burgers. (Usually parked in the movie theater parking lot, 335 Lincoln Street, but check Facebook page for daily location; 907-738-9466; lunch hours)

Beak: This new restaurant quickly became a favorite with Sitkans by featuring local seafood, meats and beers. The lunch menu includes salmon chowder, rockfish tacos, reindeer sausage, salmon burgers, kale salad and salmon mac and cheese. While prices might seem high at first glance, they include the gratuity, so factor that in. In nice weather, you can dine on the back porch. (2 Lincoln Street, in the back of the Cable House building shared with a radio station; 907-966-2326; Monday through Wednesday, open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, until 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

Ludvig's Chowder Cart: For a quick and tasty lunch, do as the locals do and pop into the Sitka Sound Science Center gift shop, for chowder and baguette sandwiches, with fillings like prosciutto or salmon salad. It's the only way for cruisers to sample one of Sitka's top restaurants, Ludvig's, which is unfortunately open only for dinner. (Inside the Sitka Sound Science Center gift shop, 834 Lincoln Street; 907-966-3663; May through mid-September, open Tuesday through Saturday,10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)

Backdoor Cafe: Another local favorite, this cozy downtown coffeehouse in back of a bookstore is filled with local artwork and serves custom-roasted espresso, homemade soup, bagel sandwiches and pastries. (104 Barracks Street, behind Old Harbor Books on Lincoln; 907-747-8856; open weekdays, 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; weekends to 2 p.m.)

Bayview Restaurant and Pub: Stop in at Bayview Restaurant and Pub for burgers, locally caught fish and craft beers from independent breweries in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, including the local Baranof Island Brewing Company. For something different, try a brew flavored with spruce tips. 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; open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to late; Sundays, 8 a.m. to late).

Shopping

While you can find the usual T-shirts, fridge magnets and plush moose toys in Sitka, consider checking out Russian American Company (134 Lincoln Street) for something that reflects the town's particular history -- traditional matryoshka nesting dolls and other Russian-made, though generally mass manufactured, products. Or, if you've taken a fancy to the icons and art at St. Michael's Cathedral, cross Lincoln Street to the St. Michael's gift shop, where you'll find icon reproductions, books, postcards and gifts.

If you want a memory that's a bit more original, don't miss the Island Artists Gallery (205B Lincoln Street), which features watercolors, ceramics, jewelry, note cards, locally-roasted coffee, children's books and other arts and crafts. (We were particularly wowed by the handmade, fur-lined traditional moccasins, decorated with beading or buttons.) The gallery is staffed each day by one of the artists whose work it represents.

For handmade Native Alaskan items, the gift shop at the Sheldon Jackson Museum (104 College Drive) features one-of-a-kind selections that include woven hats, drums, baskets, masks and jewelry.

Your favorite foodie will appreciate a gift from the Alaska Pure Sea Salt Company (407 Lincoln Street), where locally produced flake sea salt comes in unusual flavors like alder-smoked, Sitka spruce tip and wild blueberry. Gift sets include attractive wooden salt-serving dishes.


Sitka Awards

Cruisers’ Choice Destination Awards

2018 Top-Rated Alaska Destinations
2017 Top-Rated Alaska Destinations
2016 Top-Rated Alaska Destinations