We’ll be here on August 10 from 7a.m. to 1p.m. along with the Norwegian Pearl (2,395 passengers) and another ‘dam ship – the Noordam (1,916 passengers). We’re scheduled to be at Dock 1. It’ll be a bit crowded in town, so make your plans and have a bit of patience.
Ketchikan is the southeastern-most city of Alaska, with a population of 8,000 in the city proper. It’s also the wettest, with an average of 153 inches of rain per year. (Seattle only gets 37 inches per year by comparison; even the Hoh Rain Forest in the Olympic National Park gets “only” 142 inches!) Don’t forget your rain coat or poncho, just in case. Ketchikan has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles, and we’ve got plenty of places to see them. As a side note, most of the totem poles at Totem Bight and Saxman are recarvings of older poles, done by native craftsmen.
Totem Bight State Historical Park (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/totembgh.htm). In addition to the 14 totem poles, there is a clan house (which would have housed 30+ people). You can get there by taking a city bus, if you’re so inclined, though a tour with a guide would give you a greater appreciation of the totems. There’s a bit of walking to see all the totems, but it’s an easy walk, with lovely views in addition to the totem poles.
Saxman Native Village (http://www.experienceketchikan.com/native-american-totem-poles-5.html) – yup, more totem poles – 24 of them. There’s also a clan house and a carving shed where you can watch native artists at work.
Totem Heritage Center (https://www.ktn-ak.us/totem-heritage-center) As the name implies, this little museum focuses primarily on totem poles, explaining why totem poles were made and their meaning – the story they are telling. Original, unrestored totem poles rescued from abandoned village sites are on display. And it’s part of the walking downtown tour.
Creek Street (http://www.experienceketchikan.com/creek-street-ketchikan.html) Once a red-light district with more than 30 houses of ill-repute, the houses have been restored and it’s now a fun place filled primarily with arts and crafts shops. Within easy walking distance of the cruise ship dock.
Misty Fjords National Monument I’ve taken two flight-seeing excursions (it’s that breathtaking) and we even got a chance to land on a lake and walk around a bit. Not cheap, but oh so worth it. And if small planes aren’t your thing, (one was a Cessna and the other a DeHaviland Beaver) there are boat tours as well.
Tongass National Forest (https://www.alaskacenters.gov/visitors-centers/ketchikan) – not so much an attraction, but a lovely nature walk through the rain forest. You don’t really need a guide, but having one adds to experience – I have to admit, I’m not up on my botany! Lots of birds including eagles, salmon in the rivers and a good chance to spot black bear. Many of the trails are long – the shortest and flatest is the Ward Lake Trail. You’ll start out at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center (spend a bit of time here for a wonderful overview of historical information) and get a map if you’re doing this on your own.
This year, I plan on doing the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s excursion, one I’ve not done before and have wanted to do for years(aka Deadliest Catch for landlubbers, as you never actually get out into the open ocean). Even hubby is on board with this one!
Ketchikan is my favorite port for shopping. Most everything is within walking distance of the ship. Again, get away from the dock and head a few blocks into town. There are too many to review, so I’ll just list the two I always visit.
Scanlan Gallery and Arctic Spirit Gallery. My favorite place! No mass-produced trinkets here. Arctic Spirit (http://www.arcticspiritgallery.com/) specializes in native art. The pieces are exquisite. And Michael, the owner (yes, we’re on a first name basis), loves to educate folks on native Alaskan art. Best of all, no sales pitch, he just is a delight to talk to. Scanlan Gallery (https://www.scanlongallery.com/) is an art gallery with fine art, photos, prints made by Alaskans. There’s something for every budget, though be warned, native art made by native Alaskans is not inexpensive!
If you want some “made in Alaska” souvenirs and products, check out Sam McGee’s (https://sammcgeesalaska.com/). This is the place to go to pick something for all the people you’ve promised to bring something from Alaska. Food, salmon, seasonings, candy, beauty products, kids books and toys, t-shirts, pet treats – you name it, it’s here. Some of my favorites that you won’t find down in the lower 48: birch syrup and birch aramel topping (think maple syrup crossed with molasses – it’s hard to describe but I can eat it by the spoonful), fireweed honey, salmonberry jam, kelp pickles (trust me on this one, if there’s a pickle lover on your list, get this), Spruce Tip salt, glacier silt soap, and my dog loves the Yummy Chummies.
Cape Fox Lodge (http://www.capefoxlodge.com/) – upscale dining, a great view of Ketchikan. You can get there by way of their funicular (kind of like a cross between a cable car and a railroad), otherwise it’s quite a hike to the top! If you go, have the Baked Brie and Crab Dip and their Seafood Chowder. And you’ll even be rewarded with the opportunity to see more totem poles.
Alaska Fish House (https://exclusivealaska.com/fish-house) – as spoiled as we are in the Puget Sound area in regards to fresh fish, I have to admit, the halibut I had here was just about the best I’ve ever had. And their smoked salmon chowder – yum!
Burger Queen – Tiny, hole-in-the-wall type joint but with awesome burgers. Not a lot of seating, so snag a table ASAP.
Pioneer Cafe – A ’50s style diner, with good diner food, but with reindeer meat options!
The countdown continues — 148 days to go!
My focus today is Sitka (our second port stop). We’ll hit this charming town on August 9. Sitka was originally home to the Tlingit (pronounced Klink-it) Native Americans, then the colonial capital (named New Archangel at the time) of the Russian empire, and the one-time capital of Alaska. It’s now a commercial fishing center, not as tourist-y as Juneau and Ketchikan (cruise ships only started visiting Sitka regularly in 2013), and the Alaska State Trooper academy is here. Yes, I took a photo with one of the troopers on a previous visit. I love this little town (population about 9,000). If I were moving to Alaska, Sitka would be it for me.
We’ll be the only ship in town (yay!) and have 8 hours to wander and explore. We’ll be at the Old Sitka Dock, which means no tendering (boo – taking the 15 minute boat ride to town is one of my favorite things to do.) The OSD is about 5 miles north of Sitka, and it’s about a 15 minute (free) shuttle ride to downtown. Once downtown, many of Sitka’s attractions are within easy walking distance – Castle Hill, Sitka National Historic Park, St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House. And lots of weathered house, colorful fishing boats. You’ll get a real feel for a working harbor town!
Although we arrive at 8:00 a.m., get up in time to get out on deck and watch our approach. There will be some gorgeous views of Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano.
If history is your thing, consider these:
Sitka National Historic Park (https://www.nps.gov/sitk/index.htm) – a small visitor center with information and exhibit on native culture with easy walking trails. Do walk the short forested trail that follows the shoreline. Lots of totem poles and great views. You can pretty much do the whole thing in a hour or so, depending on how many photos you stop to take!
The Russian Bishop’s House (http://www.alaska.org/detail/russian-bishops-house), which has been restored and is home to Russian-American artifacts (everything from animal pelts to religious icons!), photos and information.
Castle Hill – or more properly, the Baranof Castle State Historic Site (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/southeast/baranofcastle.htm). It’s here the documents were signed that officially gave Alaska to the U.S. back in 1867. Walk to the top (there’s both stairs and a trail) and you’ll be rewarded by great views. No castle (actually it was the Governor’s mansion though he never lived there) – that was destroyed by fire in 1894 – but some old cannons and flags and lots of information. Russian artifacts are still being found here. Not a must-see, but great to do if you’re into history or if you have a little extra time, and it’s free.
St. Michael’s Cathedral. Smack dab in the middle of town, the contrast between this peaceful holy place and the souvenir shops across the street always amuses me. The church is small, but has some lovely old icons (including one miraculous one), religious items and artwork. There’s a small donation/fee to go inside ($5 dollars).
The Sheldon Jackson Museum (http://museums.alaska.gov/sheldon_jackson/sjhome.html) crams so much into a small space, that you can spend hours here. And I did. What I enjoyed about this museum was that artifacts were grouped by category, not by culture. It’s fun to compare Tlingit, Aleut and Inuit (Eskimo) tools, clothing, toys, etc. Since most of the collection was acquired around the turn of the century (the 1900 one, not the 2000 one – lol) you can see the impact of the Russian/European culture on the materials and styles on the native population The staff is amazing – take time to talk and ask them questions. In my opinion, this is a must-see.
Wildlife and nature:
Must mention whale watching. Sitka is (in my opinion) the best place to whale watch – not because there are more whale, but because in addition to humpbacks and orcas, seals, sea lions and birds, there’s a great chance of seeing sea otter and puffins. Book a ship’s excursion or directly with Allen Marine (http://allenmarinetours.com/). Or if you want to go all out for a personal experience, take the Esther G Sea Tours and Taxi (https://www.puffinsandwhales.com/). Captain Davey is passionate naturalist, extremely knowledgeable and a born storyteller. If it’s related to Sitka Bay and its wildlife, he knows it. Small boat (6 people), so no trying to take photos around other people’s elbows and heads. His 4 hour tour includes the St. Lazaria Island Wildlife Refuge.
For bear watching, there are two good options. The first is guaranteed – Fortress of the Bear (http://www.fortressofthebear.org/). This is actually a bear-rescue organization that takes in orphaned bears. Raised platform walkway so you can see them eat, play and interact with the human caretakers. And given that bears are messy eaters, there are plenty of eagles hanging around too. You can combine this with the nearby Alaska Raptor Center (https://alaskaraptor.org/) which treats and rehabilitates injured birds (eagles, owls, hawks, falcons).
The other option is driving or taking a tour to Herring Cove. The bears hang out here in August and early September to feast on salmon. Some lovely views too!
And if none of that floats your boat (ha ha), there’s hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and so much more. I’ve scratched the surface here, so hop around the web and do some investigating!
150 days means it’s time to start planning — and booking — excursions! More, and larger, ships are cruising Alaska this season, which means ports are going to busy and crowded, tours may sell out, and you should be making reservations. I wouldn’t recommend waiting until you arrive to figure out what you’re going to do.
Our first port is Juneau, the state capital (population 32,000 and the only state capital that shares a border with a foreign country — Canada — and it’s also only one of two not accessible by road – you gotta fly or boat in). We’ll be there from 1pm to 9pm, a too short 8 hours. In port with us that day will be the Norwegian Bliss (4,000 passengers) leaving at 1:30; Celebrity Millenium (2,138 passengers), Star Princess (3,100 passengers) and Norwegian Pearl (arriving at 2pm after Norwegian Bliss leaves, with 2,394 passengers). Throw in the Amsterdam’s comparatively tiny 1,380 passengers — and all the ships’ crews catching a couple of hours of shore leave — and that’s a lot of people!
Absent schedule changes, we’ll be at the CT dock, a great location, right next to the Mount Roberts Tramway. My advice is to get away from the pier/wharf/dock whatever you want to call it. Most of the shops there are NOT owned by Alaskans and are there only for the cruise season. Wander a few blocks back and find the good stuff, not the same-old, same-old made-in-China tchotchkes.
There are so many things to do in and around Juneau, so here’s my summary/recommendations. But there are plenty more options, so do some web searching, call your travel agent, or hop on the Holland America website and see what excursions they’re offering.
Mendenhall Glacier (https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/tongass/about-forest/offices/?cid=stelprdb5400800) is a must. Don’t just do a drive-by; either rent a car/taxi or book a tour that actually stops and allows you to spend time. The Visitor Center gives you a great view of the glacier, there are numerous walking trails, and there’s the chance of seeing eagles, mountain goats and bears. August is prime bear viewing season, as the salmon return to spawn and the bears get to chow down on them. The 1/2 mile (pretty easy and well maintained) walk to Nugget Falls gets you a spectacular view of the glacier, and the falls are impressive too. I’ve taken a tour with Gastineau Guiding (https://www.stepintoalaska.com/) combined with their whale watch, and they are definitely on my repeat list. Though I’ve never done it, there are helicopter tours that will land on top of the glacier, let you walk around or ride in a dog sled.
Mount Roberts Tramway (http://mountrobertstramway.com/). This is super easy – you can walk off the Amsterdam at the CT dock and be right there. A roughly 5 minute ride to the top with narration, and the view from the top of Juneau, the Gastineau Channel, the cruise ships, is amazing. There are also hiking trails, some easy, but some are pretty rocky, so ask a guide at the visitor center before wandering out. If it’s raining or really foggy, you might want to pass on this one …
and do this one instead. If you’re into native culture and museums, the newly renovated Alaska State Museum (http://museums.alaska.gov/asm/asmhome.html) is definitely worth a visit. Both the history and the native art of the state are represented, including the Russian rule over Alaska, and the Japanese occupation of some islands in World War II. The museum is a short walk from the pier so skip the tourist shops and head here.
And of course, there is whale watching! Both Juneau and Sitka offer great opportunities for whale watching (humpback and orca). Not to mention eagles, seals, Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoises, and more birds than I can identify. Though I try! The photo I posted is from an excursion we did in 2014. If you’re not booking through the cruise line, two excellent, reputable vendors are Allen Marine (http://allenmarinetours.com/) and Harv & Marv (https://www.harvandmarvs-alaska-whale-watching.com/). Can’t say enough good things about either of them, and I’ve used both several times.
Other things to see and do – visit the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery (http://www.dipac.net/hours-and-tours/) with more salmon than even this Seattle area gal could ever have imagined, interesting exhibits on the life cycle and importance of salmon, a fish ladder and aquariums. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church (http://stnicholasjuneau.org/). Small, free (but please be respectful), with lovely icons. The AJ Mine Gastineau Mill (http://www.ajgastineauminetour.com/) which covers both the history and mechanics of mining, along with a trek into the working mine itself. The Shrine of St. Therese (http://www.shrineofsainttherese.org/) is worth a visit for the setting alone, and more meaningful if you walk the outdoor Stations of the Cross. You’ll need to drive/take a tour there. It’s in the woods, quiet, no crowds, and a beautiful church next to the water.
If you want a change from the cruise ship food (yummy though I’ve found it), my favorite eateries are:
- Alaskan Brewing Company (https://alaskanbeer.com/) – if you’re into beer, this is the place. No food (at least not the time I was there) but a fun place to taste beer and maybe pick up a few souvenirs.
- Red Dog Saloon (http://www.reddogsaloon.com/) – yes it’s touristy, but the atmosphere makes this a great place for beer and eats. But be warned, just about everyone from the cruise ships will come here, so be prepared to wait.
- Hangar on the Wharf (http://www.hangaronthewharf.com/) – good seafood, burgers and sandwiches, with a fun view of the float planes taking off with the cruise ships in the background.
- Tracy’s King Crab Shack (https://www.kingcrabshack.com/) – crab legs, crab cakes, crab bisque, if it’s crab, you’ll find it here. I absolutely LOVE their crab bisque. My sister and I make it a point to stop here every time we’ve been in Juneau.
And my favorite restaurant of all:
- Salt (http://www.saltalaska.com/) – oh my is this place delicious. Small plates, dinner, dessert, wine and cocktails. Puts everything fine into the term fine-dining without any snob factor. The food is delicious and the wine, beer and cocktail selections can’t be beat. (Try the Ginger Snap and then thank me.)
It’s never too early to start a countdown. In 160 days, hubby and I will be aboard Holland America’s MS Amsterdam for a week-long cruise to Alaska. We’ll be helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of some dear friends. And taking plenty of photos (I just can’t help myself). Can’t wait to see the Amsterdam’s post-dry dock upgrades!
I’ll be leaving my sister behind on this trip, but there’s always another cruise on the horizon … 🙂
Another sunny day — we’ve been so lucky this cruise, as the weather forecast was rain, rain and more rain. But other than the first sea day and Juneau, it’s been dry and often sunny. Hardly warm (mid 50s to low 60s) but that suits us Pacific Northwesterners … we start melting when it approaches 80. 🙂 So it was perfect day to sit in the cabana, have a Bloody Mary and pizza for lunch and just take in the sun.
Karin went to a matinee performance of the Lincoln Center Stage playing only classical music (Brahms) while I simply read on the veranda, sipping coffee and sweets from the Neptune Lounge.
Karin did her initial packing, and then off to a final evening of cocktails and dinner as we sailed into Victoria.
Rather than open seating for dinner (there is no fixed seating since we arrived in Victoria at 6:00 pm), we opted for another meal at the Tamarind, where the food is delicious and the views outstanding.
Getting back to our cabin, one more good piece of news – I’m now a 4-star Mariner.
I threw my clothes into the suitcase and Karin wheeled our bags out to the hallway, where we’ll be reunited with them in Seattle. (Speaking of Seattle, disembarkation was a mess. With both the Eurodam and the Ruby Princess offloading passengers, there were 5,100 passengers milling through Pier 91. To top it all off, the escalator was out of order, so it was either stairs or elevator. So the elevator got a thorough workout … and by the time I finally got downstairs about 10 minutes later (I was tempted to throw the rollator over the railing and take the stairs, but figured that was probably akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face), the lines to clear customs were huge. There was an officer from the Eurodam with 4 stripes on his sleeve (Karin says possibly the Hotel Director) in the midst of the mayhem looking rather grim and barking into his comm unit. I’m thinking the pier officials may be getting an earful!
Made it off the ship in Ketchikan — shopping can be a powerful motivator! We were in Berth 1, so it was an easy trip. Of course, I brought the rollator, because it makes for such a convenient way to cart purchases!
We had to visit our favorite store, the Arctic Spirit Gallery, to add to our respective collections of Alaskan Native art. For me, it’s the birds of Alaska. For Karin, it’s a little bit of everything. Then over to visit Maida Kelley, a wonderful watercolor artist, and add another print to my collection. She captures the colors and feel of Alaska and her art reminds us of our trips.
And of course, no stop in Ketchikan would be complete without popping in to Blasphemous Bills or Sam Magees for Alaska goodies for my hubby and mom. And well, a jar of the Kahiltna Birch syrup and caramel topping for me. It’s fantastic over cobbler, ice cream, on a scone or frankly, just spooned out of the jar.
Short stay in Ketchikan, but the afternoon was bright and sunny and the views just keep coming.
Off to listen to the Lincoln Center Stage and the fabulous quintet, then music and drinks in the Ocean Bar, met some friends for cocktails in the Pinnacle Bar, and finally, to the Tamarind for dinner.
And the 2nd Gala Dinner menu: