Sitka, on the Pacific Coast of Barenof Island in Alaska, is one of the more unusual ports to see featured on an Alaskan itinerary. Originally built by Russian traders in the early 1800’s it has a very different feel to the wild west, gold rush mining towns that form most of the other ports of call in the area and is definitely worth a visit if you get the chance!!
Baranof Island is covered mainly covered by the huge Tongrass National Forest -the island is 100 miles long but the the coast road only extends about seven miles on either side of the town! Looming over Sitka from across the sound is Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano and bird sanctuary, which looks eerily like Mount Fuji. Smaller, heavily wooded, islands fill the channel and some of the most popular excursions are out on the water – fishing, whale watching, kayaking or visiting the puffins on Mount Edgecumbe.
Shore based excursions take you out to the edge of the Tongass Forest or to one of the destinations in town – just do a little homework before booking as the town runs free shuttle buses from the port to the town centre, which is flat and compact so almost everywhere is easily accessible on your own. Some ships moor out in Sitka Sound and use tenders to bring people in to the same point – Harrigan Hall on the edge of Crescent Harbor. You might want to tale a look at the Port Profile for Sitka published in our talkExplore group on Facebook for a few ideas of things to do. The ‘Fortress of the bear’ and the Raptor Rescue Centre are both on the edge of town and accessible by bus or taxi.
The town hosts the Internationally renowned annual Sitka Summer Music festival which runs in various locations around the town including the Sheldon Jackson College which itself is the base for the Sitka Fine Arts summer camp. We were lucky enough to fall across an amazing FREE lunchtime concert with two absolutely world class cellists and a local ballet dancer! We reached the hall by shuttle bus, feet and serendipity – we weren’t actually looking for it at all, but fell across it by accident! Afterwards we spoke to some people from the ship who had paid $59 each for the coach trip into town and the concert! It hadn’t cost us a penny….although they did get coffee!
Sitka was originally home to the Tlingit people who fought a huge battle against the Russians from their fort built of sapling Sitka spruce trees – the site is preserved and honoured within the lovely temperate rainforest – Totem National Park which is also home to 18 Tlingit and Haida totem poles collected from all over Alaska – ‘gifted ‘ by the First Nations people to be exhibited at the 1904 Exposition – they were relocated here after the exhibition rather than being returned to their original homes and now look out across Sitka Sound and Indian River – very atmospheric and definitely worth a visit!
If you are travelling with kids a walk around Crescent Harbor will bring you to Sika’s brand new musical play park – full of colourful instruments and drums as well as the more conventional climbing frames and slides, it is definitely somewhere for the kids to run off steam! Further on you will find the Sitka Sound Science Centre, – five aquariums, touch tanks, a killer whale skeleton and a salmon hatchery give kids a real hands on experience!
There are free museums at Harrigan Centennial Hall, where the free shuttle drops you, on the Sheldon Jackson Campus and in the ground floor of Russian Bishop’s House. The upper floor of the House is accessible on a free guided tour but the most evocative building relating to the towns Russian heritage as the city of ‘New Archangel’ is St Michaels Cathedral, an onion domed, icon filled building on Lincoln Street not far from the shuttle drop-off.
Shopping is slightly different to other Alaskan ports, with shops showing a strong Russian influence, but we were very impressed by the efforts that the town was making to interact with cruise passengers, almost every street corner had a pitch set up for a locally made jewellery stall, art exhibition or a hotdog stand- you can read my blog below on young Nate and his entrepreneurial friends to find out more…
We really liked Sitka and ran out of time to see all we wanted to – go if you get the chance, you are bound to have a great time there too. We were really happy just walking the sites and didn’t wish that we had taken a tour at all!
Whatever you choose to do, we hope you have a great day portExploring!!