Cruise Report: Less-Traveled Alaska

The recently updated Crystal Symphony’s Penthouse with Verandah.

Increasingly, more luxury lines and eco-focused, small-ship cruises are sailing less-traveled Alaskan waters, calling at smaller harbors and off-the-beaten-path ports that aren’t on itineraries for the largest mega-ships. Travel Agent recently explored one such port, Sitka. A two-day visit there provided a taste of the types of experiences cruise clients may find at other Alaskan ports. 

Nestled between Baranof Island’s mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Sitka, the former colonial capital of Russian America is a great jumping off point for eco-adventures, including kayaking, trail hiking, fishing, biking, boating and ATV action. Culturally it’s a mix of American, Tlingit native and Russian influences. With a population just under 9,000, it exudes a friendly, small-town feel.

Choice of Luxury Lines and Eco-Focused Small Ships

What’s new? Sailing for the first time to Alaska in 2019 is Azamara Club Cruises with Sitka calls by Azamara Quest. During 2018, Windstar Cruises is back in Alaska for the first time in 20 years and calls at Sitka. Ultra-luxury Seabourn, which returned for the first time in 15 years in 2017, is also back again this year and in 2019.  Viking Ocean Cruises arrives in 2019 too.

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Seabourn Sojourn sails 12-day “Ultimate Alaska and Inside Passage” cruises roundtrip from Vancouver plus many 11- to 14-day voyages between Anchorage (Seward) and Vancouver. Port calls include well-known Alaska destinations but also remote, scenic spots and smaller ports, including Sitka. During Travel Agent’s exploratory visit to Sitka in late May, we also spotted Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ recently updated Seven Seas Mariner docked at Sitka’s terminal. 

Other upscale lines calling at Sitka this year include Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Oceania Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Silversea Expeditions, Ponant, Princess Cruises and others. Ponant sails into Sitka during its “In the Wake of Pioneers” itineraries onboard L’Austral and Le Boreal departing September 15 and 18, 2019, respectively. For luxury clients traveling as a multigenerational family with kids and teens and seeking more big-ship onboard activity choices and kids’ clubs, contemporary Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line also make one or two calls this year. 

Upscale cruisers who wish to trade a pure luxury experience for small-ship, Alaska eco-adventure have several choices that include Sitka this year, including Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, Alaskan Dream Cruises, The Boat Company, UnCruise Adventures and others. Ships vary sizably in terms of shipboard amenities and accommodations, so ask lots of questions, including what clients expect in the way of onboard technology. 

Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Chichagof Dream, which sails between Juneau and Sitka, has an onboard casual atmosphere, eager/friendly crew members and naturalists, and an insider Alaska approach.  

We recently sailed on Alaskan Dream Cruises’ 74-passenger Chichagof Dream between Juneau and Sitka and discovered an onboard casual atmosphere, eager / friendly crew members and naturalists and an insider Alaska approach, a plus for many cruisers on our voyage. This small-ship line was launched in 2011 by the Allen family, Alaska Native Tlingit clan members. Guests sailing either early or late in the season often have the added benefit of sailing with a significant number of Alaskans; half the guests on our mid-May 2018 voyage resided in either Sitka or Juneau; see our review at travelagentcentral.com.  

Smaller ships often dock at a downtown pier with direct access into Sitka’s shopping area and Totem Square, home to a Russian cannon, historic anchors and a totem pole displaying the double-headed eagle of Sitka’s Russian heritage. On its Sitka turnaround, Chicagof Dream, in contrast, docked at a small pier adjacent to the Allen family’s home; shuttle service was provided to the line’s well-equipped downtown hospitality center, the airport and local hotels.

Most larger ships dock several miles from the city at a deep-water port, which has a small cruise terminal, a few locally owned shops and a free shuttle to the downtown Harrington Centennial Hall. Cruisers can walk a block or two to shopping and several Russian-era attractions, among them St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral. Originally built in the mid-1800s, it was destroyed by a 1966 fire, but rebuilt based on the original design. Local residents raced into the burning church to save religious icons, artwork and even the main chandelier, so cruisers today can still gaze at the church’s original Russian-era treasures. 

Just up the street, the Russian Bishop’s House, is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in America. Operated by the U.S. National Park Service, its exhibits focus on Russian religious life and the upstairs parlor has its original Russian-era furniture.  

After a dose of Russian culture, it’s time for shopping. Downtown shops and galleries are locally owned or entrepreneurial in nature. They sell clothing, native crafts, Alaska sea salt, artwork and glassware, Russian nesting dolls and “everything bear” for souvenirs as Baranof Island has one of Alaska’s largest concentrations of Sitka brown bears.  

Luxury cruisers sailing into Sitka or planning a trip there next year on the recently updated Crystal Symphony (roundtrip from Vancouver or between Vancouver and Anchorage) can opt for such shore adventures as a “Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure.” They can scan the sea for whales and look for intertidal invertebrates, eagles in the treetops and, if they’re lucky, perhaps spot harbor seals, Sitka black-tailed deer or a brown bear.

One surefire way to view bears is at Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear, a nonprofit rescue organization’s habitat that’s home to “rescued” brown and black bears orphaned as cubs; some are siblings. This summer, Fortress of the Bear is starting to expand its black bear enclosure into nearby woodlands, giving the bears more natural habitat and more space. Construction continues this summer, but elevated viewing platforms still offer great bear views.

During Travel Agent’s recent visit, the bears were actively exploring their compound filled with logs, uprooted tree roots, hilly mounds and other diversions, as well as frolicking in a lake. We were happy to see no “pacing.” One line with a shore trip to Fortress of the Bear is Silversea Cruises. When Silver Shadow calls at Sitka this summer, a half-day “Sea Otters, Raptors and Bears” excursion includes a catamaran cruise to search for marine life, a visit to the bear rescue habitat and tour of the Alaska Raptor Center.

Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear is home to “rescued” brown and black bears orphaned as cubs.

This center provides medical treatment to injured bald eagles and other birds, with the goal of returning them to the wild. Inside, visitors can peer through one-way glass to see eagles in a rehabilitation area. Popular with many cruise lines, this raptor center is also one of four prime inclusions for Seven Seas Mariner’s “Russian America and the Raptor Center” shore excursion; others include St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral; a drive by Castle Hill at the Baranof Castle State Historic Site, where Russian America was transferred to the U.S. government in 1867; and Sitka National Historical Park. Managed by the U.S. National Park Service, that site has a collection of Haida and Tlingit totem poles, cultural exhibits, Tlingit and Russian artifacts, traditional artisan demonstrations and outside walking trails. 

Windstar Cruises has two new active Sitka excursions. For $299 per person plus a $40 fishing license, the “Sitka Sportfishing” excursion allows cruisers to fish for either king, silver, chum or pink salmon, depending on the season.   

At $109 per person, Windstar’s new “Sitka Bike & Hike” includes a four-mile bike ride along the coastal road and two miles of hiking in the temperate rainforest; local guides explain area history, folklore and fauna. Bikers go to Thimbleberry Lake, cross an impressive waterfall and visit Whale Park via steep stairways. 

Seabourn offers an exclusive eco-experience from Sitka, the “St. Lazaria Wildlife Cruise & Lunch at Dove Island Lodge.” Cruisers take an expedition catamaran cruise to the St Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge; the boat has spacious, open-air decks for views and photos and a heated cabin with wrap-around windows, comfortable seating, a galley and restroom. The island attracts thousands of seabirds, including tufted puffins, murres, rhinoceros auklets, cormorants and black oyster catchers. Waters around the refuge are home to whales, sea otters and other marine mammals. 

The refuge is a protected habitat so guests cannot go ashore, but they’ll have binoculars to use and listen to naturalist commentary. Then it’s on to Dove Island Lodge’s Great Room for a four-course gourmet meal with Sitka Sound views through two-story windows. Other attractions? The Sitka Sound Science Center offers aquarium tanks / exhibits, plus the adjacent salmon fish hatchery has self-guided tours. Nearby is the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a cornucopia of Sitka heritage and cultural exhibits.

Sitka National Historical Park has a collection of totem poles and Tlingit and Russian artifacts.

At the downtown Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House, Tlingit native dancers (the Naa Kahidi Dance Show) perform in connection with Sitka Tribal Tours. Another dance option is the New Archangel Dancers, an all-female, volunteer group recreating the lively, authentic and professionally choreographed dances from Russia and surrounding regions. One way to see both types of dancing is to sail on Azamara Club Cruises, which is offering an AzAmazing Evening ashore in Sitka for 2019. The line will transport cruisers to the Sitka Performing Arts Center in which the Naa Kahidi and New Archangel dancers will perform in a unique, multi-cultural show that tells the story of how the two cultures found a way to co-exist and interact in a frontier town. Guests can meet the dancers following the show and enjoy an outdoor fireworks display. 

Sitka offers an unusual mix of American, Tlingit and Russian influences, hiking trails, other eco-adventures and friendly locals. Not surprisingly Sitka is attracting more luxury and small-ship eco-adventure lines, eager for that “place-less-visited” feel. 

More Off-the-Beaten-Path Alaska Ports

Alaska has many appealing small ports that attract luxury and upscale lines, along with eco-adventure, small ships. Here are three of the best.

Petersburg: On the northern end of the Wrangell Narrows, a small channel near Frederick Sound, Petersburg is close to the summer feeding grounds of hundreds of humpback whales. Whale watching, hiking, flight-seeing, birding or viewing of LeConte Glacier are popular activities during a Petersburg port call. With a population of 3,000, this small town appeals for its Norwegian heritage and fishing culture. Downtown, visitors can browse shops, check out totem poles (including the library’s new “story pole”) or visit the Clausen Memorial Museum. 

Kake on Kupreanof Island is home to native Tlingits. 

Kake: The beachfront village of Kake on Kupreanof Island has been home to native Tlingits for thousands of years. Travel Agent recently sailed into Kake during a small-ship cruise on Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Chichagof Dream, and experienced an “included” half-day excursion ashore. Guests either hiked between the stops or were shuttled via schoolbus. Cruisers watched a totem pole carving demonstration, viewed the world’s tallest totem pole from a single piece of wood and watched a colorful Tlingit dance presentation at a local school.   

Wrangell: Nestled on an island at the mouth of the Stikine River, Wrangell is home to the Tlingit Chief Shakes Tribal House, the Wrangell Museum and  the nearby Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site. Eco-enthusiasts might hike to Rainbow Falls, while birders will love spotting eagles, shorebirds, herons and songbirds. During July and August, an excursion to the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory gives cruisers a good chance of spotting wild brown bears and black bears feasting on salmon.

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