What to do ashore in Sitka, Alaska – a Cruise Port Guide…
Sitka, on the Pacific Coast of Barenof Island in Alaska, is one of the more unusual Cruise ports to visit featured on an Alaskan itinerary. Originally built by Russian traders in the early 1800’s, when it was known as the city of ‘New Archangel’, Sitka has a very different feel to the wild west, gold rush, mining towns that form most of the other ports of call in Alaska. It is definitely worth a visit if you get the chance!!
is 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.
Larger ships moor at
the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal about five miles from town. There is a small shopping mall with a restaurant and you can pickup a free shuttle bus, a service provided by the town council. The five mile journey takes about ten minutes and the bus stop is central, right outside the Sitka Historical Museum in Harrigan Hall, on the edge of Crescent Harbor. Smaller ships can moor out in Sitka Sound and use tenders to bring people in to the same point. Tour companies, local buses and taxis are all available at Crescent Harbor as well as a small market – where all the stalls are very professionally run by local kids, selling homemade gifts and food items. Definitely worth a visit for the cookies alone!
The ‘Fortress of the Bear’ is about five miles on the opposite side of town to the Cruise Terminal and is accessible by ships tour, local bus or taxi but most other attractions are easily done on your own using the free shuttle bus into town. While waiting for a return shuttle you will find the museum mentioned above well worth a short visit. In fact the whole town centre is very flat and compact so it is accessible and very easy to explore on your own. Baranof Castle, the Russian Bishops House, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, the Raptor Centre and the Sitka Totem Park are all within a half hour walk of the shuttle drop off point.
The town hosts the annual Sitka Summer Music festival which is internationally renowned. It takes place in various locations around the town including Sheldon Jackson College, which itself is the base for the Sitka Fine Arts summer camp. The college also houses a museum covering its past as a boarding school for First Nations children, many of whom were forcibly removed from their families. We were lucky enough to fall across an amazing FREE lunchtime concert with two absolutely world class cellists and a local ballet dancer! Our trip to the hall was by shuttle bus, feet and serendipity – we weren’t actually looking for a classical concert, but fell across it completely by accident! Afterwards we spoke to a couple from the ship who had paid $59 each for the coach trip into town and tickets to the concert! It hadn’t cost us a penny, although they got coffee and we didn’t!
Sitka was originally home
to the First Nations Tlingit people who fought a huge battle against the Russians, from their fort built of sapling Sitka spruce tree. This historical site is honoured in an area of the temperate rainforest which is now preserved as the Totem National Park. It also houses 18 Tlingit and Haida totem poles collected from all over Alaska. They were ‘gifted‘ by the First Nations people to be exhibited at the 1904 Exposition and were then relocated here after the exhibition rather than being returned to their original homes. These now look out across Sitka Sound and Indian River – there is a free information trail that gives information on the individual Totems and the whole area is very atmospheric – definitely worth a visit!
The free museums at Harrigan Centennial Hall and on the Sheldon Jackson Campus focus mainly on the history of the First Nations Tlingit people.
The Russia heritage of Sitka
is examined in a free museum on the ground floor of Russian Bishop’s House which tells the story of the Russian traders who built the town. An hourly guided tour to the upper floor of the House is also free. However the most evocative building related to the towns Russian heritage is St Michaels Cathedral, an onion domed, icon filled building on Lincoln Street not far from the shuttle drop-off. It is still used for daily service but is full of icons and other fascinating items relating to the Russian occupation of the island such as the Aleut Gospel which is in Russian on one page and in the Aleut language on the page opposite.
If you are travelling with kids a walk around Crescent Harbor will bring you to Sika’s 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!
Shopping is very different to other Alaskan ports, with shops showing a strong Russian influence with lots of furs and babushka dolls. 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.
We really liked Sitka and ran out of time to see all we wanted to – go if you get the chance and think carefully before booking any guided tours from the ship.
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