When the waitresses and bar tender were matching the patrons shot for shot, around 2 PM at Mean Queen in Sitka, we realized we were probably in an authentic (wild!) Western town!
Most Southeast (Inside Passage) Alaska Cruises include a variety of ports. Some have ports we’ve visited have been developed by the cruise line companies themselves, filled with shops similar to those found anywhere. Things can seem a little “sanitized”, even on the historically bawdy Creek Street in Ketchican. Some ports have more corporate rather than independent shops. To handle the crush of daily cruisers in the summer, those communities need to hire people from out of town. Most of the elbows you’ll rub will be with fellow cruisers and often “local” guides and helpers all seem to be from somewhere else. That is not to say those places aren’t authentic; real people live and work there, but as a cruiser, you’d have to travel a little further afield to find them!
Some communities have rejected that kind of development in order to keep their own unique identities in their ports. Our days in Sitka and Haines during our UnCruise Safari Endeavor felt like the later.
We arrived in Sitka and after checking into our hotel, we immediately went out to source some lunch.
Totem Square Hotel, was conveniently located within walking distance of everything in town. The rooms were simple, clean and comfortable. The service was excellent, with helpful folks at the front desk who pointed us in the right direction to find what we wanted to see. A “Fisherman’s Breakfast was offered early on the first floor restaurant, but we’d recommend heading over to the Highliner Coffee Company for homemade bagels and pastry instead.
We wandered to the Mean Queen, which looks like a dive bar with a day job as a pizza joint. The pizza was excellent, and the local characters were entertaining. Our stone cold sober waitress kept downing shots with the bartender and fishermen at the bar but she didn’t miss an order! The fisherman taking shots eventually started getting profane and a local grandma, dining with her granddaughters, hollered across the bar "HAVE SOME RESPECT!” The fishermen were sufficiently cowed, and immediately took it down a notch. Then she turned to us to apologize to us for the whole scene. We were immediately enchanted with Sitka!
Without thousands of cruisers in port, we were able to wander around town, chatting with shopkeepers and artisans. We were able to walk from Totem Square and Russian Hill on one side of town, all the way to Totem Park/National Historical Park at the other end of town.
Things to do in Sitka:
Community House (Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall) and Prospector Statue in Totem Square
St Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church
We toured the St Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral before it closed for the day, leaving time to wander by the waterfront down to Totem Park in the bright late afternoon and evening sun.
An interesting view point in Sitka, with a lot of history. Used by the Tlingit groups, a Russian fort and later became the place where the Russians “sold” Sitka to the US.
Shopping along Lincoln and Harbor Streets
Along Lincoln Street there are several unique galleries and shops, as well as places to buy tee shirts and shot glasses. There were several fur shops, which attract attention with fur bikinis and “mankinis” in their windows! We stopped in on of many very good outdoor gear stores to pick up a few things we forgot for our expedition.
One of the things I loved about Sitka was that there was so much more to do other than shopping, all within walking distance. We followed the Lincoln Road headed towards the Bishops House, which is part of the National Historical Park.
Walk Along Crescent Harbor
Russian Bishops House and Museum
Sheldon Jackson Salmon Hatchery
Part of the Sitka Sound Science Center, the hatchery provides an opportunity to learn about salmon and depending on the time of year, watch salmon in a salmon ladder swimming up stream!
Sitka National Historical Park
The Sitka National Historical Park manages several buildings and parks in Sitka, including the Bishops House and there are also several National Historic Landmarks in Sitka. You can find a list of these at the visitors center or the Bishops House.
The visitor center is the trail head for several trails through Totem Park where we were able to use our phone to read about each totem displayed. We also visited an area where you could clearly see huge schools of salmon heading upstream to spawn.
During our hike around Totem Park, we were treated to a dramatic mid air battle for territory by a pair of bald eagles!
Alaska Raptor Center
The Alaska Raptor Center, just outside the town, is a rehabilitation center for raptors. Injured and abandoned birds are taken here with the goal of being released back into the wild. Many are treated, gain strength in an indoor open air flight training center where they have almost no contact with humans, and are released. There are also some resident birds that cant ever be released. They are named and come out on display occasionally for educational purposes.
Some raptors, including owls, are permanently injured and unable to be released. These residents birds are used for educational programs and live out their lives at the Raptor Center.
Fortress of the Bear
Fishing Charters and Kayaking
Stop at the Sitka Visitors Information Center at 303 Lincoln St to find fishing charters and kayaking guides.
Hiking and Biking Trails
There are several hiking and biking trails around Sitka. A free guide from www.travelsitka.com offered in many shops and restaurants and online, shows many trails. Locals also use bicycles as transportation around town.
Things to do in Haines
This former US Army Fort was sold after WW2 to a group of veterans who established an art colony. We enjoyed seeing the interesting architecture of the former officers homes and reading interpretive plaques on the old barracks building up on the hill and visiting the Alaska Indian Arts.
Alaskan Indian Arts
Alaska Indian Arts is a non profit dedicated to preserving Northwest Indian art forms located in the old hospital in Ft Seward. During our visit, we were able to meet and cat with Lee, one of the original founders of the world famous Chilkat Dancers, and see a totem laid out for preservation.
Visit DownTown Shops and Museums
See the Haines Visitors Center for a walking tour or wander this small western town on your own. We wandered a bit on our own, exploring the local grocery store to get an idea of the high cost importing food into remote areas. (the “road” to the lower 48 is a 7 hour detour through Canada, so most goods arrive via boat or plane)
We also enjoyed that “town” was set up more for local use than cruise ship passengers, including this fellow getting “stocked up”!
Haines was very concerned about salmon, the life blood of the town, fishing, touring, all of it revolves around the salmon.
Hammers from all over the world, including, according to our guide, some the Smithsonian sent to AK!
Haines Brewing Company
Some of our fellow passengers decided to while away a few hours here, enjoying local brews and spirits here.
Bike or Hike Out along Front St to the Ferry Terminal, Portage Cove Wayside
We were comped bicycle rentals at Sockeye Cycle, by UnCruise. The shop is just a few steps from the cruise ship dock, and within minutes we were outfitted with bikes, helmets and locks so we could explore the down town and areas around on 2 wheels.
Watch for Bears On Chilkoot River Bank
Taking care to follow the important local rules about living in bear country, including not bringing food or fishing on the “bear side” of the river bank, late summer when the salmon are running is the best time to try to spot bear on the shore. Ask about this at the Visitors Center or engage a professional guide to stay safe! To see more about the bears we saw during our AK trip Click Here
Hike Battery Point Trail or Mt Ripinsky
The Haines Visitor Center can provide directions to trail heads within easy walking distance of town.
Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
We had an excursion from Haines, driven by mini bus to the put in, we were treated to river float on the Chilkat River through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
This section of the river stays warmer and attracts thousands of breeding eagles every spring. During our late summer visit we were able to see enormous eagles nests and many birds that inhabit the area surrounded by dramatic peaks and glaciers.
Renting a car (recent construction work on a controversial new highway here makes biking a little more risky) you could drive the pass, stopping along the way to enjoy scenic views of the area.