July 3, 2013

Alaska Cruise: Sitka -- A Real City at Last and a Great Boat Tour

Sitka easily won my vote as the best port city on the cruise. My pal Traveler Terpening, the Alaskan salmon fisherman and guidebook author who helped me select my special tours during this trip, wrote:
Sitka is a really cool town with a snow-capped volcano and great restaurants. Go to Ludwig's bistro (make a reservation).
Unfortunately, I didn't have time for Ludwig's. But Sitka struck me as our first "real" city. In Ketchikan and Skagway, fishing and tourism were the main industries, and the downtowns resembled theme parks. Juneau was a government town.

In Sitka, fishing is still the biggest industry, followed  by healthcare and education. Tourism is  fourth. The downtown has a traffic light and a tsunami evacuation route sign:

The Russians established an outpost here in 1799. The Tlingit Indians destroyed the settlement in 1802, but the Russians retaliated and soon pushed the natives from the area and renamed it New Archangel. The Russian Orthodox Church spread its influence. For a time, the Russian-American Company based in Sitka was the world's most profitable fur trader.

In 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million, the transfer ceremony took place in Sitka. The culture today blends Tlingit, Russian and American influences. The local population is a mix of fishermen, artists, retirees and native Alaskans.

In the center of town is the onion-domed Russian Orthodox church, St. Michael's Cathedral. It was built in 1884, burned down in 1966, and rebuilt.

I went inside the church and had a nice chat with the deacon. The church maintains an active congregation.

I had intended to return to the ship for a bridge game, but it was a gorgeous day for wandering around my new favorite Alaskan city. I spent an hour exploring and sitting in the waterfront park overlooking the harbor:

While not as historic or imposing as St. Michael's, the Episcopal Church near the waterfront has its own more modest beauty:

My Sitka Boat Cruise
My friend Traveler recommended the sea otter and wildlife cruise. The tour operators promise a $100 rebate if you don't see a whale. We finally got a glimpse of a whale's tail as it dove back into the depths. I had enjoyed much better whale watching during my travels around the Pacific NW two years ago.

Whale or no whale, it was a great excursion. Sitka is one of the world's best places for viewing wildlife. The surrounding waters provide important feeding grounds for whales, sea otters, sea lions and other marine life.

We saw lots of otters frolicking in the water. Some of the mothers were carrying their new pups on their backs.

I've made this shot a little larger so you can see the American eagles on the rocks.

Here's another eagle shot:

Our ship 's captain said we were in for a special treat. The fine weather and calm seas enabled us to continue out to St. Lazaria Island, a federal wildlife refuge at the mouth of Sitka Sound. The 65-acre island was created when lava pushed up from the ocean floor, the same process that formed the Hawaiian Islands.

The sheer cliffs provide a perfect habitat for seabirds. Half a million storm petrels, mutes, auklets, and puffins nest here. Only federal naturalists are permitted to set foot on the island.

These photos don't do it justice :

I thought this was going to be the best day of the cruise. I was wrong. After the July Fourth holiday, we'll make our final stop -- the Hubbard Glacier.


Helga said...

I very much enjoyed John's travel write-up; would have loved it to go on and on ...

Ashley Stewart said...

Really very nice blog. All photos are awesome.Cruise is best for visit Sitka.

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