What if I said there was a town in Alaska first settled 10,000 years ago and that a lot more recently it was the wealthy, sophisticated capital of Russia’s North Pacific colonies, nicknamed “Paris of the Pacific”?
This destination of less than 9,000 residents today, accessible only by sea or air, is the largest incorporated city in the United States with a total area of 4,811 square miles. In 2013, the Smithsonian Institution recognized this tiny gem to be the ninth most culturally rich small town in the country.
This is the unique profile of Sitka, Alaska.
Perched on the west side of Baranof Island and protected from the Pacific Ocean by an island-studded sound, Sitka is a well-serviced destination for large yachts up to 300 feet with generous moorage already in place. Joining the U.S. Superyacht Association in 2012, Sitka is dedicated to a steady growth in this market. Harbor regulations, rates and large vessel reservations can all be found at www.cityofsitka.com, click on “departments” and scroll down to “Harbor Department.”
“During the May to September season, roughly 50 yachts between 65 and 300 feet visit Sitka, primarily from the U.S. and Caribbean,” harbormaster Stan Eliason said. “The trend of the past three seasons has been an increase of 5 to 10 large yachts per year. We are staying ahead of the game by investing up to $6 million of renovations into transient boat docking facilities before next season.”
A significant bonus for yachts is that Sitka is largely off the Inside Passage cruise ship route that delivers more than 800,000 guests per season to Alaska Panhandle ports. While an occasional cruise ship anchors for the day in Sitka harbor, the attractions, eateries and accommodations are mainly frequented by individual visitors and locally owned.
No matter whether a visitor’s interests are cultural or natural, there is a rewarding balance of attractions between its authentic dual heritage of Tlingit native culture and well-preserved Russian history, and a chance to explore nature by land and sea.
When I spent a late-August afternoon on marine scientist Jim Seeland’s wildlife watching boat, homeward bound salmon were leaping out of the water, a dozen 45-foot humpback whales dove and surfaced in search of food, and sea otters, re-introduced to Panhandle waters after complete extinction, watched our progress without alarm. In centuries past, their coveted fur was a source of Russian riches, the reason for Sitka’s prominence as a colonial capital. The 3,102-foot Mt. Edgecumbe, the town’s perfectly shaped extinct volcano, created a picture postcard setting for learning about these natural highlights with Sitka Sound Tours (sitkasoundtours.com).
For active nature enthusiasts, Mt. Edgecumbe has a well-marked, seven-mile trail to the top, by guided day-trip or going it alone. There are also ocean kayaking and bicycle rental options and popular walking trails around Baranof Island.
Many people visiting this part of Alaska expect to see grizzly bears, a much taller order than viewing sea life in the wild. A rewarding alternative is the Fortress of the Bear (fortressofthebear.org), a rescue center five miles out of town.
Still on the rescue theme, the Alaska Raptor Center (alaskaraptor.org) has been on the front lines of eagle rehabilitation and education for decades. With a large indoor/outdoor facility and daily educational presentations, it is a premier raptor hospital in North America, attracting 36,000 visitors from May through September.
Just as nature is a virtual surround sound when visiting Sitka, so too is the dual cultural heritage. Residents are fond of saying, “Expect to see Russian borscht soup and alder-smoked salmon on the same menu.”
Successful Tlingit native businesses, whether they are waterfront accommodations such as Totem Square Hotel, tour operators such as Alan Marine Tours’ Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest day tour and Sitka Tribal Tours’ comprehensive cultural tour, or a colorful performance by the Naa Kahidi Dancers at their finely decorated clan house, all illustrate a strong native presence in the community. Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson Museum of Tlingit and other native Alaska heritage is recognized as a premier collection in the world.
Equally vibrant is the Russian heritage with attractions such as the Russian Bishop’s House, impressively restored by the National Park Service, and the New Archangel Dancers (newarchangeldancers.com) performing since 1969. They are justifiably proud of their repertoire of 40 folk dances and authentic costumes, down to the last button, braid and apron.
If there is a star in Sitka’s Russian heritage crown, it must be St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, the New World’s earliest Orthodox church. Its green domes and golden crosses are a downtown landmark, open to visitors daily. Today, 90 percent of parishioners of this active community church are Tlingit, indicating that the Russians went home after selling Alaska to the Americans in 1867, but their faith did not.
Around Sitka you can walk everywhere or drive there in 10 minutes; there are only 14 miles of roads on Baranof Island. Accommodations range from full service hotels to intimate bed and breakfasts such as Ocean View B&B (sitka-alaska-lodging.com), which has been welcoming guests from around the world for 20 years. Restaurants, micro-brew pubs and cafés abound, whether fine dining at Ludvig’s Bistro and the Channel Club or sampling comfort food at Larkspur Café and beer tastings at Baranof Island Brewing Company. Sitka Tourism (sitka.org) offers suggestions and expert planning advice.
Victoria-based Alison Gardner is a travel journalist and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly-illustrated resource for mature travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.