Presented by Travel Alaska
This year, travelers everywhere put their plans on hold, presenting Alaskans with a unique opportunity to get out and explore the state’s incredible destinations while supporting Alaska small businesses. Travel Alaska is encouraging residents to “Show Up For Alaska” by exploring new places and taking advantage of deals just for locals. Read on to learn about the adventures that await!
Wake up on a private island. Spend the afternoon surfing. Enjoy world-class cuisine. View 18th century art and artifacts. All in a single day -- and all in Alaska?
Welcome to Sitka.
“Sitka’s a unique place,” said Rich Kraft, who owns Cascade Creek Inn and Charters. With industries driven by fishing and the outdoors, education and the arts, he said, it has “intelligence and diversity and outdoors and fine arts all in one.”
Sitka is incredibly popular with Outside travelers, but its location off the road system means it remains a bucket list item for many Alaskans.
“You talk to people and they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never been to Sitka and I’ve always wanted to go,’” said Laurie Booyse, director of Visit Sitka. “Well, what’s stopping you? We’re here!”
Sitka’s quiet summer
Located on Baranof Island at the edge of the Inside Passage, Sitka is ordinarily a busy cruise season port of call. Then no-sail orders canceled this year’s Alaska cruise season.
“This summer’s a poke in the nose,” Kraft said. “A hard poke.”
Kraft and his family got into the visitor industry about five years ago, when they drove by a for-sale sign on a lodge a few miles outside downtown Sitka. Now charters and hospitality are the family business, with their grown children and daughters-in-law involved on the boats, in the kitchen, and around the inn and its 10 oceanfront rooms with views of Mount Edgecumbe.
Many of those rooms will be empty this summer. Sitka was anticipating about 300,000 visitors this year, according to Booyse. With the cruise ship season canceled and most other travelers putting their plans on hold, the streets that would usually be bustling are instead strangely quiet.
While the travel drop-off has been hard on local businesses, for the visitors who do come, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have the place pretty much to themselves.
“You’re definitely going to experience Sitka as though you were here living with us,” Booyse said. “Some of our best restaurants, you normally can’t get a table. You’re actually able to eat like a local.” Many of Sitka’s eateries are open, either for takeout or for distanced dining, and spots that are impossible to get into during a normal visitor season have plenty of openings. Sitka has a strong food culture, with local ingredients in plentiful supply, vegan and organic options, a farmers market, and even food trucks.
“If you’re a foodie, you’re definitely going to find something excellent for you to experience here,” Booyse said.
The benefits of Sitka’s slow summer aren’t limited to the food scene. At the animal sanctuary Fortress of the Bear, tours that are usually delivered over a microphone to groups of 50 have been replaced by private appointments -- long, leisurely visits with the Fortress’ eight resident black and brown bears, guided by an experienced naturalist.
“Everyone’s getting a personal, private tour experience when they visit,” said Bear Manager and Specialist Claire Turner. “Having an opportunity to view those bears without being kind of part of a larger group can be really nice.”
Even the locals are getting to check out some new experiences; Turner said she recently participated in a behind-the-scenes octopus encounter at the Sitka Sound Science Center that was “just the coolest thing ever.”
“The community here is really doing everything they can to keep everything as safe as possible,” Turner said, adding that Fortress of the Bear, the Science Center and the Alaska Raptor Center have been working together to ensure each facility has what it needs to keep guests healthy.
Alaska’s scenic melting pot
Located in Southeast Alaska rainforest, Sitka’s climate is temperate, lush -- and yes, wet. Wear layers and bring your Xtratufs if you’ve got them, Booyse advised.
The tradeoff? It’s really, spectacularly beautiful.
“Because we face the open ocean, we have a constant access to wildlife in a way that’s really unique,” Booyse said.
Kelp beds foster a large sea otter population; marine birds, crabs and fish flourish in Sitka Sound; and whales, sea lions and seals can all be spotted in and along the water. Old-growth timber still stands on the hillsides, and the dormant Mount Edgecumbe volcano is a scenic reminder of Sitka’s location directly along the Ring of Fire.
“I fell in love with Sitka instantly,” said Turner, who came from the United Kingdom eight years ago for a summer research project and ended up staying. “It’s a really beautiful place to live. The scenery is beautiful, but the community is beautiful, too.”
Even the fast food in Sitka comes with a side of spectacular.
“You can go sit in McDonald’s, that’s on the water, and there’s no other McDonald’s in the world with a view like that,” Kraft said referring to possibly the most scenic McDonald’s anywhere, located on the edge of a boat harbor overlooking Mount Edgecumbe. “Then you’ve got just the taste of old Sitka, you know, walking around the small streets and the harbors. Then you put your hiking shoes on, and we’ve got the best trails of anyplace we’ve seen.”
His personal favorite is the Herring Cove Trail, which twists past waterfalls, meadows and a scenic lake.
“I always say, if you were in Hawaii, and you spent $50 to go on this hike and you were butt to butt with people the whole way, when you got down you’d still say ‘That’s the best $50 I’ve ever spent,’” Kraft said.
And there’s more to Alaska’s former capital than plentiful wildlife and sweeping vistas. Visitors to Sitka can experience Alaska’s history from pre-contact days to the Russian colonial era to the territorial years to statehood.
“It’s a real melting pot of histories and cultures and experiences,” Booyse said.
There are Russian buildings still standing, with art and icons dating to the 1700s, while the Sitka History Museum displays the document transferring Alaska from Russian to American control. And the area’s original Tlingit culture is vibrant and thriving in the community. Sheldon Jackson Museum is offering its artist-in-residence program this summer, giving guests the opportunity to visit and talk to Alaska Native artists at work in the studio. And although the Sitka Music Festival and some other events have gone virtual this year, the community’s creative culture is still on display for visitors to experience.
“People make things here,” Booyse said. “Everything from what you would expect, (like) the Tlingit carving and beadwork, (to) we have two people in town who are chocolatiers, we have two bakeries, we have people who make soap, we have people who make sea salt, we have people who make kelp pickles. If you can figure out a way to make something, people in Sitka are making it.”
Sail on a yacht, sleep in a lighthouse
When it comes to accommodations, Sitka again has something for everyone -- hotels, bed and breakfasts, camping, cabins and lodges -- including some truly unique properties, like homes located on private islands and even a lighthouse.
Sitka Travel owner Christine McGraw, who manages about 60 local rental properties, said the vacation home rental market is “up and coming” in Sitka, with numerous options for visitors who want something remote, something right downtown, or something in between.
“Definitely an island is a cool experience for a couple of days,” she said. “We also have the private charter yachts. We have Dove Island (Lodge), which is a high-end resort -- I have (clients) that will stay out there and come stay at Bart Island for five days after that.”
McGraw, who is offering Alaska resident discounts, recommends booking multiple shorter stays at a couple of different properties to get a variety of experiences in a single trip.
“Sitka just has it all,” she said.
For more ways to experience Sitka like a local, check out VisitSitka.org.
Presented by Travel Alaska, encouraging you to Show Up for Alaska this summer! Whether it’s a quick trip to your favorite fishing spot or a new adventure in a corner of the state you’ve never explored, Alaska’s small tourism businesses offer something for everyone -- and every budget. Browse summer travel opportunities and specials for Alaska residents at ShowUpForAlaska.com.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Travel Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.