Alaska’s Icy Strait Point
By Buzzy Gordon
It’s got nearby glaciers, of course. One of the major reasons visitors come to Alaska is the opportunity to see these mighty rivers of ice up close. But Icy Strait Point, just opposite the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, has some surprising extras that set it apart from all other Southeastern Alaskan destinations.
For a place that epitomizes unspoiled wilderness, Icy Strait Point is remarkably accessible. It is a popular port of call for Alaska cruises offered by virtually all the prominent international cruise lines: there’s a choice of more than 70 visiting dates over the 16-week summer cruise season.
Alternatively, Icy Strait Point is just a 20-minute flight from Alaska’s capital city of Juneau. Passengers arriving by air enjoy bird’s-eye views of the pristine waters of the Inside Passage, as well as of the snow-capped mountains that tower over the mainland’s shoreline.
The tiny aircraft lands in Hoonah, Icy Strait Point’s next-door neighbor and the only town on Chichagof Island — the fifth largest island in the United States. The island is covered entirely by the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. and the largest temperate rainforest in the world. But the most interesting statistic for visitors is also one of the most unusual a traveler might ever encounter: Chichagof has the highest population of bears per square mile of any place on earth.
Needless to say, this fact (among others) puts nature and wildlife front and center among area attractions. Icy Strait Point, the only privately owned port in Alaska, runs 22 excursions and tours for cruise ship passengers spending the day and other visitors. The Spassky River Valley Wildlife and Bear Watch, for example, has a 70% success rate for spotting the Alaskan coastal brown bear, know as the grizzly in the continental U.S.
Even if you don’t spot a bear, you’re likely to come across woodpeckers, bald eagles, or Sitka black-tailed deer. You’ll walk through a muskeg — a sinkhole swamp — as well as lush forest on the way to the wildlife viewing platforms, while your guide explains the medicinal uses of the plants and tree bark. Even the bus ride is informative, as the guide explains some of the customs of the Tlingit people — your hosts in Icy Strait Point.
This encounter with the indigenous Tlingit culture is a bonus highlight of any visit. You may choose to attend an interactive performance of dance and mythological legends of one of Alaska’s native tribes. You will also learn to understand and appreciate the area’s impressive and colorful totem poles.
The Huna Tlinglits’ commitments to the preservation of their cultural and artistic heritage, sustainable tourism, and community development have earned Icy Strait Point recognition from Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure and National Geographic Traveler for its responsible practices. In what could be a model for other native Alaskan regions, tourism has become the economic engine of a community dedicated to sharing the wealth, protecting the environment and educating and involving the next generation.
A prime example of Icy Strait Point’s creative thinking is the conversion of the town’s former salmon canning factory into the main facility of the dedicated cruise liner port. As passengers wait for the departure of their tours, they can walk along an automated assembly line that first went into operation a century ago, offering a fascinating glimpse at machines that still work and reflect the sophistication of a process capable of canning close to a million pounds of fish a year. A museum on-site documents the history of a pioneering and record-setting factory that helped feed America.
The sprawling welcome center also houses a large retail complex, with stores selling clothing, outdoor gear, souvenirs, salmon delicacies, art, handcrafts and natural medicines with proven track records going back hundreds of years. The adjacent buildings are now restaurants serving food that is astonishingly good — and downright astounding for a remote outpost with a population that numbers in the hundreds rather than the thousands.
When it comes to Alaskan cuisine, salmon, of course, is the star of the show. It is also is an unbeatable choice when eating in either of the two main restaurants overlooking the port: enjoy it as a burger in the Cookhouse, or freshly filleted and grilled over elderwood in the Landing Zone. And those are just two of the options; keep salmon marinated in teriyaki, slathered in BBQ sauce, or floating in a hearty chowder in mind as well. Other, more exotic specialties include caribou sliders, reindeer chili, or old-fashioned fish and chips (halibut or cod, caught perhaps that very morning).
Salmon is not just for eating at Icy Strait Point: learn how to prepare it at the workshop titled In Alaska’s Wildest Kitchen, and then sample statewide favorites like smoked salmon or salmon dip. If you’re there when any one of the five species of salmon are running, you can catch your own, or go fishing for halibut.
Prefer seafood? From a stand on the pier, The Crab Shack specializes in the freshest Dungeness, king or tanner crab imaginable. Also on offer is a rich, scrumptious bisque, made with a recipe that won a national award. You can even drink your crab! The trademark Crabby Bloody Mary is unforgettable in more ways than one: the piquant seasoning and sea asparagus garnish put the cocktail’s traditional ingredients to shame — not to mention the giant crab leg replacing the usual celery stick — and you get to take the super-sized souvenir glass home.
Other beverages deservedly share the spotlight: the specially commissioned and brewed Cannery Red beer is a real thirst-quencher. The Landing Zone has come up with a signature cocktail, the Zipper Drop Shot, that is mellow yet at the same time has the tangy bite of alcoholic cinnamon.
The ideal place to quaff or sip is on one of the restaurants’ decks with a view over the water — and possibly even of a whale or two frolicking just a stone’s throw from shore. That’s right: humpback whales are so much at home here where, they spend the entire summer in Icy Strait’s rich feeding grounds, that they swim right up to the beaches where humans congregate and huge ocean liners dock.
But it you want to be absolutely sure of encountering these creatures of the deep, book a trip on the Icy Strait Point Whale and Marine Mammals Cruise to Point Adolphus. You are guaranteed to see a whale, or you will receive a $100 refund on the purchase price of your ticket. It is doubtful that this kind of ironclad guarantee exists anywhere else along the entire length of the whale migratory route between Baja California and Alaska. Moreover, there is a chance of glimpsing orcas (killer whales) in addition to the plentiful humpbacks; in addition, it is likely you will come across porpoises, sea lions, and seals.
For those who have had enough of the sea on the cruise ship, another unforgettable voyage is “flightseeing” over Glacier Bay, the Fairweather Mountain Range and the Brady Icefields. Marvel at the glistening white of the snow-capped peaks; contrasting meadows of black ice; dazzling and varied shades of blue of the fjords, lakes, meltwater pools; and the sparkling blue-white crystal cylinders comprising the prettiest glaciers of them all, viewed from an altitude of barely skimming the surface of the planet.
Last but not least, there is a man-made attraction that, in the opinion of many, is the most exciting experience of all. And it could easily be considered the most surprising apparition in Icy Strait Point: the ZipRider — the largest zipline in the world, with a vertical drop that exceeds the height of the Empire State Building. After a dizzying climb by minivan up a steep mountain, and a breathtaking moment appreciating the panorama, six hardy souls at a time are strapped into slings arrayed side by side — and then launched downward at a speed that reaches 60 mph. As tall trees flash by underneath, the spectacular view narrows and even the stillest air feels like a cyclone, the exhilaration rapidly builds to a crescendo, and after a fleeting 90 seconds, the glorious ride comes to a sudden, even abrupt, end.
Mother Nature, timeless tradition, skilled chefs and engineered thrills add up to an unparalleled vacation at Icy Strait Point.
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Over the course of a 35-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide, a contributing editor at Jax Fax Magazine, and a regular contributor to LuxuryLatinAmerica.com and TotallyJewishTravel.com.