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Trip report: Alaska non-cruise (but part by ship)


kochleffel
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Very good report. I appreciate the distinction made as to ferries being "transportation," though I note that nearly all of the "cruises" I have taken have been one-way journeys for which the vessel provided needed "transportation." (I generally prefer the passengers able to plan transportation-type journeys, as many cruises can be dominated with the geography-ignorant and narcissists, and who are generally attuned to travel on local public transportation systems and other ground transportation.)

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On 8/19/2021 at 3:52 PM, kochleffel said:

I got dinner that night by carry-out from the Three Coins restaurant, which is on the ground floor of the hotel, but it wasn't so busy that I couldn't have gotten a table.

 

Correction: it's called 13 Coins.

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Great trip report.  In the 70's Alaskans used the ferry system like a cruise ship too.  My parents took myself and a friend on a ferry cruise adventure in about 1975.  I remember going to Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and a couple of other places.  I think we took the train from Anchorage and got on the ferry in Whittier on that particular trip.    Many people used the ferry system to get home (or up to Alaska, anyway) with their vehicles when the highway was closed.  I remember distinctly getting stuck at Watson lake due to the Alcan being flooded out, and going to Haines to get on the ferry with the car so we could get back to Alaska.

 

As a kid we used the Matanuska, the Malaspina and the Tustumena to get from point A to point B frequently.  I had forgotten all about the folks camping on deck.  People would cut trees in Washington for Christmas trees, and then as soon as the fish started running they would go work in the canneries. 

 

The trip we took with "staterooms" as a cruise was on the Matanuska so your photographs were amazing.  Back then there was a lounge with a bar and an upright piano.  We had one full day of crossing that was so rough everyone was green in their bunk or on the floor- except my 12 year old self, my buddy and the bartender.  He fed us saltine crackers and 7 up and we played the piano for hours in the empty bar with no one around.  

 

Thank you for the memories.

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Posted (edited)

On my second full day in Sitka, I felt out of sorts and napped in the afternoon. On my third, and last, full day, I went on a marine wildlife tour with Cpt. Gary's Sitka Wildlife Adventures (Gary Downie). I had booked a tour in 2020 with Gallant Adventures (Paul Davis), but when I inquired about rebooking for 2021, he replied that he wouldn't be running tours in August of this year -- he would be returning to another job, as a geologist --and Gary was one of the other captains he recommended.

 

Gary is a fourth-generation resident of Sitka; his family has lived there since the 1930s. He operates a 30-foot cabin cruiser for up to six passengers. My tour had only two others, one of whom was the board chair of a wildlife center in Wisconsin. She had spent the day before with the director and staff of the Alaska Raptor Center, and said that her center rehabilitates many species but sees only a few raptors a year, so it had been helpful to learn from people who see many.

 

We saw lots of whales, including some that Gary calls "resident whales," meaning that they stay around Sitka for the entire season. Alaska humpback whales, having good sense, head to Hawaii for the winter, where they breed but don't eat, krill being vastly more plentiful in colder waters. Their young are born in warm waters and the mothers bring them back to colder waters to feed and grow.

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One whale breached within 30 feet of our boat. No picture -- it happens so quickly that you would have to be in the process of photographing a scene into which the whale intruded.

 

We also saw a number of sea otters. Mostly they swim on their backs, but one was swimming belly down, like a dog. We also saw one female swimming on her back, with a baby riding on her belly, but I didn't get a photo.

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And seals.

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And birds

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The raven was perching at Crescent Harbor and had an extraordinarily loud, raucous voice. Ravens can imitate many sounds and others that I heard were not so startling.

 

"Furst Mate" Niko goes on every trip.

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Edited by kochleffel
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After lunch at Beak (I'll write about Sitka restaurants in another post), I went back to the Russian Bishop's House for a tour of the bishop's quarters on the upper floor. These are capacity-limited, both because the rooms are small and as a covid precaution, with timed tickets.

 

The reception room

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The bishop's study. The first bishop built the desk himself. Most other furniture was imported from Russia.

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We were told that the beds (no photo) are short, not because the people who used them were very short, but because it was the custom to sleep sitting up.

 

Dining room

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Pantry

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Priests' quarters, built somewhat later across the street.

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Posted (edited)

On my last morning in Sitka, after checking out of the hotel, I went to the Alaska Raptor Center. The distance is walkable from downtown Sitka, just over a mile (uphill), but I took a taxi both ways.

 

In the Raptor Center, after an introductory video, you're taken to see the flight-training rooms, which are high and very long. They have open slat roofs and high windows so that the birds, which are placed there for a sort of unguided physical therapy after whatever surgery or treatment they received, can relearn flying and remain accustomed to outdoor conditions.

 

The observation windows are tinted and heavily screened and the observation area is fairly dark so that the birds aren't too aware of human presence -- during their recuperation they have, ideally, no more contact with humans and can be returned to the wild. It was much too dark to photograph, but I remember that there were nine or ten bald eagles together in the larger flight room, which surprised me since eagles aren't social. A staff member told me that they tolerate one another as long as there is plenty of food. The flight room is made to be as much as possible like a natural environment, with a stream flowing through it. A separate flight room housed an owl, I think only one.

 

There are outdoor displays of birds that can't be released because of injuries that would make them incapable of survival in the wild. Most of the birds are behind wire, but a few were in "weathering yards" that could be viewed from above, with no roofs because the birds in them are totally incapable of flight.

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The Raptor Center is in a lovely setting and has a trail to the Sitka National Historical Park, but the trail, and all trails in the park, were closed because of bear activity.

Edited by kochleffel
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I returned to my hotel, grabbed my luggage, and got the desk clerk to drive me to the airport. I had read in various forums that the Sitka airport has an exceptional restaurant, and two Sitka residents had also recommended the Nugget Restaurant. I got there almost exactly at noon and took the last table, but several tables opened up with a few minutes.

 

The security check at SIT is a bit complicated, because there is almost no waiting space beyond it. Thus, you don't get in line until after the last flight before yours has finished boarding, or even until boarding for your zone is called. Ideally, you'll get through the security check just as it's time for you to board the aircraft. I'd been warned in an airline forum that the security check tends to be overly punctilious, but I had no problem with it and arrived in the tiny boarding lounge about a minute before it was time for my zone to board. I had remembered to attach the shoulder strap to my cabin bag but the jetway was working.

 

The schedule said that the plane would be a 737-800 but the monitor said 737-900, and Alaska Airlines uses the safe safety card for both. I'm not sure how many rows of seats there were, but as usual I found myself over the wing. Our departure was delayed, first by a backlog at the security check and then by a medevac flight. The captain said that our flight plan was to go "low and slow" but he would request authorization to fly higher and faster. We arrived at Sea-Tac on time.

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Sitka restaurants: I had one lunch and one dinner at the Bayview Pub, on a second floor overlooking Crescent Harbor. I had fish both times and both times it was good; so was the service. One lunch at the Mean Queen (who would choose that name for a restaurant?), also on a second floor. It's primarily a pizza place but I had a Greek salad, which was OK although the dressing was more acid than I like, and the service was very slow.

 

One dinner at Sizzling Chow, a Filipino-Chinese restaurant. Filipino-Chinese is typical for Alaska because Filipino immigrants were encouraged when Federal law stopped immigration from China. He's a historical poster from Ketchikan about one such restaurant.

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I had lumpia (eggrolls), which were good, and Chicken Adobo, which was oddly bland.

 

The two most interesting restaurants in Sitka appeared to be Ludvig's Bistro and Beak. Both are small. I was unable to get a reservation at Ludvig's for any night while I was there, and I wondered how far in advance they book up. Beak is chef-owned, claims to pay employees a living wage, and prohibits tipping. Half its seating is outside, mostly on a porch. I did eat there, but only for Sunday brunch, so not typical of dinner. On Sundays (I don't know about other days) they offer house-made doughnuts, and I had a Key lime doughnut with coffee while waiting for the breakfast burrito that I ordered. I'd describe it as like Bauernschmaus (without pork) in a burrito wrap, quite good.

 

My last night in Sitka I ate at Mangiare, an Italian restaurant on the ground floor at the back of the Sitka Hotel, facing Lincoln Street. It may be possible to enter it from the hotel, but I put on a jacket, left the hotel by the rear door, and walked to the street entrance a few yards away, since if I didn't get seating I'd go somewhere else. They don't take reservations except for larger groups.

 

As I passed through the door, a hostess was turning away a party of four, but she offered me seating  at the bar, which I accepted. The bartender took my order but a waiter walked through the restaurant to serve me. It was a very good dinner, and also quite expensive, even for Alaska.

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Clothing and gear: I wore every piece of clothing that I had except a pair of gloves. That included both a knit cap and a rain hat, the latter of which I wore a lot. The only clothing I wished I had brought was a sweater, because it was so cold aboard the Kennicott. For warmth outdoors I had a down-alternative vest, which works well under a jacket and is more packable than fleece,, but which I don't like to wear indoors. I'm booked for a Bering Sea cruise next year, and for that I will probably take a sweater since there are so many sea days.

 

Almost the only things I did not use, aside from the waterproof camera and its flotation strap, were the small amounts of OTC medicines that I always pack for conditions that didn't arise, a few tiny tubes of Superglue,  and two sets of replacement shoelaces. I broke a shoelace during a New England and Canada cruise a few years ago and spent about half the day we were in Boston searching for shoelaces the right length. By comparison, it was easier to find Superglue in a hilltop village in Spain when I broke my glasses there.

 

Tech: I had a Motorola phone, an Olympus OM-10 DSLR, five SD cards, and card readers both for the phone and for an iPad mini; chargers for all three; and spare chargers, which I've taken ever since a charging cable failed in the U.K. and it was extraordinarily difficult, then, to find a USB-C cable. For the Olympus camera I had its "walkabout" lens, an all-purpose "pancake" zoom;  a wide-angle zoom, which I used a great deal; a medium telephoto zoom; and a long telephoto zoom. I didn't use the long lens at all  - there were times when it would have been helpful, but I didn't have time to change to it. The waterproof camera was a Panasonic Lumix. I used the iPad some for reading email and news on shore, but mostly for reading books with the Kindle app.

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19 minutes ago, kochleffel said:

Sitka restaurants:

 

Very interesting to learn of your experience with Sitka's restaurants.  I would not have thought they would be so varied.  And, so good.  And, to find a good restaurant in such a small airport!  😲

 

Pre-TSA days, my home airport, DAY, had a very good restaurant available for to the public.  Now, what's there are chain types and one has to get through TSA's checkpoint to patronize them.  

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I was booked to stay overnight again in Seattle, originally because the last daytime flight to DTW had been scheduled to leave too early to connect from even the earliest flight from Sitka. The flight time was later changed, but by then I had a SIT-SEA booking for the afternoon instead of the morning.

 

At Sea-Tac, since I wouldn't need the larger bag overnight, I checked it in the baggage room near baggage claim #9, operated by the Smarte Carte franchise, for $12. A larger suitcase would have been $15. Then I set out on the long walk to the Link station.

 

When I had been expecting a morning flight to DTW, I had booked at an airport hotel. However, I dislike most airport hotels, and when the flight was changed to 12:11 p.m., I cancelled that booking and made a new one downtown at the Pioneer Square Hotel. It's a historic hotel, a few blocks from the Pioneer Square station of the Link light rain -- exit to Yesler Way and walk downhill. The rooms are furnished and decorated in a way reminiscent of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, but the hotel had no dining rooms, cocktail lounge, or reputation for witty repartee. It is, however, extremely quiet and has the best mattresses I've even found in a hotel.

 

Posts in the West Coast Departures forum here warn against the Pioneer Square area because of the homeless camps, but I'm unfazed by them. If you're concerned, cross Yesler Way and walk along its south side, since the hotel is on that size anyway.

 

I had dinner that night at Shawn O'Donnell's, an Irish or pseudo-Irish pub in the Smith Tower, also a historic building. I had shepherd's pie, made correctly with lamb but served oddly: it was more like a stew served around a mound of mashed potatoes. The flavor was good but I wouldn't order it again. What I would order again was the Magner's dry cider, on tap.

 

The Pioneer Square Hotel offers an adequate continental breakfast in a room off the lobby. The room has a street entrance and is open to the public later in the day as a coffee and juice bar.

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Like many visitors to southeast Alaska this year, I had had a lot of anxiety about whether tour operators would be functioning, and whether restaurants and shops would be open. For the record, the only tour that I wanted to book that wasn't available was the Taku Lodge flightseeing excursion with lunch, although on booking sites I saw a fair number of other tours that weren't running this year. No restaurant that I would have been interested in was closed, although all seemed short of staff. The closed shops that I noticed seemed to be all places that no sane person would want to patronize anyway.

 

Rob Holston mentioned that he had decided to offer tours for even a short season (a) because he already lived there and didn't need seasonal employees, and (b) because reviews from this year on a certain travel site (not this one) were necessary to get bookings for 2022, since there were no reviews from 2020 and by 2022 the 2019 reviews might not carry much weight. He any many others were leading tours even with groups smaller than ideal, probably all for that reason.

 

Gary Downie said, however, that this had been his busiest season ever, starting in March, and all because of independent travelers. Sitka gets fewer cruise passengers than Juneau or Ketchikan to begin with, and that effect was exaggerated this year by the emphasis on 7-day cruises, which have been less likely to call at Sitka than were longer cruises. He attributed it partly to pent-up demand, from people who had to cancel their trips last year, and partly to low fares on Delta Airlines.

 

He may have been right about the latter, because check-in, if you needed to, and baggage drop at SEA for Delta were very crowded, with long lines snaking around three or four times to get to any desk. I'm told that it was the same way at the Alaska Airlines counters.

 

The agent who eventually accepted my checked bag directed me to security checkpoint #2, which was right behind the Delta bag-drop area. There was a long, snaking line there, too, and a security employee was suggesting that people who could carry luggage a bit farther walk to checkpoint #3. I asked about Pre-Check, and he directed me to checkpoint #1. Only checkpoints 1 and 4 seemed to have Pre-Check, and #1 appeared to be Pre-Check only. I ate lunch in the food court before going to the gate, which like most gates at SEA seemed to be much too small for the size of the aircraft.

 

The flights (757 and CR9, again) were uneventful and I got home a little before midnight. Getting out of the airport parking lot was the hardest part, because its automated gate was having trouble reading the ticket even when I inserted it the right way.

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26 minutes ago, rkacruiser said:

 

Very interesting to learn of your experience with Sitka's restaurants.  I would not have thought they would be so varied.  And, so good.  And, to find a good restaurant in such a small airport!  😲

 

Pre-TSA days, my home airport, DAY, had a very good restaurant available for to the public.  Now, what's there are chain types and one has to get through TSA's checkpoint to patronize them.  

 

The Nugget Restaurant is particularly noted for its pies. I've been told that it's possible to purchase a pie and carry it aboard the plane, but I don't know whether there is a special arrangement with TSA for that, or whether one is required.

 

My local airport has only a Dunkin Donuts counter outside security. For a while there was a Taste NY self-serve café in the boarding area, featuring foods made in NYS, but it was closed and I don't know whether there is any plan to reopen it.

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. Alaskans who use the state ferries do so almost exclusively for one reason, the need to transport a vehicle.

 

 

Damn, so that's why after 40 years here I have 67 vehicles parked in my yard. And all those pre-teens and teens going between sporting events that have designated areas onboard for studying are required to bring a vehicle? 

 

There's also a winter  floating bridge tourniment on the ferries. Make those old bats buy a car.

 

some of your comments were inforrmative but not accurate

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57 minutes ago, bottom-dragger said:

And all those pre-teens and teens going between sporting events that have designated areas onboard for studying are required to bring a vehicle? 

 

Teams used to travel to games by ferry, and players often stayed with the families of the opposing team, but several people in different towns told me that it's becoming less common, partly because of the ferry schedules. Supposedly - and they could have been lying to me, or I could be lying to you - charters, either boat or air, are sometimes used.

 

But what do I know? I'm not in, or from, Alaska. I just spent a couple of days there and talked to a few people who might all have been dishonest.

 

Feel free to report any posts that you think should be censored.

 

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Last post. I haven't written much about costs, but this kind of trip is not an economy. It will likely cost more than a cruise of similar length, unless you book with a luxury cruise line or book a suite on your cruise ship. There are no bargain fares on the Alaska state ferries, and you pay separately per person for the transportation and per cabin for the cabin, if you want one, but even an inside double on a cruise ship is larger than a two-bunk cabin on a ferry. Also, food is not included and you can bring  your own. No charge for hot water or the use of a microwave oven, but actual cooking isn't feasible and if you want ice for a cooler there's a small charge for it.

 

I also did two hops on Alaska Airlines, where the fares weren't outrageous but not exactly cheap, either. Neither these nor the Delta flights cost me any new funds, since I was traveling on money already spent, using credits from cancelled trips last year.

 

On a cruise, you could visit more ports than I did, and you'd have no hotel costs. The downsides are that you usually have only one day at each port, and some activities may be constrained by the time in port.

 

 

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15 hours ago, bottom-dragger said:

. Alaskans who use the state ferries do so almost exclusively for one reason, the need to transport a vehicle.

 

 

Damn, so that's why after 40 years here I have 67 vehicles parked in my yard. And all those pre-teens and teens going between sporting events that have designated areas onboard for studying are required to bring a vehicle? 

 

There's also a winter  floating bridge tourniment on the ferries. Make those old bats buy a car.

 

some of your comments were inforrmative but not accurate

 

I spoke to the owner of a B&B that we stayed in in Wrangell about the ferry.  She said that she made a yearly trip to Seattle in the ferry w her pickup truck and filled it to the top w stuff she purchased.  According to her, even with the high vehicle prices on the ferry, she saved money over driving to her local Costco which was a good distance from her B&B.

 

DON

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Just my opinion but if you have the time (we had almost 3 months), the only way to do AK is by car and by ferry.  I realize that most people don't have that much time but you could set up a pretty decent trip that would take around a month.

 

DON

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17 hours ago, kochleffel said:

Last post. I haven't written much about costs, but this kind of trip is not an economy. It will likely cost more than a cruise of similar length, unless you book with a luxury cruise line or book a suite on your cruise ship. There are no bargain fares on the Alaska state ferries, and you pay separately per person for the transportation and per cabin for the cabin, if you want one, but even an inside double on a cruise ship is larger than a two-bunk cabin on a ferry. Also, food is not included and you can bring  your own.

 

Many time I have made the same point using other words in different contexts. Most notably there seems to be a general opinion that people who travel long distances by bus or railroad, instead of flying, do so because it is more economical. Yet just like the ferry vessel vs. cruise vessel dichotomy, air travel is frequently--if not usually--the more economic way to travel, especially when taking into account the enroute costs of travel. Compare the cost of Amtrak against airfares between the east coast and the west coast (and especially so if one believes that a bed is necessary for such a 72-hour journey and the cost of the cheapest roomette--basically a closet--is added in). A few years ago, when returning home from the west coast, I found the cost a 7-day cruise (via Panama Canal) to be competitive with the cost of a 3-day Amtrak journey (with roomette). Indeed, I have used cruise vessels more often as one-way transportation--as if the vessels were ferries akin to the Alaska Marine Highway--than as round-trip excursions, for even with forfeiting unsailed segments the cost of cruise vessel transportation can be quite reasonable and sometimes less expensive than bus or railroad travel. I think that there are a great number of misconceptions as to the total cost of buses, railroads, and ferries, and of the motivations why individuals chose one means of travel over other means.

 

I appreciated reading the travelogue here. Too many times I hear of people who claim that they like to travel, but it is not really true. They simply like being someplace else. The "travel" part is the process of getting from here to that someplace else. Many persons who do travel by cruise vessel are an exception to this, for the voyage by the vessel is truly "travel." But the story told in this travelogue real travel, where there is an adventure in the part of getting from here to there, far beyond just being in that someplace else.

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5 hours ago, donaldsc said:

 

I spoke to the owner of a B&B that we stayed in in Wrangell about the ferry.  She said that she made a yearly trip to Seattle in the ferry w her pickup truck and filled it to the top w stuff she purchased.  According to her, even with the high vehicle prices on the ferry, she saved money over driving to her local Costco which was a good distance from her B&B.

 

DON

 DON - I don't think that"s the complete story. I can phone an order into Costco, have them deliver it to the barge line for free,  pay ~$500 in freight charges for three pallet loads, and have it delivered to my house. No two days on the ferry south, no two days on the ferry north, no days of housing, eating,  or traffic in Seattle.

 

But your mileage may vary.

 

joe

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19 hours ago, kochleffel said:

 

 

But what do I know? I'm not in, or from, Alaska. I just spent a couple of days there and talked to a few people who might all have been dishonest.

 

 

 

I think your thoughts have been very honest and inciteful.  Though you may have spent too much time talking with Soapy Smith..... 

 

please come back, it is the the great land, joe

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1 hour ago, bottom-dragger said:

 DON - I don't think that"s the complete story. I can phone an order into Costco, have them deliver it to the barge line for free,  pay ~$500 in freight charges for three pallet loads, and have it delivered to my house. No two days on the ferry south, no two days on the ferry north, no days of housing, eating,  or traffic in Seattle.

 

But your mileage may vary.

 

joe

 

I guess that she must have been BSing me.  You live there so you obviously know more about it than I do.  Sorry for passing on incorrect info.  

 

BTW - we spent I believe 2 or 3 days in Petersburg and the rest of Mikof Island including a trip on the Stikine River during our big AK trip.  Breakaway Adventures from Wrangell picked us up on the south eastern corner of Mikof Iskland.   It was very enjoyable.

 

DON

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