Last Frontier fun at Icy Strait Point

By Tom Stieghorst

As a Wisconsin native who's lived for 30 years in Florida, I was chagrined to discover how cold I was in Alaska in mere 50-degree weather. It was late afternoon, and we were hoping for bear sightings on wooden platforms overlooking the Spasski River.

A half-hour of patience was not rewarded, and I told the guide I'd prefer to return to camp. Our van headed back, but a few minutes later someone in the back seat shouted "Look!"

Fifty yards ahead, an enormous, blondish-brown bear had lumbered out of the woods onto the road.

It was a highlight of a four-night visit to Icy Strait Point, a private, $30 million cruise destination that celebrated its 10th anniversary in May.

Whereas most of Alaska's ports of call are linked to the 1890s Klondike gold rush, here it was the abundance of seafood that led to the opening of a salmon cannery in 1912.

After the cannery closed in 1957 the building was preserved, and in 2004 the Tlingit tribe, through its Native American corporation, reopened it as a museum, the focal point of the attraction.

After 10 years of tweaking, management has more than enough for passengers to do on a one-day call. One of my favorites was Alaska's Wildest Kitchen, a lesson in salmon and halibut preparation.

Wildest Kitchen TourAnother must for anyone with the nerve for it is the zipline that runs from a mountaintop 1,300 feet above Icy Strait Point to the port below. It is an exhilarating, 90-second ride down, offering an eagle's-eye view for miles around. Six parallel riders at a time can be accommodated. The $139 price could stretch a family budget, but its yeah-I-did-it appeal is hard to resist.

Icy Strait Point is set up along a gravelly beach, hemmed by a thick forest of evergreens. Ships arrive, one at a time, to anchor remarkably close to shore. A two-minute tender takes passengers to a covered dock, which leads to the cannery museum and shops, several restaurants, a theater for a native culture show and a staging area for excursions.

Off-site excursions, in addition to bear-watching, include an ATV expedition, kayaking, a forest and nature tram and charter fishing for halibut.

Another option is the flightseeing trip over Glacier Bay National Park. Icy Strait forms the entrance to Glacier Bay, a popular but restricted area fed by a half-dozen glaciers.

Humpback whales frolic in Glacier Bay, and we saw numerous whales as well as sea otters and sea lions on a 2 1/2-hour whale-watching excursion. But you barely need to leave Icy Strait Point to see whales. We saw several from shore one day and one of the best encounters — three whales that successively showed their flukes in a dive to deeper waters — was right next to the Celebrity Millennium at anchor near the dock.

Icy Strait Point ZiplineTwo casual restaurants offer visitors to Icy Strait Point some local fare. The Cookhouse Restaurant next to the cannery museum has salmon and halibut, of course, but also a tasty burger ground from premium rib and brisket cuts.

The Landing Zone Bar & Restaurant, which is at the terminus of the zipline at the opposite end of the complex, is larger. Menu items include seafood chowder, reindeer chili and grilled salmon and crab.

I was glad to find an espresso station, called Mug Up, in the excursion lounge to help warm me on a cool, cloudy Alaska day.

Visitors to Icy Point Strait are given a small wood chip to throw on the camp fire that burns all day at the far end of the attraction. The chips act a bit like the coins tossed into Rome's Trevi Fountain and also serve to keep guests circulating to all parts of the park.

Visitors can also spend part of the day in the nearby town of Hoonah (population 760), which has some stores and restaurants, including the Chipper Fish, known for its generous portions.

A $14 million pier, eyed for completion by the summer of 2016, would enable ships to dock at Icy Strait Point rather than tender. It would move the arrival point from the cannery to a forested area at the start of a short nature trail.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 

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