Icy Strait Overview
The creation of Alaska's newest cruise port, Icy Strait, represents a win-win collaboration between local communities and the giant cruise corporations who make big profits from visitors eager to experience America's "last wilderness."
The new facility -- just down the road from Hoonah, Alaska's largest Huna Tlingit village, and 22 miles southeast of Glacier Bay National Park -- has been a lifeline for a community in crisis, providing a much-needed alternative source of income for locals afflicted by a downturn in their traditional businesses of fishing and logging. Millions of dollars have been invested in creating a facility that offers cruise travelers an authentic "wilderness experience" and a refreshingly non-commercialized alternative to the usual run of Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Sitka.
What they've created is an attractive new destination expressly for cruisers that's man-made but not commercialized. Icy Strait offers pretty woodland walks, an insight into Tlingit history and culture, a wide range of back-to-nature adventures, and good-quality restaurants. Up-market craft shops feature artisan crafts and locally made goods like woodland berry jam and confectionery, rather than the "made in Taiwan" tat so prevalent in, say, Juneau. Buildings are constructed from sustainable local woods and were built by local Tlingit Indian workers in traditional style.
During its first full season in summer 2004, Icy Strait attracted 36 cruise ship calls from Royal Caribbean and its up-market subsidiary Celebrity Cruises. In 2006, Holland America Line will join RCCL and Celebrity in adding the port to its schedules. But the Tlingit corporation Huna Totem -- which owns the majority share of Icy Strait Point -- has wisely decided not to go overboard on cruise calls, confining the port's infrastructure to handling one ship a day.
Icy Strait Quick Facts
Icy Strait provides a pleasant experience for cruise passengers who want to explore the Alaskan hinterland a bit, browse a few decent shops and have a light lunch. If folklore is your thing, spend an hour at the Native Heritage Center Theater, watching traditionally costumed members of the Huna Tlingit Dancers troupe enact their tribal story through song, dance and storytelling.
Even if you don't want to see this, take a stroll over to the center anyway; its elaborately carved totem poles are well worth a closer look. So, too, is the free-to-enter Cannery Museum, which is crammed with various historic bits of fish-processing paraphernalia. The best way to make sense of the various machines is to take a Historical Cannery Tour (about $20), on which you'll be given a souvenir timecard before donning a fish-cutter apron and starting a factory worker's "shift" -- which will teach you every stage of the canning process, including can-testing and filling.
More interesting -- to me, at any rate -- were the "fascinating Alaska facts" cunningly concealed behind wall-mounted, "Alice in Wonderland"-style wooden doors. Did you know Alaska's longest day starts on May 10 and lasts three months, while its longest night starts on November 18 and lasts two months? I discovered, too, that Alaska boasts 52 percent of the world's earthquakes, 100,000 glaciers and 29 volcanoes. Astounding as it is to visit, I wouldn't be keen to live here all year round.
The 2 1/2-hour Remote Bush Exploration and Wildlife Search, led by a native guide, gives you far more of an insight into the wit, wisdom and forest lore of the Tlingits than any number of heritage floor shows. Our tour was escorted by Dennis, a cheerful half-Irish member of the Tlingit Eagle Clan who makes his living from fishing and logging -- unless a cruise ship is in town.
As our school trip-style bus rattled its way past Frederick's Bay, he pointed out whales and harbor seals and told us sea otters and bald eagles are also at home here, as well as four types of the Alaska salmon which together with crab, halibut and black cod formed the mainstay of the Tlingit community's fishing industry when the Hoonah Trading Company cannery was founded in 1893. He had some entertaining tales to tell of Hoonah characters and history. And when we left behind the clapboard houses of Hoonah's main street and reached the rain forest for the start of our nature walk, his knowledge of the woods and wildlife proved even more fascinating.
He gave us a taste of huckleberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries; showed us the differences between deer and bear trails; and explained how plants like the Devil's Club and the Skunk Cabbage are used in Tlingit medicine and cookery. Best of all, he showed us deer feasting on kelp at the borders of a tidal river, and as we headed back towards Hoonah, we spotted a brown bear lumbering through the skyscraper-tall pines of Christmas Tree Pass.
For a fabulous, back-to-nature experience, it was hard to beat.
The immediate area around the tender dock is easily explored on foot and nowhere is further away than a 10- to 15-minute walk. There are no taxis or rental cars here -- yet. A few enterprising locals might start offering ad hoc rides along the shoreline from Hoonah when there's a ship in town, but that's about it. Otherwise, transportation is available only through cruise lines' shore tours.
Clearly-marked walking trails will take you along the seashore, into deep rain forest and around the edges of mist-wreathed lakes. A covered tram takes visitors willing to pay about $42 per adult ($26 per child) further afield on a two-hour Forest and Nature tour through the forest and along the seashore.
Bike tours are also available, but heftily priced at about $65 for two hours, irrespective of age. A bus tour around the distinctly unexciting village of Hoonah -- the highlight of which is a visit to its cemetery! -- costs about $34, but don't waste cash on this as Hoonah is within walking distance.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor off Icy Strait Point in Port Frederick Bay. At present, cruise visitors tender onto a wooden jetty, but the port owners are seeking around $8 million in federal funding to build a cruise ship dock so that vessels can moor alongside.
Staying in Touch
No doubt ATM's and an Internet cafe will appear on the scene as Icy Strait develops; at the moment, though, those poor benighted souls who can't function without daily access to the Internet will have to use their ship's service.
Don't expect anything too grand at down-to-earth Icy Strait Point. There are currently two food outlets -- the cafe-style Cookhouse and the wooden-benched Timberhouse Restaurant. The Timberhouse offers fine views of Frederick's Bay and tasty, if basic, $10-a-head lunches of freshly caught halibut burgers, beef burgers, chips and salad. Finishing off a local amber beer after our lunch, we spotted three humpback whales in succession -- none of them more than half a mile from the wood-carved bench we were sitting on.
But then, in this close-to-nature place, anything more elaborate would be over-egging the pudding; the point is to eat hearty, get to know the friendly locals and let them introduce you -- however briefly -- to their world.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
U.S. dollar. We advise getting your currency onboard ship -- there were no ATM's when we visited last season. Because Icy Strait is a new port specifically designed for cruise ship passengers, the most you'll need in cash is a few bucks to cover a burger and a couple of beers; all the shops take credit cards.
Icy Strait is not your "typical" sprawling cruise port with lots and lots to do, other than excursions or a stroll around the main site. Due to Icy Strait's compact nature, nothing on the main site is more than a 10- to 15-minute stroll away from the pier.
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