The tourist off-season in Alaska offers a prime window for exploring some of the state’s smaller communities. Airfares are lower, the pace is slower, and locals are grateful to greet off-season visitors outside of the chaos of cruise ship season.
In this spirit, I recently enjoyed time in the community of Sitka, a southeast Alaska town famous for being the spot where Russia transferred ownership of Alaska to the United States 150 years ago. I traveled here in late winter, but good deals on flights can still be nabbed in May,
before the onslaught of tourists arrive in the summer months. Lower-48ers may associate Sitka with the romantic comedy “The Proposal,” which was actually filmed in Maine; but the movie did a decent job rep- resenting Sitka’s beauty. The fishing town is surrounded with boat-filled harbors, green islands, dramatic mountains and dock-lined waterfronts.
You can only access Sitka by water or air. From Anchorage, board the infamous “milk run,” first traveling via Alaska Airlines to Juneau, then continuing on a brisk 25-minute-or-so flight to Sitka. In the winter, you can land that fare for as low as 10,000 Alaska Air miles round-trip, although May rates begin to climb higher than that.
Avis has a rental desk at the Sitka airport, or hop in one of the multiple cabs that line up at the curb when flights land. The airport is on an island, along with a Coast Guard base, and Mount Edgecumbe boarding school. Town itself is just a few minutes’ drive down the road and over a swooping scenic bridge.
I landed shortly before noon, so first on my list was lunch. For a great local dining experience, try the Mean Queen. Don’t be scared by the name; this place is nice! The second-floor pizza pub overlooks the water and has some amazing pizza and a full bar. I went for the lunch special, a delicious slice of Greek pizza that delivered a perfect pack-
age of crisp crust, salty olives and feta, melty cheese, and a side blue cheese wedge salad, all for just $11. That’s a great price for high-quality food in off-road Alaska communities. The friendly bartender knew nearly everyone who came in the door by name, a good sign for sure; and he was extremely friendly in offering me ideas of places to see and things to do during my trip.
After lunch, it was a simple walk across the parking lot to the short trail winding up Castle Hill. This round promontory was once the site of the Russian’s fortress in Sitka, known as the Baranof Castle. Though the structure burned down before 1900, the site is preserved as the site of the ceremony where Russian and United States officials in 1867 solidified the U.S. purchase of Alaska. It’s a short walk up to this lookout, where you can read the various placards about this unique part of Alaska’s past. It’s a great first stop to orient yourself to Sitka’s rich history and its significance to our state.
From Castle Hill, walk just a block to the main shopping area on picturesque Lincoln Street. Various boutiques in charming older buildings sell everything from furs to books to kitchen wares. While some close seasonally, many are open year-round, and always happy to have guests stop by. I liked the gift shop Silver Basin so much that I returned twice, and easily loaded up on some awesome stocking stuffers for the holidays. Wandering the streets near here, you’ll
pass numerous homes and buildings of historical significance and architectural interest. You may even find your way to the woodsy, overgrown Russian cemetery, where old tombstones totter sideways in soft earth, serene and eerily picturesque.
Thirsty? Check out Highliner Coffee on Seward Street. This color- ful coffee shop is full of historical fishing photographs and shots of locals in action. The staff make excellent coffee drinks, and the giant cookies aren’t to be missed. If you’re feeling like something a little stronger, duck into Ernie’s Saloon, a longtime local staple with cheap drinks and a cheerful crowd, located dead center to the various little shops on Lincoln.
Sitka is a great spot for folks that love walks and hikes. A walking path winds along the waterfront, and at the far end of town you’ll
find the breathtaking Sitka National Historic Park. Multiple looping paths travel this 122-acre park, luring you through the gorgeous ce- dar woods, where you’ll encounter magnificent totem poles, as well as sites of historic battle and conflict during Russia’s time in Alaska. The interpretive center there is free and full of amazing artifacts and information about the local Alaska Native’s traditions around carv- ing and totem poles.
There is so much to see in Sitka – from significant Alaska Native cultural exhibits, to historic state spots, to eclectic shops and eater- ies, to beautiful cottages, homes and buildings, some built pre-1900. Any fan of Alaska’s past who needs a lush change of scenery from Anchorage and the Interior’s breakup-season gray will find both entertainment and solitude in this gorgeous southeast Alaska town.