There’s more to the largest and least densely populated state than political hacks, hirsute men, and AARP cruise ships.
Like kayaking, fishing, biking, and fjords. Alaska’s vast, rugged wilderness can be explored in action-packed bits, starting with Inside Passage islands and channels in the southeast. First stop: Ketchikan, followed by Wrangell, a short flight away. Next, take the ferry (the best way to get around) to Petersburg, then Sitka, before finishing up — exhausted and exhilirated — in Juneau.
Alaska’s “first city,” Ketchikan, is famed for Creek Street, fabled site of early 20th-century Prohibition and prostitution. Budget travelers willing to swap modern amenities for cozy accommodations and a killer location should stay at historic New York Hotel & Cafe overlooking the fishing fleets on Thomas Basin. The Halibut Hole (7 Creek Street) is a hole all right, but you can’t disrespect what they do with fresh halibut, a FryDaddy, and a plastic mesh basket. (Open seasonally.) Cruise the Revillagigedo Island coastline, spotting totems, whales, and bears aboard an inflatable Ketchikan Outdoors boat.
The 2,000 residents of Wrangell island have historically been ruled by four nations and three flags: Tlingit Nation, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. For small-town nightlife at its best, head to Totem Bar & Liquor Store (116 Front Street; 907-874-3533) for drinking, flirting, and pool. Stikine Inn is the good base for exploring Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, Anan Bear & Wildlife Observatory, and the fascinating (no lie) Wrangell Museum. Take a jet boat excursion up the Stikine River, reportedly the fastest free-flowing navigable river in North America, with Eric Yancey, local history buff/owner of Breakaway Adventures. Eating options are limited around here, but Hungry Beaver inside the Marine Bar (640 Shakes; 907-874-3005) serves good pub fare and pizza.
Petersburg (a.k.a. Little Norway) makes its living from the sea, fishing halibut, salmon, herring, and crab they way they did in the 1890s when the town was founded. Scandia House is within walking distance of the dockside action, though the town’s social center is the coffeehouse (or haus) next door. Hello, Animal Planet film crew! Investigate LeConte Glacier, Tongass National Forest, and countless harbor seals from a Cessna 185 operated by Pacific Wing Air Charters (907-772-4258) and watch for humpback whales on the ferry into town.
Mention Sitka in surrounding island towns, and locals perk up: “It’s really (drag it out for three syllables) nice there.” Situated on Baranof Island between forested mountains and the Pacific, it was once the capital of Russian America and now blends Tlingit culture and Russian history. Book a room with a waterfront view at Shee Atiká Totem Square Inn. To get a feel for Sitka — and stunning views of Silver Bay — hop on a mountain bike for a four-mile ride and easy one-mile hike with Island Fever Diving and Adventures. (There’s drysuit diving, too.) Locals hit The Raven Dining Room for locally caught halibut and salmon, then call it a night over pool, the jukebox, and a pint of Alaskan Brewing at Pioneer Bar & Liquor Store (212 Katlian Street; 907-747-3456).
Capital city Juneau is about thirty miles from the world’s largest concentration of brown bears on Admiralty Island and its backyard is Mendenhall Glacier. Stay at The Historic Silverbow Inn, which shows indie movies in its bakery/cafe. Water activities abound throughout SE Alaska, so for a change, zip through the rain forest canopy in Tongass National Park with Alaska Zipline Adventures. (The site is a ski area in winter months.) At Tracy’s King Crab Shack, a Jackson gets you a heap of handpicked crab legs, mini crab cakes, crab bisque, and garlic rolls.
It’s north to the future or bust.