The Southeast Alaska village of Hoonah is only 35 miles from capital city, Juneau, but it might as well be 350. Located on Chichagof Island among dense stands of Sitka spruce and thick patches of blueberries, Hoonah is home to about 700 people, most claiming Tlingit Native heritage. Tlingit people named Hoonah after the phrase “Where the north wind doesn’t blow,” after advancing glaciers of thousands of years prior forced the tribe to move from their previous home near Glacier Bay. It’s a restful, bountiful place, where whales regularly feed upon rich sources of krill and herring, and bald eagles chatter from precipitous tree tops. Residents go about their business of hunting, foraging, and fishing in a manner that suits such a location, with the sea providing a mostly welcome challenge for arriving and departing the community.
Hoonah is not a place I would have imagined could sustain a thriving cruise ship port of call. But it does. Icy Strait Point is indeed a stop for seven large cruise ship lines; Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America, Princess, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas. The site represents a culmination of years of discerning discussions and action by the Huna Totem Corporation, an entity supporting Tlingit tribal members as shareholders of land holdings in the area. As such, HTC embraced a tourism model for growth in the form of refurbishing and renovating the former Hoonah Packing company, a cannery built in 1912 to sustain a thriving fishing industry. Throughout changes in ownership, a world war, and devastating fire in downtown Hoonah, Icy Strait’s legacy remained a prominent figure in the village’s infrastructure, and it is no mistake that role continues, today.
Cruise line passengers who visit Icy Strait Point are treated to a more reserved, but no less-active style of excursions than might be found in other Inside Passage destinations. From the moment of arrival, the experience is about hospitality, history, and heritage. With 90% of seasonal employees hailing from Hoonah, and more than 85% with Tlingit ancestry, visitor experiences are true to the low-key, personal style of Alaska Native communities, with a few twists appealing to cruisers looking for adventure.
From hurtling down a mountainside attached to a zipline seat, or carefully grilling a chunk of freshly-caught halibut, to simply sitting on a rocky beach watching a sea lion wrestle a salmon, passengers may arrange for as many activities as they can fit in one daylong shore call; or none. The beauty of Icy Strait Point comes from its decidedly non-intrusive manner in which staff encourage participation, and I, as an independent traveler, felt right at home.
Children, too, receive a warm welcome from Icy Strait Point; menus have kid-pleasing options at the four dining establishments and snack bars located on-site, and most attractions can support kids from early grade school on up. For those with younger toddlers or babies, parents find it easy to simply wander the property; a plethora of boardwalks, wharfs, and indoor spaces that used to be cannery facilities are perfect for little ones, and the beach is, of course, the most attractive place to be on any given Southeast Alaska day.
Excursions with kid-appeal
Ziprider tour: Two hours total. 45 minute bus ride to the top of Hoonah Mountain, a short hike (1/4 mile or less) to the Ziprider launch point, and 60 seconds to reach the bottom. Children must weigh 85 lbs to qualify for the Ziprider, and should be able to clearly follow all verbal instructions given by staff. 1.5 hours.
Forest Tram and Tribal Dance: A two-mile covered tram ride to the shores of Icy Strait, followed by a bit of beach exploration before heading back to the Heritage Center Native Theater for a tribal drumming and dance performance. Allow 2.5 hours.
Kayaking: Whether your family is just beginning to kayak, or are experienced paddlers, ISP has an outing to fit your style. A two-hour paddle around the Hoonah area is just right for those new to kayaking, while a more challenging four-hour excursion explores the shorelines beyond the ISP boundaries.
In Alaska’s Wildest Kitchen: Curious about Alaska’s wild edibles? Stop by the kitchen and let a brilliant local chef show you, and your kids age eight and up, creative ways to cook and serve such culinary delights as fresh halibut, canned salmon, and local greens. The best part? Grilling your own cut of halibut over a brisk bed of coals out back. It’s lunch in true Alaska tradition. 1.5 hours.
Fishing: Halibut or salmon on your list of fish to catch? Take a charter from ISP’s main dock and cast a line into the briny sea. No guarantees, of course, but time on the water is always good time spent, and kids will enjoy the variety of marine mammals, birds, and unique landscape of the area. 3.5 hours (best for older kids age 9+).
Whale-watching/Marine Life Tour: Chances are so good you’ll see a whale near Icy Strait Point that the company all but guarantees it, and nothing beats the sight of a hungry humpback cruising the sound looking for krill (tiny organisms and plankton) or herring. 2.5 hours. Dress for all types of weather.
ISP Museum and shops: Former fish lockers have been transformed into shops carrying only Alaska-made products, most crafted in the Southeast area. The old cannery offices and processing areas now house a museum of machinery and artwork that tell the story of Icy Strait Point from a most intriguing perspective. Nets and tools of the fishing and cannery trade are everywhere, making a walk-about an interesting prospect, no matter how young one may be.
I would highly suggest a bit of pre-trip preparation by visiting the Icy Strait Point website, with particular attention to the history of Hoonah, the cannery, and the Tlingit people. If a tour is offered, take it.
Independent travelers arriving via the Alaska Marine Highway or small plane are able to explore and participate in activities at Icy Strait Point if a cruise ship is in port that day. Call ahead for schedules. 907-945-3141.
For the 2015 season, all ships tender in (small boat transport) passengers from an anchor area off Icy Strait Point’s shoreline, but a new dock is under construction, opening in 2016, that will allow for direct access to the site. For now, dress kids in weatherproof layers for the cross-bay trip, and count it as another part of the adventure, because it is.