Sitka's coastal rainforest setting is stunning, its location strategic, and its land so lush it's been fought over for hundreds of years. Fish, berries, herring caviar, deer, bears, sea otter and islands abound, making it a hunter-gatherers paradise.
Though it's located on the southwest side of Baranof Island and was once the Russian-American capital, its European flair earned it the nickname "Paris of the Pacific."
Tlingits were Sitka's sole residents from the Ice Age until Alexandr Baranov, the owner of a Russian trading company, arrived in 1799, people say. The Tlingits became uncomfortable with Baranov's presence and burned down his camp in 1802. Baranov returned in 1804 to take the town by force with a warship, Russian soldiers and Aleut soldiers he'd subdued. Legendary Tlingit warrior Katlian, wearing a raven war hat and wielding a blacksmith's hammer, fought the Russians back to the sea, but after four days, the Tlingits were defeated. Alexandr Baranov eventually became the governor.
I am a frequent visitor to Sitka. Here are some of my favorite things on land and sea.
Next to the closed Sheldon Jackson college is Sitka National Historical Park, known as Totem Park, where trails meander along the sea and the forest. Totems, mostly from Haida villages on Prince of Wales Island, blend in with the Sitka Spruce. Site
of the 1804 battle, one can almost hear ancient warrior cries when the wind blows.
There are benches, clearings that reveal views of the city, battle sites and curious ravens.
A stones throw from Totem Park is a rustic aquarium that runs on donations. Kids will enjoy the touch tanks and laid back setting.
Sitka shop owners have kept and cultivated the art of being nice and knowledgeable salespeople. Mountain Miss, Brenners, Fairweather, and The Cellar are highlights.
Harry Race Pharmacy has an old fashioned soda fountain, but if you can only go shopping at one store I would pick the Silver Basin, located upstairs in the Bayview Building, because of its unique of gourmet kitchen and bath selection.
Bayview Wine Bar
After enjoying Silver Basin, step next door to the nicest looking wine bar in Sitka. The interior has wood elements paired with decadent furniture, a handpicked wine selection and a view of the bay.
Old Harbor Books
Pick up a John Straley novel in this cozy bookstore and head for the "Backdoor," a connected coffee shop. The aromas of coffee, pies, pizza, pastries, and soup waft into the bookstore and grab people by the nose. Toddlers can maul worn books in the children's area while browsing, and the help is knowledgeable.
Across from Old Harbor Books and toward the water there is a set of stairs that leads to the heart of Sitka, Castle Hill, where visitors are treated to a sweeping view of the town. They can soak in Sitka's history while enjoying the hill's stone wall edges and a view of hundreds of small islands and snowcapped mountains.
This bar is information central. After time at sea, fisherman can return to town, get updated over a Rainier and run into friends. We were there in March and a fisherman rang the bar bell, shouted obscenities while flipping everyone off, then
rang the bell again. The bartender passed out two free drink chips, compliments of the angry guy.
If you take Sawmill Creek Road out of town, Whale Park is on the right. Sheltered gazebo lookouts and mountainside steps for whale viewing are a nice way to spend some time. Near the parking lot is a large ground sculpture creating an illusion of a surfacing pod of whales.
The Fortress of the Bear - seasonal
Continuing on Sawmill Creek Road, old Clarifier Tanks 14 and 17 feet high will come up on the left. They house orphaned black bears for educational purposes and safe public viewing. We've been following the cubs since they were newly orphaned.
http://www.fortressofthebear.org/. Another must see is nearby Theobroma Chocolate Company. They give out samples.
Saint Lazaria Island
Saint Lazaria Island is a protected bird sanctuary ten miles west of Sitka and one mile south of the volcano. The volcanic island is accessible only by boat and is dubbed "refuge for seabirds," but the public is not allowed ashore. It's positively prehistoric.
Take a ride over to white sand South Krestof Island Beach, located in a protected inlet. Bring a picnic, turn off the cell phone, light a fire, and enjoy island exploration and rock lounging.
Goddard Hot Springs
Sixteen miles south of Sitka Sound on the outer coast of Baranof is a natural hot spring. The city owns it and maintains two cedar tubs, boardwalks and a dock. It was used as a healing place in the days of early occupation. What can I say, I love to sit in hot, healing water.
When eagles are fishing, follow Katlian Street away from town until you arrive at Thomsen harbor. Toward the end of the harbor peninsula are a couple of big trees. Climb up into the base of one of the trees and if you're quiet, there will be around thirty eagles fishing from branches above you. I suggest wearing rain gear for this outing.
Courtney Nelson, a frequent traveler with small children, shares her travel adventures, mishaps and lessons learned from chartering the Pacific Northwest and beyond.