Note: I am currently sailing a 7-day Alaskan cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. Each day I cover the experience, giving you an inside peek at what it’s like to sail on a “bucket list” cruise to Alaska.
You can view other days here:
- Live Blog (Day 1): Boarding & First Impressions
- Live Blog (Day 2): Wet Weather Doesn’t Spoil the Fun
- Live Blog (Day 4): I’ve Never Seen a Landscape This Amazing
- Live Blog (Day 5): Glaciers, Gold, and Juneau
- Live Blog (Days 6/7): A Beautiful Canadian City and Wrapping Up My Alaskan Cruise
Today was the first of four ports of call on the 7-day cruise — Sitka, Alaska. If the other ports offer even half of the enjoyment that Sitka did today, then it’s going to be a trip of a lifetime.
Sitka sits nestled in Sitka Sound on Baranof Island. It’s a small town of about 8,000 people, meaning that when our ship arrived, the population roughly doubled. Most people haven’t heard of Sitka before, or if they have, it’s only in the context of a cruise port. But there is a lot of history and culture in this little spot that you may not realize.
More About What It’s Like to Visit Sitka
First, let’s talk about the scenery. The ship docked around 10 a.m. this morning, and with warm and clear weather, we were welcomed to some stunning views of the mountains that surround the port. It’s the sort of thing that you have to see firsthand. Pictures don’t do it justice. Mountains rise out of the water, pushing up dramatically — often to snow-capped peaks. When you picture what “Alaska” looks like in your mind’s eye, then it’s something like this.
Our ship docked at the pier that’s about five miles away from the actual town. It was obvious that everyone was eager to get off and explore. Practically the entire ship was along the ship’s railing as we docked.
One nice thing about Sitka is that while the port is some distance from town, there are large motorcoaches that take passengers back and forth for free. The not-so-nice thing is that with everyone getting off at the same time, it took a while to actually get on the bus. I waited for things to die down a bit, hopping in line around 11 a.m. It took about 40 minutes before I was on the bus and another 10-15 minutes to get into town.
Exploring Downtown Sitka
To appreciate Sitka, you need to know a little about its history. Native Americans lived here going back centuries, before it became a Russian fur-trapping outpost in the late 1700s (otter pelts were a big prize back then). Then in the mid-1800s the United States bought the land from Russia. So you have the influence of the native people, Russia, and the United States all combined with the natural beauty of the location.
I didn’t have an excursion planned for this port, and to be honest, there’s plenty to do and see without one. From the crowds, it seemed as though many people opted to just explore on their own. There’s a picturesque downtown area that has a heavy Russian influence, with St. Michael’s Cathedral as the center point.
With the ships in (a Holland America ship was also in port), the street was blocked off, giving everyone the ability to walk around without worrying about traffic. Downtown has lots of little shops, restaurants, and things to explore and see. There’s also a lot of local culture.
Passing a church that was selling popcorn and water, I happily paid the $3 for a snack and also picked up some homemade “salmonberry” jelly ($7) they were selling as a fundraiser. I don’t even know what salmonberries are but it sure looked good.
Turning a corner, I saw a huge flight of stairs down a quiet alley that led to something called Baranof Castle Hill. Climbing up, I was welcomed by sweeping views of the surrounding water and mountains at the top of the hill. I didn’t realize it until I was there, but this was the spot where Russians officially handed over control of Alaska to the United States in 1867. And I just stumbled upon it wandering around downtown. Very neat.
For lunch I was excited to try something off the ship and local. I found just the thing in a small food stand down another alley called The Fresh Fish. The menu is small, but halibut ceviche caught my eye. Fresh ceviche with halibut? Where else but Alaska?
I’ll admit that the bowl I was handed didn’t look that appetizing. But taking a seat on some nearby stairs with a great view of the mountains, I gave it a try. Turns out, it tasted phenomenal. So there I sat, eating halibut ceviche on a beautiful day while staring at snow-capped mountain peaks. It’s a small thing, but moment I won’t forget.
After exploring a few stores and grabbing some souvenirs for people back home, it was time to take a walk to the other side of town.
Visit to Sitka National Historical Park
From downtown, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk to Sitka National Historical Park. The walk there is easy and takes you around the town’s harbor. The entire area is picturesque with mountains everywhere you look. It’s also green and lush, and when the sun comes out, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful little town.
The park is run by the National Park Service. I’ve found anything run by the National Park Service is worth your time. That was absolutely the case here.
While “Sitka National Historical Park” may sound a little dry, you could call it “Totem Pole Park.” While there is more to it, the free park focuses heavily on totem poles that the native people in the area carved. Some of the originals are on display in the Visitor’s Center, along with information about the stories that the poles tell and how they are preserved today.
Then there is a walking trail (Totem Trail) through thick forest where replica totem poles have been placed by the park. Just the forest itself would be neat enough as you quickly go from the cute town to the heavy woods, but the totem poles are great works. Each one is unique, with most rising up at least 20-30 feet in the air. I think it’s a must-see in Sitka, and it cost absolutely nothing but a walk.
Heading back to town, I also stopped in (at a Park Ranger’s urging) to the Russian Bishop’s House. It’s a building that was constructed back in the 1800s, serving as a residence for Bishop Innocent (seriously, that was his name), but it was also a school, church offices, and more. If you’ve ever wondered how people lived in this sort of environment, then this place tells you how. To be honest, the house wasn’t that exciting, but I loved two things…
First, there was some writing on the original walls of the house that restoration workers found dating back to the mid 1800s. It was from a schoolchild writing his daily schedule on the wall. The Russian writing can still be easily seen despite it being more than 150 years old.
As well, the Park Ranger was able to share so much of the history of how this area was settled and all that it had gone through. Her enthusiasm made it all come alive and how this remote outpost became part of the United States. It again emphasized that our National Park Service really is a gem!
By then it was time to head back to the ship, so I made my way back to the shuttle in the center of town. Along the way I stopped at the public library to check in back home, look up just in time to see two massive bald eagles gliding over the water. That’s the sort of thing that only happens in Alaska.
Going Skydiving… on a Cruise Ship?!
Back to the ship, the highlights of the day weren’t done just yet. Earlier in the cruise, I made a reservation for RipCord for this evening.
If you haven’t seen it, RipCord is essentially indoor skydiving. You get suited up (helmet, goggles, a flight suit) and enter a clear tube where a fan is blowing air up. Lay flat, and the force of the air keeps you afloat, just as if you were skydiving.
You can do it on Quantum-class ships. Certain days/times it is free, but you have to make a reservation and they are booked up quickly. I booked for today at $29 and there were still plenty of spots.
The entire process takes about an hour, including the training, getting dressed and taking your flights with your group. However, of that, you only get two 1-minute sessions. It doesn’t seem like much, but for the first time, it was actually plenty.
It definitely takes some getting used to, and the minute goes by in the blink of an eye. Still, as a once-in-a-lifetime experience — skydiving surrounded by Alaskan mountains — it was definitely worth the money. They also get some great (and no-so-great) photos of your flight (including your cheeks flapping with the wind)!
And just for good measure, the instructor takes a turn at the end where they fly all around the tube doing crazy aerobatics (seriously, our guy was able to stand horizontally on the wall 10 feet up like he was standing on the ground)… while you just want to be able to lay flat without flying into the wall.
Tomorrow the ship will port in Skagway, Alaska.
- It’s normal to see signs telling you not to flush anything down the cabin toilet. But I noticed today that the sign on Quantum of the Seas is very different from what I’ve ever seen. It shows a towel,
a hot dog(ahem, I’ve been told by my wife that it’s a feminine product), and a pair of underwear, telling you not to flush them. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do with my used towels after my shower if I can’t flush them down the toilet? Just hang them to dry?
- I’ve always heard the days are long in Alaska during the summer. It’s another thing to experience it. Right now the sun is coming up around 4 a.m. local time and setting around 10 p.m. — so just six hours of night. I’m not so sure that an interior cabin wouldn’t mean better sleep given that they stay so dark.
- One final note — it’s been an enjoyable trip, but I’d be lying if the shooting in Uvalde hasn’t weighed on me heavily. As a lifelong Texan with a son around that age, it’s been tough to reconcile having a good time on the ship while knowing what a lot of people back home are going through. I hope you’ll contact your representatives and demand action. I know I have.