Our day in Icy Strait was the one wee hiccup of not-as-fabulous on our little tour of Alaska. That is not to say we had a bad time, but we could have had a better, cheaper time. Icy Strait is a “made up” port walking distance from the town of Hoonah. It is run by members of the Tlingit tribe, and it is so small that you must tender in to this port. Supposedly they are working on another government grant to upgrade the docking facilities. According to the locals, the port is likely to remain very small however, because the natives simply don’t want that much business. Okay!
I think if you take one of the cruiseship tours you will depart directly from Icy Strait. If you book a private tour, as we did, your tour guide will pick you up outside the gates. We love whale watching and we definitely wanted to do that in Alaska. We chose Icy Strait as the point to do that because of all the good reviews I read about several of the local tour providers. Juneau is another supposedly good “whale watching port”, but we had other plans there.
I have to say, this was the lamest whale watching trip we have ever been on. First, the tour takes 6 people, but the boat only has seats for 4; 5 if one of you wants to sit sideways on a ledge. So John and I stood for 3.5 hours. There might have been someplace to sit outside on the tiny back of the boat, but you were told not to sit there because you would be doused with waterspray. Second, the tour was from 12 – 3:30 but food was supposed to be served, so we didn’t eat lunch. I wasn’t expecting a 3 course meal, but “smoked salmon” was mentioned, so I was at least expecting some crackers, cheese, you know, stuff that goes with smoked salmon. The food served consisted of one snack bag of chips and all the instant coffee or soda you want. There is nothing I want more when I am freezing than an ice cold soda! I hit the Starbucks Vias hard.
These minor annoyances, however, pale in comparison to the lameness of the whale watching itself. We were taken on a lovely, quick trip out to Point Adolphus to view the whales. This area is supposed to be the Times Square for whales, as the currents concentrate the herring and other things the whales eat. Indeed, there were mobs of whales. Mobs of whales which remained tiny specks off in the distance. Okay, I have been whale watching many times – in the US, Canada and Mexico. Most of the trips I have taken were on small zodiacs, which weren’t much smaller than the boat we were on. I should also say I am very keen on animal welfare and would never, ever want to be involved in anything that remotely smacked of harassing or in any way endangering an animal. The prior trips I had been on got very close to the whales – not charging up on them, but 50-100 yards and then stopping. The whales aren’t threatened and they often stay in the area or come right up to the boat (on one trip I could have reached right out and touched some Orcas that swam up to us). A cruise ship officer later told us that in Alaska there is a law that if you see a whale within 500 yards you must stop – even the cruise ships must navigate around them. Thus, the reason we never got close to the whales. All my pictures are super-telephoto shots of wee blobs. LAME!!! The people with us had never seen whales before so they thought it was the bomb. John and I just stood there thinking “why won’t this woman get us any closer!?” Had we known beforehand about that regulation, I doubt I would have coughed up the cash to go whale watching. My sister Cristal did not join us on this tour (thankfully for her wallet) but went for a walk on the shore instead. She said a whale came up about 25 yards from her. She saw more for free than we paid $300 to see. The look on John’s face here says it all.
To be fair, two cool things did happen on our tour. One, we saw several groups of whales who were clearly not moving. Our guide said they were sleeping. Huh. Did not know whales just floated on the surface in broad daylight and slept. I guess I never thought about their sleep habits! Two, we heard the whales talking to each other. Not on some submerged mic – right out in the open! It sounded like the world’s worst beer hall band having an oompah-off. I was really surprised at how loud they were, considering they were far, faaaaaaaar away from us.
Before we went whale watching we tooled around the tiny “port” that is Icy Strait. There are several large, barn-like buildings housing shops, a few places to eat and some short walking trails through the woods. There is a cute little photo op set up on the shore at which everyone lines up to get their picture snapped. Once again, the line does not apply to old people. They cut right to the front and take FOREVER to figure out how to take the shot. Sigh.
The shops had a lot of nice things at decent prices. I am not much for shopping on vacation, but the one thing I wanted to come home with was some piece of native art depicting an Orca. I LOVE the art of the native peoples in this region, not only the design work and symbolism, but also the color palate of reds, blues and black. I found a little print that is just perfect in my living room, and I saw a similar print (same artist, same size and frame, different motif) later in Ketchikan for $5 more. So, if you see something you like in Icy Strait – go for it.
My recommendation if Icy Strait is on your cruise itinerary is to hit the shops and short trails thru the woods, take the mile or so walk along the shore to the small town of Hoonah, maybe have lunch in town, and then chill out the rest of the day in the hot tub or sauna back onboard. Save the whale watching for Victoria Island (awesome!!!) or another trip.
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