Kenai Peninsula: Getting off the tourist track

Road Journals Blog—Some Alaska port towns, with their diamond stores, t-shirt emporiums, and art galleries, seem like extensions of the giant cruise ships that dock there. But a drive around the Kenai Peninsula in Southern Alaska will lead you to some unreformed ports that haven’t forgotten their primary purpose: Getting people and cargo onto the water.


Whittier, Alaska | Shirley Binn/Flickr

Some Alaska port towns, with their diamond stores, t-shirt emporiums, and art galleries, seem like extensions of the giant cruise ships that dock there. But a drive around the Kenai Peninsula in Southern Alaska will lead you to some unreformed ports that haven’t forgotten their primary purpose: Getting people and cargo onto the water.

My favorite example is Whittier, the jumping-off point for day cruises of Prince William Sound. The road to town goes through a one-lane, two-and-a-half mile long tunnel that keeps away the aimless travelers and the claustrophobes. (Because traffic flows only one direction at a time, the tunnel is on a strict schedule. Check ahead of time; although the tunnel itself takes only about seven minutes to pass, you can wait for up to 45 minutes for traffic to clear.)

Upon emerging, you’re met with a town made primarily of corrugated metal and rust. The townscape is dominated by the Buckner Building, an abandoned World War II-era barracks. Too expensive to tear down, it’s now a hangout for bears, vandals, and, one must assume, the occasional vandalizing bear.

About 200 people live there, almost all of them in a single apartment building, the Begich Towers, which is connected to the local school by underground tunnel. The Inn at Whittier provides pleasant accommodation, and there are a few local restaurants, but you’ll never mistake this place for a resort town. (I can, however, vouch for the fact that the Donut Depot offers fresh and delicious cinnamon buns.)


Bald eagle over Ninilchik | Dewald du Toit/Flickr

I also spent a night in a cabin in Ninilchik (pop. about 800), a fishing town 40 miles north of Homer. Ninilchik is one of those towns where the highway is the main drag—or in this case, the only drag. There’s an old Russian Orthodox church and cemetery on a bluff overlooking Cook Inlet. On a clear day, you can see Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna, two impressive volcanoes, across the water.

This is halibut country, mainly—several places along the highway offer half- and full-day fishing trips—but there’s also a popular clamming beach nearby. Ninilchik doesn’t have any restaurants to speak of, just a small French fry-and-deep-fried-halibut place by the beach, and a dimly lit bar at the end of town. There isn’t even a real harbor—the fishing boats here are launched with tractors, which just push their trailers into the water from the beach.

Sensing that I was looking for something to do, a Ninilchik local suggested I walk along the beach to see the bald eagles. He didn’t mention that the birds were attracted by rotting carcasses discarded by fishermen.

Now there’s an attraction that you’ll never see on a cruise ship itinerary.

This blog post was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.