What can a town with no stop lights, two gas stations, one public school from pre-K to 12th grade, a total population of 765, one combined volunteer fire and police station, and a clinic with one doctor who comes to town a few times a month offer your clients? A whole lotta charm—a place where literally everyone knows your name (they knew mine by the second day). And…ziplining, whale-watching, deer and bear spotting, salmon cooking classes, ATV rides through the rainforest, and kayaking on the beach, plus cultural lessons, legends told by the Tlingit clan, halibut fishing and birdwatching tours. This is Hoonah, home to Icy Strait Point, a port facility for Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America, Princess, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas and visited by approximately 1.4 million cruise passengers from 2004 to 2015.
This upcoming cruise season, Icy Strait Point (ISP) will be offering these cruise lines and their passengers a brand-new dock, and guests will be welcomed to a new 6,000-sq.-ft. Welcome Center. That means ships won’t have to tender, making it further attractive to more cruise lines looking to sail to Alaska. In fact, Seabourn has signed on to nine sailings to ISP for 2017. (Full disclosure: For my trip, I didn’t arrive on a cruise. I flew to Hoonah from Juneau on a seaplane, which offered an incredible bird’s-eye view of Glacier Bay.)
The ‘Wow’ Factor
“In Alaska, you’re going to get ‘wow’ moments,” says Tyler Hickman v.p. of operations for Icy Strait Point.
Those three letters were at the tip of my tongue throughout my time in Hoonah, with experience after experience upping the “wow” factor. There was a whale-watching excursion in the late afternoon that gave me an up-close look at this giant marine mammal splashing about in the water. A walk through the rainforest observing wildlife from an observation deck offered the opportunity to spot a brown bear making its way along the river, munching on leaves from the trees above, and then running back into the forest. A salmon cooking class produced mouth-watering salmon patties, salmon dip and grilled salmon. Wow, wow and wow! But it was the ZipRider that truly took my breath away.
The ZipRider is said to be the world’s largest zipline, and the tallest in North America. In fact, taller than the Empire State Building. At 1,300 ft. above sea level, the zipline soars along 5,330 ft. at 60 mph over the rainforest canopy, with views of Port Frederick, the ocean and the tendered ships. Those views? Whichever way you write it, it’s always “wow.”
“At Icy Strait Point, visitors step off the cruise ship into the real Alaska, where bears outnumber people 4:1 and the sounds of whales breathing just offshore aren’t drowned out by traffic. As a locally owned and operated destination, all guests participating in any of our 21 tours will find them infused with Native Alaskan Tlingit hospitality,” points out Joe Jacobson, v.p. of business development for Huna Totem Corporation, which owns Icy Strait Point.
Adds Ed Phillips, Icy Strait Lodge owner, “It’s a place to come and relax, to slow down and appreciate how magnificent God’s work is.”
Agents can book any of the aforementioned excursions through the cruise lines or through Icy Straight Point directly (all group bookings are commissionable).
Icy Straight Point is a major cruising destination, but I highly urge you recommend a visit to the destination to non-cruisers as well. Accommodation options do not abound, but a couple of choices include the Port Frederick Lodge and the Brown Bear Lodge, both small, but comfortable. And when it comes to getting to Hoonah, “agents need to know what they’re doing,” says Jacobson. “It won’t be on an online booking agent. This is where an experienced agent would come in to help plan a trip and book those flights.” And agents, you need to keep in mind that ISP is only open on ship days, so excursions will be limited.