Distinctive Sitka, Alaska

Photo Courtesy of Sherry Aitken | Alaska Pure Sea Salt

Most travelers happen onto downtown Sitka in late spring or summer while on a shore excursion from their cruise ship. That’s when they fall in love with this small town clustered on the outer edge of Southeast Alaska’s Baranof Island. What many travelers don’t know is that Sitka is a year-round destination, delightfully less crowded in the off season. The climate stays mostly temperate compared to other regions of the 49th state, but the rainfall averages 87 inches per year, more than twice that of Seattle.

That calls for a steaming mug of full-bodied coffee and a fresh almond croissant at the Highliner Coffee Café. Owners Perry and Melissa Broschat borrowed the name from the commercial fishing community because in both cases it means superb crews and a commitment to the quality of their product.

Seasoning dishes with sea salt accentuates the flavor and tickles the palate. The Alaskan Pure Sea Salt Co. produced North America’s first flake-style sea salt in 2005 and continues to hone their product. Alder smoked, wild blueberry, sitka spruce, fresh lemon/lime and vanilla bean are some of their flavor options. Pick up some for your pantry before you leave town.

Sitka’s Russian influence shines at the Russian American Company. Lacquered boxes, folk art, matryoshka nesting dolls, amber jewelry and more have been imported from Russia. This shop also sells Faberge egg pendants in 18k gold inlaid with enamel and/or diamonds.

Another shop teeming with art, Cabin Fever Gallery & Gifts, features Bear Bread art. This is not actual bread, but the local name for a kind of fungus that grows on trees in the surrounding Tongass National Forest. Artists paint or etch on the white side surface. Look for “made-in-Sitka” items here along with basketry, wall décor, jewelry and more.

Break for a sweet treat at Harry’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain where you’ll encounter locals digging into banana splits, Hope Floats and something called the Mt. Edgecumbe Eruption (named after the nearby volcano). Join them for your own sugar rush.

If you prefer an adult beverage, try the Baranof Island Brewery. The tasty brews contain glacier-fed Alaskan water. The younger set can order micro root beer to stave their thirst. Enjoy food service and a view of the brewing process.

Twenty-five local craftspeople display their wares at Island Artist Gallery. Whether you favor watercolors, pen and ink designs, hand-turned wooden bowls or masks sculpted from clay, you may have a difficult time choosing. The art and gifts on display all flaunt the beauty of Sitka and will make delightful mementos to take home.

A stop at Sitka Flowers & The Chocolate Moose for a dark chocolate truffle or turtle to enjoy after dinner is a necessity. A warm cookie, fresh out of the oven is also hard to resist.

Not sure which way you’re headed after spending a long period of time in one store? St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral bisects the main downtown street creating a traffic circle around the building. This historic church is well worth investigating for its collection of antique Russian icons (photos are allowed). And don’t forget to take a selfie with the carved bear outside the Sitka Bazaar or in the urban garden at the Alaska Pioneer Home in the heart of downtown.

A little farther from the center of town, is Fortress of the Bear. The main event allows you to view native brown bears in their natural habitat and hear from passionate and knowledgeable naturalists about the large mammal. A trip through the Fortress gift shop lets you comb the shelves for teddy bears, jewelry, tee-shirts, shot glasses and more, all patterned with art mostly created by Alaskan artists. For those who don’t visit on a cruise ship, Sitka is an easy 2.5-hour nonstop flight from Seattle, making it a perfect, out-of-the-ordinary getaway spot. For more ideas, go to visitsitka.org.