If Skagway thrives on its gold rush past, and Juneau flourishes as being the state capital, rough-around-the-edges Ketchikan prospers for its salmon. Fishing, along with tourism (after all, there are four to six cruises in port each day during the season), keeps the “salmon capital of the world” afloat. You don’t have to go far to see the famous fish swimming upstream to spawn either: Just look under the Creek Street boardwalk.
Though much larger than Skagway, Ketchikan is a walkable town. You’ll notice many of the city’s streets are actually steep wooden staircases leading to homes built into the slopes. On flatter stretches, towering totem poles dot small parks across town, reminders of the area’s rich native heritage.
Breakfast: Pioneer Café – Slide into a red vinyl booth at the Pioneer Café, a no-frills diner where the grumpy locals will give you the once-over. Pay no mind to them. Instead, focus on tackling the hearty Country Breakfast — for $12.99, you get three eggs, hash browns, sausage links, and two gravy-doused biscuits.
Lunch: Burger Queen – This tiny joint on Water Street has been around for years, and its friendly staff serves up hearty baskets of what Alaska does best: fish and chips made with fresh local halibut. There are only a few booths — and they’re usually full — but the milkshakes alone are worth the wait.
Glazed chicken with blackberry sauce, sautéed peppers, green beans and carrots. - Photo by Bar Harbor Restaurant
Dinner: Bar Harbor Restaurant – This unassuming white clapboard restaurant is just a mile from the terminal, but that’s far enough to be off the tourist track in this town. Locals go there for seared Alaskan scallops and homemade potato gnocchi with pesto cream and fresh crab. The eatery is only open for dinner, from 5 to 9 pm Tuesday through Saturday, so make a reservation.
Dessert: Orca Corn – In damp, dreary Ketchikan, a bag of warm popcorn hits the spot any time of the day. Best of all, Orca offers sweet, dessert-worthy flavors, from kettle corn to caramel crisp, that are good enough to be the talk of the ship, if you decide to share.
Chinook salmon is often grilled with lemon and herbs. - Photo by Jag CZ / Shutterstock
Tip: There are five different types of salmon in the water around Ketchikan — chinook, pink, coho, chum, and sockeye. Which one makes the best dinner depends on your personal preference: Chinook has the strongest flavor and tends to be best grilled, while sockeye has the mildest flavor and the most striking ruby hue.
Saxman Native Village has the largest collection of standing totem poles. - Photo by tonmpix / Shutterstock
For Everyone: Saxman Native Village Totem Pole Park – Most ships offer plenty of tours that include a visit to see these totem poles, but we prefer to skip the buses and pedal along the scenic 2.5-mile waterfront path. Rent bikes from Southeast Exposure and, before you leave, buy a booklet explaining the totems.
For Families: Alaska Canopy Adventures – While Mom and Dad focus on trying to spot bald eagles from the platforms, kids can work up the courage to zipline high above the rainforest canopy on cables suspended between the towering cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees. The thrilling Eagle Creek course comprises eight lines and three suspension bridges, while the easier Bear Creek course caters to families with younger kids.
Tip: When you get off the ship and start to explore, don’t write this island off at first glance. The waterfront is home to a string of out-of-place jewelry chain stores that are as much a blight here as they are in many Caribbean ports, so you’ll need to venture farther into town. There, the brightly colored buildings, some of which are built on stilts over the creek, are surrounded by dense forest.
Black bear sightings are common but not guaranteed. - Photo by Sorin Colac / Shutterstock
For Couples: Neets Bay – One of the few “sure thing” bear-sighting opportunities is a tour to this remote spot in gorgeous Tongass National Forest, home to the region’s largest concentration of black bears. After a scenic seaplane ride to the sight (hold hands if you’re afraid of small aircraft!), you get the ideal photo op from the safety of a viewing platform.
For the Adventurous: Salmon fishing – Hitch a ride with Captain Jerry from AAA Sportfishing, and he’ll pick you up at the docks and take you out on a commercial vessel to fish for salmon. Within half an hour, your line will be in the water, and whatever you catch — which is usually quite a lot — can be processed and shipped home for you, for an additional fee.
Chances are good that when your ship pulls along the dock in downtown Ketchikan, it will be raining. This island gets some 150 inches a year, much more than the other southeast Alaska ports. The locals live in their rain boots, so do as they do and just ignore the drizzle.