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Once-isolated town is the area's gateway to fun in Prince William Sound
When the big cruise ships pull up to the dock in Whittier and disgorge passengers, visitors outnumber residents about 10 to 1.
Charters and tours
Specifically, it's on the northeast shore of the Kenai Peninsula, at the head of Passage Canal on the west side of Prince William Sound, 60 miles southeast of Anchorage.
Whittier is an ice-free gateway community to recreational and commercial activities on and around the waters of Prince William Sound. Residents and visitors enjoy sportfishing, kayaking and boating, commercial fishing and subsistence activities.
Major employers are the city of Whittier and Crowley Maritime, a company that transports cargo that arrives by ship to Anchorage via rail.
Tour boats, cruise liners and the state ferry transfer visitors to and from Whittier; visitors travel to and from Anchorage by train or by bus or car via the Portage Glacier Road and the Seward Highway. A $70 million road connection was completed in summer 2000 through the 2.5-mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.
There are also a state-owned airstrip and a city-owned seaplane dock. There is one school, attended by 24 students.
Passage Canal was once the quickest route from Prince William Sound to Cook Inlet. Chugach Indians would portage to Turnagain Arm in search of fish. Nearby Whittier Glacier was named for the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier; its name was first published in 1915 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
A port and railroad terminus were constructed during World War II by the U.S. Army for transport of fuel and other supplies into Alaska. The railroad spur and two tunnels were completed in 1943, and the Whittier Port became the entrance for troops and dependents of the Alaskan Command.
The huge buildings that dominate Whittier went up in 1948. The 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers) was built for Army bachelors quarters and family housing, with 198 apartments. The Buckner Building, completed in 1953, has 1,000 apartments and was once the largest building in Alaska. It was called the ''city under one roof,'' with a hospital, bowling alley, theater, gym, swimming pool and shops for Army personnel. Whittier Manor was built in the early 1950s by private developers as rental units for civilian employees.
The port remained an active Army facility until 1960; at that time, the population was 1,200. Begich Towers was converted to condominiums in 1964 and now houses the majority of residents. The city was incorporated in 1969.
Most often, ship passengers embark or disembark quickly. They don't spend a lot of time in town. And it doesn't take too much time to see all of Whittier. But if they sprint out of the 200-resident town, they miss some great things.
The small, isolated community is the perfect launching point to enjoy some of the best that Prince William Sound has to offer. Whether it's fishing, kayaking, sightseeing or hiking, Whittier has it in spades.
For many visitors, the to-do list starts with glacier cruises. While a number of smaller boats can be rented for glacier cruising, most people hop aboard one of the larger ships designed specifically for that assignment.
The day-cruise ships take guests into the fjords surrounding Whittier, where dozens of glaciers fill valley after valley. Several tidewater glaciers treat visitors to the sight of ice crashing into the ocean.
The larger cruise operations include Major Marine Tours (800-764-7300, major marine.com), Prince William Sound Cruises and Tours (877-777-4054, princewilliamsound.com) and Phillips' Cruises and Tours (800-544-0529, 26glaciers.com). The cruises are similar but have individual specialties. Cruises are generally four to six hours and cost from about $100 to $140 for adults. Some cruise prices include lunch, while other cruises offer lunch at an additional charge. Many companies offer transportation from Anchorage via motor coach or train.
Some of the smaller operators include Sound Eco Adventures (888-471-2312, sound ecoadventure.com), Honey Charters (907-472-2493, honey charters.com) and Prince William Sound Eco-Charters (pwseco.com, 907-472-2581). They offer specialized trips or water-taxi service.
Honey Charters offers a special six-hour trip from Whittier to Columbia Glacier -- Alaska's second-largest tidewater glacier and a massive sheet of ice that annually calves about two cubic miles of ice into the ocean. The glacier's face is frequently surrounded by icebergs. The trip requires 12 guests.
Whittier has a number of fishing charter operators specializing in halibut, ling cod, salmon and salmon shark. The Whittier Halibut Derby is Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. A Silver Salmon Derby is held in September. More information is available at whittieralaska chamber.org.
For visitors seeking an even more intimate on-water experience, sea kayaking is the best bet.
Kayak companies offer a number of paddling options from Whittier. Prince William Sound Kayak Center (pws kayakcenter.com, 877-472-2452) and Alaska Sea Kayakers (alaskaseakayakers.com, 877-472-2534) offer a variety of trips. Alaska Sea Kayakers has four day-trips: the three-hour Kittiwake tour ($79), the five-hour Passage Canal tour ($120), the five-hour Shotgun Cove tour ($175) and the all-day Blackstone Bay trip ($300), which includes kayaking among icebergs.
"Western Prince William Sound is a world-renowned kayaking destination," said Peter Denmark, co-owner of Alaska Sea Kayakers. "Paddling the fjords and bays of the Sound offer protected waters that are relatively benign. The western Sound offers access to magnificent scenery -- mountains, glaciers and wildlife -- on an almost daily basis."
Back in Whittier, the Prince William Sound Museum features information about Whittier's connection to the military and World War II. Whittier owes much of its history to the military presence, and the town served as a supply port.
The museum shares space with the Anchor Inn. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children.
Also included are exhibits about the Alaska Railroad during World War II and the construction of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.
The tunnel was originally constructed for train travel, but it was converted in 2000 to handle both trains and auto traffic. The tunnel is opened at regular intervals daily to allow vehicles access to Whittier.
For some, the tunnel journey itself is a highlight. The 2.5-mile tunnel is the longest highway tunnel in North America.
The town has several easily accessible, unmarked hiking trails, including the short hump up Portage Pass that starts outside the tunnel, and several others that begin near the Buckner Building.