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Footloose in Sitka

The Alaska Town Where Czarist Russian East Met Tlingit West

October 18, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers

SITKA, Alaska — Russia's rich cultural imprint on this former capital of its Aleutians-to-California fur trading empire began when it captured the town from the equally culture-conscious Tlingit Indians in 1804.

The czar's adventures started in 1741, when Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator sailing for the Russian crown, discovered the Alaskan coast, opening the region to Siberian fur traders seeking huge profits in seal and sea otter pelts for Europe's rich and royal.

While Sitka was once called the "Paris of the Pacific" for its opulence, St. Petersburg would have been a more appropriate name for the town with its magnificent Russian Orthodox cathedral, an enviable treasure of gilded icons and other ecclesiastic art, plus church and mercantile leaders who made the town a glittering outpost of Imperial Russia.

Little wonder that a resident says, "Sitka was enjoying music, art and other cultural events in the early 19th Century when San Francisco was just a ragtag collection of rustic types and girlie cribs."

The Tlingits were a sociable tribe given to such traditional ceremonies as the potlatch, during which a village worthy invited everyone to his home for a days-long feast and gave them his most cherished possessions. In 1867, the czar did almost the same thing, selling us all of Alaska for 2 cents an acre.

Here to there: Sitka can only be reached by plane or boat, Alaska Airlines getting you there with a stop or two, Sitmar and several other cruise lines making it a port of call. Alaska Marine Highway's ferry liners also call here out of Seattle.

How long/how much? A day or two, more if you're here for the excellent fishing and hunting. Lodging and dining are both moderate in cost, except in Sitka's one hotel, with a number of B&Bs to suit any wallet.

A few fast facts: Someone has said Sitka's weather is eternally autumn, but the best visiting times are still June through August, October seeing the most rain. Walk anywhere in this level and scenic town.

Getting settled in: Creek's Edge Guest House (109 Cascade Creek Road; $50 double B&B, shared bath, $65 with private bath and deck) is new and sparkling throughout, with antiques and period prints in the rooms, fantastic views from every window. Breakfast is continental with a flair: juice, melons, grapes, English muffins, coffee. Russian tea is served from a samovar with tea cakes in the afternoon.

Hannah's Bed & Breakfast (504 Monastery; $50 B&B double) gives you a small two-room suite for your money, great for families. The cottage-like atmosphere is enhanced by the wood-carver owner's handiwork in making the bedsteads and other furniture, a few duck decoys here and there. Gazebo and hot tub out back, breakfast served in the rooms.

Shee Atika Lodge (downtown; $98) is a rather pricey hotel, albeit very attractive with its simple Indian decor. Tlingit ceremonial robe hanging over lobby desk, several pieces of totemic carvings and various other handsome artifacts in lobby and hallways. Full dining room, contemporary bedrooms, entertainment in lounge.

Regional food and drink: Great seafood of just about every type, a smokehouse giving off tempting aromas as the black cod, halibut, salmon and sable fish is done to a turn, the last something like a kipper and delicious. Halibut and salmon are also wrapped in skunk cabbage and cooked in a pit, also delicious.

You'll finally get your fill of Dungeness crab, which locals toss in the boiling pot right on their boats. And venison and other game are plentiful in season.

Perhaps it's the Scandinavian-type weather that gives rise to a crop of fresh berries to make any Nordic proud: blueberries, salmonberries, raspberries, blackberries and a few others buried in pastries.

Moderate-cost dining: Shee Atika Lodge's Raven Room has a vaguely log cabin look about it to go with the spectacular views of surrounding mountain peaks. Breakfast is terrific, with sourdough toast, reindeer sausage and eggs for $6.95. At lunch and dinner you'll find at least five treatments of halibut, with chips for $7.25, plus the ever-present salmon.

Wild Strawberries (Siganaga Way) looks like a private home with wildflowers around the doorway, a fine view of Thompson Harbor, everything either homemade or fresh caught. Eclectic menus of local fare change daily, but you'll usually find hearty chowders, blackened sable fish and poached salmon with dill. A caring family runs the place, probably why many consider it the best place to dine in town.

Bayview (407 Lincoln) overlooks Crescent Harbor where the cruise ships dock, an upstairs place with more fine views. The menu leans toward light food, simply prepared: sandwiches, soups, quiche and salads.

On your own: Don't miss a visit to St. Michael's Cathedral with its Byzantine dome towering over the town, and a fantastic collection of art within. Or the Sheldon Jackson Museum for early Russian artifacts and one of the best collections of Indian and Eskimo art in Alaska.

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