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Footloose in Ketchikan : One-Time Bordello District Is Lure for Tourists

January 24, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers

KETCHIKAN, Alaska — While many towns honor their founding fathers with austere monuments, this once-bawdy fishing and logging village casts a nostalgic glance backward by raising its dead-but-not-forgotton bordello district to the level of a major tourist attraction.

During the roistering days of not so long ago, a number of Alaskan towns had red-light enclaves known generally as "the line."

Locals still tell you that the line in Fairbanks or Juneau couldn't hold a candle to Ketchikan's creek-front array of storied "houses of tolerance," which were called simply "The Creek."

The bordellos of yesteryear aren't the only thing this place has going for it. Fishing for king, silver, coho and sockeye salmon is said to border on the phenomenal, a 56-pound king taking the recent Salmon Derby.

Halibut of 100-plus pounds is not a rarity. And Ketchikan has the country's largest collection of majestic totems, standing everywhere around town.

Until the late 1800s this was Indian country. The culture and artistry of Tlingits, Haidas and Tsimshians still contribute to the town's vitality.

And the lush growth of hemlock, Sitka spruce, alder, and red and yellow cedar makes the slopes of nearby Deer Mountain a wonderland of greenery.

Here to there: Fly Alaska Airlines with a change in Seattle, to Gravina Island, a seven-minute ferry ride from Ketchikan. You may also take a ship from Seattle along the Alaska Marine Highway or cruise the Inland Passage with lines such as Sitmar Cruises, which also calls at Juneau, Sitka, Victoria and Skagway.

How long/how much? One day for the town and its majestic totems, more for fishing or excursions. Lodging and dining costs are moderate.

A few fast facts: You'd expect winter snows here, but there is very little. What Ketchikan lacks in the white stuff, it gets in rain, and claims the title as Alaska's wettest town. Walk anywhere. However, taxis usually available. A bus from one end of town to the other costs $1. And don't worry about bus schedules or routes as a driver may swing a little off course to drop you wherever you want.

Getting settled in: Ingersoll Hotel (303 Mission St.; $52 double in winter, $60 summer, including breakfasts and transportation to and from ferry terminal) is at town center with 60 rooms, 18 having fine views of the waterfront. Furnishings are simple but neat, all rooms have TV, some have native Alaskan art. The complimentary breakfast is huge: bacon, ham or sausage with eggs, hash browns and toast, or all the sourdough pancakes you can down with oceans of coffee.

The Gilmore (326 Front St.; $45-$53 double in winter, $53-$62 summer) has about the same amenities you find at the Ingersoll. It's directly across from the cruise ships' dock. The Gilmore offers cable programs with its television. Some rooms have views of Tongass Narrows and the busy dockside area.

Royal Executive Suites (1471 Tongass Ave.; $90 double with kitchenette, $100 for the same with Jacuzzi and sofa bed in living room) is the town's best--all modern, hot tubs and sauna, spacious suites and lovely views. And the kitchenettes are convenient, fitted with all the gear you'll need.

Regional food and drink: Ketchikan has a proud Norwegian heritage, so look for Nordic specialties such as the huge smorgasbord served at church and civic club dinners. Salmon and haddock fish cakes are superb here, reminding you of French quenelles in their lightness.

Try salmon steamed in skunk cabbage, which tastes better than it sounds, or simply baked. Plenty of sourdough bread and pancakes everywhere, and seasonal blueberries are the basis for many desserts and pastries.

Moderate-cost dining: Kay's Kitchen (2813 Tongass Ave.) has to be the most popular spot in Ketchikan, maybe Alaska. Lunch only, but you'll need reservations at noon. Folks aren't here for the decor, which is mainly hanging knickknacks. But the mile-high sandwiches, homemade soups and frozen peanut butter pie of considerable fame draw them in droves. Kay's closes during midwinter.

Start with a mouthful for a name--Bed of Roses Art Gallery and Kate's Salmon Bake (Water Street), then split the enterprise in two: small gallery in roofed building, salmon bake under a tent outside. You dine at oilcloth-covered picnic tables next to twin barbecues and tubs of salads. You'll spend $15 for a huge chunk of salmon with salad, fresh sourdough bread and beverage, seconds on the house. They'll also throw a beef teriyaki on the grill for carnivores who insist.

Charley's (Ingersoll Hotel) is where locals head for the big dinner out. Fresh fillets of salmon or halibut with soup, salad, vegetables and baby red potatoes or rice pilaf in the $16 range, blackened red snapper or Alaskan prawns for little more. Also steaks and chops on one of the town's more extensive menus.

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