Alaska’s version of a Caribbean private island
Around 20 years ago, there was talk of creating a new Alaskan cruise destination, somewhat akin to the private island cruise ports in the Caribbean that had proven so popular. More than one company was said to be developing the concept. The one that came to fruition was Icy Strait Point, owned and operated by the Huna Totem Corporation.
Icy Strait Point welcomed its first ship, Celebrity Cruises’ Mercury, on May 23, 2004. Since then, it has become a fixture on southeast Alaskan cruise itineraries. Its position some 30 miles west of Juneau on Chichagof Island, near the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, puts it right in the path of cruise ships traveling the Inside Passage. Virtually every cruise line operating in Alaska calls here, and it’s not just the obvious megaship names like Princess and Royal Caribbean. Smaller yacht-like luxury ships visit, too, including Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas. Even tour operator John Hall’s Alaska brings travelers on guided tours. Independent travelers can find their way here via a three-hour ride on the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System or a 20-minute small-plane flight from Juneau to Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Native Tlingit village. There also has been talk of a new, privately operated ferry service linking Gustavus and Hoonah, which could add another option for non-cruise arrivals.
Although not technically master-planned like a Caribbean private island, private ownership has given Icy Strait Point the advantage of being able to shape an ideal visitor experience. The port has grown organically over the past two decades, expanding and adding attractions as its popularity has soared. Most of the emphasis is on nature and outdoor adventure. Shore excursions, which number more than 30, range from leisurely to immersive to extreme. Activities include bear-viewing, wilderness hiking, ocean kayaking, Jeep tours, and ATV riding. Whale sightings are guaranteed on whale-watching tours, due to the abundance of humpbacks in the area.
The centerpiece of Icy Strait Point is its ZipRider, opened in 2007. Stretching more than 5,300 feet from end to end, with a vertical drop of 1,300 feet, this is said to be the world’s longest zipline. Once strapped in, up to six riders at a time scream along the forest canopy at speeds exceeding 60 mph. So thrilling is the ride that CruiseAddicts.com recently named the ZipRider “one of the top shore excursions in all of Alaska.”
Sustainability is also in the works: The new Wilderness Landing complex, opened in 2021, was designed to be a vehicle-free zone. Two high-speed trams are at its center. One, the Sky Glider, takes visitors to the top of Hoonah Mountain for hiking trails and panoramic views from an elevation of 1,600 feet above sea level. The other, the Transporter Gondola, travels horizontally half a mile across the island to Adventure Landing—the port’s first pier opened in 2016—where there are shops (all Alaskan owned), restaurants, and a museum set amidst a historic (and picturesque) 1912 cannery.
While Native culture is not the focal point, it is evident and informs every aspect of the operation. About 85 percent of its staff is drawn from nearby Hoonah, including schoolchildren who may greet visitors in traditional Native regalia or perform in the Native dance theater. As a Native corporation, Huna Totem benefits its shareholders (more than 1,500 Xuna Kaawu), and all profits from Icy Strait Point go directly to supporting the local Hoonah community.
With Wilderness Landing complete, Icy Strait parent company HTC has been busy bringing its expertise to bear elsewhere in Alaska. Among its projects are new cruise piers in Whittier and Juneau, a motorcoach joint venture serving the Interior, and a new cruise destination at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island modeled on the success of Icy Strait Point.
For more information on Icy Strait Point, visit icystraitpoint.com.