SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker went to Valdez. She cruised. She explored. She dined….and provided this report. –Scott
Plane ticket prices have us looking closer to home for summer fun and one place that never disappoints is Valdez. This pretty port town at the southern end of the Richardson Highway teems with history, activities, and a variety of restaurants and lodging that make it not just customizable and accessible, but an attractive option for all sorts of visitors.
I was recently in Valdez for work and made sure to set aside personal time there, as I was anxious to explore, having not visited since summer 2019. Like many places, I found that Valdez is still shaking off the COVID cobwebs: some businesses didn’t pull through the pandemic, others have cut back hours, and staffing shortages were made apparent by longer wait times.
In spite of these challenges, Valdez is truly as vibrant as ever. With its striking mountainous scenery, ample Alaskan adventures and surprising offering of shops, restaurants and bars, it remains an ideal outpost for a Last Frontier getaway. Newer restaurants and venues have brought renewed energy to the business landscape, and longtime staples of the scene remain, familiar anchors to the town’s roots.
One such longstanding business that continues to thrive is Stan Stephens Cruises. Over the years, I’ve watched the sleek Stan Stephens catamarans depart daily like clock work. On this trip, I seized the opportunity to hop aboard and see what all the fuss was about.
I took the Columbia Glacier Cruise aboard the Glacier Spirit, an 85-foot vessel built in 2017 that cruises at average speeds of 25 knots. Even with more than 50 passengers on board, the Glacier Spirit felt spacious and comfortable, with two levels of indoor and outdoor seating and gracious views from the decks and wrap-around walkways.
As we chugged out of Port Valdez, the town shrinking in our wake, the captain explained we were cruising through a glacially carved fjord and crossing with an astonishing 800 feet of water beneath us. He dove into the colorful history of Valdez, with its storied Gold Rush roots, leading up to the devastating 1964 Good Friday Earthquake as he pointed out the original townsite.
Our captain was an impressive narrator throughout the journey – knowledgeable, informative, even humorous. His commentary blended lessons of geology, biology and regional history. The extended crew also proved affable and responsive.
Our first wildlife sighting of the day: bald eagles! Passengers stampeded eagerly to the port side, pointing and tapping on iPhone cameras. This wasn’t their only tourist tell; despite the mild June day, most wore puffer jackets, woolen hats and gloves.
I’ve been in the waters around Valdez on small fishing boats and the ferry, but there was a nimble convenience and comfort to taking in the scenery from the Glacier Spirit. Cold? Slip into the heated cabin where huge windows still afford generous views, and enjoy a complimentary cup of steaming coffee. Wildlife spotted? The captain would simply slow down and do a U-turn to ensure we got an eyeful. And even with a large passenger load, it was easy to find quiet, reflective corners to take it all in.
As we neared Columbia Glacier, we began seeing icebergs. The light cloud cover really made the aquamarine blue in the ice pop with neon brightness.
Since 1980, the glacier – the second-largest tidewater glacier in Alaska – has retreated a stunning 17 miles. Evidence of its former days surrounded us. The captain pointed out one enormous piece of ice considered to be the leading edge of the glacier field; he told us that it actually extended 88 feet down, fastened to the ocean floor.
Now Columbia Glacier loses 11 million tons of ice a day – “Like 27 Empire State Buildings,” the captain said, as he deftly maneuvered the catamaran through a growing field of sea ice. When it was silent, you could hear the ice snapping and popping, both beautiful and eerie.
As the glacier came into view, we were surrounded by sheer rocky shores and cliffs climbing upward. The captain pointed out these scraped-free rock faces as evidence of the glacier’s erosive path over time, and the trees as evidence of how remarkably high the glacier once rose.
We stopped about four miles from the face of Columbia Glacier. It felt even closer. Passengers snapped and posed for photos, or simply stood and breathed in the cool air, taking in the unique beauty.
Until that point in the day, we saw playful sea otters lounging on ice floes and lolling in the water, floating flocks of puffins, and even more stately eagles striking treetop poses.
But things kicked up a notch on the return trip: while cruising toward a sea lion-laden beach, the telltale misty spout of a humpback whale brought the vessel to a hard stop. Passengers once again (understandably) rushed the railing for a view of one of the ocean’s biggest deals. Soon after, we saw a pod of massive Sei whales. These massive mammals easily made for the wildlife-winning moment of the excursion, and the captain masterfully had built space into the schedule so we could spend time simply observing them.
Our Columbia Glacier cruise included a light lunch with a choice of soup, a bagel and cream cheese, and cookies. An indoor snack counter sold chips and candy and featured complimentary coffee, tea and lemonade, though it is a long sail and travelers should consider packing extra snacks and water. Also, wear and bring layers. We lucked out with a dry day but Prince William Sound weather is famously unpredictable.
The six-hour Columbia Glacier cruise departs daily at 10:30 a.m. and is $145 for adults. For a longer experience, the Mears Glacier cruise is $170, departs at 9 a.m., and lasts up to eight hours. CLICK HERE for more information.
As we neared the dock, our captain bid us farewell: “Valdez is very much out of the way for many in Alaska and it can be quite the journey to get here,” he said. “But we welcome any and all visitors to Valdez and Prince William Sound.”
Other notes from this Valdez trip:
In the last few years, locally owned Valdez Brewing has taken off and is a favorite hangout for locals and tourists alike, year-round. The brewery is tucked just off the main drive in the old Prospector Outfitter’s building. The high-ceiling interior feels contemporary and open, with a fireplace and windowed views of the brewers at work. Local art and trendy merchandise like hoodies and hats round out the decor.
I really enjoyed my Whistle’s IPA and appreciated how the beers have locally sourced names, like Elamar Lager, Tsaina Lager, and Black-Hops IPA, inspired by the Valdez-based Black Ops heli-ski company. The brewery includes outdoor seating and on-site food trucks.
Speaking of food trucks, Aunty Yum Yum’s Thai Food and Nat Shack’s artisan tacos and Cal-Mex fare are open again on North Harbor Drive, overlooking the boat harbor. They remain dependable seasonal favorites. Another grassroots, outdoor, artisan space that’s truly blossomed is Magpie’s on the Fly, where all summer long there are musical performances, revue shows, trivia nights, supper clubs, and more.
Fat Mermaid, probably the busiest restaurant in town and also no North Harbor Drive, still serves delicious pizza and salads. Since my last visit, it expanded its menu to include more burgers, and Asian offerings. I really enjoyed my yellow Thai curry dish.
Surprisingly, my favorite meal of the whole trip came from an unexpected location: the airport. After sporadic operations over the years, the Puddle Jumpers bar at the Valdez Airport is open again, consistently – great news for air travelers as flights in and out of Valdez are notoriously delayed. This is a no-frills bar, ensconced behind wooden lattice walls, with strung-up lights and two pool tables – and truly amazing pizza.
The 10-inch pies are made from scratch by the bartender who told me the crust is his grandma’s recipe and his family has been perfecting the herbaceous red sauce for 30 years and counting. It was a perfectly delicious end to a perfectly wonderful return trip after too long away.
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