Seward, Alaska: A Quaint Port Town

Lisa Fritscher October 13, 2010 2 Comments

Seward Alaska

Our first impressions of Seward

Our Alaska cruise ended in Seward, and we were surprised how many people hopped on the early train to Anchorage to catch a flight home. If you invest the time and money in getting to Alaska, why spend only a week? Dad and I are full-time travelers, so we decided to spend an indefinite period of time getting to know Alaska’s interior.   

Moby Dick Hostel   

Moby Dick Hostel Alaska

That couch was so comfortable

Youth hostels are a lot of fun. Despite the name, they are generally open to travelers of all ages. You can rent a private room that sleeps two to four people, or rent individual bunk beds in a dorm room. Restroom facilities are normally shared, even if you have a private room. Communal areas include fully-equipped kitchens, TV rooms and game rooms, and bonding with other guests is part of the fun.   

Before leaving Florida, we booked bunk beds in a mixed-gender dorm at the Moby Dick Hostel in Seward. It was a short stroll through the historic waterfront district from the cruise terminal, so I walked and Dad rode his ECV. Alaska is mountainous, and the hill to the hostel was a bit steep. I was out of breath by the time we arrived, but the scenic views were definitely worth it!   

Moby Dick Hostel Alaska

The female half of the owner couple

The hostel was everything I imagined an Alaska hostel to be. A converted home owned by a family that lives on-site, the Moby Dick was clean, comfortable and extremely welcoming. We especially enjoyed chatting with the pre-teen daughters, who had stories to share of the friendships they had developed with international travelers. We paid $20 per person per night, plus a $2 per person linen fee for the entire length of our stay.   

Our Fellow Travelers   

Hostel Traveller

He lived at the hostel for awhile

We struck up an early friendship with a young Israeli traveler who had recently completed his mandatory military service and was taking a year to tour the United States before returning to real life, an American girl in her 20s who travels through Alaska alone every summer, and two Australian teachers in their 60s.   

But perhaps the most interesting was the group of American teenagers on an eco-tour. Their group leader had taken applications from around the country and selected the best and brightest based on an essay and other criteria. The kids were a lot of fun, regularly inventing games based on current events and other intellectual topics. Things were a little crowded when the kids were home, but everyone worked together to plan meal and activity schedules that allowed us to get to know each other while retaining some personal space.   


Alaska SeaLife Center Sea Lions

The sea lions were playful that day

On the surface, Seward doesn’t seem to offer a lot of tourist activities. In fact, we originally booked the hostel for only five nights, figuring that we would see the handful of sights and I would take some time out to work (I’m a full-time freelance writer). We ended up spending two weeks, and I barely had time to write at all!   

The Alaska SeaLife Center is a must-see for anyone interested in marine mammals. Primarily funded by settlement proceeds from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Center is Alaska’s only combination research center and public aquarium. We signed up for a behind-the-scenes tour that gave us extensive access to the research facilities. Encounter tours allow you to get up close and personal with a wide selection of animals.   

Alaska SeaLife Center Hospital

The tiny hospital serves both people and marine animals

Interestingly, although there is a dedicated veterinary staff on site, the animals occasionally need more extensive tests such as MRIs. They are carefully transported to the tiny Providence Alaska Medical Center, the only hospital in town! Can’t you just picture sharing your hospital room with a sea otter? Welcome to Alaska!   

Qutekcak Native Tribe Cultural Center

Charlie was a terrific tour guide at the cultural center

The Qutekcak Native Tribe Cultural Center is not well advertised, and we happened upon it by accident. It serves a dual purpose as a resource and gathering spot for the local indigenous peoples, and an educational site for local residents. We happened to strike up a conversation with a gentleman at the center whose indigenous family line is strong and proud. He gave us a detailed impromptu tour at no charge!   

Good Friday Earthquake   

Seward Alaska Campground

The campground was developed after the 1964 earthquake

Seward, along with all of Southeast Alaska, was rocked by an earthquake on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. The most powerful earthquake ever to hit North America, it was measured as an 8.6 on the Richter scale and a 9.2 on the newer moment magnitude scale. It touched off a series of tsunamis that literally swallowed Seward’s busy industrial waterfront. Although the city was quickly rebuilt, planners decided not to take that chance again, passing an ordinance that no permanent structure was ever again to be built along the waterfront. Today the area is home to an expansive campground with low rates and stunning views.   

We wanted to learn more about the earthquake, so we signed up for the afternoon slideshow and original Army documentary at the library downtown. Having survived Hurricane Katrina, we were blown away by how much the photos reminded us of New Orleans in the weeks after the storm.   

The Original Iditarod   

Seward Museum Alaska

We passed a fascinating afternoon at the Seward Museum and Senior Center

We had heard that the Iditarod race was a celebration of historic events, but didn’t know the full story, so we took in the evening slideshow at the Seward Museum. The $3 per person admission fee included the museum displays, a slideshow focusing on the history of Seward, and a slideshow about the Iditarod Trail.   

In 1925, Nome, Alaska was undergoing a serious diphtheria epidemic. Antitoxin serum was located in Seattle. The serum was loaded onto a ship for transport to Seward, and then taken by train to Nenana, then the northern terminus of the rail line. From there, it was transported by dog sled to Nome. The lead sled dogs, Balto and Togo, are honored in both Seward and Anchorage. Today the race’s ceremonial start is in Anchorage.   

Exit Glacier   

Exit Glacier Seward Alaska

We took a free ranger walk around Exit Glacier

I was absolutely overcome with emotion when the cruise ship visited the Hubbard Glacier, so when I found a flyer advertising an inexpensive glacier tour, I knew I had to visit! Exit Glacier Guides offers shuttle service from downtown Seward to nearby Exit Glacier, so named because it is the exit point from the Harding Icefield. The organization also offers ice hiking and even ice climbing, but due to Dad’s mobility issues we opted for the $10 per person round-trip shuttle.   

At the glacier, we joined a park service ranger for a free one-hour walk through the park. We learned a great deal about the native flora and fauna and the glacier’s recorded history. The tour ended at a rocky plain about a half mile from the glacier. Imagine my shock and excitement when the guide informed us that we could actually walk out and touch the glacier!   

It was like walking on the surface of the moon

The rocky, dusty plain reminded us of the surface of the moon…at least, it would if the moon was criss-crossed by freezing water. We had to traverse three fast-moving, knee-deep, ice-filled streams to reach the glacier. Dad’s cane came in pretty handy as a depth meter! The shock of entering the water was unreal. Every instinct in my body told me to jump back, but I was determined to touch that glacier, so I persevered. There were over a dozen other travelers doing the same thing, and the squeals and giggles echoed through the quiet park.   

Exit Glacier Alaska Up Close

The glacier was rough, cold and glittering brilliantly

Despite having spent hours on the cruise watching and listening to glaciers heaving and calving large chunks, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of placing my hand on the glacier’s surface. Rough and glittering like an endless pile of diamonds, Exit Glacier literally took my breath away.   


Iditarod Dog Sleds

We did a scale model version of the Iditarod

Dog sledding was near the top of my must-do list for my trip to Alaska, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to do so. A brochure at the hostel informed us that Mitch Seavey, 2004 winner of the Iditarod, had a summer dog sledding business in Seward. We immediately called for reservations.   

Dog Sled Puppies Alaska

The puppies will train when they're older

Known as Ididaride, the summer dog sledding operation uses huge wheeled carts similar to golf carts that hold six passengers. The carts are roughly twice as heavy as a fully loaded Iditarod sled, allowing the dogs to build strength and endurance. All of the dogs are currently in training for the race, and some are past champions.   

The ride was phenomenal, a high-speed adventure through a miniature version of the Iditarod layout. Afterwards we got to cuddle and play with the puppies, an important part of their socialization training, and enjoyed a presentation on the gear that the racers use.   

The People of Seward   

The People of Seward Alaska

The people of Seward were so friendly and welcoming

Seward is such a fascinating blend. The cruise ships are in town twice a week, dumping thousands of tourists in an excited frenzy of shopping and sightseeing. Between ship visits, however, Seward is truly a quaint small town with a population of just over 3,000. Everyone knows everyone, yet newcomers are eagerly welcomed. The main bookstore downtown is owned by the former mayor of Seward, and we were able to have a long conversation with her. When discussing the stunningly low crime rate, she mentioned that the last murder in Seward was about three years ago. Without missing a beat, Dad and I said in unison, “Really? The last murder in New Orleans was three minutes ago!”   

Seward Alaska Carriage

He was just a cool guy

Throughout the city, we made friends easily, particularly in the local pubs that line the streets of downtown. We took the free shuttle to and from our Ididaride tour, giving us the opportunity to chat with Mitch Seavey’s son Danny and wife Janine. They told us all about older son Dallas’ new business in Anchorage, the WildRide Sled Dog Rodeo. Although we didn’t get a chance to check out the show, we had a long and friendly chat with Dallas’ wife when we got to Anchorage.   

What We Learned and Tips for Parents   

Seward Waterfall Alaska

We found this hidden waterfall on our last day in Seward

Seward is much more than simply a cruise port. It was everything that we could have imagined an Alaskan port town to be. There is very little information about Seward on the Internet, so we arrived with little idea of what to expect. What we found was a warm and welcoming population, an amazing amount of history and a picturesque fishing village.   

Although Seward isn’t necessarily “exciting” in comparison to places like New York or New Orleans, it has an irresistible energy of its own. Parents will find plenty of open space for kids to run around and play, historical and cultural sites that blend education with fun, and a trustworthy population of interesting people whose life stories are well worth learning. I would be proud to take any child on a visit to Seward.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

Tags: Reviews, Travel Excursions
2 Comments to “Seward, Alaska: A Quaint Port Town”
  1. avatar Anchorage Alaska: Big City Meets Rugged Frontier says:

    [...] two wonderful weeks in Seward, Alaska, it was time to move on. We had a fantastic time, but were ready to take on the big city. Of [...]

  2. avatar Ididaride: The Alaskan Sled Dog Experience says:

    [...] decided to stay for awhile in Seward, the last stop on our cruise. Several days into our stay, while gathering informational brochures [...]