The city of Kodiak, located on an island of the same name and Alaska’s largest, has known human habitation for at least 7,000 years. The Alutiiq people had learned how to live from the land and ocean long before the Russians arrived in the 1700s to establish a fur trade. While many Alaska destinations have a history that involves Russian colonizers none goes back as far as Kodiak which became the first Russian Alaska capital. A former pelt-storage facility dating from 1808, later a private residence, is today the Baranov Museum – the oldest building in all of Alaska.
Alternatively known as the Emerald Isle due to its verdant natural magnificence in spring and summer, Kodiak Island is a nature lover’s paradise and outdoor enthusiast’s playground. Made up of beaches, dramatic cliffs, forest, wildflower-filled alpine meadows and mountains Kodiak’s scenery is breathtaking, even by Alaskan standards. The wildlife here is also something spectacular. Located on a migratory route for many species of whales, it is possible to spot these huge marine mammals cruising by from cliff look-outs and beaches and any time spent near or on the water will almost certainly bring you face-to-face with seals, sea-lions, otters, puffins and other bird species. However, the star billing of the Kodiak animal show tends to go to the Kodiak bear – found only on these islands and so huge it is the second largest bear species on the planet after the polar bear. Many visitors make the journey here in salmon season for the sole reason of watching these giants fishing in the streams and lakes, often with cubs in tow.
Today, all island life centers around its bustling harbor where fishermen, dock workers and boat crews are constantly at work on vessels, nets or cargo. Kodiak represents one of the country’s largest commercial fishing industries, made up of hundreds of boats and thousands of involved individuals.
Also within the pages of the Kodiak history books is a devastating tsunami triggered by a large earthquake in 1964 which destroyed lives, homes, buildings and its fishing fleet while another chapter relates Kodiak’s leading role in the Alaska defenses of World War II. Today visitors to the island can still see the remains of war artifacts and buildings littered around Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park.
Many of Kodiak’s points of interest are centered around the small and easily walkable downtown area while those a bit further afield are all included on air taxi routes and schedules. Otherwise a wide selection of tours by land, sea and air are offered to get you amid the magnificent Kodiak wilderness.
A Morning in Kodiak
Your morning begins with a short walk around the harbor – Kodiak’s heart and pulse – followed by the community’s other principal focus – its Russian Orthodox cathedral. Afterward you can take your pick from one of two excellent indoor museums or choose to spend the rest of your morning outdoors exploring the World War II remnants of Fort Abercrombie State Park.
The Kodiak Maritime Museum
Often just referred to as KMM, this wonderful outdoor visitor attraction will allow you to start your day with a breath of fresh Alaskan air while also garnering some understanding of what an essential role both ocean and fishing play in the Kodiak story. With the history of a harbor here going back more than 200 years – making it one of the United States oldest – today the fishing industry thrives as much as it ever has with the harbor serving as the town’s beating heart.
The idea for this St Paul Boat Harbor-located museum was born when a group of fishermen formed a strategy for not just preserving such a rich maritime history but presenting it in a way which could be enjoyed by all. The result was this ‘museum without walls’, made up of a series of colored, illustrated and otherwise fascinating interpretive display panels, each focusing on a different element of the maritime theme. Fish species, fishing methods, the boats and the diversity of people involved such as coastguard, boat crews, biologists, processors and dock workers – all of these elements of Kodiak’s relationship with the ocean are showcased here. As you make your way around the panels you will be seeing some of the activities explained actually taking place as skippers and crews attend to boats, repair nets or otherwise go about their day’s work, bringing it all to life literally in front of your eyes.
As a museum extension the KMM is currently undertaking a boat restoration project. Once doomed to be just one more old abandoned boat burned to ashes to get it out of the way, the KMM rescued the Thelma C – a 1960s wooden salmon-fishing vessel – and aims to have her in place under a pavilion for the public to enjoy by the end of December 2018.
Besides the museum’s main exhibits along harbor-front Shelikof Street it also uses Kodiak College and the bank for smaller exhibits which are constantly changing. Past themes have been fish-traps and the king crab industry’s story told through old photographs.
If you’d like a ‘Waterfront Guide’ to enhance your experience you can pick one up at the Kodiak Visitor Information Centre, a few minutes’ walk away.
The Holy Resurrection Cathedral
If your early morning stroll has left you in need of a short refreshment break before continuing your Kodiak day you can head straight to one of the city’s cafes for refueling. Otherwise you are close to another Kodiak sight which you might want to make time for before breaking for morning coffee – the Russian Orthodox Holy Resurrection Cathedral.
This ancient parish was originally founded by a Russian monk who arrived in 1794. His tireless work focusing on bringing relief to the native Aleuts and Alutiiqs who had suffered cruel exploitation under the Russian colonizers earned him love and respect from the very beginning and saw many convert to his religion. The native people also suffered terribly as a result of diseases brought by the Russian outsiders; diseases which they had never previously encountered and had no natural immunity to. Besides his protection, the man who was later to become St Herman, offered care for the sick and dying during these times of devastating epidemic. St Herman is now generally recognized as Russian Orthodox Alaska’s patron saint and every August the devout from Alaska and beyond will still make the pilgrimage to Spruce Island where Saint Herman lived in a hermitage in the early 19th century for nine years.
Surrounded by trees, this lovely little white building with its distinctive twin turquoise-colored onion domes topped by golden crosses is the fourth church construction on the same site; the current building dates from the 1940s.
Inside, at the front of the cathedral, can be found the wooden reliquary where St Herman’s remains are preserved. You will also find a glass case here which displays the monk’s very own gold cross and hat. The ceremonial oil lamp over the reliquary which is kept permanently alight is used for anointing the sick – a cause which was so close to St Herman’s heart in his lifetime.
If the history and the church’s icons interest you it is often possible to take advantage of a free guided tour here.
Morning Coffee Break in Kodiak
Once you have decided it is time for a morning refreshment break you won’t have far to go.
Monk’s Rock cafe
Just 200 meters from the cathedral can be found the cozy Monk’s Rock cafe which is half coffee shop and half Orthodox bookstore and shop. With walls covered in art, Orthodox icons and all kinds of curios and old photographs you will have plenty to look at as you enjoy your in-house roasted organic coffee, hot chocolate, tea or specialty drink. Known for its welcoming vibe, friendly service and somewhere that bakes its own bread in a variety of forms, Monk’s Rock is a firm favorite with the locals not just for coffee but also as a breakfast and lunch spot. Also serving as a bakery you can be sure of an enticing range of home-made pastries and sweet treats to accompany your coffee.
Another cafe choice for the coffee purist is Harborside Coffee and Goods – five minutes’ walk from the cathedral or a stone’s throw from the Maritime Museum. With coffee roasted on-site at their second branch in town – Harborside Fly By on Mill Bay Road – this cafe keeps you right among the action of the boat harbor, with fishermen, coastguard and boat crews all at work just outside. The Harborside also serves hot chocolate options, smoothies and milkshakes with a small selection of coffee-shop type sweet treats and you can even pick up a souvenir here.
If the weather is fine and you’d like to grab a quality coffee to-go and then enjoy it outside Kodiak has two drive-through coffee shacks – Island Espresso which has been in Kodiak for more than 20 years and roasts its own beans and Near Island Coffee which is located across the bridge on Near Island.
Take Your Pick – A Museum Choice or Fort Abercrombie State Park
Despite its relatively small size Kodiak is home to two excellent museums as well as the World War II military history site of Fort Abercrombie Park which also has nature-lover’s trails and beaches.
The two museums – the Baranov Museum and the Alutiiq Museum – are almost next door to each other so you might be able to squeeze both in while Fort Abercrombie State Park is about 4 miles outside of the center. You can decide which would interest you most and where to dedicate your time.
The Baranov Museum
If you are interested in the whole Kodiak story this museum – also known as Erskine House – located opposite the Visitor Center is an ideal choice. The Baranov Museum covers the area’s entire history, beginning from the Alutiiq native people and their thousands-of-years-old roots, through the Russian-governed years, World War II and on into the present day with its thriving fishing industry. The museum is small which means you could easily fit both this and the Alutiiq Museum into your schedule if you are struggling to decide which you’d like to visit most.
The log-structured building inside which the local history museum is housed has as much significance as that which is found within. Originally constructed by the Russian colonizers right at the beginning of the 1800s as a warehouse for fur pelts, Erskine House is said to be the oldest building in existence in the entire state. In the early 20th century it became the private residence of the Erskine family and their home became well-known as a frequent gathering place for the community. Inside today you can see some rooms as they would have been during the Erskine years, authentically recreated by referencing a large photographic and archival document collection from that period now owned by the museum.
Otherwise the museum’s permanent exhibits are generally divided into three eras – the Russian era which began in the mid-1700s, the early America era which began around the mid 1800s and the modern era which traces a time-line to the present day from 1912. What you will find here has a wide diversity; in the mix are native artifacts including a skin kayak and woven baskets, items from the Russian era such as hunting paraphernalia and pelts and extensive oral histories and antique photographs including many which show the devastation following the 1964 tsunami that hit Kodiak.
The temporary exhibits aim to portray a variety of themes focused around people, culture and stories passed down through the Kodiak personalities of yesterday.
If you are on the hunt for Kodiak souvenirs the museum’s gift shop is considered to offer a wonderful choice with plentiful offerings of arts and crafts produced right here by local people.
The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository
For 7,500 years these lands have been home to the native and highly creative Alutiiq people who not just survived but thrived in extremely challenging environmental conditions by establishing intrinsic relationships with the land and ocean. Their rich and remarkable culture is one which weaves together language, dance, song, art, oral stories and sacred ceremony. If traditional culture interests you this museum is a must-see and with a total catalogue of a quarter of a million items it is home to one of Alaska’s most comprehensive collections of Alutiiq artifacts and antiques.
Tracing the Alutiiq story from its very beginnings right through to the present day, the museum takes visitors on a heritage journey of exploration and insight. Included among the exhibits are film and audio recordings, natural history items, ceremonial objects, photographs, artwork both ancient and contemporary and oral histories.
A principal focus of the museum’s treasures is that made up from the wood, bone and ivory objects unearthed at the archaeological site known as Karluk One. Otherwise, quite what you might find here ranges from ornately beaded ceremonial caps to a model fisherman in his kayak clad in a seal-gut waterproof. One of the museum’s most prized gems is an extremely rare hat crafted from tree roots.
There is also a plant gallery where you can learn about the many ways the Alutiiq people have utilized the native flora not just as a food source but also for fuel, to make tools and clothing and to serve as medicines.
Along with its permanent exhibits the museum also hosts some fascinating temporary exhibits. Past examples of these have been focused on exploring traditional music or the highly essential role of the kayak through native history including materials used, construction and waterproofing techniques and the clothing needed before heading out to sea.
The staff at the museum are always happy to answer any of your questions or relate stories of day-to-day life for a modern Alutiiq and the forms in which some ancient traditions are kept alive to this very day.
A highly respected museum store on site full of one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, books, posters, crafts such as carved bowls and masks and replica museum items is an ideal place to find souvenirs and gifts.
Fort Abercrombie State Historic Park
If your interest lies more with military history or the natural world and you would prefer to be outdoors a great alternative to the museum choices is the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Park located four miles out of the center. With inclusions on both the National Register of Historic Places and the designated National Historic Landmarks list, Fort Abercrombie is one of Kodiak’s principle treasures.
This beautiful 182-acre rainforest park complete with dramatic cliffs, flower-filled meadows and its own lake is worth a visit for no other reason than its scenic and natural loveliness. However, it is also a must-visit location for history buffs, strewn around as it is with World War II relics and half-ruined reminders of Kodiak’s part in this conflict. Fort Abercrombie existed as a coastal defense installation before the advent of the war years but when Japanese bombs arrived in 1942 followed by an invasion of Japanese troops in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska everything stepped up several gears. For a period Kodiak served as the Defense Command for the whole of Alaska and was home to a significant naval base.
Grab a map at the information center when you arrive which will lead you along trails linking fortifications, bunkers, gun emplacements and other remnants of the war campaign, all of which you can explore with the help of interpretative panels along the way.
Interspersed between the war interest sites are trails which lead to beaches, the scenic lake or high-vantage look-out points from atop steep cliffs.
Military History Museum
Within Fort Abercrombie Park is a former ammunitions bunker which is now home to the Military History Museum. Unfortunately the museum is only open in the afternoons (unless you happen to be WWII vet) so if you want to visit you will need to come back later in the day. Staffed and run by volunteers and veterans, this small museum relates the story of Kodiak’s army and navy past and explains how the area prepared for war which, although affecting Alaska, never actually arrived on this island. The museum is home to some war-era artifacts which you can actually touch.
Lunch in Kodiak
Whether you want to grab a quick light lunch before continuing your Kodiak day or have already worked up a substantial appetite Kodiak has a good selection of lunch venue choices.
If you happen to be a sushi fan head to Kodiak Hana – the winner of the Kodiak Daily Mirror’s ‘Best Restaurant’ award of 2017. While all kinds of sushi are the focus at this simply decorated, wood paneled restaurant it also offers other Japanese dishes along with a good seafood choice and steaks.
Located right on the dock and waterfront, the best tables here are those outside or next to a window so you can enjoy the bustling activity of the harbor while you lunch.
Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant
Another spot which will give you plenty to look at while you dine is Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant. This pub-type restaurant beloved by locals has been around in one guise or another since the 1950s when local legend Henry ‘Legs’ LeGrue took over the ‘Beachcomber’. The original establishment was swept away in the tsunami of the 1960s and later there was an old ship converted to a restaurant and hotel but the current restaurant has been around since the 70s and continues to pay homage to Henry’s hospitality ideals.
The restaurant is so packed with Kodiak artifacts, vintage artwork, press cuttings and art that it is something of an unofficial and totally free museum. Among the eclectic treasures covering what appears to be almost every inch of wall space are Alutiiq pieces and Russian era curios.
The menu here is vast, offering possibilities for quick light lunches or feasts for even the biggest appetites. Included are sandwiches, burgers, salads, soups and steaks with a great range of seafood bowls including shrimp, scallop and oyster. With its fully stocked pub bar you can choose from a huge range of what to wash your lunch down with, ranging from local beers to wines.
An Afternoon in Kodiak
One of Alaska’s main draws for visitors is its fantastic opportunities for enjoying spectacular wilderness and viewing the wildlife such as bears and whales which inhabit its land and ocean. Kodiak Island – almost all of which is national park and wilderness – offers a huge diversity of options of this type ranging from a simple scenic boat tour of the bay to meet otters and sea-lions to whole afternoons spent bear watching.
Bear Watching and the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
Bear viewing and whale watching are typically top of visitors’ bucket lists and there are many ways of getting to see the area’s Kodiak bear populations. While bear-viewing is far from rare at almost any destination in Alaska Kodiak has something extra special. The bears here are a brown bear sub-species, found only on the islands of the Kodiak archipelago. Their isolation and a habitat rich in foods has led to them growing far larger than their brown bear cousins. Exceeding even the grizzly in size, the average fully grown male stands 10ft tall on its hind legs and weighs in at about 800 pounds with grand specimens of 1,500 not unknown. This makes them not far from the size of a polar bear – the planet’s largest bear species
The best time to see bears is when the salmon runs are in full flow – July, August and September. At these times you will be able to watch these huge animals fishing the streams and lakes where an easy salmon feast is just a paw swipe away. Outside of these months the bears dig for clams on the coast, although they are typically seen in these spots in lower numbers.
While the majority of bear viewers head out by bush and float-plane to the 2,812 square mile/1.8 million acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge – home to thousands of bears – or across the ocean to Katmai National Park with local air taxis or tours this is not the only way to experience seeing these majestic creatures in the wild. ATV adventures and Jeep safaris also head out to bear hot-spots with some operators offering boat and kayak options too. Bears aside, the National Wildlife Refuge is also stunning in its own right – made up of mountains, flower-filled alpine meadows, wetland habitats and forest.
While any salmon river spot during summer can reward you with bear sightings the major hotspots are the Saltery River and Frazer River. This latter is so heavily frequented by bears due to the location of a fish ladder that viewings here are practically guaranteed in summer. Russian River Bridge a few miles out of the town’s center is also another potential viewing spot, particularly at dusk or dawn and one which you can make your way to independently.
The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
If you are short on time or for whatever reason are not able to get out to see the bears in the wild you can still have something of a Kodiak bear experience. While visitor centers in general may not feel exciting enough to include on an itinerary outside of seeking information, maps and such like this particular example is a wonderful exception.
Conveniently located downtown, the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is a great place to learn about all of the island’s flora and fauna but its principal focus is the Kodiak bear. The impressive exhibit room has a wealth of information delivered through interpretation screens and panels, 3D maps, dioramas and models and also runs a short award-winning documentary film in which the bears are the star of the show. The center’s largest single exhibit is its 12m grey whale skeleton which comes with its own fascinating story.
During the summer months the center also hosts park ranger talks and is home to a great natural history bookstore.
The main desk can also provide you with such things as maps, information leaflets and bird species lists.
Other Wildlife Viewing
While the mighty Kodiak bear tends to steal the scene where Kodiak’s wildlife is concerned these are not all you can encounter here. Kodiak Island is home to all kinds of animal and bird species including deer, fox, beaver and mountain goat with whales, otters, porpoises, seals and sea-lions either resident or migratory in its waters.
Marine wildlife and whale-watching experiences are not hard to find with a variety of excursion lengths and everything from guided kayak trips to several hour long boat cruises on offer. The area is a prime whale-watching location as there are several species of whale which pass close to Kodiak Island on migration routes including gray, sei, fin and humpback species with orca or killer whale – technically a large dolphin – also frequently spotted. If you want really close encounters you will need to get out on the water but otherwise it is possible to have a whale-watching experience from dry land as many whales pass very close to shore. During migration season which starts in April all you need to do is head to one of the cliff or coastal vantage points such as Miller Point (Fort Abercrombie State Park), Fossil Beach or Surfer Beach and keep your eyes peeled. At both Cape Chiniak and Narrow Cape these marine giants swim directly below the cliffs making for some incredible viewings.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Kodiak
No matter whether you have chosen to spend your afternoon watching bears, whales or other wildlife or immersed yourself into exploring Kodiak’s wilderness on foot or by kayak your large dose of fresh Alaska air will no doubt have helped you build up an appetite for dinner.
While obviously this small town community doesn’t offer endless dining and drinking venues there is still a surprisingly wide variety of choice which include fishermen pubs to cocktail bars and cuisine choices which include Greek, Thai, Japanese and Mexican.
Pre-dinner drink venues most typically fall into the no-frills pub-type surroundings in Kodiak with the 100+ year old B&B fisherman’s bar near the harbor the oldest of this type but there are several others to choose from either in downtown or a little removed from the center.
If you want to sample the town’s very own beers straight from source head to the Kodiak Brewery. As a taproom rather than a licensed bar you can only have a maximum of two beers and doors close at 7pm but it is ideal for pre-dinner drinks for the craft beer fan. Choose from established favorites, limited period only specialties and seasonal brews.
Rendezvous Bar and Grill
Up a notch from the basic pub are places such as the Rendezvous Bar and Grill – a few miles out of town. Frequented by a coastguard clientele, this place has a reputation for being one of the friendliest in town to visitors and while it might not look too promising from the outside has a quirky and interesting interior. Serving cocktails, beers, wines and spirits, this bar/restaurant is known for its good quality food so is worth the journey out here if you choose to follow your drinks with dinner. You can relax inside with the off-beat artwork and marine curios hanging on walls and ceiling or head to the large patio which is backed with a further display of maritime-themed objects both interesting and random.
Kodiak’s most elegant pre-dinner drinks venue and the best pick for cocktail fans is the Kodiak Inn at the Best Western Hotel. The second floor lounge has a great harbor and bay view which means you can not only watch the ever-changing scenes of the dock but keep your eyes peeled for whales, sea-lions and otter. There is a good choice of cocktails along with good quality wines and around 14 different beers.
Rendezvous Bar and Grill
If you relaxed with some drinks at either the Rendezvous Bar and Grill or the Kodiak Inn you can transition smoothly from cocktails to dining without making too much effort. The seafood-focused casual atmosphere Rendezvous is primarily a sandwiches, burgers and wings type venue with such things as tacos and chowders thrown into the mix and a steak night held every Friday. A local hangout, this restaurant is frequently rated as one of Kodiak’s most welcoming spots and has both indoor and outdoor seating.
The Chart Room
The Best Western’s restaurant – the Chart Room – is Kodiak’s only higher-end dining option which makes it popular with visitors. The menu is quite extensive at this restaurant with a bay view with king crab featuring as a year-round specialty along with traditional fish and chips and steaks. There is a good wine list as well as a large choice of local and international beers.
Two other popular dinner venues in Kodiak are restaurants you may have already visited at lunchtime – Kodiak Hana and Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant. Waterfront Kodiak Hana is a seafood and sushi restaurant – voted the city’s ‘Best Restaurant’ of 2017 by Kodiak Daily Mirror readers – also serving a variety of other Japanese dishes as well as steaks. On the liquid refreshment side Kodiak Hana offers wines, beers and liquors and also serves sakes. Henry’s is a long-established and iconic symbol of the Kodiak dining and pub scene whose walls are adorned with such historical treasures people stop by just to check them out. If you can’t find something to suit on Henry’s menu it is unlikely you will find it anywhere in town. The choice is enormous and includes sandwiches, burgers, steaks, soups, salads, pasta, a large seafood selection which is only available for evening dining and a selection of daily specials.
An Evening in Kodiak
In common with many small Alaskan towns and cities Kodiak’s evening entertainment is typically that which you make yourself. For most locals this involves an evening in good company at a bar or pub with the occasional chance of some live music. If that is what you are looking for the Rendezvous Bar and Grill is the most regular spot for local bands and musicians to perform.
With long, long daylight hours in the summer, evenings are a good time to take a walk around town to check out any points of interest you may not have had time for in your day. You may even find some galleries and shops open later into the evenings in high season so you can pick up some souvenirs and gifts. You can download a walking tour map from the official Kodiak tourism website which will help you plan a route that ensures you don’t miss anything.
First Friday Art Walk
Every first Friday of the month hosts ‘First Friday Art Walk’ events coordinated by the Kodiak Arts Council. Providing opportunities for local artists to get their work seen, venues vary but frequently include the Baranov Museum, the Alutiiq Museum, the Baptist Mission Heritage Center and cafes, studios and shops around town. These are early evening events which might not fit with your schedule but the council’s website lists all cultural and arts events which are taking place in Kodiak over the coming months and which may coincide with your visit.
There are also often events staged at the State Fairgrounds in summer such as the music-, food- and dance-filled ‘Warm August Night’ so it is worth checking if anything is scheduled for when you will be in town.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Kodiak in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!