Our Favorite Places

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Our Favorite Places

Prince William Sound, Alaska
The locals say Prince William Sound hasn't fully recovered from the massive lube job provided by the Exxon Valdez back in 1989, but first-time visitors remain awestruck by its sheer beauty and scale: stark fjords, lushly forested islands, mountains, tidewater glaciers, and 200-foot waterfalls. There are more miles of coastline here than in all of California-and so many bald eagles you stop looking up after a while. The kids can gather mussels at low tide, and troll a line for pink salmon and rockfish while paddling. The sound is protected by the Chugach Mountains and the Kenai Peninsula on three sides, so the water is usually calm. As you approach calving glaciers through the ice fields, it sounds like a thunderstorm and feels like paddling through a frozen margarita. A few words of caution: Although the air temperature in June-the warmest, driest month-may hit 70 degrees, the water maxes out at 50. Tipping over is not an option, and any help in emergencies is a long way off. Stay half a mile away from glaciers: When a hunk of ice the size of a small apartment building breaks off, you want to be riding a gentle swell, not a breaking wave.

Critter Factor: Orcas, minke and humpback whales, porpoises, sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions are likely to surface. Some of the black bears are habituated, so cook away from camp and hang your food. You'll see more birds than you can keep straight, including three kinds of terns, sea ducks, and trumpeter swans.

Route: Take the shuttle from Anchorage to Portage, then the train to Whittier. Put in at the town dock and head out to the east, passing cliffs where a colony of black-legged kittiwakes have set up shop. Hug the shore and camp at the small, protected cove at Decision Point eight miles out-or at Shotgun Cove, five miles out, if you get a late start. The next day, round the point and head southwest into Blackstone Bay. Here you have a two-mile open-water crossing of the bay to Tebenkof Glacier. Two miles up is Thirteen Mile Beach, with a waterfall you can paddle up to at high tide, good hiking, and usually a lot of sea otters around. Protected forest camps at Seventeen Mile Beach are four miles farther on. Spend two days here, doing day paddles up to Blackstone Glacier and around Willard Island. Returning the way you came, curse yourself for not bringing more film.

Hired Help: North Star Alaska (800-258-8434) runs four-day trips for $950 and five-day trips for $1,200; Anadyr Adventures (800-865-2925) offers a range of trips, from overnights for $275 per person to ten-day trips for $2,750.

Resources: Alaska Backpacker Shuttle ($30 round-trip; 800-266-8625) goes from Anchorage to Portage. Take the Alaska Railroad train from Portage to Whittier ($16 round-trip; 800-544-0552). Trails Illustrated puts out a good map of Prince William Sound ($8.99; call 800-962-1643 to order). Prince William Sound Kayak Center in Whittier rents boats (907-276-7235). Alaska Public Lands Info Center (907-271-2737) and the Chugach National Forest (907-783-3242) are also good sources.

Penobscot Bay, Maine

When a Mainer announces "I'll a hoe," he's not offering to help you garden-he's letting you in on a little secret. Millions of tourists swarm over the 54 square miles of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island to the east, but few ever make it down to the lesser known part of the park on Isle au Haut. While much of the Maine coast is disconcertingly exposed, the numerous islands in eastern Penobscot Bay between Stonington, a working fishing village, and Isle au Haut (just six miles away) offer protected paddling. The dome-shaped granitic islands pastured with evergreens and inset with crushed shell beaches make this one of the most beautiful sections of Maine's 3,600-mile coast. Most of the islands are private, but you're rarely more than a quarter-mile from one should you need to make an emergency landing. June is a great time to go, when the days are long and the crowds have yet to arrive.

Critter Factor: Harbor porpoises, harbor seals, ospreys, auks, endangered roseate terns, and eider ducks can be seen, as well as mink, raccoon, and deer on some islands.

Route: Put in at Stonington and head southeast toward Russ Island, a mile away. From here, head east to Camp Island, then southeast to Devil Island, a paddle of about an hour. Just on the northwest side of Devil is Hell's Half Acre, a flat, secluded island with pine trees and good camping. In the morning, you've got an easy three-mile paddle as you weave south between Buckle and Coombes islands, past Wreck Island, and on to Harbor Island. The western point of Harbor has a big, open field and, in season, loads of raspberries. To keep a low profile, make camp up in the woods. It's an hour's paddle the next day to the town of Isle au Haut on the northwest part of the island, where you can pick up basic provisions at the store (closed Sundays). The island is heavily wooded, with 18 miles of trails. Pack a picnic lunch and hike down along the coves and inlets of the west side as far as your legs feel like carrying you. From Harbor Island back to Stonington, it's an easy three-mile paddle.

Hired Help: Maine Island Kayak Company (800-796-2373) charges $450 for a three-day trip to Isle au Haut. Maine Sport Outfitters (800-722- 0826) offers a four-day camping trip for $425 per person, six days for $650, and also rents kayaks ($35-$50 per day).

Resources: The Maine Island Trail Association, 207-594-9209; the Bureau of Public Lands, 207-287-3061 (ask for their brochure, "Your Islands on the Coast"); Acadia National Park, 207-288-3338.

British Columbia
A mere few miles northwest of the San Juan Islands lies a better bet for the family. The Gulf Islands get the same 250 days of sunshine a year-but have much gentler currents, a fraction of the population, and miles of undeveloped shoreline. The 200 islands scattered between Vancouver Island and the mainland form a natural basin that traps and slows water: You don't have to schedule every move around the tides. It's easy to plan a trip that minimizes open-water crossings in favor of hugging the southwestern shore of the islands, uplifted sedimentary layers where honeycombed sandstone cliffs rise up to 200 feet. Their beauty is also functional, absorbing the sun's heat, shielding you from the prevailing winds, and keeping the kids busy playing Find the Monster in the Rock.

Critter Factor: Look down and see starfish; look up and see bald eagles. You'll also find river otters, sea lions, and kingfishers, mink scavenging the shore, and seals and orcas cruising the waters.

Route: Take the ferry from Tsawwassen on the mainland, or from Vancouver Island, to 18-mile-long Galiano Island (population 700), then drive to Montague Harbor Provincial Park. Camp here for the night, then paddle up the coast of Galiano and west to Wallace Island. It's a five-mile paddle, only the last mile of which is over open water. The two-mile-long island, with no permanent inhabitants, is the site of a provincial park and plenty of flat, grassy areas to camp. Base yourself here for three nights, sparing yourself the daily chore of loading the boat. Take day paddles around Wallace and nearby islands. Walker Hook, southwest of Wallace, has a sandy beach, and Thetis Island, a five-mile paddle west along the chain of islands, has a pub where you can stop in for a hot meal and a shower.

Hired Help: Gulf Island Kayaking (604-539-2442); SaltSpring Kayaking (604-653-4222) rents kayaks for $45-$70 per day and runs four-day trips for $350 per person; Sea Otter Kayaking (604-537-5678) runs four-day trips for $320 (20 percent discount for kids) and rents kayaks for $15-$30 per day.

Resources: B.C. Ferries sails from near Vancouver or Victoria to five of the Gulf Islands, including Galiano; call 604-386-3431. Contact the British Columbia Tourist Office at 800-663-6000.

The ever-shifting ribbon of barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina pulls in a lot of East Coast vacationers in the summer; since most never lose sight of their cars, it's easy to put the crowds behind you. On one side of you are 125 miles of prime Atlantic beach; on the other are the more protected waters of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, a vast nursery for finfish and blue crabs, where herons and egrets stalk the shallows. The lack of legal places to camp within easy paddling distance of each other anywhere on the Outer Banks means you'll be doing mostly day trips.

Critter Factor: You'll see osprey, terns, kingfishers, gulls, hermit crabs, and horseshoe crabs. Alligator River has otters, mink, and red wolves.

Route: Camp for two nights at the Colington Island Campground on Colington Island, a fishing community, and buy some fresh tuna at nearly world-famous Billy's Seafood. You can do a day paddle around the islands up and down Albemarle Sound and Kitty Hawk Bay, which surround Colington. The next day, stop at Roanoke Island for lunch and visit the North Carolina Aquarium, a sleeper attraction with great hands-on exhibits for kids. Stop by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Manteo for maps of Alligator River and continue 12 miles on North Carolina 64, then three miles to the end of Buffalo City Road. Put in here, and explore the 15 miles of paddling trails at the refuge. In the morning you can move camp to the National Park Service campground, 20 miles southeast at Oregon Inlet, where you can do day paddles out to Duck Island, two or three miles out in Pamlico Sound, and see the 1,142-pound world-record Atlantic blue marlin on 24-hour display outside the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.

Hired Help: Kitty Hawk Sports (800-948-0759) rents out sea kayaks ($28-$52 per day) and runs overnight trips ($99 per person).

Resources: Colington Island Campground, 919-441-6128; Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, 919-473-1131. For information on Oregon Inlet campground, call the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (919-473-2111).

Air-conditioned by trade winds that keep temperatures in the 70s and 80s year-round and blessed with lower humidity than most parts of the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands can be forgiven for sometimes confusing winter and summer. By mid-April the tourists have split, and the locals reclaim the palm trees, coral reefs, and crescent bays inset with white sand beaches. And summer seas are generally calmer, so it's a great time to bring the family down for low-intensity paddling. The 100 or so islands owned by the U.S. and Britain are virtually all within a mile of each other and have superior campgrounds and public beaches. Two-thirds of St. John is covered by the pristine 12,500-acre U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, with 20 miles of hiking trails. A third of the park lies underwater, including a 225-yard interpretive trail.

Critter Factor: Parrot fish, yellowtail snappers, sergeant majors, and occasional green and hawksbill turtles are below water. Brown pelicans, herons, and Caribbean martins hang out above.

Route: Fly directly to Tortola-or ferry over from St. John (a 15-minute trip)-and set up at the Brewers Bay campground (809-494-3463), on the island's north side, for a six-day trip. Spend a couple of days here for the excellent snorkeling and day paddles out to uninhabited Sandy Cay (take the botanical walking tour) and Sandy Spit. Half an hour's paddle south along the coast is Cane Garden Bay, where there's a gorgeous beach with snorkeling in the coral gardens and along a drop-off wall. When you're ready, pack up and head west, with the wind at your back, to Jost Van Dyke, five miles away. Spend two nights on Jost, a rugged little island with a good beach at White Bay. Your next move is a two-and-a-half-hour paddle south to St. John, where you stay for two nights at Maho Bay Camps, an ecological showplace with 114 tent cottages on platforms ($60 per night per couple; $10-$12 extra for kids; 809-776-6226). Snorkel and hike the park, then paddle to nearby Trunk Bay and take the Frett Shuttle bus ($4) into St. John's main town, Cruz Bay. Morgan's Mango restaurant serves a great "voodoo snapper" (blackened fish smothered with fruit salsa).

Hired Help: Windsurfing Tortola rents kayaks ($30-$35 per day; $150-$175 per week; 809-494-0337). Arawak Expeditions (800-238-8687) runs trips year-round (five days, $750; seven days, $925).

Resources: Virgin Islands National Park, 809-776-6201; British Virgin Islands Tourist Board, 800-835-8530.

British Columbia
The 150 islands known as the Queen Charlottes have achieved near-mythic status among paddlers. They're well off the mainstream kayaking routes along the Northwest coast, and you don't end up in this green and misty wilderness by accident (six ferries a week in summer make the half-day trip from Prince Rupert to Skidegate across the turbulent Hecate Strait). Dubbed the Canadian Galßpagos for the relic species that survived when the last ice age bypassed the area, the Charlottes play host to the world's largest black bears-as well as to unique subspecies of pine-marten, saw-whet owl, and hairy woodpecker. There are spruce trees 200 feet tall, and red cedars dip their lower branches into the sea during the 20-foot high tides.

Critter Factor: Family harmony requires multiple sets of binocs for the seals, salmon, sea lions, orcas, otters, the highest density of nesting bald eagles in western Canada, and the world's largest population of Peale's peregrine falcons.

Route: To minimize commuting time into the best areas, hire an outfitter to take you 40 miles south into Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and the fine gravel beach on Kunga Island, where you can camp. A ten-minute paddle away is Tanu Island, site of an overgrown former Haida Indian village. Spend a couple of days working your way down the sound between Moresby and Lyell islands, camping at Lockeport, an abandoned copper mining town. Head east the next day to Murchison Island, a ten-minute paddle from Hotspring Island, where you can bathe in the natural hot spring pools. Reverse the route and meet your outfitter back on Kunga Island.

Hired Help: Moresby Explorers Ltd. (800-806-7633) rents kayaks for $145 per week; Pacific Rim Paddling (604-384-6103) offers one-week trips for $855-$995 per person (two- week trips cost $1,580); Ecosummer Expeditions (800-465-8884) runs one-week trips for $1,155 (two weeks, $1,875).

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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