Whittier is Anchorage's portal to Prince William Sound. Although Anchorage itself is on Upper Cook Inlet, that muddy, fast-moving water is little used for recreational boating. Whittier, on the other hand, stands on the edge of a long fjord in the northwest corner of the Sound, whose clear waters are full of salmon, orcas, and otters, and bounded by rocky shores, rainforests, and glaciers. The only land access to Whittier is a railway tunnel that has been paved for cars, making it North America's longest highway tunnel -- and one of the most inconvenient to use. The tunnel has only one lane to be shared by traffic and trains in both directions, and the tunnel often must be aired out, so vehicles have to wait, sometimes for an hour or more.

Whittier certainly has major advantages for visitors seeking to get out on the water. The ocean is calmer here than on excursions to Kenai Fjords National Park, so seasickness is rare, and the glaciers are even more numerous. Prince William Sound boats also see otters and sometimes whales; Kenai Fjords tours, on the other hand, more often see whales and see more birds. Sea kayakers also have great places to go from Whittier. Almost all of Prince William Sound is in Chugach National Forest, with its public-use cabins in lovely, remote spots on the shores. I do recommend going to Whittier for all this -- and the cute and unusual businesses along the harbor add to the experience if you have some extra time, and you can find a good, simple meal there.

There's little reason to go to Whittier other than the Sound, unless you're on a quest to find the oddest towns in America. Most of the roughly 180 townspeople live in a single 14-story concrete building with dark, narrow hallways. The grocery store is on the first floor and the medical clinic on the third. The rest of the people live in one other building. The Begich Towers, as the dominant structure is called, was built during the 1940s, when Whittier's strategic location on the Alaska Railroad and at the head of a deep Prince William Sound fjord made it a key port in the defense of Alaska. Today, with its barren gravel ground and ramshackle warehouses and boat sheds, the town maintains a stark military-industrial character. The pass above the town is a funnel for frequent whipping winds, it always seems to rain, and the glaciers above the town keep it cool even in summer (although it's glorious in the sun).

Be Prepared -- Whittier lacks a bank, large stores, or downtown businesses. Bring what you need. But if you forget something, a little harbor store is amazingly well stocked.