Road to Nowhere

When planning a cruise, it is worth looking at where the ships actually dock. Very often, the places visited are unable to take massive passenger liners as the seabed is too shallow or the channels too narrow so the ships end up miles away, often in freight terminals with nothing in walking distance and a long bus ride to the advertised destination.

The port advertised as Rome is more than an hour from the city, visitors to Cairo are disappointed to find they actually arrive more than 120 miles away and people with no local knowledge are surprized to find that rather than seeing Big Ben from their window they are really in Southampton. This goes some way to explaining why I ended up in Whittier, Alaska.

Whittier is where the cruise ships dock to pick up their guests from the airport in Anchorage (about 60 miles away) and is a place so unusual it is hard to describe. Its official website describes it as a city but since it only has around 200 residents this gives a false impression of its size. Almost everyone lives in the same building, a former army barracks resembling a university hall of residence. The 14-story block is called Begich Towers and has its own tiny shop, church in the basement, post office, launderette, cork notice board in the entrance and reindeer pen outside.

Who would live in a place like this?

There are steep mountains around three sides of Whittier and the sea along the fourth. This access problem is what makes it so distinctive a place to visit. The only way to get anything in or out is through a single lane three-mile-long tunnel. For thirty minutes you can only travel in one direction then for the next thirty minutes you can only go the opposite way, unless it is night-time in which case the tunnel is closed altogether and fishing boats are the only choice. The problem for the boats is the wind, it is not unusual for 60mph winds to blow for an entire week and the police force patrol the hills on skis. Bemused tourists leave their cruise ships to ‘explore the town’ and are back within an hour.

However, on the rare day the sun is shining (Whittier suffers 200 inches of rain per year) it is the most beautiful place imaginable. Mountain goats, sea otters and 26 glaciers all of which make for a memorable day, although what it is like to live there, year-round, is another question.

I think this setting would be perfect for a crime novel. A tower block cut off from the world by weather and location, no way in or out… I should get on to writing that one day.


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