Visitors stream to Whittier

Posted: Monday, June 12, 2000

WHITTIER (AP) -- The lure of a new stretch of pavement and a new destination is attracting visitors curious for a look at this small port town on Prince William Sound.

Kevin and Pat Cassidy of Bridgefield, Conn., were at Portage Glacier on their way to Homer when they decided to take a side trip to Whittier.

''I saw a TV show about the tunnel opening up a few days ago at home,'' Pat said, ''and four days later we're coming through it. Wow.''

Elaina Mock and Fred Hveding of Anchorage were on their way to the Kenai Peninsula when they, too, decided to take an unplanned detour through the tunnel. ''Because it's there,'' Mock said.

The $80 million tunnel opened Wednesday, and by Friday a steady stream of visitors to Whittier were making their way to Lisa's ice cream parlor and Varly's Swiftwater Seafood Cafe.

Take away the proximity to Prince William Sound and Whittier, population 280, has seemingly few attractions. No museums. No movies. No malls.

While Seward features the Alaska SeaLife Center and the state's biggest Fourth of July party and Homer boasts the Salty Dawg and the state's biggest halibut, Whittier offers the forbidding Begich Towers, which houses about 80 percent of the population, and an under-construction road from the tunnel to the town that kicks up dust whenever it isn't raining.

But day-trippers will find enough to stay busy. There are docks to walk. Berries to pick. Some fish to catch from shore. Trails to hike, especially when more snow melts. Gift shops to browse. And a number of places to eat and drink.

Inside the Swiftwater cafe you're likely to find Margaret Varlamos, who owns the cafe with her husband, Don. Friday's crowds were the biggest since the tunnel road opened, and after beginning the day with two gallons each of seafood chowder and clam chowder, Varlamos was making more by midafternoon.

''It was wild and crazy,'' she said after being slammed with customers at lunchtime. ''In the past we would get a rush, but we've never had people out on the ramp standing in line to get in before.''

Many customers wanted information with their lunch.

''They get here, and they're like, 'What is there to do?' I don't know what to tell them,'' Varlamos said. ''Have lunch, shop, go home.''



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