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Cruise Feature Article
Alaska Ports of Call

Juneau: Capital of the Great Land

by Alan Walker

It would be difficult not to have a fun time in Juneau, Alaska's capital and third-largest city. It's a beautiful site, has a fascinating history, an interesting downtown, and is the jumping-off point for dozens of wilderness excursions. The cruise ship terminal is at one end of downtown, and it's an easy walk to see the main sights. If you want to get an overview of the area before you even leave to explore Juneau, or perhaps on the way back to your ship, there is a tramway (gondola) to the top of Mt. Roberts, which starts from the very dock where your cruise ship is docked. Although not an inexpensive ride ($17.75 for adults), the view from the top of Juneau and your cruise ship 2,000 feet below, is magnificent.

Galaxy from Mt. Roberts Tram
Celebrity's Galaxy as seen from the Mt. Roberts Tram

Juneau's History

Although the Juneau waterfront was originally used as fishing grounds for the Tlingit Indians, the name "Juneau" is not of Indian origin, but is instead named after one of the original gold prospectors, Joe Juneau, who discovered gold here in 1880. Of course, this is not the legendary Klondike gold of which so much has been written, but Juneau's discovery did lead to the first gold rush in Alaska, and subsequently the area became the home of three of the largest gold-mining operations in the World. Almost $160 million in gold was mined in the 60 years after its discovery, but only remnants of the various mines exist today. Before the mines had closed, Juneau had become the capital of Alaska, and tourism and government are now the mainstays of the Juneau economy and its 30,000 population. Two pieces of Juneau trivia: it's the only U.S. capital city which is inaccessible by road, and it's the largest capital city (in area) in the U.S.(although Alaska's Sitka claims the record for the largest city by area in the U.S.)

Downtown Sightseeing

There is a booth right at the cruise ship terminal which offers assistance for visitors. If you are unlucky enough to be on a ship that has had to anchor in the harbor instead of using the cruise ship terminal, then you may want to pick up tourist literature at the Davis Log Cabin Visitor Information Centre at the corner of 3rd and Seward Streets. Before you even leave the dock, you can look up at the side of Mt. Roberts and see the ruins of the Alaska-Juneau gold mine. You can walk into town either along the seawalk, ending in Marine Park, or along the main street, South Franklin. At the Marine Park you will find the Juneau library, which is built above a 4-storey parking garage, a design which made a cover of Architectural Digest. Panoramic views may be obtained from the 5th floor of the library. A bronze sculpture on the dock near the corner of the library is of Patsy Ann, an English bull terrier that once greeted all arriving steam ships. Read all about Patsy Ann right here in the SeaLetter at Who is Patsy Ann? Downtown Juneau has many historic buildings built in the late 1890's or early 1900's. One fun place is the Alaskan Hotel at 167 South Franklin Street, which was built in 1913. This is Juneau's oldest continuously-operating hotel, and is worth taking a look at (particularly noting its ornate tin ceiling), or try one of their ales from their local micro brewery.

Other downtown sights include the Alaska State Capitol Buildings between Main and Seward Streets, the historic buildings on Front Street built on the former high-tide line (buildings on the left side were originally built on pilings over the beach), the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church built in 1894 (on 5th Street between Gold and North Franklin Streets), the Juneau-Douglas City Museum at the corner of 4th and Main Streets (which includes exhibits for entertaining young children) and the Alaska State Museum at 392 Whittier Street.

Red Dog SaloonNo tour of Juneau would be complete without stopping by the Red Dog Saloon (which you probably would have seen as you left the cruise terminal because it's right at the corner of South Franklin Street and Admiral Street). It can take you quite a while to admire all of the signs and wall hangings in the Red Dog Saloon, including many from cruise ships.

Shopping

Shopping in Juneau, as with other Alaska ports, is a happy experience with friendly staff, well-maintained stores, and no bargaining! In addition to the expected range of native crafts, Alaskan jewellery and souvenirs, you will also find other items reflecting Alaska's Russian heritage, including Russian icons, samovars, lacquered boxes and nesting dolls.

 

Mendenhall Glacier

Perhaps the most famous glacier of Alaska because of its ease of access, the Mendenhall Glacier is only 13 miles north of downtown, and can easily be seen on a bus tour, or even a private excursion by taxi. The glacier, which is steadily receding, is part of the Great Juneau Ice Field. Most cruise lines offer a tour where you can fly above the glacier, and even land on it.

Mendenhall Lake Raft Trip

Mendenhall River RaftingOn my visit to Juneau on the Galaxy with a group of four in June of 1998, we took the Mendenhall Lake raft trip as our major shore excursion. After a short bus ride, we meet up with the rest of our group of 60 on the edge of the lake, and donned our life jackets and rain gear, while we were given a safety lecture. The rafts (actually they look like zodiacs without an engine) held about 12 people each, and one energetic guide who rowed us across Mendenhall Lake, to where we could get a great view of the glacier itself. Next, we headed out of the lake to the Mendenhall River, with our guide still rowing furiously (because the rest of us just sat there, we didn't have any oars).

The ride down the river was mostly peaceful, with gorgeous scenery. There are a couple short sections in the river with rapids and white water which can give you a little thrill, unless you are an experienced white-water rafting fan. It certainly isn't dangerous, but water does come over the edge of the raft and you will likely get some in your boots which are provided by the raft operators (and that's why you need to bring a pair of dry socks). While you may not notice it, a photographer from the tour company hangs from a tree at the point where the rapids are the most vigorous, and gets great photos, which you can then buy at the end of your rafting expedition. Other photos and souvenirs are available at the end of the trip in the same area where you recover your shoes, and catch the bus back to the ship.

I thought the excursion was worth the money (although it was a pricey $105 when booked through Celebrity), and its a trip that all ages can enjoy.

Mt. Roberts Tramway

Mt. Roberts Tram

As mentioned at the beginning, the Mt. Roberts tramway is right where your ship docks. In addition to the great view, you can shop at a couple of souvenir stores, dine at the Rain Forest Restaurant and Cafe, enjoy the Alaska films in the theatre, visit the Nature Center (with a guided tour), or hike on one of the many trails. You can get a map of the Mt. Roberts trails where you catch the tram at the bottom.

Other Shore Excursions

On our cruise on Celebrity's Galaxy, we were offered a huge number of shore excursion choices in Juneau. I just wish I could have tried them all to report on them personally, but it would take me years to do that. The basic excursion is to do the City Highlights and Mendenhall Glacier tour at a cost of $32.00 per person. If you wanted to save a few dollars, you certainly don't need a bus to take you around downtown to see everything, and you can take a taxi to the Mendenhall Glacier viewing point for much less than the cost of the tour. Celebrity organized an "authentic Alaskan salmon bake", and I expect that other cruise lines would do the same. More exotic shore excursion adventures included a float plane trip to the Taku Glacier Lodge, flying over the Juneau ice fields or the Mendenhall Glacier by either float plane or helicopter, a wildlife cruise, sport fishing, sea kayaking, bike riding, whale watching, fly fishing, alpine walks, nature walks, canoeing on the Mendenhall Lake, and trekking on a glacier after a helicopter ride.

The one excursion my wife really wanted to take was the combination "glacier helicopter flight seeing and dog sled demonstration". My wife has always wanted to see a dog sled team in action but at $320.00 U.S. per person, I said you must get to eat the dogs at the end of the tour for that price. My wife didn't smile, but she did enjoy the Mendenhall Lake raft trip that we did instead.

Despite all the choices of shore excursions, they do seem to book up quickly, and I would recommend that you book for your shore excursions as soon as you can once you are on board ship. Unfortunately, I was not able to check out whether any of the shore excursions could be booked more cheaply once you got to Juneau. The excursion that we did appeared to be specifically organized for our ship, and I couldn't see any way you could book it privately once you arrived in Juneau.

Rating Juneau

A 1995 Los Angeles Times readers' poll ranked Juneau as fifth best of the top ten cruise ports in the world. I hope you find it ranks that high - or higher!

Line

Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Alan loves email, and can be reached at: Alan@sealetter.com.

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