Mt Roberts offers the ultimate “view from the top” with its popular tramway overlooking Juneau, the Gastineau Channel and distant Chilkat Mountains. Goldbelt Tour Center
By Alison Gardner, Travel with a Challenge editor
Serving as Alaska’s capital city since statehood was declared in 1959, Juneau is the only seat of government in the mainland United States with no conventional road access to the outside world. With a modest population of 31,000 people, it is the third largest city in the state. Not including city streets, Juneau boasts about 60 miles of roads around the capital area and 262 miles of fabulous hiking trails (see book recommendation below). At 3,255 square miles (2,717 sq. mi. of land and 538 sq. mi. of water), the City and Borough of Juneau also have the second largest area of any incorporated area in the US. To top off its distinctive credentials, it is the only city to include the front end of a famous and very active glacier within its boundaries.
Visitors to Juneau usually arrive by plane, by cruise ship, or by an Alaska Marine Highway car ferry. Between May and September, cruise ships pump up the visitor statistics big-time, spilling thousands of people each day on to the harborside streets and into waiting tour busses and vans. The bustling shopping and restaurant district and narrow historic streets do a surprisingly efficient job of absorbing these fleeting guests into the capitol’s downtown core. What makes such an extraordinary seasonal ebb and flow quite manageable for a small city is that visitors are efficiently whisked back aboard ship as evening approaches, and these self-contained floating hotels of 2,000 passengers or more slide quietly out of Juneau’s harbor away to their next port of call.
Native owned and operated Goldbelt Hotel overlooks a colorful Greenpeace vessel visiting the area to watchdog Alaska’s rainforest harvesting practices. Alison Gardner
My arrival was by plane from Seattle, 700 miles to the south, another common transportation corridor to this seemingly isolated destination. Some visitors select Juneau to begin a smaller-scale, educational cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, just as I did. Others come to linger longer around Juneau itself and to immerse in the incredible marine and land-based wilderness on its doorstep. Next visit I will have no cruise, large or small, to hustle me out of this vibrant, eclectic little city. See if you agree with me that it makes missing the boat worthwhile …
Being tucked snugly into the benchland skirt of Mt Roberts and Mt Juneau has its protective weather benefits, but there is no denying that Juneau is surrounded by super-green, waterfall-laced forest. Plenty of rain must fall on this mildest climate zone in Alaska for it to keep up appearances. Even during July and August, clouds snag on the guardian peaks, and surprise unsuspecting visitors wandering the city streets below with short bursts of intense rain. In a matter of minutes, disposable rain ponchos and umbrellas can become popular impulse purchases!
The accessible outdoors is a huge feature of Juneau, made all the more tempting by there being four times the mileage of well marked day-hiking trails as there are miles of driveable roads. For the independent walker, a good place to start is in the pages of Short Walks Around Juneau by Mary Lou King, a modest 110-page volume documenting 90 walks of a half day or less. With detailed descriptions, maps and illustrations, it is a bargain at US$8.50, available at Foggy Mountain Shop and local bookstores. Among the most dramatic nearby hikes is into Perseverance Basin (the city’s watershed) where a hundred years of mining history still leaves physical traces high on the sheer green canyon walls and the Last Chance Mining Museum is a treasure trove of mining memorabilia.
No one comes to Juneau without making a pilgrimage to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. A short drive by bus, taxi or rented car will get you there and keep you spellbound for hours both indoors and outside on a series of well-marked short and long trails. For a different perspective, Helicopter Glacier Trekking much higher up on Mendenhall Glacier, is one of those now-or-never occasions made user-friendly for most ages and abilities. My personal experience of this true-north adventure, told in an accompanying feature article, is proof that anyone can glacier trek (offered at three levels of challenge).
Participatory Auk Ta Shaa canoe tours on Mendenhall Lake offer visitors an exciting up-close encounter with the face of the city’s famous glacier. Goldbelt Tour Center
For a truly dazzling menu of guided nature discovery tours by water and land as well as introductory tours to Alaska’s diverse first peoples heritage, Goldbelt Tour Center, a native owned and operated corporation, has to be the primary stop you will need to make. Also under its diversified tourism umbrella comes the waterfront Goldbelt Hotel (where the Tour Center’s tour booking office is located) and the Mount Roberts Tramway dramtically climbing 1,800 feet from the cruise ship dock. Juneau-focused visitors have the luxury of saving the tramway experience for the clearest possible day to enjoy a panoramic ride and a day’s worth of activities and attractions at the top. These include bird and bear watching, hiking on groomed trails for all skill levels [with or without a ranger guide], a raptor education center and theater, native artisans at work, eateries, gift shops and more.
A troupe of native dancers representing four west coast native nations performs in colorful authentic costumes, carefully describing each dance in advance for guests to better appreciate the finer points of performance. Alison Gardner
During the dance, performers often turn their backs to declare loud and clear “who they are”, by the intricate designs on their capes. Alison Gardner
A few hours will be well spent at the impressive Alaska State Museum where the best of the collection’s 27,000 artifacts, works of fine art and natural history specimens are presented in a lively, easy to understand style. Exhibits range from Alaska’s nine native cultures and the state’s natural history, to settler history from the Russian arrival in 1741 to American occupation beginning 130 years later. Guided tours are regularly offered during the summer season.
During my own capital city visit, I discovered a few enthusiastically taste-tested alternatives to fast food and other predictable American menus:
In the northern frontier mental image bank generally associated with Alaska, Rainbow Foods is a surprise with a decidedly counter-culture San Francisco or Vancouver aura. Step through the doors of this spacious former church into a health food heaven with vaulted ceiling, stain glass windows, incense wafting and world music gently nudging visitors towards brotherhood and peace. Buy a huge variety of healthy choices from the bulk bins, check out the organic veggies, fruit, and aisle-upon-aisle of packaged goods from around the world. Stop for a bite to eat in the deli cafe (liberally stocked with organic teas and coffees as well as tasty grub made to order) or hang out for a while at the book and magazine shelves. A browse of the flyer-cluttered bulletin board in the entrance foyer reveals that this shop is the networking center for all things alternative in the city.
At the far end of the cruise ship wharf, the Twisted Fish restaurant is a bustling, noisy hybrid of sprawling upper/lower restaurant and rough wood pub. This popular hangout can write the definition of “fresh” when it comes to creative ways to serve all manner of tasty seafood and shellfish that must literally jump from the sea into the cooking pot. My personal favorite was halibut in beer batter, and I’m not usually a white fish fan. From the harborside picture windows, there is never a shortage of comings and goings to observe, especially during the summer high season.
In some steeper historic blocks, staircases remain the only streets, maintained by the city as part of its road system. Alison Gardner
In the surprisingly sophisticated category, don’t miss the family-owned Fiddlehead Restaurant and Bakery [downstairs] and Di Sopra [upstairs]. Expect to find nothing ordinary on either menu, and plenty of authentic Italian touches in both flavor and presentation. Fresh Alaska seafood has a primary profile on the menu, but you might also want to be adventurous with Truffled Elk Tenderloin Carpaccio, Duck Breast laced with Vermouth or a myriad of vegetarian options. Everything is prepared on site from scratch each day, and the location is very central, just behind the Alaska State Museum.
Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn & Adventure Spa is a 15-minute drive beyond the city core, and a few minutes walk or drive to the Mendenhall Glacier. It is mind-boggling to learn that the property was buried under glacier ice just 200 years ago, with some rooms still offering glimpses of the now-distant glacier face through a vigorously sprouting phalynx of evergreens.
Guests don’t just stop by overnight at Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn & Adventure Spa. They make this their accommodation headquarters for an average 10 days of pampering and exploration. Pearson’s Pond
After 16 years of building and nurturing her hospitality dream, Diane Mayer Pearson creatively balances professional delivery with high energy passion. No detail is left unattended and new elements are constantly being added to an already-finely tuned mix. Returning clients – and there are plenty of them – will always find something new to greet them. Mature travelers make up 78% of the clientele, with weddings, vow renewals and anniversaries high on the request list. Is it any surprise that Diane is also a marriage commissioner and wedding consultant?
Then let’s do a 180-degree turn in accommodation theme. In 1906 a gold rush pioneer built one of the grandest homes in all of Juneau, high on a hillside overlooking the harbor. Thanks to the painstaking restoration of innkeepers, Linda Wendeborn and Mark Thorson, the past is reborn a hundred years later in Alaska’s Capital Inn, It is an award-winning heritage home where everything from the furniture and wallpaper to the china on which the multi-course breakfast is served is a collector’s treat. Who wants to hurry when perennial favorites like dungeness crab eggs benedict on home baked rolls, or lemon souffle hotcakes and thick cut smoked ham are on the morning menu? Over 70% of guests are older people, and not surprisingly the inn is very popular with women business travelers and government executives.
lassic turn-of-the-century gold rush elegance and a lip-licking heritage breakfast menu have made Alaska’s Capital Inn a widely-praised guidebook spotlight throughout the world. Innkeepers, Linda and Mark [right], have excelled in bringing local history alive for their guests. Alaska’s Capital Inn
Of course, small and intimate are far from the only style of lodgings on the Juneau menu. Major accommodations that I can personally recommend are the thoroughly modern Goldbelt Hotel overlooking the waterfront and the proudly old fashioned Baranof Hotel that has a 1930s charm from lobby to rooms and suites, where both the layout and the furnishings speak to times gone by. Each hotel includes a tasty variety of dining options from breakfast to dinner.
The most comprehensive websites on Juneau are www.traveljuneau.com and www.JuneauAlaska.com. They include tours and attractions, activity options, and a wide range of accommodation from mainstream hotels to distinctive bed and breakfasts, both in the city and in pristine natural areas nearby. Check the Travel Juneau homepage for an online events calendar: highlights include the Alaska Folk Festival in April, Juneau Jazz & Classics in May, and two Salmon Fishing Derbies in May and August.
The Lonely Planet guide, Alaska, by Jim Dufresne and Aaron Spitzer, with an updated 10th popular edition.
Don’t miss other colorful Alaska articles in the Travel with a Challenge permanent feature collection: Enjoy senior-friendly Helicopter Glacier Trekking on Mendelson Glacier, and an independent exploration of the Aleutian Islands by ferry.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine.