It’s fitting that just about every Alaska cruise stops at Juneau: The city is one of just two U.S. state capitals accessible only by boat or plane (Honolulu is the other). Today, Juneau blends historic buildings that date back to the 1880s with new shops and restaurants — all in a natural setting with glaciers, mountains, eagles, and whales. Which spots are worth exploring before you head back to the ship? Read on to find out.
Mendenhall Glacier - Wildnerdpix / Thinkstock
For Everyone: Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area – The 13-mile-long Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska and is a 15-minute ride from downtown. Plan to spend at least 30 minutes at the front of the glacier, just taking in the scenery. On good days, you might be lucky enough to spot waterfalls, calving (tiny glaciers splitting from the mother), and even black bears. Before you head back to town, venture inside the visitor center to learn about the relationship between snowflakes and glaciers, and how glaciers carve out valleys in the landscape over time.
Tip: One of the best ways to get to the Mendenhall Glacier from downtown is the Glacier Shuttle, a bus that leaves every half hour. All tickets are round trip, and you can stay as long as you like at the glacier and return on the next shuttle. Tickets are $16, and two operators provide the service: Mighty Great Trips and Juneau Tours.
For Couples: Glacier Gardens – This colorful botanical garden in the Tongass National Forest, just outside town, features “flower towers,” upside-down trees turned into massive hanging baskets. After touring the gardens at the valley floor, climb aboard a motorized cart for a colorful journey up into the rainforest. On rare clear days, the platform that sits about 600 feet up offers panoramic views of the surrounding area — including the cruise ship terminal below.
For Families: Macaulay Salmon Hatchery – This working hatchery brings visitors up close and personal with millions of baby king and silver salmon each year. Beginning around the second week of July, mature fish return to this makeshift birthplace to spawn, tumbling over each other to climb the fish ladder and reach the upper pond. The hatchery also provides education about the incredible life cycle of salmon in an informative 60-minute tour.
For the Adventurous: NorthStar Trekking – Experience the ultimate Alaskan glacier adventure on the X-Trek, a three-hour adventure of hiking and climbing over rugged glacial terrain outside town. After a helicopter ride around the back of the Mendenhall, the course provides basic instruction in climbing and rope techniques, scrambles across remote stretches of open ice, and belaying up and down ice walls. This tour is challenging, but the experience is worth every grunt, groan, and doubt.
Although the weather at sea level is often gray and rainy, it’s usually sunny higher up. One way to get closer to the sunshine: the Mount Roberts Tramway, which ascends from the cruise ship terminal to a viewpoint and mountain house 1,800 feet up. For a real adventure, hike up and tram down.
Alaskan salmon - The Rookery Cafe
Breakfast: Silverbow Bakery – Known for using a sourdough starter that dates back to the early 1900s, Alaska’s oldest bakery prepares its signature bagels the same way they do in New York — boiled, then baked. Executive Chef Jennie Rizzo trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and came aboard in May 2013, pulling together an impressive menu that includes homemade soups, creative sandwiches, and cookies the size of hubcaps. Seriously, go hungry.
Lunch: Tracy’s King Crab Shack – It’s all about crustaceans at Tracy’s, which serves king crab legs, king crab bisque, king crab cakes, and Dungeness crab. The outdoor, summer-only restaurant dresses everything down, serving crab legs in butcher paper, and bisque in paper cups. The result: Unadulterated seafood you can eat with your hands.
Dinner: The Rookery Café – Coffee shop by day and intimate bistro by night, this eclectic spot has become a favorite of locals and cruisers alike. Menu items — such as coffee-marinated duck breast and champagne-flavored three-cheese fondue — keep diners guessing with their inventiveness. Other offerings, like the halibut chowder, which is made with fish hauled in that morning, are just plain fresh. Because the restaurant is small, you’ll want to make reservations.
Tip: For a different kind of dining experience, try some of the street vendor carts and food shacks that flourish during the summer months. Quick, affordable, and tasty alternatives, these carts offer everything from reindeer sausage bratwurst (from the Last Frontier food truck) to fresh-berry crepes (from the Alaskan Crepe Escape shack).