Tuesday, 19 June 2012

In Port: Juneau, Alaska


by Adventure Cruise Guide editor, Roderick Eime, in Alaska

It's one of those vexing trivia questions. What is the capital of the US state of Alaska? No, not Anchorage as most people would suggest, but the tiny port city of Juneau, home to just few more than 30,000 hardy folks. Like so many cities and towns on the frontier, Juneau was founded in the late 19th century gold rush and quickly developed into a busy transport hub. Curiously though, Juneau has never been accessible by road. The completely land-locked city can only be reached by air or water.

As a cruise port, Juneau sees around 560 dockings each season ranging in size from the tiny 60-passenger National Geographic Sea Lion to the massive Rhapsody of the Seas. The city benefits enormously from the almost 900,000 cruise passengers who pass through the town dropping dollars in the stores, restaurants and attractions. On one day alone, I saw four large and three small vessels load and leave the wharf for the waters of the Inside Passage.

Australian cruisers who make the big leap across the Pacific to Alaska would be selling themselves short if they didn't take time to see more of the land by extending their stay at either or both ends of their itinerary. Juneau has an array of sights that are worth at least an extra day or two (or three). Some highlights:

Glacier Gardens Rainforest Park. A painstakingly constructed 50 acre botanic display built on top of land devastated by a mudslide in 1984. Get up close to the unique plant species that inhabit the Tongass National Forest – the largest temperate rainforest in the world – where some of the trees are 700 years old. Hear the fascinating story of the gardens' genesis, learn about native herbal medicines and ride the buggy to the panoramic viewing platform for a spectacular overlook of Juneau. The other great view is from the top of the Mount Roberts Tramway which leads up from the wharf. Just what is an 'upside down flower tower'?

Mendenhall Glacier. Okay, you will see plenty of glaciers from your ship, but the easy, drive-to visitor centre adds education and interpretation that may be missing from your big ship experience. Wildlife encounters are common here too. Yes, even bears.

Alaska State Museum, right in town, contains an impressive collection of native artefacts and also covers recent human history as well as a natural and geological overview.

Macauley Salmon Hatchery. Now this might sound a bit dull, but I thought it was fascinating. See and learn how wild salmon are used to enhance fish stocks in the waters throughout Alaska's Inside Passage while you tour through the extensive facility. This hatchery, one of 36 in Alaska, releases 115 million fish each season. Plus I learned two new words today: osmocompetent and otolith marking. See!

Needless to say, the fishing is amazing with massive Halibut, nice fat salmon as well as other varieties like freshwater Dolly Varden and cod. Alaskans love to hike and there are more hiking trails in Juneau than roads and you can stroll off for up to four hours on any of the trails out of town. Just be sure to complete Bear Safety 101 beforehand.

For more information including tours, excursions, shopping, dining and accommodation, see www.traveljuneau.com