Alaska Travelogue Part 6 – Juneau

Juneau

Juneau was our first really “iffy” day weather-wise.  I woke up to what I thought was the sound ofseveral someones chainsawing lumber and wondered where on earth we had docked.  I knew Juneau is a very small town despite being Alaska’s state capital, but really, clear cutting by the dock?  I padded out to the lanai (I’m going with that term both because I love the Golden Girls and this thing was sooooo much more than a balcony) to discover that the chainsawing noise was actually the sound of a steady stream of seaplanes taking off and landing in the harbor.

A sea plane landing off our stern

A sea plane landing off our stern

Juneau

Juneau

Our plans for the day were fairly ambitious:  take the bus out to Mendenhall Glacier and hike around there for a few hours, and spend the rest of our time walking around Juneau to visit the state capitol and the State Museum.  One of our “bucket list” items is to visit the capitol buildings in all 50 states.  If you are a history, decorative arts or architecture buff, visiting capitol buildings is a treat and you sometimes meet some real characters!  We have made a lovely discovery in visiting state capitols, which is that most capitol buildings have a fabulous and typically free state museum nearby.  These state museums are real gems and not to be missed if you have the opportunity to spend an hour or an afternoon inside.  As you can see the weather presented us with a dilemma about when to go out to Mendenhall.  I did not want to go hiking in the rain, so after a quick check of a few weather sites on our trusty iPhone we decided to book it out to the glacier in the morning, hopefully before the predicted rain hit.

You have to take some type of shuttle out to Mendenhall Glacier, and there are several to choose from at the cruise dock.  I believe all of them are $16 round trip.  You can buy a round trip ticket and choose to go out and back on the same shuttle service (usually leave every 30 minutes) or you can buy one-way tickets and just go out and back on whichever shuttle is leaving when you arrive at the shuttle stops.  I was told when it is very crowded that the best option is to book one-way tix so you have the maximum flexibility for your return (if your shuttle company’s bus fills up, you will have to wait 30 mins for the next one, as opposed to just getting on whichever bus has space and buying a ticket as you board).  There were no crowds at this time of year so we just got round-trippers on the Blue Glacier Express.  One note:  I read in several places online that it is possible to WALK from the cruise pier out to Mendenhall.  Uh, it is like a 20+ minute direct bus ride on a freeway!  So no, you cannot walk it.  Also, if you visit Mendenhall as part of a formal tour please realize the 45 minutes or so they give you to walk around will not really be enough time to explore the area, the glacier and Nugget Falls – unless you book it the whole way.  It is worth the $16 to go out on a direct shuttle and take your time.  And if you can, go in the morning before all the tour buses descend with their hundreds of tourists.

The hiking at Mendenhall is lovely and easy-peasy – wide, flat trails.  The trails off by the creek near the visitor center were closed due to the fact it was spawning season and there were lots of bears about.  There were a few observation decks open where you could see the salmon, but the real attraction is hiking out to the glacier and Nugget Falls right next to it.  We spent a few hours hiking about and taking pictures, and thankfully the rain held off.  Our decision to go in the morning was also wise because when we got to the glacier we were practically alone, but as we headed back there were hoards of people streaming down the trail.  I read that the visitor’s center at Mendenhall has some great exhibits, but we skipped it as we needed to get back to town for a quick lunch before heading out to explore Juneau.  Here are a few sights from Mendenhall:

Nugget Creek

Close-up view of Mendenhall Glacier from across Lake Mendenhall

Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier, taken on a wide sandbar at the base of the falls.

Nugget Falls – the little “ants” at the base of the falls give you a perspective for how massive this waterfall is.

Alaska’s State Capitol

After lunch the rain started so we had a bit of a soggy walk about town.  Juneau really is quite small, and despite the fact that it is hilly in the middle it is easy to get around.  I wouldn’t buy a pass on a trolley tour unless walking a few mildly steep hills or taking the various long staircases that cut from one level to the next are out of the question.  The state capitol building is a bit of a let-down as it is just a boxy old federal building that the US Govt gave the state of Alaska after it joined the Union.  We zipped around the lobby area, took some requisite snaps and headed over to the Alaska State Museum.  The museum was great – lots of well done exhibits on native peoples, the gold rush, Russian influence, art, animals, earthquakes, etc.  Well worth the $5 entrance fee, and we could have spent a lot more time there if our legs weren’t so walked-out!

At this point I’m going to address the fact that I’m not talking much about the cruise itself.  That’s because for me the cruise was a bit of a non-issue.  The ship was lovely, our room was great, the food was MUCH better than the last time we sailed on the Millennium, the service was excellent all the way around – even the shows were entertaining and well done.  It’s just that it was such a “weird” cruise.  We’ve cruised a lot and this was one odd duck of a cruise.  First, you are in port way longer each day than you would be in the Caribbean or Mexico, so we were off the ship most of the time.  Second, it was so cold there was no usual “hanging by the pool sipping a tropical drink” time.  Nor was there any music going (live or otherwise that I recall) except in the lounges.  As a plus, there was also no constant patter of “Coco loco!  Get your coco loco!  Love connection!  Make a love connection!” from the bar waiters.  Third, the average age of the cruisers on our ship was about 102.  That meant that if you showed up to an activity, you were the only ones there (drag!) and the shows were half-full at best, because memaw and papaw go to bed by 8 (also a drag – I felt bad for the performers who were killing it up there to a smattering of applause!).  I’m glad we did the cruise because an Alaska Cruise is something everyone should do if they can and it is a great introduction to this magnificent state, but our subsequent trips to Alaska (there will be some for sure!!!) will not be by cruise ship.

Next stop, a delightful day out of Skagway…

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