Juneau, often described as America's most unusual state capital, is the only center of U.S. government with no roads leading into or out of town. The city is surrounded by nature, namely towering mountains and the waters of Gastineau Channel. For most visitors, the only way in or out is by air or sea. Residents boast three routes: plane, boat or birth canal.
Gold put Juneau on the map in the 1880s, though the mining camp went by several names before prospector Joe Juneau finally wrangled enough votes to get his name to stick. Gold remained the mainstay until the last mine was shut down in 1944. However, mining has made a comeback as one of the region's top industries; in recent decades, two mines have begun production of not just gold but also silver and other metals. Another leading industry there is government. Juneau became a state capital when Alaska became the 49th U.S. state in 1959, and today, nearly 60 percent of the city's population works in government. The governor's mansion stands on a hillside overlooking the cruise docks, and anyone can take a walk up the hills via steep stairways.Juneau offers a wide range of shoreside activities, from whale-watching and zip-lining to touring the Capitol building or the Alaskan Brewing Co. Then, there's the state's most accessible glacier -- Mendenhall, an immense, 12-mile-long river of ice. Along with glacier-viewing, there's always the chance of seeing a bear or two up close.
Everything -- information kiosks, cafes, shops, museums, tour operators, public library -- is a short walk from the cruise ships. Tour guides meet passengers right at the docks (motor coaches line up for cruise excursions in an organized fashion), and several tourism information kiosks are available to help with additional arrangements. Souvenir shops are located along the dock, and some - like Taku Smokeries store - have ATM machines.
Mendenhall Glacier: The U.S. Forest Service maintains a visitor center and walking trails at the glacier and Nugget Falls. Bears patrol the creek for salmon and are often seen quite close. Not to worry -- rangers are on patrol, as well. Ships offer tours to the area, or do-it-yourselfers can take a shuttle from town. Visitors can also raft to the glacier on a guided tour with Alaska Travel Adventures (800-323-5757).
The most exciting way to see the glacier is by helicopter. Temsco Helicopters (877-789-9501) offers a basic tour with about 30 minutes in the air and 20 to 25 minutes on the glacier; upgrade to the "pilot's choice" tour for two different glacier landings. Advance reservations are advised, and don't forget to factor in transportation costs to the airport if they're not included.
Mount Roberts Tramway: The tram whisks travelers up to a 1,800-foot-high station on Mount Roberts. Visitors will find hiking trails, a cafe, a gift shop and a captive, injured bald eagle from the Juneau Raptor Center. (490 S. Franklin Street; 888-461-8726; open noon to 9 p.m. Monday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday May to September; $33 for an all-day pass)
Red Dog Saloon: This kitschy wild-western-nostalgia bar comes complete with sawdust floors, mounted wildlife and swinging doors. A piano player typically can be found tickling the keys on afternoons when cruise ships are in port. (278 S. Franklin Street; 907-463-3658; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
The Juneau Arts & Humanities Council has a community calendar on its website that is jam packed with events, so you easily can find out what's happening while you're in port.
Glacier Gardens: Have you seen an upside-down tree? You will at Glacier Gardens, where the owners turned massive trees on their tops and used the roots as giant flower baskets. The gardens flourish in a rain forest setting. Guided tours are by golf cart. (7600 Glacier Highway; 907-790-3377; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; adults $24.95, kids $15.95)
Macaulay Salmon Hatchery: Learn all about the life of a salmon. In addition to raising and harvesting salmon, the hatchery is an aquarium that displays marine life. Kids will love the touch tank. (2697 Channel Drive, 2.5 miles north of the dock; 907-463-5114; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $3.25 for adults, $1.75 for children)
Hiking: Juneau got its start as a mining town, and several leisurely (and fairly short) hikes are available from the city center that wind past old mining equipment. The Flume Trail follows a wooden bridge past numerous small waterfalls. Across the channel (in Douglas), the easy Treadwell Trail runs through the once vibrant mining community adjacent to a beach. The Perseverance Trail is the most challenging of the three but is very popular because of the stunning views.
Shopping: You'll find typical souvenir shops but also a few standouts. Check out the Jade Shop (321 S. Franklin Street; 907-463-5551) for all manner of jade animals and jewelry. The jade is mined in Alaska, about 120 miles east of Juneau. Caribou Crossings (497 S. Franklin Street; 907-586-5008) sells quality, made-in-Alaska arts and crafts. Alaska Fur Gallery (359 S. Franklin Street; 907-463-5588) wins the "tacky" award with its fur-covered jockstraps. If you need a colorful, flower-decked umbrella, pick one up at Glacier Gardens, and for anything else you may have forgotten to pack, head to Ben Franklin (233 Front Street; 907-586-6762), one of the city's most historic shops.
On Foot: Juneau is an easily walkable town. It's a good idea to carry an umbrella if it looks at all cloudy.
By Car: Taxis gather at Marine Park. For car rentals, the usual major companies -- Avis, Hertz, Budget -- offer locations at the airport. They may offer pickup service at the dock.
By Shuttle Bus: It's fairly easy to get to key attractions beyond downtown, such as Mendenhall Glacier, without renting a car. Numerous shuttle services offer roundtrip rides for around $20. Inquire at the tourist kiosks lined up along the cruise piers.
By Public Bus: Juneau offers a publics bus system, but it doesn't go right to the main attractions outside of town, so a shuttle would be a better option. Public buses stop at the airport and shopping center.
Fish, especially salmon and halibut, is the dish of choice in Juneau. Despite being the state capital, Juneau's standard dress code is casual everywhere at lunch.
Twisted Fish Company: This place prepares fresh Alaskan fish and shellfish every way you can imagine. Try the fish tacos. The restaurant is near the tram and features water views. (550 S. Franklin Street; 907-463-5033; open from 11 a.m.)
The Hangar on the Wharf: As its name suggests, The Hangar on the Wharf is located in a historic airplane hangar right on the waterfront. It boasts Southeast Alaska's largest selection of microbrews, and the lengthy menu includes seafood specialties, burgers and other American fare. Indoor/outdoor seating is available on the wharf. (2 Marine Way; 907-586-5018; open from 11 a.m.)
Tracy's King Crab Shack: This don't-miss gem serves up king crab legs and crab cakes outdoors at no-frills tables. It is, after all, called a shack. (406 Franklin Street next to the ships; 907-723-1811; open at 10:30 a.m.)
Paradise Cafe: There you'll find quiche, sandwiches, salads and other light lunch fare. It's also a good spot for a quick coffee and pastry if you need a break from walking around town. (9351 Glacier Highway, Suite 10; 907-586-2253; open 8 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. for breakfast and noon to 3 p.m. for lunch)
Randy's Rib Shack: Located next to the library, past the Alaskan Crepe Escape stand, this barbecue joint serves up pulled pork with coleslaw and baked beans as well as beef brisket and baby back ribs. (360 S. Franklin Street; 907-957-1294; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The Rookery Cafe: Serving up excellent coffees, this place earns rave reviews for its new American dishes. (111 Seward Street; 907-463-3013; pastries from 7 a.m., breakfast/lunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday and lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday)
Your ship will arrive to any of three areas, all within walking distance of downtown. Most large ships dock along South Franklin Street near the library and Mount Roberts Tramway. Small ships dock next to floatplanes at Seadrome Dock. AJ Dock is at the south end of town. Ships might anchor and tender passengers when more than four large vessels are in port. The Alaskan Marine Highway ferry docks about seven miles outside of downtown.
Overcast skies. Juneau is located in a temperate rain forest and sees an average of 220 days of precipitation a year. Poor weather can spoil your day, especially if you have your heart set on riding in a helicopter and landing on top of a glacier.
Currency is the U.S. dollar. ATMs and banks are readily available around town. Some stores, like Rainbow Foods, allow you to get cash back ($20) with purchases.
Residents speak English. If you want to learn a few Tlingit (Native American) phrases, take the Mount Roberts Tramway to the top and sit in on a free lesson in the auditorium.
Red Dog Saloon logowear is fun, especially the red suspenders. Also, a bar of glacier silt soap, made only in Juneau, is a unique gift.