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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 completely 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. Locals boast three routes: plane, boat or birth canal.
Gold put Juneau on the map in the 1880's, though the mining camp went by several other 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 here 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. Anyone can take a walk up the hills via steep stairways, which, by the way, have official street names. Remember? No roads.
Juneau offers a wide range of shoreside activities, ranging 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. Roads do go there, and along with glacier-viewing, there's always the chance of seeing a bear or two up close.
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For guys: Red Dog Saloon logowear is fun, especially the red suspenders. For gals: A bar of glacier silt soap, made only in Juneau, is a unique gift.
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.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar. ATM's and banks are readily available around town.
Where You're Docked
You'll dock in any one of three areas, all within walking distance of downtown. Most large ships dock along South Franklin Street. 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.
Everything -- information kiosks, cafes, shops, museums, tour operators, public library -- is a short walk from the cruise ships.
On foot: Juneau is an easy walking 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, Alamo, 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 inexpensive roundtrip rides. Inquire at the tourist kiosks lined up along the cruise docks.
Watch Out For
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.
Mendenhall Glacier: The U.S. Forest Service maintains a visitor center and walking trails at the glacier. Bears patrol the creek for salmon and are often seen quite close. Not to worry -- rangers are on patrol, as well. Ships offer tours there. Do-it-yourselfers can take a shuttle from town. The public bus is the cheapest option, but it stops about a 1.5-mile walk away.
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 20-25 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)
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)
Been There, Done That
Glacier Gardens: Have you ever 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)
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 local marine life. Kids will love the touch tank. (2697 Channel Drive, 2.5 miles north of the dock)
Alaska State Museum: This museum features exhibits from Eskimo, Aleut, Athabaskan and Northwest Coast native tribes, as well as a collection of artifacts from Alaska's Russian colonial era. Don't miss the big tree with a huge bald eagle's nest. (395 Whittier Street)
Shopping: Among the usual souvenir shops, there are a few standouts. Check out the Jade Shop (321 S. Franklin Street) 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) sells quality, made-in-Alaska arts and crafts. Alaska Fur Gallery (359 S. Franklin Street) wins the "tacky" award with its fur-covered jockstraps. If you need a colorful, flower-decked umbrella, pick one up at Glacier Gardens.
Local 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 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; from 11 a.m. daily)
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 such specialties as "Propeller Lasagne," stuffed with halibut, shrimp, crab and salmon. Indoor/outdoor seating is available on the wharf. (2 Marine Way; 907-586-5018; open from 11 a.m. daily)
Tracy's King Crab Shack serves up king crab legs and crab cakes outdoors at no-frills tables. It is, after all, called a shack. (300 S. Franklin Street behind the library and next to the ships; 907-723-1811; opens daily at 10:30 a.m.)
Zen Restaurant serves its fish with an Asian twist stir-fried, curried, with ginger, etc. (51 Eagan Drive in the Goldbelt Hotel; 907-586-5075; 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. (breakfast) and from 11 a.m. (lunch)
Paradise Café serves 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. (245 Marine Way; 907-586-2253; 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. (breakfast) and noon to 3 p.m. (lunch)
Passengers on small-ship cruise lines American Safari, InnerSea Discoveries and Lindblad Expeditions embark in Juneau.
Alaska's Capital Inn is a seven-room B&B in a beautifully restored 1906 gold rush mansion, just up the hill from the waterfront. There's free Wi-Fi, a hot tub in the garden and two rooms with their own whirlpool tubs for two. The delicious, multicourse breakfasts will keep you satisfied until it's time for evening wine and nibbles. (113 W. Fifth Street; 888-588-6507)
The Goldbelt Hotel is a standard hotel, conveniently located near the cruise docks. Free perks include airport transportation and Wi-Fi. (51 Egan Drive; 888-478-6909)
The Best Western Grandma's Feather Bed describes itself as "the smallest hotel in the largest hotel chain" -- and, indeed, feels more like a country B&B than a typical Best Western. All 14 suites offer feather beds and whirlpool baths, and hot breakfast is complimentary. The property is located a few miles outside of downtown Juneau, close to the airport and en route to Mendenhall Glacier. (258 Mendenhall Loop Road; 907-789-5566)
Staying in Touch
Several cyber cafes have come and gone, but you can still bring your own computer to Silverbow Bakery for coffee, pastries and free Wi-Fi. (120 Second Street)
Best Only-in-Alaska Experience: Take in an aerial view of the Juneau Icefield, and enjoy some of the best-tasting grilled salmon you'll ever eat at Taku Glacier Lodge. The floatplane trip to the historic lodge is deservedly popular, so booking onboard your ship in advance is highly recommended.
Best for Wildlife-Lovers: Even if you've seen humpbacks from the deck of your ship, getting up close and personal in a small boat is a major thrill. Some operators guarantee you'll see a least one whale, so you know there are plenty of the giant creatures out there.
Best for an Adrenaline Rush: Juneau has two zip-line companies. Alaska Canopy Adventures (907-523-2920) includes a ride on a boat and off-road vehicle before you even get to their rain forest zip lines. Alaska Zipline Adventures (907-321-0947) offers zip lines with mountain vistas. The company is located at the ski area in Tongass National Forest.
Best Splurge: Combine two incredible experiences -- "flight-seeing" above the immense Juneau Icefield and dog sledding across it once you land on top. Both dogs and mushers hang out for the summer at camps set up on the glacier.
Best for History Buffs: Go underground into one of Juneau's historic mines, try your hand at panning for gold, and see first-hand how this all-important mineral put Juneau on the map. This excursion is often combined with a salmon bake.
For More Information
Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau: 888-581-2201
On the Web: www.traveljuneau.com
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--by Sarah Schlichter, Editor for Cruise Critic's sister Web site, IndependentTraveler.com