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Carnival Spirit: Alaska
Day 1: Embarkation: Whittier/Anchorage
Day 2: Cruising the Fjords
Day 3: Sitka
Day 4: Juneau
Day 5: Skagway
Day 6: Ketchikan
Day 7: Cruising the Inside Passage
Day 8: Debarkation: Vancouver
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Day 4: Friday, Juneau
JuneauVisit Juneau this year and you'll no doubt hear about the weather and Wal-Mart. The weather is a hot topic because last summer was one of the hottest on record with temperatures in the high 80s at times and this summer is promising to be super warm too (at least that's what the locals say). Lucky for us we arrived with bright sunshine and temps in the high 60's.

Wal-Mart is the other issue on everyone's mind because, in the only state capital you can't get to by car (you have to come by boat or ship or fly), the mega-store is expected to open next year. Since K-Mart shut down a few years ago, the first coming of Wal-Mart is hotly anticipated.

Beyond this glimpse into the local mindset, we of course are visitors. Today, Erin and I wanted to check out Mendenhall Glacier, one of the most visited glaciers in the world and also one of the most conveniently located (it's easily accessible and about a dozen miles from town). We could have booked a shore excursion on the ship for $55 and up, but I knew a cheaper way to get there -- the blue school bus known as the Mendenhall Glacier Express. You can buy tickets ($5 each way) at the tourist booths you pass when you get off the pier, or walk to the driveway past the Mount Roberts Tramway (Juneau is nestled between Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, the latter being right above the pier) and look for the MGE signs. The bus to the glacier takes less than 30 minutes and includes commentary, ours from a Native American woman who shared such wisdom as "Why does the bald eagle have a white head? Because the raven flies above." She also was the first (though alas not the last) to mention Wal-Mart to us.

At Mendenhall, after oohing and ahhing over the views of the sun glistening off the blue/gray/white ice of the 12-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide glacier, we hit the hiking trail on the sometimes strenuous 3.5-mile East Glacier Loop (there are several trails and this is actually considered one of the easier ones. Our bus driver had recommended it.

It took us less than two hours to complete the trail, which meandered through forest, past waterfalls and provided some nice glacier views, with the well-maintained trail going uphill and down (at one point there were even steps) as well as flat at times. We had been warned by a ranger there may be some black bear cubs running around but we didn't spot any. If you do get close to a bear you're supposed to stand still (don't run) and make noise to scare them away, the ranger advised. We met up with a friendly fellow hiker, 30-something Allen from Ireland, and he joined us for a good stretch of the trail as we shared stories of our travel exploits -- he had been a dive instructor in Australia and once lived in Saigon, but was spending the summer in Juneau, trying to put together enough wildlife photos to make a book (he was hiking with a good-sized camera).

A suggestion for hikers: Bring water bottles (also for sale at the Forest Service visitor center at the glacier), bug spray and sunscreen. Beyond that, hiking shoes are probably a good idea, but we hiked in sneakers. And dressing in layers is a good idea (we did more shedding than adding as again, it was a warm day). Erin pointed out how fresh the air smelled at the glacier and when we filled our water bottle at the visitor center the water was refreshing too.

On our way back to town on Eagan Drive, our bus driver (a different one) pointed across the Gastineau Channel from near the boat harbors at a large rooftop (in the trees but quite visible and bigger than all the others) which he said was one of the homes of actor Mel Gibson. The driver then told us about Wal-Mart (yeah, we had heard that).

We got back to Juneau hungry, so after catching quick views of the white, columned governor's mansion and boring concrete state office buildings, as well as the historic, painted wood Gold Rush buildings downtown (now mostly souvenir shops, a lot selling articles made in Taiwan), we headed back to the ship pier and stopped in at Twisted Fish Co. (behind Taku Fisheries), for Twisted Fish tacos ($8.95), smoked salmon pizza ($9.95) and Alaskan Pale Ale ($5). Delicious. And there were even some locals dining there among the tourists (based on the conversations we heard). We stopped for free smoked fish samples at Taku on the way out.

We headed back to the ship because we had booked the port-day special at the spa of a combo 25-minute massage and 25-minute facial for $89. We wore our robes from our cabin as I know from experience Carnival does not provide robes in the spa. My therapist wrapped me in a warm blanket and nice classical music played in the background (none of that New Age stuff) as she went deep as I requested. Erin enjoyed her treatment too. Splendid relaxation. But one complaint: Having to fill out a form like in a doctor's office just seems silly, especially when a sign on the wall of the massage room said "skin analysis and prescritions (sic)." If you can't spell prescriptions you probably shouldn't pretend you offer them. Erin's therapist tried to sell her products (Steiner, which operates the spas, now has several lines) while mine just subtly suggested I should use an antioxidant whatever that is.

Showered and relaxed we walked off the ship again into the town. A guy at the nearby Little Switzerland tried without success to interest us in jewelry from Tiffany's. We wanted to check out the famous, landmark Red Dog Saloon, but it was so packed with tourists that even the swinging doors, sawdust floor and Gold Rush ambience held no appeal.

We had bigger fish to fry or at least better food to eat back at the ship for dinner, anyway, where we had booked into the fabulous Nouveau Supper Club (now $30 per person and worth every penny). Reservations are required and since the stay in Juneau was until 11 p.m., they weren't hard to come by this night (a good number of passengers were out on evening tours including past-sunset whale watching). We had the elegant, Art Nouveau-style room with its bright stained glass decorations practically to ourselves at 7:30 p.m. The room is high on top of the ship and seats less than 100 passengers. If you're not afraid of heights, you can get there via a glass staircase from Lido that lets you look down at the ship's entire 11-deck atrium (if you are afraid, take the elevator). A singing duo performs for your dancing pleasure and a few couples snuggled on the dance floor.

The food is the quality you would find at a good restaurant on land, and foodies will delight. Make sure to order the garlicky creamed spinach with your steak (filet mignon, porterhouse), chops, lobster or fish. Caesar salad is prepared tableside. You can have a generous portion of caviar for an extra $29. Desserts (like the caramel apple tart) are decadent. Because this is a dining "experience," expect it to last between two and three hours. Tummies pleasantly full, we checked out the cheesy but entertaining juggler comedian (he can juggle anything, including tennis rackets) at the 10 p.m. show in the main theater before hitting the sack.

Erin is missing kids her own age (there are few onboard beyond crewmembers) but at one point during the day told me she hopes if she has a daughter someday they will get along like we do.

As the commercial might go: A mother/daughter cruise in Alaska -- priceless.

Tomorrow in Skagway, our adventurous travelers head up the White Pass by narrow gauge train past Dead Horse Gulch to Fraser, B.C. (in Canada) -- and then mountain bike back to town past the same trails used by Gold Rush stampeders.
Day 3: Sitka red arrow Day 5: Skagway

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