The Alaskan state capital of Juneau was one of the four stops on my Alaskan cruise. It was also the cruise stop that I did the most in terms of variety. My day visiting Canada’s Yukon Territory was memorable but involved a lot of driving. And while I loved my nature walk and visit to a famous totem park, it was definitely on the shorter side. While I ended up doing a port excursion in Juneau through Disney, I did so more for the convenience (we were picked up right at the ship and then transported from points A to B to C) and because the excursion truly sounded fun. The thing to remember about all cruises and port adventures is that cruise lines contract excursions out to third party outfitters. Disney Cruise Line, Holland America, Princess-they’re not the ones leading the excursion. So what I did through Disney Cruise Line I’m sure is offered on other lines as well.
In Juneau, Alaska, I definitely recommend not missing these three activities:
Alaska is known for its whale population but this is especially the case in Juneau. After driving about 20 minutes from the cruise terminal area, we arrived at a small harbor filled with an assortment of fishing boats and whale watching vessels. Although the skies were particularly gray that morning, the scenery was still quite gorgeous.
Onboard was the captain and the naturalist/deck hand. The latter provided a brief explanation on the type of whales we might see (we saw strictly humpbacks), and their migration patterns. They travel to warmer waters during the winter months, i.e. Hawaii. (When I was in Hawaii in early December, I actually did see some whales.)
Unfortunately, I didn’t see any whales jumping out of the water (a la Free Willy) but we did see many flukes, which is the tail of a whale. It’s composed of two lobes, each of which is called a fluke. The flukes move up and down and are what propel the whale through the water. We learned that once you saw the fluke, the whale wouldn’t reemerge for another 10 minutes or so. We also saw harbor seals and a sea lion, although from a distance. You want binoculars with you on a cruise to Alaska, but most definitely when going on a whale watching expedition.
This was the second glacier I saw on my Alaska cruise and while few exhibit the sheer awesomeness of Dawes Glacier, I could certainly appreciate the “convenience” of Mendenhall. Located right outside of Juneau, you can drive there (or be bused in my case), and then walk to it for prime photo opportunities. You can’t get that close to it (for those experiences, you need to mortgage your house and then take a helicopter to land on it), but considering its immense size, you still feel somewhat close.
The glacier is nearly 14 miles long and extends from the Juneau Icefield (its source and the fifth largest icefield in North America) to Mendenhall Lake. Like everything else on our fragile planet, I learned that Mendenhall Glacier is also feeling the effects of global warming. It has been in retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 18th century, but climate warming paired with ice loss through iceberg calvings are the reasons why the glacier is both retreating and shrinking.
There are countless trails on site at Mendenhall Glacier varying in length and difficulty (in addition to cost) but if you’re short on time, I’d recommend sticking with the Photo Point Trail and Steep Creek Trail. They’re both easy and accessible. However, for something even better, skip the “kiddie trails” (the two I just listed) and opt for the Nugget Falls Trail. It’s still an easy, flat path, just a slightly longer trail. However, it takes you to Nugget Falls which offers closer views to the face of the glacier.
At Endicott Arm, I viewed Dawes Glacier from the water whereas here, I viewed it from the land. It was a neat perspective.
Gold Creek Salmon Bake
So this is one mass tourist operation I can’t recommend enough (just look beyond the slightly kitschy Gold Rush-era garb that’s worn by the staff). While I’m not really a salmon person (I love shellfish; regular fish, not so much), I vowed that while on my Alaska cruise I would eat it, preferably more than once. I had it as a dip (delicious, and I bought a can of smoked salmon in Ketchikan to take home with me) and then had it at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake which was delicious, and this is why.
Operating for almost 40 years, the Gold Creek Salmon Bake serves up delicious fare right in the middle of history. Two individuals first struck gold near to the present day salmon bake locale back in 1880. Also on site (and only a short walk away) is a salmon-spawning creek and the entrance to an old Gold Rush mine.
But let’s talk about the food. First things first, even though it’s called a salmon bake, the fish is actually roasted and at Gold Creek, it’s done over a wood fire. I’m not sure if the sauce/flavoring varies but the day I was there, the salmon featured a scrumptious brown sugar glaze (I think that would make just about anyone love the taste). The smoke from the fire was also so wonderful to take in and smell. There was also baked “cheechako chicken” (cheechako is slang for newcomers), Gold Rush potatoes, baked beans, wild rice pilaf, Yukon corn bread, and macaroni and cheese. Lemonade, coffee, and tea were complimentary although soft drinks, brews and wine were available for extra. There was blueberry cake for dessert (I passed after all the desserts I was consuming onboard) but did partake in roasting my own marshmellow. This was something I hadn’t done for years so it was special.
Everything was buffet so you could get as much or as little as you wanted. Staff was continuously coming around to clear plates and put more food out. As you dined, there was also a guy playing an acoustic guitar so that definitely added to the ambiance, there in the Alaskan rainforest. Compared to my lunch in the Yukon which was okay but nothing spectacular, this more than made up for it.
There’s so much to see and do in all of the Alaskan ports. However, when in Juneau, make sure your itinerary includes these three activities. You won’t regret it.
Note-Juneau is home to two cruise docks. The Disney Wonder docked at the one that was further away from the downtown. It wasn’t a bad walk, just not necessarily through the most beautiful scenery or pedestrian friendly (more cars/trucks seemed to traverse it than people). Disney Cruise Line did provide round the clock transfers between the ship and the Juneau city center.