Monday, April 04, 2011

Cruising to Alaska The Port of Juneau

Situated on the upper Inside Passage, approximately 900 miles from Seattle, Juneau is often the first port of call on a cruise to Alaska.  Average summer temperatures are in the 60’s but the climate is wet, so pack your rain slicker.  Summer days are lengthy, 18 hours long on June 21st, so plan on spending every minute in port sightseeing!  There’s so much to see and do while enjoying the extraordinary scenery and wildlife that is Alaska!

 Shore excursions, whether cruise line sponsored or private vendor, span a broad spectrum in both selection and price. There are biking, rafting, and kayaking tours, all of which give you a chance to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. There are walking tours and bus tours or excursions that give you an extreme adrenaline rush! The more adventurous ones are quite costly, but well worth it, as they are a once in a lifetime experience.

 Mendenhall Glacier, the most popular attraction in Juneau, is the only drive-up road accessible glacier in the United States and located 13 miles from downtown Juneau.  At one point the glacier is more than a half a mile wide, with ice 300 to 1800 feet deep! The Visitor’s Center ($3) has some wonderful displays and an interesting short film. The huge windows that make up the curving wall of the center offer an unobstructed view of the glacier.

 Hiking trails around the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center range from a short, 0.3-mile walk to a 6.8-mile hike with a 1,300-foot elevation gain. These trails will give great views of Mendenhall Glacier, but will not take you onto the ice. Walking on Mendenhall Glacier is dangerous, and should only be done if you have proper training.

 An easy trail with scenic glacial views is the Photo Point Trail.  It’s only .3 miles and takes less than 30 minutes. As the name implies, it is the best vantage point to capture panoramic shots of Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding peaks. The entire trail is accessible, with benches and interpretive information spaced along it.

 To get too Mendenhall Glacier you can take a ship arranged shore excursion (every cruise line offers one), a private excursion (I did this and combined Mendenhall with a whale watching trip), or there’s the MGT blue shuttle bus (about $7). The pick-up for the shuttle is at the end of the dock and offers direct transportation to Mendenhall Glacier.  Note: this is not a tour. The bus runs every 30 minutes beginning at 9:00am till 6:00pm on most days, so you can spend as much time as you’d like at the glacier.

Juneau is a great port for a whale watching boat tour!  Expect to see humpback whales, orca, dolphins, sea lions as well as bald eagles soaring above.  The boat captains will stop when marine life is spotted so guests can observe and photograph.  My experience is that these operators have a passion for Alaska and her marine life and truly enjoy sharing their enthusiasm with their passengers.

  The Mount Roberts Tramway ($27adult / $13.50 child) climbs to 2000 feet in just six minutes!  At the top there is an observatory, nature center, restaurant, bar, theater, and of course, gift shops.  You can buy self or naturalist guided hiking tour here, and unless you plan on doing some hiking, it’s quite expensive just for the ride to the top! Since we had so much time in port we went to the top and did marvel at the view, but in hindsight, I think there are better ways to spend your time.

Walking distance from the pier is the Alaska State Museum ($5).  Exhibits give a great overview of the culture and history of Alaska's Aleut, Athabaskan, Eskimo, and Northwest Coast people along with European settlement and Gold Rush history. They have done a great job preserving artifacts here. It's extremely kid friend with many hands on exhibits and even a children’s room!

 Some of best sightseeing of Juneau and the surrounding area is done from the air. There are several different flight-seeing experiences to choose from.  Small planes take to the air above the Juneau Ice Fields, many making a landing on a glacier for a short walk and photo op!  A more extreme adventure would be glacier trekking; hiking and climbing over the rugged terrain of the glacier. Upon landing, a guide teaches basic climbing and rope techniques enabling you to safely climb and descend the ice walls. Less intense, but just as exciting would be a helicopter ride to the dogsled camp on the Mendenhall Glacier. Here the professional mushers and Alaskan sled dogs will have you driving the team or relaxing in the sled as you take in the awe inspiring scenery. I had my family signed up for this, but we were unfortunately cancelled due to rain and fog.  Keep in mind that tours like this are expensive. Expect to spend up to $500 pp for some of these airborne escapades.

  A cruise to Alaska can be one of the most amazing trips you can take, and a stop in Juneau starts things off in an astounding way with its spectacular landscape. I can’t possibly cover all there is to do when you pull into the port of Juneau, but I hope this gives you some options to explore.

 Need help planning your Alaska cruise?  The cruise specialists at Direct Line Cruises have been there and can help you pick the perfect itinerary. Call us at 1 800 352 8088 or visit our website.
 Next week:  The Alaskan port of call, Ketchikan

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