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Juneau: Wilderness City

Jan 1, 2005
2005 / December-January 2005

Juneau’s biggest problem is also its biggest asset. Let’s address this contradiction from 5,000 feet in a helicopter. Mount Juneau is to the left of us. Mount Roberts lies ahead. The city nestles between the two, living up to its billing as a “little San Francisco.” It has consistently been voted one of the most livable cities in the United States.

Directly beneath us is the Glacier Highway, a road without an ultimate destination. Forty miles northwest of Juneau, the highway stops dead. Drive southeast and the same thing happens, only sooner. Another road north terminates at the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier. Go southwest, across the bridge spanning the Gastineau Channel, and all you’ll find are the suburbs of Douglas Island. Juneau, it is plain to see, has no road link with the outside world.

So there you have the problem: This is a state capital severed from the territory over which it presides. But just look at the benefits. Walk away from downtown, and within minutes you’ll be hiking through bear country. In our helicopter, we can bank away from the city and fly for five minutes over saw-toothed ridges and between close peaks to a thrilling landing on Mendenhall Glacier. Standing on the ice in our nonskid boots, hemmed in by mountains, we may as well be in Antarctica. We are divorced from civilization in space and time. The fundamentals of this view haven’t changed in millennia: the vast glacier, the sheer rock faces. Can any other city rival this for a back yard?

Drive from Juneau over to Douglas Island, and you enter an entirely different kind of wilderness. After the starkness of the glacier, here you walk within the aromatic confines of the spruce forest. If you’ve got the time, hit the Dan Moller Trail up the slopes of Mount Troy — a six-hour hike there and back. The trail takes you across beautiful open meadows and through evergreen forests; lush habitats that do not sit easily with most people’s preconceptions of Alaska. Indeed, this part of the state, embracing a frayed coastline of temperate islands and tranquil channels, is locally referred to as Alaska’s “banana belt.”

Visit the city in the summer, and you can believe it; huge cruise ships are moored in the harbor, and the streets swell with tourists in shorts and T-shirts. The flip side of this seasonal boom is seen in winter, when many shops close, and a fierce wind regularly blusters down off the Taku Glacier. (When meteorologists tried to measure the strength of the Taku wind, their gauges were blown away.)

In the absence of tourists, Juneau’s true vocation surfaces. This is a government town. Amid the characteristic pioneer buildings, you can’t miss the split-level State Office Building (the S.O.B., as locals prefer to call it), the bland Federal Building and the Alaska State Capitol, with its incongruous marble-pillared entrance. But, despite the intrusions of modern planners, Juneau remains infused with a natural beauty that transcends architecture.

From our high vantage in the helicopter, it is apparent that there is no clear demarcation between this city and the wilderness that surrounds it. A local tourism official once told me that she looked out the window during a meeting shortly after arriving here and saw a black bear striding along the sidewalk outside. Nobody at the table batted an eye.

Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of the link between the city and its surroundings is the Mount Roberts Tramway, which whisks passengers from the waterfront up to the high slopes of the mountain. The $21.95 ticket, permitting unlimited rides throughout the day, is worth every cent — the views almost rival those from our chopper.

Taking in the full panorama, you can appreciate that mountains represent only one half of Juneau’s natural equation: Water is the other. Follow the narrow Gastineau Channel in either direction and it soon widens, connecting with a lacework of waterways and fjords. Every day the Alaska state ferries (known locally as the “blue canoes”) thread their way south to the towns of Sitka, Wrangell and Ketchikan, and on down to British Columbia and Washington. A great way to spend a day around Juneau is to rent a sea kayak and paddle out to some of the many nearby islands. Auke Bay is a particularly good kayaking venue, and in the course of a short trip you’ll probably encounter seals, porpoises and, if you’re lucky, humpback whales. A good rental company is Alaska Boat and Kayak (tel 907 465 4563, www.juneaukayak.com). Rates begin at $45 per day. If you’d like to spend your time on the water less strenuously, there are numerous yacht and motorboat charters available for whale-watching and sport fishing (especially for salmon and halibut). Auke Bay-based Rum Runner Charters (tel 907 789 5482, www.rumrunnercharters.net) offers 2 1⁄2-hour whale safaris from $95 per person.

Look down as our chopper returns to its base close to Juneau Airport, and you’ll see the constant traffic — big and small, human and wild — in the water. We have been flying with one of the most experienced chopper companies in the state, TEMSCO Helicopters Inc. (tel 907 789 9501, www.tesmcoair.com). The rather unromantic name stands for “Timber, Exploration, Mining, Survey, Cargo Operations.” Our 55-minute tour onto the Mendenhall Glacier cost $160 and has been well worth it. On final approach we skirt the busy airport to the waiting helipad. Without road links, and with the ferries mainly confined to the calm waters of the Inside Passage leading south, Juneau relies on airliners to bridge the Gulf of Alaska to the northern part of the state. As the jets roar in and out, a quintessentially Alaskan scene unfolds on the stretch of water beside the runway: Floatplanes, usually carrying fly fishermen, hunters and flightseers, cut sparkling trails across the surface as they take off for cabins beside remote bays and lakes. Helicopters are all very well, but no trip to Alaska is complete without a floatplane flight. Alaska Fish ’n’ Fly Charters (tel 907 790 2120, www.alaskabyair.com) runs a full range of flights; the 4 1⁄2-hour bear-viewing tour to Admiralty Island, from $400 per person, is particularly memorable.

After a day in the air, on the water, or on the hiking trails, where better to end up than in a brewery? The Alaskan Brewing Co. (tel 907 780 5866, www.alaskanbeer.com) has been producing some of the best-tasting beer in the world since 1986. You can sample some of its brews, including Alaskan Amber, which is based on a gold rush recipe, during a free brewery tour: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. And if that whets your palate, one of the best places to hang out after dark, and to knock back another Alaskan Amber or two, is the smoky bar of the venerable Alaskan Hotel on Franklin Street. It still retains the atmosphere of the gold rush era, when two prospectors, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, found gold in a nearby creek in 1880, and the city was founded. Of the two names this new settlement could have had, Juneau is certainly the prettier. But it wouldn’t have mattered either way. In this corner of Alaska, the influence of man is dwarfed by the towering achievements of nature. Alaska’s capital owes everything to its formidably spectacular surroundings.


Lodging

Juneau has a wide range of accommodations catering to everyone from backpackers to epicureans. There is some overlap between these seemingly disparate groups. When I first stayed in the city, at the Westmark Baranof, I arrived at reception muddied and drenched after an afternoon of hiking. The receptionist checked me in without a second glance.

In making your choice, the first decision is location: Do you want to be downtown or “out the road,” as the suburbs are called? Downtown offers the convenience of having all the main attractions on your doorstep, but in summer the constant hubbub of thousands of cruise ship passengers can make it fairly noisy. Out of town, there are many astonishingly beautiful locations, and you’ll rarely be more than a 15-minute drive from the center of things.

Juneau has plenty of the usual “could be anywhere” hotels, but there are also many atmospheric inns and B&Bs.


THE WESTMARK BARANOF HOTEL Westmark is the premier hotel chain in Alaska and the Yukon. The company’s flagship, art deco Baranof Hotel has long been the venue of choice for visiting legislators and businesspeople — largely thanks to its strategic downtown location. Its 196 rooms are comfortable and well equipped, with mountain or Gastineau Channel views. It has seen better days, but if you enjoy faded grandeur, this is the place for you. The hotel does not offer airport transfers.

The Westmark Baranof Hotel
127 N. Franklin St.,
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 907 586 2660,
fax 907 586 8315
www.westmarkhotels.com

BEST WESTERN GRANDMA’S FEATHER BED Located close to the airport, this charming Victorian inn is, with 14 deluxe suites, the smallest property in the Best Western portfolio. In keeping with its name, all of the rooms have luxurious four-poster feather beds, as well as Jacuzzis, high-speed Internet access and cable TV. Lying eight miles from downtown, the hotel is a bit far by Juneau standards, but it can’t be beat for homey charm.

Best Western Grandma’s Feather Bed
9300 Glacier Highway,
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 907 789 5005,
fax 907 790 2818
www.grandmasfeatherbed.com

THE DRIFTWOOD LODGE This family-run downtown hotel, situated beside the State Museum, is the best value in town. The rooms are spacious, and many come complete with kitchenettes. At less than $100, the one-bedroom apartments are especially worthwhile. The hotel also provides a complimentary 24-hour shuttle service to the airport and the ferry port.

The Driftwood Lodge
435 Willoughby Ave.,
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 907 586 2280,
fax 907 586 1034
www.driftwoodalaska.com

ALASKA’S CAPITAL INN BED AND BREAKFAST Voted the “Best B&B in Alaska” in 2003, this centrally located mansion, originally built in 1906, has been expertly restored to evoke the gold rush era, but without compromising modern comforts. Each of the seven rooms is different in size and décor. The multicourse breakfasts here are legendary.

Alaska’s Capital Inn Bed and Breakfast
113 W. Fifth St.
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 888 588 6507 or 907 586 6507
fax 907 586 6508
www.alaskacapitalinn.com


DINING

Although Juneau is a relatively small city, the annual influx of tourists helps sustain an abundance of eateries catering to all tastes and budgets. Sadly, the city’s finest restaurant for the past 19 years, the Summit, closed its doors last February. However, there remain plenty of excellent options. Although you’ll find every major international cuisine represented here, Alaska’s forte is seafood. Here you’ll find some of the world’s best salmon, halibut and king crab. Many restaurants also offer another regional specialty, moose steaks. Food is not cheap — other than the fresh seafood and venison, much of it must be imported from the “lower 48” states, but the quality is generally pretty high. I remember once, in midwinter, being astounded to find my morning egg and bacon at a local hotel served with a slice of fresh pineapple. “Why?” I asked the waitress. She looked at the snowy scene beyond the window and shrugged: “Because we can.”

THE FIDDLEHEAD AND DI SOPRA RESTAURANTS Two venues on one site and under the same management. Downstairs, the Fiddlehead provides typical Alaskan fare — the best halibut I’ve ever tasted was served here. Upstairs, Di Sopra offers Italian cuisine with a uniquely Alaskan spin: for instance, Tutto Mare Alaska, a Sicilian stew made with local seafood. Entrees cost $20-$25. Both restaurants also serve vegetarian dishes. The Fiddlehead and Di Sopra Restaurants

429 W. Willoughby Ave.,
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 907 586 3150,
fax 907 586 1644
www.fiddlehead.com

HANGAR ON THE WHARF This location is great, a converted seaplane hangar on the harborside. The hangar originally belonged to Shell Simmons, one of Alaska’s legendary early aviators. The aviation theme embraces both the décor and the menu: Propeller Lasagna; Plane Caesar Salad; Aero Italia Calamari. If all this aviation heritage is not your thing, the tremendous view through the picture windows more than makes up for it. Entrees from $9.95. In addition to the decent food, there are also 24 beers on tap.

Hangar on the Wharf 2 Marine Way,
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 907 586 5018
www.hangaronthewharf.com

TWISTED FISH CO. ALASKAN GRILL Operating on the waterfront from May to October, this humorously (plastic fish) decorated restaurant is rightly renowned for its fresh seafood. Most of the entrees are under $10 (king crab is the exception — you’ll pay over $20). The cellar offers a choice of about 40 wines.

Twisted Fish Co. Alaskan Grill
550 S. Franklin St.,
Juneau, AK 99801
tel 907 463 5033


NIGHTLIFE

Sophisticated it ain’t, but if you love a good honest bar, you’ll be right at home in Juneau after dark. One of the liveliest venues is the “World Famous” Red Dog Saloon (www.reddogsaloon.cc), with its swing doors, sawdust on the floor, and an eclectic collection of Alaskan memorabilia on the walls and dangling from the ceiling. All human life is found here: elderly tourists, roughhewn loggers, businesspeople — even politicians. Its authenticity is slightly undermined by the adjacent merchandise outlet selling the obligatory caps and T-shirts.

At the higher end of the cultural spectrum, the Perseverance Theater (www.perseverancetheater.org) is one of the nation’s leading regional theaters. To find out what will be playing when you’re in town, check the theater’s Web site.


DAY TRIPS

For sheer “wow” factor, the best day trip out of Juneau is to Glacier Bay National Park (www.nps.gov/glba), one of the most stunning spots on the planet. Auk Nu Tours (www.auknutours.com) can take you there by high-speed catamaran, from $138 for the round trip.

Did You Know? Juneau’s main road system is only 45 miles from end to end, but the city has 130 miles of hiking trails. Juneau’s back yard is a 1,500-square-mile glacial ice field bordering Canada. Juneau has 114 species of birds, all five species of salmon, brown and black bears and several species of whales. Juneau lies on a small strip of land between sea level and 3,800-foot peaks. Of Juneau’s entire 3,248 square miles, there are 928 square miles of ice cap, 704 square miles of water and only 264 square miles of urban development with another 1,352 square miles of wilderness rainforest. Only 30,500 people reside in Juneau, but southeast Alaska is home to more than 20,000 bald eagles. The year’s longest day is June 21. On that day, there are 18 hours and 18 minutes of daylight in Juneau.


INFO TO GO Juneau International Airport (JNU) is primarily served by Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com), which offers connecting flights from Juneau to the airline’s two main hubs, Anchorage (ANC) and Seattle (SEA). Alaska Marine Highway (www.ferryalaska.com) operates the daily state ferry service between Juneau and Bellingham,Wash. The voyage takes three days and costs from $268 per adult, from $608 per vehicle (one driver included). For general information, contact the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel 907 586 1737, fax 907 586 1449, www.traveljuneau.com).

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