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May 14, 2013 at 8:26 AM

Alaska cruise: Waking up in the 49th State, and visiting Juneau’s calving glacier

Icebergs float near the snout of Mendenhall Glacier, 20 minutes outside of Juneau. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Icebergs float near the snout of Mendenhall Glacier, 20 minutes outside of Juneau. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

JUNEAU – I stepped out on deck this morning around 8 to find we’d left behind the foggy ocean – and the rolling seas – and were plowing through scenic Frederick Sound. It was raining. Hard.

I stopped on the bow and happily helped take a “we both want to be in the picture” photo of Tim and Joy Ketron, from Tennessee, with raindrops dripping from their hoods onto wet noses, and snow-capped, misty mountains right behind them. Is the rain a spoiler?

“Naw, it’s part of it! It’s what you expect,” Tim said. People on this cruise want to enjoy it, and most do.

Below, on the Promenade Deck, which is covered, passengers lined the bow with binoculars and cameras. Through the morning there were occasional sightings of whales, porpoises and icebergs.

“Oh, look, another iceberg!” someone shouted. “Oh, that’s a good one!”

Sure enough, an oddly shaped chunk of bluish-white floated off to starboard. Nothing that would sink the Titanic, but exciting nonetheless.

“That’s my first iceberg!” I told a couple from Utah, who were on a repeat visit here.

“Oh, you’re going to love Glacier Bay!” said the fellow. “They’re like, right there,” pointing over the ship’s rail.

As we continued north into Stephens Passage, through white-cresting waves on jade-green water, the rain let up. Forested hills rolled into the distance all around us, without a clearcut or a town – or just about any sign of civilization. Suddenly, this was Alaska.

Star Princess lands in Juneau, where ribbon waterfalls cascade down a mountain behind town. We're not in Kansas -- or Tennessee, or Florida, or even Seattle -- anymore. (Photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Star Princess lands in Juneau, where ribbon waterfalls cascade down a mountain behind town. We’re not in Kansas — or Tennessee, or Florida, or even Seattle — anymore. (Photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

We docked at 11 in Juneau. I’d thought of taking the aerial tram to the top of Mount Roberts, just above town, for some hiking, but the thaw has come late here and trails are still snowed in. So I joined my shipboard friends from Wenatchee, John and Nancy D’Amour, for a day trip to Mendenhall Glacier.

John was steadfast that he wouldn’t book a trip through Princess, and his instincts on this occasion were right. The Princess bus to the glacier, 20 minutes from downtown, was $45. The local shuttle, which we booked from one of a dozen tour booths a five-minute walk from the ship, was $16. The bus wasn’t as fancy, but who cares.

The glacier — the best “you can drive there” glacier in Alaska — was well worth the trip, and we took the ¾-mile walk to Nugget Falls, a spectacular cataract as wide as Snoqualmie Falls at its base. That also gave us the closest view of the glacier and its magical blue crevasses the color of a Baja bay – a hue caused by compaction of the ice crystals so that only blue light is reflected, rangers told us. With a birding scope, we spied on mountain goats on rocks above the falls.

Icebergs crowded the lake, having collected all winter as the glacier calved, floating away only when the lake’s own winter ice broke up – just two days ago! On Friday, people were cross-country skiing on the lake.

Back in town we tried to get into the famed Red Dog Saloon, but every person off the three cruise ships in town (bringing about 9,000 people) had the same idea. There was a line at the door.

I was OK with seeking another place for a beer and a bite; any place that declares itself “world famous” on its own sign is usually best avoided. We ended up at a locals’ favorite, The Hangar at the Wharf, looking out on the seaplane dock with plenty to watch, a couple dozen brews on tap and the best halibut burger I can remember ($14.95, with crisp fries and a monster pickle).

You might see these guys around Seattle, where they call themselves the Ballard Avenue Jug Buskers, but they look authentically sourdough playing The Alaskan Bar in Juneau. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

You might see these guys around Seattle, where they call themselves the Ballard Avenue Jug Buskers, but they look authentically sourdough playing The Alaskan Bar in Juneau. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Juneau tips:

  • Get away from the ship docks where the tourist-trap shops congregate, including 15 (I counted ‘em, 15) cheesy jewelry shops, several fur vendors and such things as a Jelly Belly Factory Outlet. (They need a factory outlet?)
  • Catch a museum. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum ($6) has interesting displays on gold mining and other local history, and the Alaska State Museum is highly reputed.
  • Don’t obsess over the Red Dog Saloon, with its claim to fame of displaying a pistol reputedly checked at the counter, and left there, by Wyatt Earp on a long-ago visit. When the ships are in, you can be sure there will be so many visitors from Cincinnati to Shanghai trying to shoot video of the gun (go figure) that you’ll be lucky to get anywhere near it. There are other great watering holes in Juneau, such as The Alaskan Bar, or The Hangar.

(SEE READER COMMENTS AND TIPS HERE.)

0 Comments | More in Brian hates cruising, Cruises, Trip reports | Topics: Alaska cruise, cruising, Juneau

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