Falling in love with Alaska, one glacier at a time
I never believed in love at first sight until I visited Alaska. The state’s natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and quaint ports instantly qualified her as one of my top dream destinations.
My “first date” with Alaska was aboard Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess in 2010.
The adventure included enough incredible excursions to constitute getting beyond “first base” with my new crush; over the course of a week we landed on a glacier in a helicopter, flew over the summit of Mt. McKinley in a 1966 Beaver plane, panned for gold in the Eldorado Gold Mine, ziplined in a rain forest, and rode on horseback in Denali National Park. I was totally smitten and have dreamed of returning ever since.
As fate would have it, Alaska finally granted me a “second date” in 2013, this time in and around her capital city, Juneau. The love affair continued.
The historic Westmark Baranof Hotel proved to be a great base for exploring the city as it was within easy walking distance of restaurants, shops, museums, the waterfront, and the cruise ship docks.
If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach then the culinary opportunities in Juneau represent Alaska’s newest pipeline. The mandarin orange and mascarpone cheese French toast from the Sandpiper Cafe was perhaps the finest breakfast I’ve ever encountered. The Alaskan king crab legs were worth every minute of the long wait in line at Tracy’s King Crab Shack, a local favorite. The crab cakes from the Timberline Bar & Grill atop Mount Roberts still make me salivate, just by thinking about them.
I love that Juneau is home to three museums; the Alaska State Museum, the Juneau-Douglass City Museum, and the Last Chance Dining Museum.
Other must-sees technically aren’t museums, but they might as well be. The historic Red Dog Saloon, for example, is like a live interactive museum. When I visited, it felt as though I had been transported back to the Alaskan gold rush days as costumed waitresses, sawdust floors, live music, and walls resplendent with an impressive display of taxidermy and Alaskan artifacts contributed to the ambience.
Viewfinder Tip: When you’re in a bar, be sure and order a “Duck Fart,” an Alaskan favorite comprising Crown Royal whisky, Kahlua, and Baileys Irish Cream.
The Mount Roberts Tramway transports passengers between the waterfront and offers spectacular views of Juneau and the harbor (assuming the clouds have lifted). Up top, there is a gift shop, nature center, theater, and the Timberline Bar & Grill (where I had the amazing crab cakes).
The Macaulay Salmon Hatchery is located just three miles north of downtown Juneau. Watching the salmon jump the fish ladders in mid- to late summer is mesmerizing; they will stop at nothing to return to the waters from which they were hatched. It’s not at all uncommon seeing seals and eagles gathering to lunch on this spectacle. The hatchery also sports salt water aquariums, displaying more than 150 species of marine life.
The Glacier Gardens Rain Forest is located just more than seven miles north of Juneau. In addition to trails landscaped and waterfalls, these beautiful botanical gardens feature “upside down tree towers.” These oddities are comprised of the trunk and root balls of dead spruce and hemlock trees that have been planted upside down in the ground and then planted with a variety of flowers.
The Mendenhall Recreation Area is located 12 miles from Juneau and offers a great opportunity to view the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls. It was here on one of the area trails that I was able to verify that, yes, bears do poop in the woods. I even saw the black bear that provided the evidence!
Nature is one of the things I find most irresistible about Alaska. Juneau’s harbor is a great jumping off point for exploring glaciers and seeing wildlife. Tours are available via a cruise ship, bi-plane or helicopter.
Our favorite tour was with Un-Cruise, which hosted us for a small ship adventure from Juneau aboard the Safari Endeavour. From this ship, we thoroughly explored Alaska’s Inside Passage. On excursions from the ship, I was able to kayak in Glacier Bay, walk on the Rendu Glacier, and hike through the Alaskan wilderness. I saw more wildlife on this one adventure than I had seen the entire rest of my life.
As impressive as it was to see live grizzly bears, seals, otters, bald eagles, and numerous other water birds, witnessing literally hundreds of humpback whales feeding, breaching, and waving their tail flukes as they dove was utterly surreal!
My infatuation with Alaska had grown so much that I decided it was time to take the plunge—the Polar Plunge. Toward the end of our time with Un-Cruise, I summoned my courage and jumped into the icy waters of Glacier Bay in what I can only describe as one of the most exhilarating and stupid things I have ever done. I now know what flash frozen shrimp feel like. I think I could have out-swum Michael Phelps to get out of the freezing water. As I toweled off, I couldn’t help but think that Alaska and I officially had tied the knot.
With which destinations could you see yourself “tying the knot?”
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