6/9/19 Driftwood Hotel, Juneau, Alaska
It was a nearly flawless landing into Juneau after my mortifying experience with the TSA in Anchorage. By that time, though, I had calmed down enough to start enjoying myself. I decided that I wasn’t going to let some power-obsessed twerp ruin my vacation. So upon arriving in Juneau, I confirmed my remaining flights with Alaska Airlines, we picked up our bags, and moved outside for our first view of the Juneau area.
Some basic facts. Juneau, with only 32,000 people, is the capital of Alaska. Since Anchorage became the largest city and center of the Alaskan economy in the 1960s, there have been various proposals to move the capital to Anchorage. In the end, however, all the smaller towns, led by Fairbanks, the second largest city, think that giving all the power to Anchorage will further diminish their power, so they vote against the proposal. And so the capital stays where it is.
Juneau is an interesting capital in that even though it occupies an area greater in size than the state of Delaware, it has no roads coming into it – you can only get there by boat or plane. There are streets, roads, cars and buses, inside the town, but they were all imported by some other means.
The town itself occupies a narrow strip of land at the base of two mountains and on the coast of the Gatineau Channel, part of the Inland Passage. It is a fascinating city in many ways including that it is very long and narrow and that, as you approach the mountains, the streets can end up being quite steep. Some of the houses up the slopes of the mountains have spectacular views.
That is, when the clouds aren’t limiting visibility. Despite being quite aways north, Juneau’s climate is moderated by the warmer air off the Pacific Ocean. But that also brings with it tremendous amounts of moisture – Juneau averages 62 inches per year. Obviously a great deal of that is snow, but, as we can attest in our two-day stay, a lot of it is summer rain. We found that, even when not raining, it is generally cool enough to require jackets even here in the middle of June!
Although there are more government offices in Anchorage, government still accounts for about 25% of the economy in Juneau. We walked by the state capital building which is a rather unimpressive structure, a testament probably to the dislike Alaskans have for government in general.
It doesn’t take long to determine the next biggest economic sector. Downtown Juneau is a strip next to the channel that includes port facilities for some of the ocean’s largest cruise ships. Just in the two days we were there, we saw at least five different, very large cruise ships. I’ve included a picture of the largest one that we saw this afternoon, the Ovation of the Seas. The damn thing is really a city on the water. It is difficult to capture its size with an iPhone, so I looked it up in Wikipedia. It was built in Germany for the Carnival cruise line, and comes with sixteen decks for passengers plus two more just for the crew. It is a Quantum-class cruise ship which is the third largest type of cruise ship in the world. In this case, it is more than 1100 feet long and 135 feet wide. It is designed to house 4900 passengers.
So, think about that a moment. When one of those comes into the port at Juneau, immediately the population of the town increases by more than 20%. But, this afternoon, there wasn’t just one of these behemoths, but two of them parked next to the dock. Generally speaking, this town of 32,000 receives approximately one million visitors every year.
Tourism is obviously a big business. As we walked up and down the streets next to the dock, it was amazing how many jewelry stores there were. Now, if they were stores selling gold jewelry I might understand it, given the history of the place. But most of these stores were selling diamonds and other gem-based jewelry. The strange thing, for me, was how nearly all of these stores had hawkers outside trying to get people to come inside. It really reminded me of the porn stores in New York in the 1980s. Talking to a local bartender, I learned that many of the stores were owned by the cruise ship lines themselves and that the stores sold the same stuff that they tried to sell on board the ships, just at slightly lower prices.
Speaking of prices, do not expect much in the way of bargains in Juneau – the cruise ship industry has driven prices pretty much through the roof. Restaurant prices are very high. We have eaten now at four different food venues in two days and only one has stood out. We had lunch yesterday at the Hangar on the Wharf and spent about $70 for a fried shrimp basket and a fried cod fillet. Last night I had a chorizo burger and Joan ate a salad and a bowl of soup with wine and it came to about $65. Breakfast this morning, at the Sandpiper Cafe, right around the corner, was corned beef hash and French toast with coffee and still came to $35. None of those meals were really worth mentioning except for how much they cost.
The single exception and it was a huge exception, was tonight’s dinner at Tracy’s Crab Shack. Located right down on the pier amidst the cruise ships, the place was packed both times we walked past it. We decided to eat there this evening for several reasons, but mostly it is because I am allergic to regular fin fish (i.e. anything that has fins), but not shellfish. It is the opposite of the normal allergy case where people can eat fish, but not shellfish. Anyway, that means that things like lobster, clams, and shrimp are the only seafood I can eat.
And that includes crabs which I love, but which are next to impossible to get of any quality, in New Mexico. So the prospect of eating Alaskan King Crab, right here in Juneau, Alaska, was very appealing. I’m not going to say it is cheap – a crab leg dinner for two that included four crab legs, a crab bisque, four crab cakes, and a couple of rolls came to almost $100. But it was totally worth it. The crab, they say, had been caught recently and it tasted so remarkably fresh. They boiled it perfectly in a seasoned broth. Served with melted butter, it was the kind of meal we ate with our fingers, including dipping everything into the butter up to the first knuckle, and it was really just primitively perfect. Even Joan, not a real lover of seafood, said this was the best crab she had ever eaten. If in Juneau, don’t expect much until you go to Tracy’s Crab Shack and then, don’t hold back.
The Alaska State Museum was just around the corner from our hotel, but we didn’t see that interesting enough to visit. Instead we spent yesterday walking around the stores near the pier, including a stop at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar, a former brothel that still retains a feel very much like ‘The House of the Rising Sun’.
Today’s entertainment was to take the city bus out to almost the Mendenhall Glacier. I say almost because apparently the city, in order to support local business, agreed not to provide competitive bus service all the way out to the Forest Service’s visitor center. That’s because the private buses, primarily catering to the cruise ship industry, charge $30.00 to take people out there. And when the cruise ships are in town, that is definitely a popular destination with dozens of buses running all day long. The city bus, on the other hand, only costs $4 round trip, but the catch is that they drop off their customers a mile and a half away from the visitor center, forcing us cheapskates to walk three miles in order to save $26. Obviously, if you’ve already paid for a cruise, an extra $26 doesn’t mean a whole lot, so you don’t mind spending it. But we didn’t spend on a cruise ship, so we weren’t as easily conned. Must admit my feet and back are a little sore from the extra three miles walking. On the other hand, I probably worked off some of that crab leg with butter…
Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most visited glaciers in the world, even with the bus charge, largely because it is the main attraction for cruise ship customers in Juneau. You can’t actually get on the glacier any more and it has receded so much in the last century that there is now a glacier-water lake in front of it where small icebergs can be seen floating. Still, it is an impressive view of a huge, but disappearing, natural phenomena and provides a really good introduction to appreciating the awesome beauty of glaciers.
There aren’t any bucket list parks in Juneau, but I’m glad we spent a couple of days here. It is an important town in understanding Alaskan culture and nature. But, as always, it is time to move on.