On the fourth day, we arrived in Juneau, which would turn out to be my favorite Alaskan city (although I loved all of them for their own unique characters).
Juneau is also the state capital, but that doesn’t mean it’s some sprawling metropolis. In fact, the population (as of the 2011 census) is only a little over 32,000 – a good deal smaller than my little Dallas suburb.
On May 9, though, there were a few thousand extras wandering around, with both the Miracle and the Holland America MS Volendam (which we watched come into port) docked there.
Did you know “MS” stands for “Motor Ship,” whereas “SS” designates a “Steamship?” Of course, Navy vessels have prefixes like USS (United States Ship) and HMS (His/Her Majesty’s Ship).
The Volendam looked a little small in comparison to the Miracle. The Holland ship carries fewer than 1500 passengers and only 647 crew, whereas the Miracle holds over 2000 plus 930 crew.
We didn’t get into Juneau until 10:00 a.m., so we had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast on the Lido deck beforehand. We went to the shore excursion desk to buy tickets for the Mt. Roberts tramway. We hadn’t been able to buy them online because the way the system was set up, the computer thought the time conflicted with our other excursion.
Here’s a helpful tip for travelers to Juneau: The tramway ticket is actually an all-day pass, and unlike most excursions, it’s actually less expensive to buy through the cruise line. If you go to the tramway station and buy it there, it’s two dollars more.
Since our “wildlife quest” excursion didn’t start until 12:30, the first thing we did after getting off the ship was go ride the tram to the station that’s about halfway up the mountain.
Mt. Roberts is over 3800 ft. high and it’s literally right across the street from the dock and just east of downtown Juneau. The tramway landing spot is 1800 ft. up. They say around 200,000 people ride the tramway every summer. The cars (there are two of them) can hold up to 60 people each.
The view on the way up was spectacular, and the tram operator regaled us with stories and songs about his native Tlingit culture. The Tlingit are the “people of the tides” who are indigenous to Alaska and the Canadan Yukon; there are only a little over 15,000 of them today.
When we got to the “top” (top of the tram line, not top of the mountain), we found everything was still covered with snow up there.
Surprisingly, it didn’t feel all that cold; I was wearing a sweatshirt and a rain jacket and was comfortable. We enjoyed the gorgeous views from the observation station.
There are trails from the top station that lead to the top of the mountain, but at that time they were covered in snow and ice. We walked a little ways but decided it was too slippery to venture far.
The top station houses a restaurant and theater, and there’s also a gift shop and a small raptor center for rescued eagles – which we were disappointed to find was empty. After looking around for a while, we rode back down, planning to use the pass to return after our excursions. We made our way back to the pier to wait for the bus that would take us on our wildlife quest.
Helpful hint #2: For those who prefer to book tours privately or who didn’t like any of the cruise line offerings, there is a whole line of booths right on the pier in Juneau, selling various excursions.
Soon our bus arrived and we took an approximately 20 minute ride to Asuke bay. Along the way, we passed the University of Alaska Southeast. Soon we were at the bay, where we boarded our boat, a catamaran called the St. Aquilina, operated by Allen Marine Tours.
The interior of the boat was spacious and comfortable, and it wasn’t close to full so there were plenty of “window seats” from which you could get a great look at everything. There were three levels – the indoor first and second levels and the open deck on top.
The scenery alone was just stupendous. The water was like glass in some places, a rippling blue in others. The backdrop of the mountains made it all look like something out of a postcard.
There were homes and buildings along the shore of the bay, and I couldn’t help daydreaming about what it would be like to wake up to that view every morning.
It wasn’t long before we got a glimpse of our first whale, blowing off in the distance. It would be only the first of many.
After the wildlife expedition, we got back on the bus and headed for Mendenhall Glacier. The glacier was beautiful, like something from some other, untouched planet.
We hiked a short distance on the trails overlooking it and got some great photos, but despite the warning signs, we didn’t see any bears (both a good thing and a bad thing).
Inside the visitor’s center, we got to touch glacial ice and we finally did see some bears – but there was no need for extreme caution.
After we’d had a chance to explore at Mendenhall for a while, we got back on the bus and headed back to the port. We still had plenty of time left so first we walked around for a while, stopped in at some of the shops and did the obligatory photo shoot at the famous Red Dog Saloon.
Unfortunately, service in the Timberline Grill at that time was not exactly top notch; in fact, it took so long to get our food that we ended up taking it back on board to eat – but the sunset view was indeed fantastic, and the restaurant itself presented a lovely setting for a meal, if only we’d had time to have one.
About fifteen minutes short of the 9:30 p.m. deadline for being back on board, the Juneau moon was shining down on the Miracle (although it wasn’t dark yet). Much as I love the ship, I hated to leave Juneau behind. There was much more to do and see there than one could possibly get to in a day.
Back on board, it was late and we were tired from a full day. We ate the dinners we had brought back from the Timberline; I got a crab wrap that was absolutely delicious.
We didn’t go to any shows that night, but we did go up to Lido for a late-night frozen yogurt, and I did my usual walk around the ship before turning in. Then after unwinding a bit, we went to bed early in anticipation of an early wake-up so as not to miss out on any of the sights as we sailed through Glacier Bay the next day.
I’d heard that Glacier Bay was a photographer’s dream, so I wanted to be ready. And I wasn’t disappointed.