The boardwalk of Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Juneau, Alaska, must be the only state capital with glaciers in the suburbs and bear-proof garbage cans downtown. (It’s not an idle precaution; black bears can show up anywhere.) Bald eagles sit on light poles like supersize crows, seals bob in the harbor, and visitors pause to gawk at impossibly vertical peaks while making the rounds of curio shops and diamond stores. That’s diamond stores, as in plural, as in extremely plural. Juneau—population 30,000 spread over 2,700 square miles of “city”—has an outlandish number of carats per capita. But even if you forgot to bring your $50,000 in spending money, Juneau and the other towns of southeast Alaska have plenty to offer in summertime.
As locals say, there are only three ways to get to Juneau: boat, plane, or birth canal. (Mountains and ice fields make building a highway impractical.) Having been born elsewhere, I went with the most leisurely remaining option, a seven-day cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage that included stops in Skagway (year-round population less than 1,000) and Ketchikan (about 8,000). It takes almost 40 hours to complete the first leg of the journey, a 780-mile stretch from Vancouver, B.C., to Juneau that passes through a labyrinth of tree-covered islands.
I cruised on the Statendam, a Holland America ship carrying more than 1,200 passengers in a state of luxury that would have turned Jack London soft. At each port of call, we had a chance to step out of our waterborne world of dessert buffets, 24-hour complimentary room service, and exfoliating spa treatments into towns that are part Wild West, part Far North, and part Manhattan Diamond District. (The jewelry industry seems to have discovered that some cruise passengers are susceptible to big-ticket impulse buys.)
From a distance, Juneau looked too small to be the capital of anything—more like a village with a few large buildings. As the Statendam entered the narrow Gastineau Channel past 3,000-foot peaks covered in a patchwork of trees and snowfields, I realized that the large buildings were actually other cruise ships. At every port, three or four vessels dwarfed the town, their arrival creating an instant population boom. Cruise passengers jammed the sidewalks, shopping bags and cameras at the ready. Yet in all three towns, people who were so inclined could find quiet spots, only-in-Alaska scenery, and safe adventure. “The downtowns are all pushing the same stuff. You have to go beyond that to look at the town itself,” said Gary Ziemer, a visitor from Palmyra, Va.
After walking down the gangway, I hurried past two blocks of Juneau shopping opportunities—diamonds, smoked salmon, mink coats, moose T-shirts, and more diamonds—to climb aboard the Mount Roberts Tramway, a fast ride to tranquillity 1,800 feet above town. The sit-down restaurant at the top beckoned, but I took a hike that looped through fern glades and dark stands of Sitka spruce in the Tongass National Forest. The mid-August sun pushed temperatures into the high 50s and snowcapped peaks lit up the horizon. From here, downtown Juneau looked like a postage stamp on a wildly beautiful package.
Back in town, I examined—but passed on—a $20,000 yellow diamond ring at Blue Ice Fine Jewelry. Later I made a more modest impulse purchase of my own: a colorful woolen shawl. (My wife has simple tastes.) After wolfing a juicy salmon burger from a corner stand, I made a short walk to the governor’s residence, a white house with a totem pole out front and a trampoline in the back. From there I descended a long stairway toward the waterfront and the Alaska State Museum, home of Tlingit ceremonial masks, whalebone harpoons, and vintage gold dust scales, vestiges of the 1897–98 Klondike gold rush that put Juneau on the map.
History feels fresh here. A sign in Juneau’s Red Dog Saloon promises “Days of ’98,” and they’re talking about the McKinley administration, not the Clinton. Crowds walk through swinging doors to join in old-timey sing-alongs led by a pianist with a vintage bowler . . . and an electric keyboard. Visitors who really want to go retro can pan for gold nearby or take a sled dog ride on the Mendenhall Glacier. (The dogsleds are an ancient mode of transportation; the helicopter that takes you to the snow is fortunately modern.) Not in a nostalgic mood, I opted for a high-tech catamaran trip through a channel crowded with humpback whales spouting, feeding, and complaining loudly about pesky sea lions.
Early the next morning the ship pulled into Skagway, an outpost of restored historical buildings huddled on a rare speck of flatland in an expanse of mountains. Once a jumping-off point for the brutal climb toward the Klondike goldfields, Skagway owes much of its continuing existence to the regular influx of cruise ship passengers. Vintage-looking touring cars take visitors to the town’s historic graveyard, the resting place of Soapy Smith, a scoundrel who manages to get shot again every day during reenacted gunfights.
Many cruise passengers take the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad up the old Klondike way, traveling from the sea-level rain forest to a stark landscape of glacier-scoured granite and sawtooth peaks. I came down from the summit by bicycle, a 15-mile joyride of hairpin turns and smoking brakes. My shopping didn’t produce any treasures in Skagway: I coveted a pair of salmon figurines carved from fossilized mammoth ivory but didn’t pull the trigger.
After a day of cruising south past calving glaciers and rafts of miniature icebergs in Glacier Bay, we docked in Ketchikan, a bustling fishing town where floatplanes swarm the harbor like taxicabs at an airport. (The fare runs about $230, but a flightseeing trip over the wild Misty Fjords is worth it. You just might get eye level with a mountain goat.) Big, brightly painted houses cling to the slopes overlooking the water, and a near permanent cloud bank hangs over the mountains. Ketchikan gets 155 inches of rain each year, so pack an umbrella. Fellow cruiser Debbie Libben, a CAT scan technologist from Irvine, Calif., enjoyed walking through the neighborhoods of giant trees and extremely well-watered lawns. “Ketchikan feels like a real town that doesn’t roll up when the tourists leave,” she said.
At Saxman Native Village, there’s an air of timelessness around the colorful totem poles—stylized bears, ravens, and, surprisingly, a stump-legged Abraham Lincoln in his stovepipe hat. The former red-light district along Creek Street speaks to a different side of history. Shops here sell more family-friendly wares these days, including paintings and prints by local artist Ray Troll, a master of wildlife whimsy. I bought an order of halibut and fries at a creekside restaurant and found a table in the sun. Right below me, masses of king and coho salmon, crowded fin to fin, fought the current on their way upstream—dinner and a show, Alaska style.
Photography by Ron Niebrugge
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
AAA Travel offers a variety of cruises and cruise tours in Alaska. For more information, contact your local AAA Travel Agency or visit AAA.com.