Juneau, Alaska: Small Capital, Big Attraction

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In the third in a series on the many wonders of small ship cruising through South East Alaska, our travel columnists visit the sparsely populated state capital of Juneau.

In the third in a series on small ship cruising, our travel columnists visit Juneau, Alaska. Photography by the authors.

Juneau hardly makes sense: A small town of 32,000 residents whose only access is by boat or airplane. It surely doesn’t make sense as the capital of our largest state -- a state so enormous it has 33 percent of our nation’s total shore line. And it’s situated 570 air miles from Anchorage. Paradoxically, Juneau’s area of more than 3,000 square miles ranks it as one of the largest cities in the world.

But if there’s one thing visitors soon learn about Alaska’s sparsely populated capital -- only the state capitals of little Sioux Falls, S.D., and tiny Montpelier, Vt., have smaller populations -- it is not to assume. There is a charm to this spunky and funky town, Juneau. It is no surprise tourists come.

They come by air and sea. By cruise ship alone about a million arrive every year, even though the depressed U.S. economy is hurting our 49th state. (Those numbers may be hurt even more by the new “head tax” imposed in 2010 for non-resident visitors.)

Cruise-ship passengers can swamp a small town, of course, and when five cruise ships are tied down at the harbor, the streets and shops are busy. We came this time in Capt. Jeff Behrens’ 32-passenger ship, the Island Spirit, on a day he chose for minimal large ship presence so we feel insufferably “green” and superior. Behrens’ approach to the environment is in fact superior to that of many ships. He even shuts down engine noise at night by changing to battery power. We are enjoying a relatively empty town. There is quite a bit to see, but fortunately Juneau is a walking city.

We ramble around in the light of a Northern night in late June close to the summer solstice, shooting photographs without having to increase the “film speed” readings. We do the usual tourist things: photographing a visitor holding hands with a mural Native Alaskan and checking out an antique car parked for so long grass is growing through its flat front tire. We stop then, as we always do, at the Red Dog Saloon. Why we don’t know -- perhaps because it is so funky and fun, pricey as it is. Two minutes away lies the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, a more authentic and less expensive bar, and one listed on the historic register.

We go back to the ship for a busy next day. We wander to the simple, framed St. Nicholas Church, built in 1894. It’s a rather touching reminder with its Russian Orthodox interior and the elaborate icons of the Caucasian nation that came to this unique land on the edge of America. Strangely photography is allowed in the church interior, but not in the gift shop. Go figure!

We walk up to look at the Governor’s Mansion, then check out some statues, one being of the great national hero of the Philippines, Dr. Jose Rizal. Many pioneer Filipinos came to Alaska to work in the salmon canneries and to help build the cables that connect Alaska and the State of Washington. Rizal, a physician, was executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 for encouraging the people of the Philippines to seek their independence.

Tourist choices now depend on your time frame. You may either visit the impressive Alaska State Museum or, for a much higher fare, take a flight over the Mendenhall Glacier. If this is to be your one-time trip to Alaska, we’d suggest the flight. If you’re coming back one day, you could leave the museum till next time. You probably won’t have time to do both given ships’ schedules.

We went into Wings Airways at 2 Marine Way right there on the dock beside a gleaming De Havilland Otter floatplane on the sea. We picked up brochures and later checked its website. The company is extraordinarily cagey about its prices on both the web and on its flyers. We assume you get details as you book. Friends recently took a floatplane trip with them over the glacier as we did three years ago by helicopter. We’d use Wings another time but suggest you check other websites where prices are mentioned up front to give you a comparison. The view from above helps to explain the fantastic story of Alaska’s ice fields.

If a flight over Mendenhall helps you to understand glaciations, a visit to Alaska’s finest museum will assist you to appreciate the state’s history and cultures. You can imagine what you’ll see: totem poles and Alaska Native handcrafts, Native children’s toys, Russian artifacts and Gold Rush relics, the state’s maritime history — and a three-story-high creation of a bald eagle nest. In addition: a high tech huge globe, one of only 22 in America, with enough information given by a docent to keep “Jeopardy” contestants going for endless hours.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.