And the rain rain rain came down down down...
As the Rhapsody of the Seas pulled into Juneau - the first port of call on our Alaskan cruise - the decks were virtually empty. A steady rain had welcomed us to Alaska's capital, and it was clear that for many of our fellow passengers, the best laid plains had gone soggy. But not for us - if anything, the rain made our day in Juneau all the more memorable.
When you book an Alaskan cruise, there are two things you can pretty much take to the bank: one of the stops will be Juneau and while you're there it will rain. The city gets 250+ days of rain per year, so the odds of staying dry are definitely not in your favor. The key, as we would quickly learn, is to simply be prepared.
Like all cruise lines, Royal Caribbean offered a host of interesting shore excursions in Juneau. From whale watching to salmon bakes to helicopter tours of the glacier, there was definitely something for everyone...except us. I just didn't see much point in spending a chunk of change to see whales or eat salmon when I had already done both in abundance the last two days - especially the "eat salmon" part. So we decided to set off on our own.
MJ and I were among the first off the ship when it docked at noon, and we were quickly accosted by a host of booths offering a number of sightseeing tours. Though they appeared to be separate, these guys were all either shamelessly guilty of collusion or - the more likely explanation - they were actually all the same company because they all offered the exact same tours for, wouldn't you know it, the exact same price. We opted for the shuttle up to nearby Mendenhall Glacier, which at $20 per-person round-trip was a fraction of what Royal Caribbean wanted for basically the same thing.
We set off on the 20 minute ride with a driver who if given three guesses on where he was from I'd have nailed Juneau for sure. Along the way we spotted a number of bald eagles, before being dumped back into the rain at the entrance to Mendenhall. In true MacGyver fashion, MJ whipped out a pair of ponchos - read: garbage bags - from her pack and we began the two mile hike to the glacier.
One benefit of the rain: we had the Nugget Falls trail entirely to ourselves. The usually crowded path was deserted as most visitors opted to see the glacier from the dry confines of the visitors center and viewing deck. It was serene, and a perfect introduction to the great outdoors for a guy that only experiences it on fairways and greens. But having the trail to ourselves did have one downside: the numerous bear warning signs along the way.
Soon we arrived at the sandy cove that fronts the Mendenhall Glacier. As beautiful as the prehistoric piece of ice is, the real highlight was the enormous waterfall just to its right. The cascading water is fueled by snowmelt and towards the end of summer is nothing more than a gentle stream. Since this was early June, the fall was still raging and we took turns feeling it's power up close, getting soaked in the process. Not that it mattered, we were already drenched, plus how often can you walk up to a waterfall in Alaska?
In the end, the hike to Mendenhall Glacier proved to be one of the highlights of our entire trip - to skip it because of a little rain would have been a huge mistake. Translation: pack a poncho and slog through it.
Once back in town, we had just enough time before "all aboard" to visit two of Juneau's most popular destinations: the Red Dog Saloon and Tracy's Crab Shack. As the name suggests, Red Dog is an old time saloon turned tourist trap that dates to Alaska's mining era. My guess is it lost its standing as a real saloon right about the time it opened a gift shop and posted a host at the front door to seat patrons. It's campy, no other way to put it. But nonetheless, it is worth a visit to warm up with a pint or Irish coffee.
Tracy's Crab Shack, on the other hand, is a can't miss. Well, allow me to rephrase: if you like both crab and life changing experiences, then this is the place for you. Tracy's started as basically a "hot dog cart selling crab one leg at a time" and has evolved into a full on outdoor restaurant adjacent to the port, specializing in all things crab caught by local fisherman.
MJ and I split the "Crab Shack Combo" and "Captain's Reserve." The former was one leg, a cup of crab bisque, and an order of mini-crab cakes, while the Reserve was two giant legs, one of which had the claw. Needless to say, I left in a king crab coma and the experience was worth every penny.
If we had to do our visit to Juneau over again, I'm not sure there's anything that I'd change. Although some of the cruise excursions sounded amazing, striking out on our own allowed us to stay on our own schedule, and clear of the crabby rain-soaked tourists whose presence might have rained on our parade...puns intended. Unless you simply have your heart set on something unique like a helicopter or seaplane tour, skip the excursion and reinvest the savings into a visit to Tracy's Crab Shack.
I'm pretty sure you'll be glad you did .
Enjoy Your Stay