We ended a 7 day 8-night boat cruise through the Alaska Inner Waterways by disembarking in Juneau. We were last in Juneau in 2011 when we:
- Explored the downtown area in-depth (and when Juneau has more tourists)
- Learned more about salmon and
- Took some day trips from Juneau.
This trip was a slightly different experience as the cruise ships were not running at the time due to Covid. This meant that many of the stores were closed and many places to eat were understaffed or operating at reduced hours. Still, we enjoyed our time there.
Touring Downtown Juneau
We took a brief walk through the small downtown area for a quick overview of the 32,000-person Alaska capital.
- State Capitol building, an unadorned office building that used to be a Federal Post Office. Locals call it the ugliest state capitol building in the United States.
- The much more elegant 1912-era Governor’s House.
- The 1894, onion-domed St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.
- Franklin Street, the main commercial street which is packed with all manner of tourist shops, a disproportionate number of which specialize in diamonds. With cruise ships not running, most shops were closed. Those that were open were mostly empty of visitors.
- The Wharf, which is an old seaplane terminal that has been reconditioned into a shopping mall.
- The ever-popular, old west-themed Red Dog Saloon. Although the floor was no longer covered in sawdust as on our previous trip, it is still kitschy, and is worth the visit.
We ended up at the Alaska State Museum where we spent a fascinating two hours exploring the history of the state from the First People who migrated across the Bering Land Bridge some 14,500 years ago to the present. The pre-historic exhibits explained their lives and provided examples of the dwellings, clothing, tools, utensils, and art of not only the First People but also subsequent generations of coastal rainforest and more inland tundra clans.
It discussed the incursions of foreigners, including:
- The first initial Russian sea excursions in the mid-17th century;
- The Japanese who ended up on the Alaskan coast by accident of navigation or boats at various times from the mid-to-late 18th century;
- 1725-1730 explorations of Dutch Vitus Bering who explored the region by sea for the Russians;
- The first actual Russian landing in 1732 and land expeditions in 1743;
- The first Russian, American and European fur traders who traded for furs, many of which they sold to China in the 1780s; and
- The Spanish who explored the coastal waters as early as the 1770s and 80s.
Although Russian fur trappers and traders settled in what is now the south Alaskan coast from the mid-18th century, Western expansion into Alaska began, as discussed in our post on Sitka, began growing in earnest in 1799 when the Russian czar granted the Russian American Company a monopoly on the fur trade. While the Tlingits briefly expelled the Russians in 1802, Alexander Baronoff returned in force two years later to recapture its Sitka base. From then on, the indigenous Alaskan people have been discriminated against, enslaved, indoctrinated, killed (both by disease and violence), and assimilated by Western powers.
This began with the Russians who enslaved and otherwise forced natives to trap furs for the Russian American Company. Things did not get a whole lot better when the United States acquired the territory in 1867, placing the area under command of the army, which was often ruled by intimidation. The army allowed settlers and businesses to take native land and, contrasting with missionaries, tried to reeducate natives in English and American ways so that they could assimilate. Children were often taken from their parents to educate them in Christian schools. Nor did things get much better for the 11 years (1873-84) in which the territory was under the control of the U.S. Navy. These periods of Russian and early American rule had devastating effects on the native people and their cultures. Western diseases brought deadly diseases to a population that did not have immunity to them and high-volume hunting killed off much of the game off which they lived. The number of indigenous villages, for example, plunged from about 66 at the beginning of the 19th century to 22 by the end. Some villages are said to have lost up to 90 percent of their population during Russian and initial American rule.
This period also brought waves of commercial exploitation that depleted resources and the environment. It began with the trapping of sea otters to virtual extinction, proceeded through the plundering of the whale population, the devastation and toxic remains of automated mining, the clear-cutting of virgin spruce and hemlock forests, and continued through the late 20th century with mass exploitation of oil resources (particularly after the 1967 discovery of North Slope Oil and the 1989 Exxon Valdez environmental disaster. Since then, however, environmental rules have been significantly tightened and Alaska has created the Permanent Fund to turn what will surely be a temporary oil bonanza into a long-term annuity for state residents.
The museum concludes with a discussion of Alaska’s role in WWII, including the two-year period in which the Japanese captured and controlled the Aleutian island of Attu, and the hellish, costly battles to regain control after which all Japanese were (not surprisingly) either killed or committed suicide.
A series of other displays including those on the evolution of transportation in the state and the current role of highway, rail, water, and air transportation. It also has displays of Alaskan art, from contemporary conceptions of traditional weaving through new forms of modern and contemporary art. A very, very worthwhile way to spend two hours.
- Tracy’s King Crab Shack is a popular eating spot on the ferry terminal dock. It is a no-frills, order-at-the-counter spot where patrons sit at large tables with bench-like seating to crack and devour crab legs. Although it offers a few other species of crustacean (like Dungeness crab, Snow crab, and shrimp) and various preparations of crab (crabcakes, crab chowder) most people come for the King Crab—except, that is, for the couple weeks a year when Tanner Crab is available. This species is more related to snow crab than to King crab. It is prized as the sweetest and creamiest of all crab and is particularly favored when in season. Although we didn’t do a direct comparison, it was indeed delicious and well worth an experiment. (The crab bisque, which we also ordered, was rich and creamy but was a clear second fiddle to just the Tanner crab. So good was Tracy’s and so limited the choice of interesting restaurants, that we broke one of our own cardinal rules of travel dining—not to eat at the same restaurant twice, at least on the same trip. The second time, we did our own taste-off, ordering a propound of und of each Tanner and King crab.
- Alaska Fish & Chip Company. We ate another Alaska specialty for our final Juneau lunch: halibut fish and chips with sweet potato fries. While the fish was fresh and tasty it is tough to compare to Tanner Crab, especially when Tracy’s offers a pound of crab legs at about the same cost as an order of fish and chips. But, we couldn’t eat crab for every meal. Their Icy Bay IPA was one of the most interesting beers of the trip.
On our 2011 trip to Juneau, we also ate at the following:
- The most touristy of dining options are the salmon bakes—outdoor (weather permitting), all-you-can-eat affairs that serve salmon (and sometimes halibut) along with a range of other western and outdoor fare and often, to further burnish their tourists bona fides, marshmallow roasts, gold panning, and souvenir photos. While we went to some of these on our first trip to Juneau (27 years ago), we decided to forgo the opportunity on this trip. We also passed on another favorite tourist haunt, the Timberline at the top of Mount Roberts.
- The Gold Room at the Baranof Hotel (closed). The dining room is reminiscent of those of many older hotels that rely more on their name and on making things easy for their guests than on the quality of their food. One characteristic the Gold Room does not share with other such hotels, however, is that the food is reasonably priced. As for our food, the halibut with macadamia nuts was very good. On the other hand, our large, 1.5-pound order of king-crab legs, while very attractively priced—especially with the 15% discount offered to hotel guests—was a bit dry and salty.
- We were not particularly impressed by Twisted Fish. Unlike the Gold Room, this place was packed. Our steamed clams were served in a broth that was so spiced with strong herbs as to be unworthy of dipping our bread into. The grilled halibut sandwich, on the other hand, was pretty good, although a bit skimpy on the fish.
- Overall, our best dining experience was originally our third choice—Hangar on the Wharf. It too was packed. We shared two dishes. The steamed clams, while not our favorites, were definitely better than at Twisted Fish. The Macadamia-Crusted Halibut was quite good. Although the fish at Gold Room may have been a little better, the accompaniments (baked potato, broccoli with hollandaise, and the excellent fish chowder, were much better. We also liked the casual atmosphere and the décor which was reminiscent of the early day marine airplane hangar that used to occupy the site.