One nice thing ab out Alaska cruises is that all the ports are set up for gangways. You never have to tender into port, which makes getting off the boat fairly fast and efficient. We arrived in Juneau at 1pm and had to be back on the boat by 9pm.
On the advice of CruiseCritic and other forums, we had refrained from booking any excursions with the cruise line for the Alaska ports. Instead, we planned to find independent booking companies and tour operators at each port. Overall, we saved quite a bit of money by doing this, and I think we ended up with better tours. This strategy is risky in theory, as tours may sell out, but so long as you don’t have your heart set on one particular tour or excursion, you should be fine. We were able to get every excursion that we wanted to do with no problems, but we also made a point of arranging our tours first thing as soon as we got off of the ship.
In Juneau, I wanted to book a whale watching tour. We booked with Orca Tours (an independent operator) in port. This was the only case where we actually paid about the same price as booking through the ship, but Orca Tours limits each tour to forty people, so you end up with more personalized attention and less elbowing when trying to see toward one side or another. We were taken in an (air conditioned) motorbus to the docks, which were about 20-30 minutes outside of Juneau. Then, we boarded the ship, helmed by Captain Larry, who is really the epitome of a scraggly sea captain in looks…but he has a very warm smile and demeanor, so don’t let that put you off.
We got some great pictures of the whales as well as two different glaciers that aren’t easily visible from land. We also arranged while on the boat, for an additional $20 per person, to be taken to and from the Mendenhall Glacier after the whale watching tour.
After the whale watching tour, we boarded a smaller bus to head to Mendenhall. The glacier is gorgeous, and there’s a lovely waterfall to the right. We had read on the boards that there was a trail to get you closer to the waterfall and glacier, but it was flooded out during our visit. It looks like it goes through the wetlands, so the tide and time of year will determine if it’s available to you. At any rate, we got a really good view from the overlook. We also chatted with a park ranger who had some glacial ice in a bin near the visitor’s center. She was getting it out of the lake so that visitors could look at it. It was incredibly clear and had an almost round and bubbly pattern to it as it melted. I asked about the colors of ice, and she said that the color of the iceberg indicates how tightly compressed the ice is. Blue indicates very compressed ice, while white is less so and clear is not compressed at all. When the glacier calves, the ice is usually blue, and then it gets white and clear as it drifts and absorbs air.
We had about forty more minutes at the park, so we decided to walk the trails near the Visitor’s Center. We started on a creek trail that actually closes in mid July because of bear activity. The creek is popular for salmon and thus bears. DH was hoping to see salmon, and I wanted to see a bear, so we decided to take a shot on that trail. It was a very easy 1/4 mile trail, mostly boardwalk with placards describing the wildlife. The creek was pretty and peaceful, but neither of us saw what we were hoping to see. We were a little early in the month for bears and salmon. When we reached the end of the creek trail, it was very easy to walk across to the end of the Trail of Time and do it “backwards” toward the visitor’s center.
That was a bit of a mistake. If you’re going from the visitor’s center, it’s downhill for most of the trail. If you’re going the opposite direction, as we were, it’s uphill. Nonetheless, I liked that trail better. It was more scenic, and it had a nice waterfall about halfway through. By the end of it, we were getting a bit worried about time. We were making great time, but we had no idea if it was going to get steeper or how much farther we needed to go. We had plenty of time though. We even wandered around the visitor’s center for a bit. We were the last on the bus, but we were on time getting there at 7:30pm.
It took about twenty minutes to get back to Juneau. The bus driver (Brent) offered to drop anyone off anywhere in town. DH and I decided to get off at the Red Dog Saloon in the “local” (not cruise-owned) part of town. We were famished, having not eaten since breakfast on the ship, so we split a Reindeer Sausage pizza and each got a Diet Coke (with free refills!). We did a little shopping at the Red Dog’s gift shop before leaving. At this point (8:30pm), it was dusk, and it was beginning to drizzle. Though I had been interested in taking the Mt. Roberts tram, it was no longer running. (The view wouldn’t have been great at that point anyways.) We headed back to the ship for some dinner and onboard activities. With the balcony cabin, it was always fun to sit or stand outside when the ship left port. We ended up crashing early, particularly because we knew we were getting up in the morning to go to Skagway.