JUNEAU, Alaska — Cruise or fly into this town and you'll discover immediately why many tourists consider our 49th state's capital our most beautiful. It is an inaccessible-by-car fairyland isolated by the awesome slopes of Mt. Juneau and the icy waters of Gastineau Channel.
Southeast Alaska is a wonderland of Inland Passage waters, fiords, majestic glaciers, snow-fringed mountains, remote bays, lakes and streams where the quietude is an added and priceless treasure.
Juneau, a town of the 1880s Gold Rush, grows gracefully into its second century with the rustic and Victorian trappings of its youth kept young and spirited by flower baskets along city streets, colorful banners snapping from light poles and the playful antics of humpback and killer whales, seals and dolphins in the ocean nearby.
Five minutes from town center are forests of spruce, hemlock and pine, the roadways lined with buttercups, lupin, Canterbury bells and wild sweet peas. Eagles soar lazily in the blue skies above.
One of Juneau's large supermarkets is named Super Bear, and for good reason. A small group of these brazen scavengers still prowl backyards occasionally, hoping to get their paws on garbage before the collectors. They also have depleted the town supply of skunk cabbage, perfectly named but a longtime staple for wrapping salmon before baking.
Here to there: Fly with Delta or Alaska Airlines, or cruise the Inland Passages with Sitmar, Sea Goddess or other lines. You can't get here by car, but you can bring it on an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry from Seattle.
How long/how much? Stay a day or so to see the town and immediate surroundings, more for fishing, hiking or glacier hopping. Lodging and dining costs are moderate.
Fast facts: June through September is best time for a visit. Natives say Thanksgiving to mid-February can be clear and sunny. Most rain falls in March and April. A city bus runs from the airport. Good transit system within town.
Getting settled: The Baranof (127 N. Franklin St.; $78-$88 double) is probably the town's best. A clubby place where the state legislature used to meet and is said to have passed laws in the Bubbles Room bar. Deep leather chairs, dark paneled walls in the lobby, rooms modern and comfortable with views of mountains and harbor. Gold Room restaurant is tops. A handsome suite goes for $95.
Alaskan Hotel & Bar (167 S. Franklin; $55 double with bath, $41 with one down the hall) is Juneau's oldest. A Victorian-style hostelry listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Tiny lobby leads directly into handsome bar with stained-glass windows, antique highboy and very convivial feeling, rooms, some with kitchenettes, upstairs are small and old-fashioned. Former owners once panned for gold in stream that coursed through the basement.
TraveLodge (9200 Glacier Highway; $64-$69) is a typical motor hotel with one difference: a tent-sized, black, bear skin on the lobby wall shot by one of the owners. Typical motel rooms, spacious with TVs. Also an indoor pool, Jacuzzi and popular Mexican restaurant.
Regional food, drink: Fresh seafood--mostly salmon, halibut and crab. Then there's the luscious little Dolly Varden trout that packs streams, pan fried without fanfare. Fiddlehead fern salads are springtime treat. Summer huckleberries in pies and pastries are popular. Also smoked salmon at a sensible price.
Chinook Alaskan is the state's only home-brewed beer. It's good stuff. Once 48 breweries kept the territory's saloons and dance halls lively.
Moderate-cost dining: Thane Ore House (four miles from town in a grove of trees on the beach) advertises all the baked salmon you can eat for $15. Includes salad bar, baked beans, corn bread and drink. At night, Golden Nugget dancers stir things up. Also horseshoes outside. Darts by the fireside if you didn't overdo the salmon. Rustic and informal.
Armadillo (across from docks) is a Tex-Mex place with minimal decor but good food and lots of it. Half an order of nachos was too much for two. Chili with corn bread $4.75, barbecued ribs with all the sides $9.85. Young owner came from Dallas two years ago to make his strike with tacos instead of oil.
The Fiddlehead Restaurant & Bakery (429 W. Willoughby Ave.) serves three meals a day and a Sunday brunch, plus fine selection of bakery goods. Try Reality cookie, a shortbread round with almonds and M&Ms. Lunches in this little place of knotty pine are on the light side, dinners heavy on seafood and Pacific Northwest beef and pork.
On your own: Juneau has one of the world's only drive-in glaciers. Or you may fly over it or climb. Mendenhall Glacier, southeast Alaska's most popular attraction, is a 12-mile river of ice more than a mile wide, making its way slowly down a mountain valley. The Mendenhall's lovely colors vary with time of day.
Plenty of sports, with fishing and sailing in Inland Passages, hunting, summer skiing on the ice fields and river rafting, plus beaches for picnics and camping, even U.S. Forest Service cabins for rent if you don't mind flying in.
Join everyone else who visits Juneau by stopping in at the Red Dog Saloon, a klunky watering hole with all the ambiance of your local pawn shop. Fishermen, loggers and trappers are regular denizens there, so you might hear a few tales that will blow the head off your Chinook Alaskan brew.
For more information: Call the Juneau Visitors Bureau at (907) 586-1737, or write (76 Egan Drive, Juneau 99801) for a brochure on Juneau and the Inside Passages, another on hotels, restaurants, tours and fishing.