Archive for the ‘Juneau’ Category

My Top Five – Places I’ve Been

If my husband looks at the title he is going to laugh.  I have a very hard time narrowing down my “top” lists.  We tried doing a favorite song, but my list was well over five (we capped it at 100, and even that is changing!).  I thought it might be fun to look at some of my top picks – places I’ve been, cruise destinations, travel bucket list.  Today I’ll start with places I’ve been.  I haven’t done a lot of traveling, except for cruises, so a lot of places are on my wish list.

St John, US Virgin Islands

This is one of the most beautiful islands I have ever been to.  The vast majority of the island is a National Park so you don’t have all the houses and resorts as you traverse the island.  We have been there many times while on cruises.  One trip we rented a car and drove all around the island, finding a deserted beach (part of the park) where we could swim and snorkel.  There were coral beds, stingrays, turtles and many fish in this bay.  One other group came while we were there, otherwise, we had the place to ourselves.

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Panama Canal

We have passed through the Panama Canal on a couple cruises.  Both times it was equally amazing!  What makes this destination so incredible was taking the time to learn about the history of the building of the canal.  The massive number of people who gave their life while working on this marvel.  How they cut into the Continental Divide.  How our ship just barely fit into the locks.  How the ship rose up to Gatun Lake basically by water power.

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Southern France

We visited Marseille and Villefranche on our Mediterranean cruise and found Southern France to be unexpectedly welcoming.  We had been told that people from France don’t really like Americans and that was so far from the truth where we visited.  We visited Châteauneuf-du-Pape (one of my favorite wines!) and Avignon from Marseille.  Avignon was an incredible place to visit.  From the Popes’ Palace you can see the city of Avignon and the Rhone River.

From the port of Villefranche, we were able to visit Nice and Eze during our stay.  Shopping in Eze was so much fun once we met “Horst”, though he got us in a bit of trouble and almost made us miss the bus to Nice.  The views of the Mediterranean Sea from Eze were incredible!

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Juneau, Alaska

Juneau, Alaska is the first place I’ve been to that is cold where I actually felt like going back again!  Friends drove us around the city before our shore excursion, getting us acquainted with the area.  I only wish we had more time to visit Mendenhall Glacier (definitely in 2014!).  The geological history of the area is what was so inspiring to me.  The nature that we experienced from the glaciers and snow-capped mountains to the humpback whales and bald eagles and everything else in between.  Just incredible.

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Machu Picchu

One of the wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is breathtaking.  First, I was amazed that I lived through the week of touring other Incan ruins in Peru.  Walking around the first building when we reached the park and seeing all of Machu Picchu before us was mind-blowing.  To think that Incans built a city like this in 1450, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level is difficult to comprehend, even when you visit here.

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Disneyland Resort

Okay so this is number six (I told you I have a problem!).  I just had to add this one in here because of the feeling I get every time I arrive at Disneyland.  I feel like a little kid!  I get all giggly and excited.  It’s truly my happy place.  I don’t get that way with Walt Disney World, just Disneyland.  Probably because it was my first Disney park when I was 24 years old.  We walked through the turnstiles and I proclaimed “This IS THE happiest place on earth!”.  And that comes back every time we are there.  It doesn’t bother me that the park is in the middle of a city, in fact, I like the convenience of walking everywhere without needing to take a bus or shuttle.  I was so excited when Disney California Adventure was built and enjoy that park nearly as much as Disneyland.

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Honorable Mentions

This was hard enough limiting the list to five, or six.  Here are a few other places that have a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons:  New York City, San Francisco, Castaway Cay, Barbados, St. Kitts, Estes Park (Colorado), Temecula (California), Mackinac Island (Michigan), Napa Valley (California), Hudson River Valley (New York)

So what are your top favorites?  Join in the discussion on Facebook in our ToaDers Group.

Thoughts on Family Cruising and an All-Ages Juneau

When I was ten, my family and I spent a week traversing the American Southwest in a rented motorhome.  We rode mules into the Grand Canyon, saw the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and drove down Route 66.  In some ways, it was akin to National Lampoon’s Vacation, save for my father getting lost in the desert or Wally World being closed for construction.  The weather was perfect and our trusty vehicle did not break down, and yet this was the last vacation we took as a family.

Seven days. Five people. Two national parks.  One not-so-palatial motorhome.  Zero minutes of time alone.

Upon further consideration, most of the aforementioned characteristics of my own family’s road trip do not differ too much from a cruise.  A cruise has a similar duration, a myriad of offered attractions, and “quaint” living quarters, but what separates it from a Griswold vacation is that cruises offer plenty of opportunities for everyone to pursue what they want.  Onboard, most cruise lines offer programs for children and teens while the parents are free to frequent the casino, spa, or pool.  Family vacation purists may argue that such activities might compromise the “family” part of family vacation, however, I’ve known of many a vacation to be spared from destruction due to family members taking time away from the group to do their own thing.  When travelers have the opportunity to explore the ship on their own, group adventures at each port become much more enjoyable.

On Alaskan cruise itineraries, Juneau has the most to offer in terms of shore excursions, giving travelers a host of options for things to see and do during their visit. When traveling with a family, choosing activities that appeal to everyone can be a challenge, but thankfully, Alaska’s capital city is very family friendly.

For families who want a low-key day in town, most cruise ship docks are a short shuttle trip or walk away from downtown, where shops, restaurants, and historic sights abound.  Most visitors like to frequent South Franklin Street (adjacent to most docks) for souvenirs at one of the many shops or snacks from a handful of excellent eateries (stay tuned for another post about my specific recommendations).  Just a few blocks over from Franklin are the Alaska State Museum and a few government buildings for families traveling with history and government enthusiasts.  Between enjoying delicious food, taking in the scenic Gastineau Channel, and learning about the antics of Alaska’s early mining days, downtown has a lot to offer just a stone’s throw away from the docks.

Beyond downtown, the activities in Juneau are more focused on nature.  The Mendenhall Glacier a popular stop for travelers since nothing says “Alaska!” like a massive piece of ice, a guaranteed crowd pleaser for all ages.  Most tours allow visitors at least an hour to check out the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors’ Center and to explore surrounding trails.  Trails near the visitors’ center are flat and extremely well-maintained, allowing for groups to embrace their inner naturalist an explore the area immediately surrounding the glacier.  Park rangers throughout the area are available to answer questions or give more in-depth information about glaciers and other geographic landmarks of Alaska as well.

Mendenhall Glacier

Another extremely popular excursion for families is whale watching in the water surrounding Juneau. During the summer months, both Humpback whales and Orcas migrate north to the waters of Southeast Alaska, giving travelers a special opportunity to witness these creatures in their natural habitat.  Most ships spend about two hours out on the water searching for whales (I have yet to hear of any time when travelers returned to their ship without seeing a whale).  The ships offer indoor seating, bathroom facilities, information about wildlife in the area, and occasionally light refreshments to complement whale watching experience.  Personally speaking, I’ve been to a few aquariums in my day. I’ve seen Keiko (of Free Willy fame) more times than I can remember, and yet nothing compares to the excitement I have when I see a tale or dorsal fin rise out of the water.  I can’t help but squeal and clap my hands at the sight of a pod of orcas, prompting my friends to tell me I’m causing a scene.  Like Christmas morning or watching one of those Charlie Brown specials on television, nothing brings out the inner child of most people like seeing pods of whales swim freely.

Since I spend my summer working in tourism, I learn more and more about the dynamics of a family vacationing simply by observing families.  From my observations, the happiest families are those who take their time at sea to explore the ships independently and come together to explore every port.  These groups are the ones who seem to have the most fun and arguably the most interesting conversations at the dinner table.

Note: Certain cruise lines offer certain packages.  It is possible to book a single excursion that combines a visit to the glacier and whale watching, for example.  Review your cruise line’s website beforehand to determine which excursions you prefer, at which times of the day, and other attractions you wish to enjoy.  Planning well in advance will pay off!

Juneau: The Alaska for Everyone

When I fall asleep at night, I don’t think about the homework I neglected to do, the dishes I left unwashed, or the looming threat of the zombie apocalypse. My mind is far from school, sanitation, and the walking dead. Instead, it’s in a town approximately 961 miles north of my current location. It’s in Juneau, Alaska, my adopted summer home and the only place that has ever managed to capture the majority of my waking thoughts and lucid dreams.

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Like most towns in Southeast Alaska, Juneau has no system of roads that connect to other parts of the state. If you drive far enough to the northern or southern ends of town, the roads simply end.

My fascination with Alaska first manifested itself in my fifth grade state report. I distinctly remember gluing pictures of polar bears to poster board, feeling satisfied with my perceived knowledge and skill. At the tender age of twelve, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, prompting me to seriously consider visiting the Great North for the first time. My fanciful daydreams consisted of a tween version of myself roaming the foothills of the Alaska Range, amidst moose and mountains, lost in the wild like Krakauer’s protagonist, Chris McCandless.

A few years later, I made my Alaska dream come to fruition, while combining the necessity of making money during my summer break from university. In early 2012, when I was offered a job in the capital city Juneau, I immediately accepted, ensuring that my dream of visiting the state would be memorable.

When I fully realized I would be spending three months in the Last Frontier’s capital city, my hopes of living out some Arctic, Jack London fantasy were dashed. Within ninety minutes of my arrival in town, however, I found myself staring at the terminus of the Mendenhall Glacier, the antithesis of urbanity and the epitome of the natural Alaska I originally sought.

You could say that Juneau was quick to prove me wrong.

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Just outside of downtown, the Perseverance Trail winds its way into the mountains of the Coastal Range.

It didn’t take much longer for me to understand that Juneau was unlike any other place I had ever visited. From downtown, it’s possible to walk past the Governor’s Mansion and wander up into the mountains on the state’s oldest road, Perseverance Trail. In less than twenty minutes, it’s possible travel from sea level to nearly four thousand feet upwards onto the side of Mt. Roberts via the Mt. Roberts Tram. In the course of a day, it’s possible to enjoy the rich history only found in state capitals and the insane natural beauty only found in Alaska.

I spent three months in Juneau, and when I wasn’t working, I took advantage of everything the city had to offer. I saw glaciers calve at the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm, I serendipitously met Governor Sean Parnell at a community picnic, and I spent days climbing the mountains that surround the city. As a result, I returned to the Lower Forty-Eight with three months’ worth of memories that are sure to stay with me for the rest of my life.

As you read me wax poetic about my extended stay in Juneau, you may feel excited about the prospect of seeing glaciers, overwhelmed at the amount to see and do, or even bothered that your visit to Alaska is significantly less time than my gratuitous summer break. THIS IS NATURAL. Yes, Juneau has a lot to offer, but the good news is that if you plan carefully, you can experience a lot of it even with the strictest time constraints.

One year ago, I foolishly thought my chances of seeing Sarah Palin were greater than seeing a bald eagle scoop up a salmon from the Gastineau Channel (note: I saw the latter at least twice during the summer). And fortunately for me, the only Sarah Palin sighting I had was her likeness in the form of a cardboard cutout on the steps of the Alaska T-Shirt Company on Franklin Street.

Downtown Juneau and the Gastineau Channel

Downtown Juneau and the Gastineau Channel

It’s one thing to read a book, write a glorified book report, or watch a Travel Channel special about a place, but to experience it firsthand is entirely different and infinitely more valuable. Travel in all forms allows for an enhanced understanding of the world, and to spend even a week in a place as unique as Southeast Alaska is treat for any traveler. Regardless of the fast-paced nature of your itinerary, know that the Alaska you always dreamed of visiting is well-within reach!

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