Juneau, Alaska: A quirky town where you should expect the unexpected

When you visit Alaska you expect to see ice, and I'm seeing plenty of it just outside Juneau.

The Mendenhall Glacier is a huge, impressive sight, a vast frozen object wedged between hills. At its base there are bright blue surfaces, from where icebergs have calved into the lake below.

Though it's summer, the breeze is chilly as I sit on a bench marvelling at nature's handiwork. To the right of the glacier the Nugget Falls gush down from the mountains, and I can see tiny dots that are hikers admiring them up close.

Considering the ice, it's surprising to discover that Juneau is on the edge of the largest temperate rainforest in North America, Tongass National Forest. I visit it via a tour from Glacier Gardens, whose visitor centre is eccentrically decorated with colourful flower beds planted in upturned tree trunks.

From here a golf cart tackles the steep slopes of the forest. My guide is well-versed in the flora and fauna, and points out wild berries and other items of interest as we head up through the spruce trees.

At the top is a lookout from which I can see waterways, the city, and the mountains which surround it.

Those peaks are the key to understanding Juneau. Though it's the state capital of Alaska, its mountain-hemmed location on the spectacular Inside Passage means the city has no road access to the outside world. The only way in is by air or sea.

Plenty of people take advantage of the waterborne option by arriving on cruise ships. The dockside quarter is a hub of tourist activity in the warmer months, as up to 15,000 daily passengers add to the city's population of 32,000.

I don't much enjoy the tourist crush around the docks, but the influx of visitors does mean there's a wide range of attractions to enjoy, and a better food scene than you might expect in such a small city.

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And because I'm staying for a few nights, I can take my time, explore the town beyond its tourist zone, and have it to myself in the evenings after the cruise passengers have left.

As I explore I discover that Juneau is a curious place, with a distinctive personality. In its hillier upper reaches where the streets are linked by pedestrian stairways, cruise passengers thin out and the shops and restaurants cater more for locals.

On Fifth Street is St Nicholas', the oldest Russian Orthodox church still standing in the state. It's a reminder that Alaska was owned by Russia until 1867, when the territory was purchased by the United States.

That transaction is described in detail at the excellent Alaska State Museum, including the Native Alaskan people's resistance to such casual assumptions of sovereignty. Their poor treatment under both Russian and US rule echoes that of indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere, though these days Native Alaskan businesses are a force in Juneau's tourism industry.

Beyond the handover, the museum tells the story of Alaska's development for industries such as fishing, and in response to military needs during World War II and the Cold War.

I round out my stay with a visit to the Alaska Brewing Company, the first brewery opened in Juneau since the end of Prohibition. Its most popular beer is the Alaskan Amber, based on a century-old recipe from the gold rush era; but I fancy the seasonal Spruce IPA, flavoured with spruce tips from the rainforest. It's as quirky as its home town.

TRIP NOTES

FLY + SAIL

Qantas and its partner Alaska Airlines fly to Juneau via Seattle. See qantas.com.au

Juneau can also be reached via the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. See ferryalaska.com

STAY

Alaska's Capital Inn offers bed-and-breakfast accommodation within an attractive old timber residence. From $US169 a night. See alaskacapitalinn.com

VISIT

Admission to Mendenhall Glacier is $US5.

Glacier Gardens entry fee and tour costs $US26.95. See glaciergardens.com

Alaska State Museum costs $US7 to enter. See museums.alaska.gov

Alaska Brewing Company offers tasting tours with transport for $US25. See alaskanbeer.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/alaska

traveljuneau.com

travelalaska.com

Tim Richards travelled as a guest of Travel Juneau and the Alaska Marine Highway System.

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