In June 2019, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Alaska to represent one of my clients at the International Food Blogger Conference. Luckily, we also had a few days before the conference to explore our surroundings. This is the first post in a series I’ll be writing featuring the adventures we had during our stay in Juneau, Alaska.
Most tourists who visit Alaska’s state capital come that way via cruise ship. With a state as large as Alaska is, a cruise is a pretty perfect way to be sure you see as much of it as possible. And with Juneau being situated in the Inside Passage between the Gastineau Channel and the Alaska Boundary Range–the only city in the United States that is only reachable by air or sea–a cruise ship is an ideal way to arrive. As such, Juneau is not an area typically considered as a destination for a week’s vacation. But it could be, and by staying downtown, your opportunities for experiencing this beautiful coastal rain forest city are increased exponentially, while your stress level is greatly decreased. No rushing back to the cruise ship before it leaves port–no need to take the same excursions everyone else on the ship is taking.
We booked a variety of tours, leaving it to the local companies to bring us to the most interesting attractions. What we found was that one of the best parts of our trip was something that you’d miss entirely as a cruiser. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a fabulous time seeing what Juneau has to offer in a few short hours. So, without further ado…
Whale Watch or Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise?
The real answer is both! But most must select only one. Here are some reasons why you might choose one over the other…
1. You only have 6 hours in Juneau.
When you’re cruising, your shore leave is strictly scheduled and limited. If you only have several hours to pack in everything, you’ll want to do what gets you the most bang for your buck. In that case, a whale watch with Juneau Tours & Whale Watch is what you seek. We selected a combination whale watch and trip to Mendenhall Glacier, which allowed us to experience some of the most iconic parts of Juneau in a very short time frame. The whale watch itself is two hours and it’s a short shuttle ride from there to the Mendenhall Glacier, the world’s only “drive-up” glacier, where you’re allowed to explore at your leisure. Hang at the visitors’ center, walk to the photo point, or do the whole shebang and walk out to Nugget Falls–it’s up to you. Shuttles arrive every 20-30 minutes to bring you back to downtown Juneau, so you won’t miss your ship. Total time is 5 hours or less, depending on how long you spend at the glacier.
2. You have a few days in Juneau.
Hands down, you’ll want to go with the Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise with Adventure Bound Alaska. During our 9.5 hours spent at sea, we witnessed the natural beauty of icebergs, Tracy Arm Fjord, and Sawyer Glacier (including seeing the glacier calving while we were there–a mixture of awe and sadness). On top of that, we encountered several eagles, two black bears, seven humpback whales (including one friendly one that kept waving to us), a bevy of harbor seals lounging on the ice at Sawyer Glacier, and a colony of sea lions on the trip back, which is something you’ll never forget. They’re loud and obnoxious and sound like a herd of teenagers, which encouraged many laughs on board the boat.
3. You want to learn about the wildlife.
If education is your concentration, a dedicated whale watch is for you. Our Juneau Tours crew included Captain Ed, Dave, and Kris, who were all very knowledgeable about what we saw during our tour. In particular, Kris, the naturalist, was not only encyclopedic in his knowledge of humpback whales, but he was also quite punny–a trait I adore. His raw enthusiasm was infectious throughout our time on the ship. We learned about baleen; Flame, the first whale we encountered; her baby, Bunson, whom we found shortly thereafter; and so much more. And I laughed at all his jokes, because I’m that kind of dork. You’ll walk away from this whale watch knowing how to spot whales, having an idea about their feeding habits, learning about their lifespan (well, what little we know about that), and just plain having a spectacular time. Make sure you bring your good camera!
4. You want to get up close and personal with a glacier.
While the combination whale watch and Mendenhall Glacier tour with Juneau Tours enables you to walk a 2-mile round trip path to get a closer look at Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls, you’re still pretty far away. Adventure Bound Alaska will get you close to a glacier–and give you plenty of time to take in the whole experience. Close enough to hear it when the ice starts calving and drops into the water. Close enough to see that ancient Sawyer Glacier shine with that bright blue ice–a miracle centuries in the making. Close enough to be completely awestruck.
5. You have a limited budget.
Honestly, the price difference between these two is negligible. The Tracy Arm Fjord tour will cost you $167.50 per person–the combination whale watch and Mendenhall Glacier tour through Juneau Tours & Whale Watch costs $145 per person. If you want to drop that back to just the whale watch, then that brings the price down to $115. Bargain hunters would be best served by a Juneau Tours package.
6. You want to see it all.
I’ve already suggested it, but it bears repeating: do both! We did and I have zero regrets! While the tours overlap in what you might see, Juneau Tours heads north, while Adventure Bound Alaska heads south–enabling you to cover the most ground possible during your stay. And just think of the stories you’ll have when you return! This will, of course, require you to make Juneau your home base for your vacation, but that’s not a hindrance. There’s something truly special about this city when the ships leave and the cruisers empty the town at the end of the day. I was so enamored at the end of our trip that I didn’t want to leave. Juneau does that to you.