No, as far as I know, they don’t make wine in Juneau. But the food is good, the culture is interesting, and the natural resources breathtaking. My excuse for going was the International Food Blogger’s Conference, which highlighted Juneau’s burgeoning food scene. But you don’t need an excuse to go; it has a singular charm worth experiencing.
Juneau is an old mining and fishing village accessible only by boat or plane. It’s firmly attached to the mainland but the steep mountains and treacherous weather make road building inordinately difficult and expensive. Nevertheless, somehow, it became Alaska’s capitol. The gold mines shut down years ago but the protected harbor was ideal for cruise ships exploring the stunning Alaska coastline. Today it’s fishing, government, and tourism that keep this city of around 30,000 permanent residents afloat. Everything not grown or manufactured on a narrow strip of flat land between the mountains and the water must be flown or shipped in, which means everything is expensive here.
The cruise ships, 3 or 4 towering, floating hotels, arrive each morning and the area around the harbor gradually fills with people throughout the day. Jewelry and Native American curio shops line the streets with aggressive sales people who hound you as you stroll about. I found nothing of interest here and one restaurant I sampled, called Wicked Fish, was wicked dreadful—think Red Lobster at twice the price.
The one exception in the immediate vicinity of the cruise ships was Tracy’s Crab Shack. Justly famous—an episode of Top Chef’s “Quick Fire” was filmed here—they serve delicious, melt in your mouth, fresh King Crab. Don’t miss it. You won’t find better.
To experience the real Juneau you have to head further into town although still within walking distance of the port. Coffee shops, breweries, distilleries, and quality shops abound. But the real attraction for me of course was the food scene. With an abundance of fresh seafood harvested right out their front door and a steady stream of tourists seeking an alternative to cruise ship fare, Juneau has been able to attract and support talented chefs with a knack for creative dishes.
James Beard Rising Star semifinalist Beau Schooler’s plate of Alaskan Salmon Chorizo, with brussels sprouts and chili lime accompanied by Alaska Spot Prawn Escabeche with rhubarb and ginger was the highlight of the conference reception. His restaurant, Boca al Lupo, serving Italian-inspired cuisine with seasonal, nightly seafood specials was the best restaurant meal we had during our visit.
For something quite different try V’s Cellar Door—a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant serving casual dishes like fusion nachos with Korean cabbage slaw and Bulgogi steak. For regional specialty items The Salmon Shoppe is a must visit—where else in the world will you find Reindeer sausage or Kelp Salsa?
For an overview of the food scene, I highly recommend the tours by Juneau Food Tours.
But don’t spend all your time eating. The eagles, bears, whales, and sea lions will be disappointed if they don’t have the opportunity to entertain you. The whale watching is usually successful. The whales follow regular feeding routes and the naturalists on board know where to find them. Eagles in some places are as common as sparrows—that is only a bit of exaggeration. And I found that encountering a bear when you’re out walking is not out of the question.
Viewing a real, live glacier is also an experience worth having. The Mendenhall glacier is easily accessible via bus, tour company or rental car. You can actually reach the glacier via a long hike. But the shorter trails near the visitor’s center get you close to it. But don’t wait too long. It is receding.
The people in Juneau can be a hoot. They are very much aware of their isolation and independence and wear it like a badge. This is a unique city. There is no place like it in the U.S.