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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Quaint and Quirky: Alaska’s Cruise Ports

The natural beauty, of course, is the real star of Alaska. Snowy mountains everywhere you look. Glaciers that are really that blue. Waterways littered with ice in late May. Soaring eagles, breaching whales. Desolate, pristine, untouched loveliness.

But the ports are a hoot, too.

They’re quaint and quirky, as only they can be in a state that refers to the rest of us as the “Lower 48.”

And you’re never far from that overwhelming beauty—as you will see from the towns’ settings. We enjoyed them immensely and know you will too. Here, as briefly as possible, are my highlights of the ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan—all easily walkable from the piers:

Juneau—If you’ve been to San Francisco, you’ll understand when I say a few minutes walking
Juneau, Alaska's capital
through the streets of the Juneau will reacquaint you with your calf muscles. On one of those hills is the unassuming St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church that, with its small onion dome, looks strangely out of place. You can find other reminders of Alaska’s Russian past in the shops, with their array of nesting dolls. For those of us not planning a trip to Russia anytime soon, they make fun and different souvenirs.
 
The state capital is small and we saw it all before lunch. We then grabbed an inexpensive bus (the vendors lined up along the pier) to
The icy waters of Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier, only 12 miles away. You get great views of the glacier in the park, which provides several vantage points.


Skagway—This is a literally a town made for tourists. There are only 950 or so full-time residents, one school, one AM and one FM radio station, and a post office that closes for lunch. But when the cruise ships are in town, the population swells to more than triple its usual size.
Skagway: Ft. Lauderdale of the North?
With its frontier-style buildings, some dating back to the Gold Rush days, Skagway was the most charming of the three ports. At the turn-of-the-century Red Onion saloon, it’s not hard to picture down-on-their-luck miners dulling the pain with camaraderie, drink and women more than happy to take their last dime.
 
Here’s a funky piece of Skagway trivia from the Golden PrincessPrincess Patter: because Skagway is in one of the driest (as in less rain) parts of Alaska, it attracts college students on spring break and has become known as the “Ft. Lauderdale of the North.” Not sure about that comparison, when late springtime temps in Skagway barely make it out of the 50s!

Ketchikan—Just shopping alone can keep you busy the whole time you’re here. Whether you’re after pricey Eskimo art or cheap trip mementos, you’ll have plenty of choice. And if you like salmon, you’ll be in seventh heaven in Ketchikan, the self-described “Salmon Capital of the World.”
Scenes, spots and shops of colorful Ketchikan

Beginning in June, fish traveling up the Salmon Ladder for spawning becomes a tourist attraction. We were there too early for this show, but got our fill of the fish, tasting our way through the shops selling it canned, smoked, spiced or petrified.
 
One of the many areas where you’ll find the salmon shops is Creek Street, the town’s old red light district. Today it’s a cluster of cutesy shops built on wood pilings over a clear, rustic rushing brook.
 
Then there are the totem poles—on the streets, in the parks, in front of shops and inside them.

You can bring one home to sit on your desk or to fill an entire corner of your living room. They’re colorful, intriguing and expensive.

Alas, you’re likely to see all this fun stuff from beneath the rim of an umbrella. Ketchikan gets an average of 153 inches of rain a year. Which explains, said the Golden Princess’ Juneau-born cruise director, why “in Alaska, we don’t tan, we rust.”