Enter the Wild in Juneau

1. Where to Stay

Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn and Adventure Spa is a quiet retreat near Mendenhall Glacier.Photo: Courtesy of Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn and Adventure Spa

Wake up to a complimentary breakfast that includes freshly baked bagels and breads at the Silverbow Inn (from $109), home of the oldest bakery in town. Built in 1914 in the heart of historic downtown Juneau, the bed-and-breakfast offers twelve rooms that are modest yet comfortable, plus there’s a rooftop garden with a hot tub and sauna open year-round.

Find a tranquil setting away from downtown at Auke Lake Bed & Breakfast (from $125), surrounded by temperate rainforest and mountain vistas. The five rooms here are decorated by theme, taking inspiration from Africa and Alpine activities, and the best is the spacious Timberline Suite, with its rustic wooden bed and direct views of the lake.

Peer out at the Mendenhall Glacier from an outdoor hot tub at Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn and Adventure Spa (from $179), where four-poster beds, fireplaces, and Oriental rugs reflect a greater attention to style and comfort than you’ll find at nearby hotels. With only five rooms on an acre of land, privacy is the focus here, but you can socialize over wine and cheese at the evening reception in the Atrium Lounge, and massages and aromatherapy treatments are available whenever you need pampering.

2. Where to Eat

Zephyr Restaurant is considered Juneau's most elegant dining spot.Photo: Courtesy of Zephyr Restaurant

Hit the waterfront for freshly harvested seafood and views of snow-capped mountains at the Hangar on the Wharf, where the walls are lined with old beer taps and you can sample local pours ($5/pint) from Alaska Brewing Company, Denali Brewing, and Midnight Sun Brewery. Order an Alaskan pub favorite: a halibut burger topped with sautéed mushrooms ($18.95) or clams steamed in ale ($18.95).

Line up with locals at Russian eatery Pel’Meni (2 Marine Way; 907-586-0177), a no-frills spot that serves cheap eats from lunch until 3 a.m. while a turntable plays titles from the eclectic LP collection. Choose between potato or beef dumplings ($6/dozen), traditionally consumed with a liberal helping of sour cream, but feel free to choose from other toppings like butter, curry powder, cilantro, and hot sauce mixed with vinegar.

Make a reservation for dinner at Juneau’s only fine-dining establishment, Zephyr Restaurant, a lofty space that features Mediterranean-inspired dishes and a diverse wine list of around 50 bottles. Traditional plates include a Moroccan-style game hen served with carrots, chickpeas, and a lemon yogurt ($26), while scallop and prawn spaghetti with fennel, crème fraîche, and basil ($26) highlights the local catch.

3. What to Do

The northern lights currently appear more dramatic in Juneau than in past years.Photo: Trodel, via Flickr

See the aurora borealis (a.k.a. the northern lights) at the peak of its eleven-year cycle (now through March). Visitors usually need to travel farther north to enjoy the spectacle, but conditions this year make Juneau a prime viewing location. The ideal conditions are clear nights between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., so check the weather before heading to nearby Auke Bay or Eagle Beach, where the locals go to see the sky light up away from the streetlights of town.

Hike across Mendenhall Glacier, a spectacular twelve-mile-long natural wonder just twenty minutes from downtown, where you can explore icy caves, marvel at the dramatic Nugget Falls, and even spot mountain goats and bears from afar. There are hiking trails for everyone, but do your research in advance, as they range from a half-mile jaunt that calls only for comfortable walking shoes to a seven-mile trek that requires a pair of boots and some experience. If you prefer to stay in town, walk to the end of Basin Road to find the scenic Perseverance Trail, a moderate three-hour hike that shows off the red cedar trees, massive firs, and carpets of moss that characterize the Tongass National Forest.

Ski some of the most picturesque and unsullied runs in North America at Eaglecrest, a premier ski resort (adult full-day passes from $34, equipment rentals from $33 per day) located right across the bay from Juneau. Spread across 640 acres, you’ll find 36 alpine runs, five miles of Nordic trails, and plenty of uncrowded, ungroomed areas in backcountry designed for adventurous skiers who prefer to explore solo.

4. Insider’s Tip

Many of the supposedly authentic goods sold in the main shopping area are in fact mass-produced.Photo: Courtesy of Alaska Travel Industry Association

In response to crowds of cruise-ship tourists passing through the capital, several chain stores have opened up downtown to make profits by selling mass-produced “local” souvenirs. Skip these spots and support the local economy by shopping only at stores with a sign in their window reading “This store is owned by an Alaskan family.” One of the best is the Juneau Artists Gallery, a cooperative of 26 local artists who make jewelry, ceramics, and paintings of local scenery.

5. Oddball Day

The Alaskan Brewery Company produces five brews in addition to seasonal and limited-release offerings.Photo: Courtesy of Alaskan Brewing Company

Take a break from the great outdoors to enjoy some of the city’s cultural offerings. Start out with a sampler plate of three types of French toast ($13.95) at the homey Sandpiper Cafe (429 Wiloughby Ave.; 907-586-3150). Walk over to the Alaska State Museum ($3 admission in winter), where you’ll see natural history exhibits (presided over by a life-size replica of an eagle-nesting tree), a cultural history of the native Tlingit and Eskimo peoples, and a giant globe that shows the movement of Earth’s weather in real time. For lunch, head to local institution Bullwinkle’s Pizza, where the cracker-thin, deluxe pie ($10 for a small) comes loaded with four meats and onions, mushrooms, peppers, and olives. Next, take a free tour of the renowned Alaskan Brewing Company, just a five-mile bus or cab ride from downtown, where you’ll get a lesson in Alaskan brewing history and an invitation to enjoy the beers at the tasting bar, which usually has ten brews or so on tap. (The list changes with the season but the Winter Ale, flavored with Sitka spruce tips and water from a Juneau ice field, is a special treat.) Back in town, stop by cozy Observatory Books, which was honored by the state of Alaska for its collection of rare books and maps. For dinner, enjoy more of local seafood at Seong’s Sushi (740 W. 9th St.; 907-586-4778), which is frequented by Alaskan politicians who work at the Federal Building across the street. Check the calendar to see if you can catch a production by local companies Theatre in the Rough or Perseverance Theatre, which are among the best cultural offerings in a place that cares about entertainment, particularly in winter when the sun sets around 3 p.m. Alternately, head to the turn-of-the-century bar at the Alaskan to dance to live music or a D.J. on weekend nights.

6. Links

Juneau Empire covers everything from upcoming events to high-school sports from a local perspective.

Get expert advice on all kinds of activities at Groovy Outdoors, in addition to useful “groovy tips.”

The city’s official website offers the typical information on shopping, activities, and entertainment, but the best feature is various webcams that give you a feel for the city and surrounding wilderness before arriving.

SEAtrails features an interactive trails search and sample itineraries that can help you build your own adventure.

Enter the Wild in Juneau