When you have a limited amount of time to explore a new place, it’s crucial to maximize every second to squeeze the most out of your adventure. And adventure is exactly what you’ll get when you’re an airline pilot—flying from cityscapes to countrysides, from smooth coastlines to rocky mountaintops, from South American jungles to the wide open plains of Africa. In this series, Laura takes you behind the scenes of some of her top layovers, offers travel tips and force-selects each layover’s top activities for you. After all, nothing makes you prioritize faster than a tight turnaround—and a requirement to sleep—right?
When I was flying the 757, I was lucky enough to get an assignment that involved an entire summer of flying back and forth between Seattle, Washington and Juneau, Alaska. During my many layovers in Juneau, I was able to really get to know the city, and also go looking for a few bears and salmon along the way. If you’re ever in the area, here’s some information below to help you prioritize your visit!
There are only two ways into Juneau—either by plane or by boat. In the summertime, most people get to explore this isolated city after they arrive on a cruise ship, so time is of the essence. They disembark the ship and either eat good-but-expensive crab legs at one of the dock’s nearby restaurants or head out on one of the many excursions that are available—whale watching, float plane rides, trips to Mendenhall Glacier or dog-sledding to name a few.
My summer routine was simple: I would land in Juneau, grab dinner at Hangar On The Wharf, go to bed and then wake up for some sort of adventure the next day. This assignment was good because, after landing, I had two nights at the Westmark Baranof Hotel and plenty of opportunity for exploration and rest!
The Westmark Baranof is an interesting hotel—a true Alaskan experience in downtown Juneau. It’s nothing fancy, but has a great location, and I loved staying there. Rooms on one side of the hotel have a view of the Gastineau Channel (great spot for watching float planes take off) while the other side has a mountainside vista complete with waterfalls. Plus, I loved the Capital Cafe in the lobby of the hotel… awesome spot for breakfast and great service. (Bonus! The then under-construction Starbucks should be complete by now.)
Alternate: Four Points by Sheraton Juneau. It’s a Sheraton—good location downtown and as expected.
While the hotel vantage point was good, for the best views of the city and the Gastineau Channel, you have to visit Mount Roberts Tramway. Mount Roberts stands tall at 3,819 feet and its base is accessible from downtown. Hop on the tram and you will be whisked 1800 feet up the mountainside to breathtaking views. But if you’re looking for some exercise, you can hike to the pinnacle of Mount Roberts from the tram stop, too. I’m not going to lie, it’s steep! But once you make your way to the top you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views and, like me, maybe a conversation with a lone eagle.
Alternate: Alaskan Brewery and Bottling Company. It rains a lot in Juneau… and a great way to spend a rainy day is by visiting the Alaskan Brewery and Bottling Company. The brewery has a shop downtown where they sale tickets for the tour and offer complimentary shuttle rides out to the actual bottling plant. They also have great souvenirs (I picked up Cara an Alaskan Brewery cycling jersey there).
Because of Juneau’s location there are too many adventures to list, but I will recommend a few that I have had personal experience with. First, you have to take a floatplane ride with Wings Airways. They offer different types of tours, but I highly recommend the three-hour Taku Lodge Tour. Your air chariot, a DeHavilland Otter, will take off from their dock right in the heart of downtown Juneau and give you a ride over the Juneau Icefields before landing next to the Taku Glacier Lodge where you will experience dog sledding and a salmon feast before returning back to the city.
Mendenhall Glacier is a must-see. You can hop on a bus from downtown (the glacier is about 13 miles from the city center) and hike your way to the glacier. From the bus stop, it is about a 6-mile hike one way and a true adventure. We crossed streams, used ropes to scale rocks and ended the hike by walking IN the glacier. This is not recommended and very dangerous… but the view was amazing. If you aren’t up for hiking, there are several ways to see the glacier—by air, by kayak, or by tour bus—just check with a local tour group and select your personal glacier experience.
Travel Tip: Check the extended weather forecast for any trip. Pack for the weather, and plan your excursions around the forecast. Your suitcase will be lighter and your schedule will be more enjoyable.
Alternates: Salmon fishing is a way of life in Juneau, and a day on the water is a great way to see how the locals supply their dinner tables. I was lucky enough to have my Dad accompany me on one of my layovers, and we chartered a fishing boat. We spent the morning on the water with the Captain and her deckhand, a young 20-year-old local who was home from college on summer break.
They were both great and the young deckhand taught us how the Alaskans ensure a bountiful catch—after catching our first fish she insisted that one of us take a bite out of the salmon’s heart… we both refused, so she did it for us. I will never forget the blood exploding on her face as she took a bite out of that fish heart… but we caught two more large fish and I gues it was all because of her!
After returning to dock, the Captain took our catch to the local fishery and had it cleaned, packaged, and shipped on ice to our home address. I have to say that is still the best salmon I have ever eaten!
Whale watching is also fantastic in Juneau, and it is almost guaranteed you will see at least one humpback whale on your tour. There are numerous whale-watching tours to choose from, and they are pricey.
Travel Tip: Try to choose the tour company that has a small boat—there are less people to get in your pictures… and know that once on the water all the companies work together trying to find the whales.
Hangar on the Wharf was my go-to restaurant. It has an authentic, local feel; the food is good; and the price and view can’t be beat. There is nothing better than eating fresh salmon chowder while watching float planes come and go.
Alternate: Tracy’s King Crab Shack has some amazing and fresh crab legs. They are on the expensive side, but the food and atmosphere are well worth the price! Order the Crab Shack Combo—1 king crab leg, crab bisque and 4 mini crab cakes all served with hot butter and garlic rolls… I can taste it now!
If you happen to get lucky enough to spend a few hours exploring Juneau while your cruise ship is in the dock, make the most of your time by grabbing a seat on Wings Airways and taking off for the Taku Lodge Tour. There’s really no better way to see all the views, glaciers and eat like a local in one fell swoop. Plus, afterwards, you’ll still have time to ride the tramway up Mount Roberts, grab a souvenir at the Alaskan Brewery shop, and then relax on the deck at Hangar on the Wharf all before re-boarding your floating hotel. You are going to see plenty of whales from the cruise ship!