Alaska From Above in Juneau
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Princess Cruises’ Star Princess came alongside in Juneau, Alaska on a brilliant morning. The capital of the state of Alaska, Juneau has been a staple of Alaskan cruising since the very beginning. But as ships have grown, the town council has had to construct newer and larger piers to keep up with the increasing demand for docking space here.
The Star Princess is a big ship, and sometimes good ships get undesirable berthing locations. Today, we’re at the berth I love to hate: the AJ Dock, which is located at the very southern edge of town. Juneau’s other berths are well within walking distance of the town, and so is the AJ Dock – if you are able to do the nearly three mile hike into town, and if it’s not pouring rain.
Nearly every cruise line in operation in Alaska uses the AJ Dock at some point, so I’m used to calling here. And if it’s a nice day, it’s a decent walk into town, through an industrial site and along Franklin Street. But if you can’t or don’t want to, you get the shakedown pierside for local bus transportation. I realize that these busses (which are operated independently of Princess Cruises) are costly to operate, but on the other hand, I don’t feel passengers should be forced to pay for something that’s out of their control to begin with. The AJ dock has been in Juneau since 2004, and yet 11 years later, there hasn’t been a single pathway constructed that would link the AJ Dock with the much-closer Franklin Dock.
Today however, it matters less where we’re docked because from the Star Princess, I’m taking a once-in-a-lifetime excursion. I’m taking a helicopter flight, landing on a glacier, and going dog-sledding.
Princess offers dozens of excursions in Juneau, from city sightseeing tours to ziplining extravaganzas, or even joining in a native canoe paddle around the crystal-clear waters near Mendenhall Glacier. In fact, there’s more to do in Juneau than you could ever cram into dozens of trips.
I’ve done several different excursions before, but I’ve never done “the big one.” That’s the term I use to describe the flightseeing tours because, let’s face it: they’re not cheap. In fact, my Dog Sled Adventure by Helicopter (Tour JNU-840), clocks in at a cool $579.95. Per person.
Now let me tell you why it’s the single most moving thing I think I’ve ever done.
First, you’re taken by minibus over to the Era Helicopters Flightseeing helipad on the other side of the Gastineau Channel. From there, we were given a safety briefing and outfitted in rubber boots for walking on the snow we’d find up at the dog sledding camp on Norris Glacier.
Then, we were led to the helipad and given instructions on how to safely embark and disembark the helicopter. Era took safety very seriously, which I truly appreciated.
From there, we were led to our helicopter, registration N194EH – a 1992 Eurocopter AS 350. Eurocopter is the helicopter manufacturing arm of jet airliner manufacturer Airbus, now known simply as Airbus Helicopters.
I’d never been in a helicopter in my life. Not once. Not even close. I’m not scared of them; I’d just never had the opportunity to go in one. I do a lot of flying on traditional airplanes, and it’s an odd sensation to suddenly lift off the ground and be hundreds of feet in the air in seconds. No taxiing down runways. No lining up for takeoff. No brief pause before the air is filled with the roar of jet engines spooling up. Just…poof! Up in the air.
To enhance that magical feeling, our pilot had an MP3 stick of music mounted into the dash and piped into our headphones (but not his; he was communicating with Juneau air traffic control). So, as we’re swooping over Juneau harbor and soaring over the peaks and valleys that line the mountains beyond, we’re listening to Book of Days by Enya. Then Anywhere Is, also by Enya. They’re two of my favorite travel songs, so I was fully enamoured as we took flight.
What’s more, every peak and valley seemed to be subtly but expertly timed to the music. The effect was moving and powerful. I almost wished they’d turn the music off; I was afraid it was going to make me tear up (and very nearly did).
After 45 gorgeous minutes in the air, we arrived at the Norris Glacier. I’ll pause now so you can fill in your best Walker, Texas Ranger joke. But instead of Chuck Norris, the Norris Glacier is home to a dog camp set up that is complete with full-time mushers and Iditarod huskies. The training keeps them in shape in the summer, primed and ready for the Iditarod race that takes place each March and runs from Anchorage to Nome.
So what’s it like to be a dog musher for a few hours? Pretty darn fun! We had about an hour to get to know the dogs and to take turns playing brake-man and passenger on the sleds over a track that’s roughly two miles long.
Some photos of our adventure:
As much as I loved the dog sledding experience, I couldn’t wait to get back in the helicopter and go soaring over the mountains again. The dog sledding was the icing on the cake, but the flightseeing was the real star of the show.
Before going back to the Star Princess, I wanted to take a stroll through Juneau, which proved once again to be a nice, quaint town with a rough, authentic edge to it. There’s just one problem, though: I don’t know if I can ever go back to Juneau now and not do a flightseeing tour.
Seriously: if you’re on a date, celebrating a honeymoon, or just plain want to create a memorable experience…do the flightseeing tours. Yes, they’re expensive. But is it ever worth it!
One thing I did do in Juneau was to take the Mt. Roberts Tramway up to the top. Since it’s such a gorgeous day, it seemed like the thing to do. Although I purchased my ticket at the ticket window ($33 for an adult, $16 for kids aged 6-12, kids aged 5 and younger are free), you can also purchase a tram pass through the Shore Excursion desk onboard the Star Princess, which is likely to be far more convenient. I waltzed in to the Mt. Roberts Tramway ticketing center to find there was no line; I’ve certainly walked past here before when the line stretches out the door.
Finally, I came back onboard to the soothing environment of the Star Princess. I’ve realized how much I like Princess’s Grand Class ships, and how well they’ve aged over their service careers. It’s hard to reconcile, as I walk around, that this ship is 13 years old. She’s in excellent shape, and has many more years of happy cruising as one of Princess’s largest “Love Boats” left in her.
Princess used to have the tagline, “Escape Completely.” I know the company no longer uses it, but I can’t think of a better way to describe this Wednesday, here in Alaska, aboard this fabulous ship.
Star Princess, Denali Explorer
|Day 1 & 2||Anchorage & Mt. McKinley|
|Day 3||Denali National Park|
|Day 4||Double Denali|
|Day 5||Boarding the Star Princess|
|Day 6||Hubbard Glacier|
|Day 7||Glacier Bay|