I was very honored to have been invited to Juneau, Alaska to participate in the 3rd Annual Haa Aani OysterFest. If you follow me, you know I participate in a lot of events around local seafood. This was my first trip to Alaska and I was, as my British friends say, gob-smacked. Meaning I was simply and completely stunned at the beauty of Alaska. No photo or television show can do it justice. You must go there and experience it for yourself. I have to admit that Alaska was on my bucket list, but not near the top. Now, I'd go back as soon as I had the chance. Here's a roundup of my 10 days in Juneau...
Here are a few things to know before you go:
Take a real camera. A cell phone camera cannot capture some of the shots you will want to take. When we were whale watching, I so regretted not having my camera with me when I saw the magnificent photos taken by other passengers on the boat.
The weather is a bit like London. A pretty, sunny day can turn rainy in a second so pack one of those fold-up rain jackets with a hood and take it with you everywhere you go.
Take a waterproof case for your phone; you will be out on the water so it is just a precaution. Pack a fold-up waterproof bag too, in case you do some shopping.
Dress in layers. Wear a lightweight tank or tee to keep you insulated if you go out on the water. A turtleneck, a lightweight button front shirt with sleeves, a medium weight pullover, and that ever present hooded rain jacket completed my attire each day. Some days I would end up with most of it in my bag but there were times when I was glad I had those layers.
You'll do a lot of walking and participate in outdoor activities so bring two pairs of shoes- just in case one pair gets wet, you have a day to allow them to dry before you have to wear them again. Also, changing out your shoes daily will help prevent sore feet and blisters.
If you are like me and have to have one, you might consider packing a blow drier; the tiny travel blow drier I have is better than the ones I found in the hotels.
There are not too many places you can charge a video camera or phone around town so take a battery backup so you're always fully charged. You don't want to miss anything!
If you come into Juneau on a cruise ship, there are plenty of good- really good- restaurants in Juneau so don't rush back to the ship for lunch or dinner. Read on for some of my don't-miss restaurant suggestions.
If you are going to be in town for a while, it is worth it to buy a 1-week gym membership at one of the local gyms; hotel gyms are less than adequate. You'll do a lot of walking and outdoor activities in Juneau but if you are like me, you need the gym time each day to offset the calories from eating out 3 meals per day! There is always a chance of rain so the $25 I spent on a gym membership was well worth it.
My first day was spectacular. The skies were brilliant blue and the sun was shining... a day made for whale watching. I took a small jet boat from Dolphin Tours out to watch whales and I was not disappointed. Within minutes, I saw humpback whales; up close and personal. To protect the whales, the boats are required to stay 100 yards away but occasionally, one would swim within a few dozen feet- the pilot would maneuver to try to maintain distance but they seemed to want to see what we were up to. The day included beverages and snacks on the boat- nothing too fancy- local salmon and cream cheese on a bagel... but a nice touch. I really liked that the boat was small; our group totaled about 12 people. The captain and the guide were really nice, professional, and extremely eager to make sure we had a good time and saw plenty of whales.
WHALE WATCHING IN JUNEAU INFO: DOLPHIN TOURS www.dolphintours.com (907) 463-3422
After whale watching, I was excited to try out Tracy's King Crab Shack. I had met Tracy and her staff earlier that day to discuss our event the following weekend so I had nothing but crab on my mind for dinner. It was my favorite night of the trip... the food was incredible and the setting at the pier where the cruise ships dock was perfect for people watching and the long, communal tables make it easy to meet new friends from all over the globe. We had Tracy's famous Crab Bisque to start; warm, creamy, and chock full of lots of crab. Next, a huge platter of crab: Dungeness, King, and Snow. I think I liked the Dungeness the best but hard to say... it was all perfectly cooked and pretty incredible. Tracy's has a low-key, casual vibe and her team is eager to make you feel at home. It is a don't miss stop while you are in Juneau. Even if you can have dinner on your cruise ship, I would highly suggest skipping it in favor of dinner at Tracy's. If I can't convince you, take a look at these photos...
JUNEAU DINING INFO: TRACY'S KING CRAB SHACK www.kingcrabshack.com
406 S Franklin St
Juneau, AK 99801
I came to Juneau primarily for the 3rd Annual OysterFest and it was a lot of fun. We had a cloudy day but even that could not deter the people from these locally farmed Alaskan oysters! We had long lines and crowds all day long and the voting was heavy for the fan favorite awards. I taught some folks to shuck their own oysters... look at the images and you'll see the buckets of oyster shells to indicate they really got the hang of it. The Chargrilled oysters were very popular as were some of the exotic mignonettes like Coconut and Mango that were offered by local restaurants. The oyster event is very important to the local economy. It not only brings awareness to the fledgling oyster farming industry, it helps create a demand for the product that is vital to growth and job creation. If this year's event is any indication, I believe there are a lot of oyster lovers in Juneau!
The brand new Indian restaurant called Saffron swept the awards at the oyster event so I figured that would be a great spot for dinner. I was the guest of Chef Sharmila... her restaurant is a reflection on her personality; warm and welcoming, like home. I can see why she calls her food Indian comfort cuisine; it certainly is. I would walk back today for the Dahl (Indian lentils), the Roti (Indian flatbread), and the Tikka Masala. These signature dishes are the measure of a good Indian restaurant like fried chicken would be to a Southern restaurant and the execution was as good as any Indian restaurant I've experienced in India or London. Definitely put Saffron on your list for lunch or dinner. It's the nicest way to warm up on a cloudy, rainy day in Juneau. Located Downtown, it is an easy walk from most of the hotels and just up the hill from the cruise ship docks.
JUNEAU RESTAURANT INFO: SAFFRON www.saffronalaska.com
112 N. Franklin Street
NEXT: TAKU GLACIER LODGE: SEAPLANE FLIGHT-SEEING PLUS SALMON FEAST
The only downside to my day at Taku Glacier Lodge was that I didn't get to actually catch the salmon I had for lunch... but it couldn't have been too much fresher even if I had. I took a seaplane out to the lodge from town; the pier is in the center of town. We loaded up for a three-hour tour (Yes, Gilligan, a three-hour tour) that took us on a flight-seeing tour of the area and the Juneau ice field on the way to the lodge.
You can see from the images below that the salmon was the star of the show once we arrived at the lodge. I watched as they built the fire from Alder wood and cooked the salmon. They began by lightly smoking the salmon, one reason they use fresh cut wood and not cured wood to build the fire. After about 5 minutes on the smoke with the flesh side down, the salmon is turned, basted with a butter and syrup mixture and placed over the flame, skin side down until it is done.
I learned that King salmon or Chinook salmon can have white or red flesh. The red color is a result of the plankton and other food in their diet and that the difference in the flesh is not due to diet, but genetics. The white salmon have an inability to process the pigments in the food they eat. You cannot tell the difference by looking at the skin of the fish- you can tell the flesh color by cutting the fish open. The red is more abundant so the white salmon is more prized. About one in twenty King salmon have white flesh. Some call the white salmon the "Ivory King" and it is starting to make its way to restaurant menus.
I did notice a very subtle difference in the white salmon compared to the red; the white was perhaps a bit more delicate. In addition to the salmon, I'd go back just for the chive biscuits and the Alaskan Sourdough bread. Those were fantastic. Other side items were baked beans, slaw, and a really good ginger cookie for dessert. I took one home for a late night snack. The beverages were chilled with special "glacier" ice which was clear as glass. They also had hot chocolate and a nice Russian spice tea. Since Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, perhaps they gave her the recipe. :)
2 Marine Way Suite 175
Juneau, Alaska 99801
Phone: 907.586.6275 Email: email@example.com
The lodge itself has a rich history and fascinating stories about owner Mary Joyce, who in 1935 made the 1,000 mile trek from the lodge to the Fairbanks Ice Carnival via dogsled. That's just one of her incredible stories. Read more...
NEXT: TOURING THE CROWN PRINCESS
Another first for me was touring a cruise ship. Yes, that is right. I've never been on a cruise. As much as I have traveled and as many boats as I've been on in my life, I've never had the urge to take a cruise. As I was walking through town, I was lucky enough to bump into a group of executives from Princess Cruise Lines. They had several ships come through Juneau while I was there. They invited me to tour the Crown Princess and have dinner on board. In order to board a cruise ship, you have to be a ticketed passenger or go through security, just like you do to board a plane. The Crown Princess has every amenity you can imagine; outdoor movie theater over the heated pool, spa, casino, and upscale restaurants and bars throughout the ship. As you enter, the opulence and grandeur is apparent instantly; there is a magnificent four-floor atrium outfitted with custom chandelier and other elegant appointments including a string quartet playing classical favorites.
As far as activities go, you can participate in everything or nothing... I liked the thought of that... and you can dine in one of the many restaurant offerings or have room service 24 hours a day. I liked that too! There are shows, music, dancing, and even culinary demonstrations. I was so impressed with the kitchens on board the Crown Princess. They make all of the food, including the breads and pastries, from scratch each day and the menus are changed out everyday so guests have a lot of variety and options. The night I was there, they had an Octoberfest theme complete with authentic German recipes made by some of the German chefs and staff on board. I had dinner in the main dining room at a table with some lovely folks from Georgia, California, Indiana, and Michigan. They had all cruised multiple times in the past and told me that the Princess line was their favorite. Our dinner service was impeccable and the food was very good and served hot which is difficult when you are serving hundreds at the same time.
Here's a glimpse of my tour around the Crown Princess.
NEXT: MORE DINING IN JUNEAU
Restaurants in Juneau are as diverse as they are anywhere but certainly, since seafood it so readily available, it is a prominent feature on local menus. One thing that is not as available is fresh produce and fruit; the locals treasure what they are able to get and especially prize anything they are able to grow.
The folks at The Rookery are baking up incredible house made pastries and baked goods each day including this decadent S'mores Cupcake with a toasted marshmallow topping. They might have the best coffee in Juneau and offer my favorite, French pressed coffee. (At the time of my visit there was no Starbucks but one was in the works in the lobby of the Baranof Hotel)
The Rookery also has a well-rounded menu for brunch, lunch, and dinner with quality Bistro fare like their Triple B Burger with applewood bacon, balsamic onions, blue cheese, and house mayo. Soups are made fresh each day. Local fare like fresh halibut will appear on their seasonally inspired dinner menu. Prices are very fair and the food is far and above what you'd expect to find in what appears to be a casual coffee shop. Breakfast or brunch on Saturday is popular with locals and tourists alike so go early or be prepared to wait for a table.
INFO: THE ROOKERY www.therookerycafe.com
THE TWISTED FISH
I had been tipped off by a local that the salmon and halibut at the Twisted Fish was as fresh as it could possibly be since it came right off the boats right outside their door. I decided to check it out for myself and wasn't disappointed. The restaurant was full, always a good sign, but I found a spot at the bar. Another good sign? Several guys in chef coats from other establishments were also eating at the bar. I ordered the cedar planked salmon, since I make that same dish. I wanted to compare (keeping in mind I've never had salmon right out of the water before) their recipe to my own.
Their cedar planked salmon was very different than mine; they use a brown sugar based glaze that is sweet. I prefer my mustard soy based glaze but regardless, the cedar planked salmon at the Twisted Fish was perfectly cooked, not too rare, not overdone and absolutely delicious. I paired it with an Alaskan White which is a local craft beer... I really liked it so from someone who doesn't often drink beer, you should know it was extremely good. I wish I could buy it back home.
TIMBERLINE BAR & GRILL AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNT ROBERTS TRAMWAY
I don't know if guests expect to find a nice restaurant at the top of the of the Mount Roberts Tramway but Timberline Bar & Grill is just that with an incomparable view of Juneau and you might just see some wildlife, too. Eagles perch in the trees as you ascend to the top of the tramway and there are bears to be seen as well although I didn't see one the day I went. I sampled quite a few dishes at Timberline but without a doubt, the Crab Nachos alone are worth the trip. Crab dip piled high on tortilla chips topped with homemade pico de gallo, black bean corn relish, Cheddar, Monterey Jack cheese, and avocado lime dressing. Also try the Crab Cakes or the Salmon Salad.
490 South Franklin
Juneau, AK 99801
Toll Free: 888.461.8726
The team behind Tracy's King Crab Shack also own newcomer Salt, located downtown and open year-round, the chef uses distinctive Alaskan ingredients to create dishes that are both interesting and satisfying. I had a great evening thanks to and courtesy of Elizabeth and Nancy from Juneau Tourism. The menu changes daily based on availability of ingredients but the risotto I had was wonderful and the cocktails were inspired. The staff is well trained and well informed about the menu and preparations and the wine list is likely the best in Juneau. Look over the current menu...
INFO: SALT MODERN ALASKAN CUISINE www.saltalaska.com
200 Seward Street
Juneau, Alaska 99801
SPINNIN' PIG BBQ SHACK
I luckily stumbled upon Mike and Shannon Wiley's Spinnin' Pig BBQ and found a family with a passion for creating authentic Memphis style competition BBQ waaaaay North of Memphis. The Wileys were so welcoming and so hospitable, you'd think they were Southern. I sampled the ribs, the BBQ sandwich and their BBQ nachos. All very, very good and if I lived there, I'd be swinging by every few days to pick up a slab to take home.
The Spinnin' Pig is adjacent to the Western Auto store in Juneau. It's not downtown/walking distance but I'm sure you can get a taxi there if you promise the driver a sandwich. By the way, the Western Auto has all kinds of outdoor gear, hunting and fishing equipment, the famous Alaskan brand Xtra-Tuff weatherproof boots. It is also where you can get a fishing or hunting license if you need one.
INFO: SPINNIN' PIG JUNEAU www.spinninpig.com Phone: 907.723.7436
OTHER ACTIVITIES AROUND JUNEAU
My first zipline experience! I loved the ax throwing contest at the end. The zipline course is located on Douglas Island. The company will tell you where to pick up a shuttle to the course.
Eaglecrest Ski Area
3200 Fish Creek Road
Juneau, AK 99801
MENDENHALL GLACIER TOUR
The best way to get to the glacier is to use one of the glacier shuttle companies– $20 round trip picks you up by the docks, drops you at the glacier, you stay as long as you like, and then return on a shuttle. Shuttle Companies: M&M Tours Phone: 907.523.1999 or Juneau Tours Phone: 907.723.9209.
The Mendenhall Glacier has a park with an extensive information center where US Forest Rangers can give you information on the glacier, the falls, the wildlife, and the Tongass Rain Forest and the flora and fauna found there. For more information...
Thank you, Juneau, for your kind hospitality. I've made so many new friends, I cannot wait to come back.