Day 1 – Embarking Safari Endeavour in Juneau
Sunday, August 31, 2014
“You’re lucky you’re on the Un-Cruise,” my driver said as we drove through a darkened Juneau, Alaska just after 9 p.m. last night. “Tomorrow, there’ll be three or four of these big cruise ships in here. Floating 10-story casinos. They won’t see what you’ll see.”
I couldn’t debate him on that, though I did feel a bit obliged to stick up for my “big, floating 10-story casinos.” Still, he had a valid point: the whole purpose of my cruise on Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour, an 84-guest ship that measures a petit 232 feet in length, is to see and experience parts of Alaska that guests on the big cruise ships will simply sail right past.
My driver, Pat, continued as we drove down Franklin Street towards the Mount Roberts Tram before swinging around and heading up towards my digs for the night, the Westmark Baranof. “Come September 25, this whole place will look like a ghost town,” he said, referring to the inexplicable myriad of jewelry shops that line the street closest to the piers. “I mean, there’s a bamboo shop over there. You can come to Alaska and get ‘authentic’ Alaskan bamboo. It’s ridiculous.”
Again, I can’t debate him on that. The shop catering to the average cruise ship passenger is, quite frankly, nakedly embarrassing in terms of its lowest-common-denominator offerings, selling items that have nothing to do with the State and which are frequently not even made here. But then, that’s what I’ve always liked about Juneau: it’s a city of contrasts.
Consider this: Juneau is the State Capital of Alaska, which ironically has no access to the outside world outside of air and ship transportation. Half of the population resides farther north in Anchorage – which has road, rail, air and sea access – but Juneau’s 32,000 inhabitants were lucky enough to become residents in the capital city when Alaska was made an official state in 1959. In many ways, this is probably a good thing, as folks who live here can understand the isolation that many cities in Southeast Alaska experience.
I also like Juneau because it still has a bit of a hard edge to it. It hasn’t been “cleaned up” like Skagway has, and still retains more than a bit of its rugged Gold Rush-era atmosphere. The first time I came here, in 1998, one of the first things I saw were two grown men who exploded out of the door of a bar and promptly began beating the everloving snot out of each other, right in broad daylight. The bottom line: there’s some real characters here.
I flew in last night on Alaskan Airlines, which is quickly becoming my favorite U.S. carrier. From Vancouver, it was an easy commuter flight down to Seattle to connect to my direct flight to Juneau, though some flights make an intermediary stop in Ketchikan along the way. I like Alaskan Airlines because their planes are clean, their crews are friendly (are you listening, United?), and their Mileage Plan program rocks. It’s a good thing I like them, too, because they’re the only airline offering scheduled, year-round service to Juneau Airport.
Because of the unpredictable nature of air travel, I’d highly recommend flying in to any Un-Cruise sailing here in Alaska a day early. If you miss the ship, there’s not another port that you can just ‘hop onboard’ at. Unlike big cruise ships, Safari Endeavour won’t be seeing civilization again for another week.
Here in Juneau, Un-Cruise uses the Westmark Baranof for pre-and-post cruise hotel stays. Now, I’d walked by the Baranof several times on previous visits to Juneau, and it looked alright. Not great, just alright. Hotels in Alaska are…well, let’s be honest: they range from poor to average at best. Here’s why: during the summer months, they’re at peak occupancy. During the winter months, they may have a handful of guests if they don’t board up entirely. There’s just no need to make expensive renovations for five months that will be full-up anyhow; the cost-benefit just isn’t there.
I am, however, pleasantly surprised by the Baranof. Sure, the rooms, hallways and public spaces literally have something in them from almost every decade between now and the original opening of the hotel in 1939, but the hotel has been well-looked-after, and most importantly, the beds are super-comfortable.