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Visiting Juneau like a real Alaskan

Scott McMurren
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Have you visited your state capital? Isn't it high time you did so?

There are several ways to see Juneau. Most travelers to our Capital City spend between three and eight hours there, just cruising through on one of the big ships that ply the waters of the Inside Passage during the summer.

But for locals, it's better to spend some time and get in deep -- where the casual day-trippers never venture.

Getting there is easy. If you fly, the smart traveler plays the mileage card. For just 15,000 Alaska Airlines miles, you can get a roundtrip ticket to Juneau -- or any other Alaska destination (including Barrow, Ketchikan, Adak or Nome).

For a more extended holiday, you can drive 787 miles from Anchorage to Haines. Then, go for a "drive" on the Alaska Marine Highway for the final 60 miles to Juneau. It's a great drive to Haines -- plan on spending the night along the way, though. And bring your passports, since you'll be visiting our neighbors, the Canadians. They'll want to see your papers.

There are plenty of places to stay in Juneau. I've spent many evenings at the Driftwood Lodge. More upscale accommodations are available at the Goldbelt. If you're spending a few nights there and want your own kitchen, check out the Juneau Hotel, right by the Juneau-Douglas bridge.

Next to the Driftwood Lodge is my favorite place for breakfast, the Sandpiper Cafe (it's closed on Tuesdays, though). Great scrambles, pancakes and breakfast burritos. Love it!

Don't dawdle, though. There are things to do and places to see. For a bird's-eye view of the city, take the Mt. Roberts Tram up to the top of the mountain. It leaves right from the cruise ship dock.

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Depending on the weather, you can spend an hour or an afternoon exploring the alpine environment. There's a half-mile loop so you can snap some million-dollar shots from the mountain's edge. Or, spend more time and hike to the summit of Mt. Roberts.

Take a trip across the Gastineau Channel to Douglas for lunch at the Island Pub. In addition to some delicious wood-fired pizzas, Owner Rick Kasnick offers a great selection of local microbrews.

While you're over on the "Douglas side", drive north of the bridge to Era Helicopters. Era offers a one-hour trip up to the Taku Glacier.

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You fly right over downtown Juneau on the way to the Taku River.Then, you head east over the mountains and up to the ice field, where you land for a few minutes to stretch your legs and take some pictures. This is a great trip! TEMSCO Helicopters also offers a fabulous trip up to the Mendenhall Glacier.

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Speaking of the Mendenhall Glacier, it's a great "locals" attraction, especially in the evening after the cruise ships have left. That's when the bears come out! It's just about eight miles from the airport. There's an extensive network of hiking trails -- even out to the waterfall near the face of the glacier.

If you're anxious to see whales, you have several options. Most of the cruise ship travelers sail with Allen Marine, which operates a fleet of high-capacity catamarans. Louis Jergens over at Alaska Galore offers trips in his custom-built 38-foot boat. There's only room for 12 people per sailing, though.

Even Juneau folks have their favorite getaways. That includes Glacier Bay --which is just 30 minutes away by air. Stay at the Glacier Bay Lodge and take a day-long cruise through Glacier Bay. We saw whales, black bear, brown bear, goats, sea lions, puffins, eagles, and big, big glaciers! You can fly from Juneau -- or take advantage of the new ferry service from the Alaska Marine Highway. In addition to the Glacier Bay Lodge, there are several bed-and-breakfasts in Gustavus, including the Gustavus Inn.

If you've seen enough ice, consider a trip to Tenakee Springs. This is a year-round destination with a free hot-springs soaking pool in the middle of town. I flew out last weekend. And while I didn't soak in the pool, I did bump into the mayor. 

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Innkeeper Cyndi Roman admits there's not much going on in Tenakee Springs. Apparently, that's the point.

During the legislative session, there are a few more options, including a visit to the State Capitol. But right now, there's plenty going on in Alaska's Capital City.

Best Coffee: Heritage Coffee. Several locations, including the "Mother Ship" at 174 South Franklin St..

Best Book Store: Hearthside Books. At 254 Front St. downtown.

Best Cool Art Store: Annie Kaill's. At 244 Front St. (yup, next door to Hearthside Books!).

Best Quirky Artisan-in-Residence: Bill Spear. His designer pins and zipper pulls are legendary! At 174 South Franklin St. (upstairs from Heritage Coffee).

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com.