Alaska Cruise Live Blog (Day 5): Glaciers, Gold, and Juneau

Note: I am currently sailing a 7-day Alaskan cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. Each day I cover the experience, giving you an inside peek at what it’s like to sail on a “bucket list” cruise to Alaska.

You can view other days here:

Endicott Arm
Welcome to the Endicott Arm, an Alaskan fjord with steep mountains on each side, ice flows, and a glacier at the end.

Whoever designed this cruise itinerary is clever. First was a day at sea, where you explore the ship and see some landscape in the distance. Then came Sitka, which sits surrounded by a dramatic landscape, including volcanoes a few miles away. Next was Skagway, which sits at the end of a narrow channel with even taller mountains that are even closer.

But then the landscape — which is what we all came to see — gets even better with today’s trip through the Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier. Each day the bar continues to be set higher with what you get to see.

The trip through the arm starts early. You’re sailing through the start of it when the sun comes up. By around 5:30 a.m., things are really getting spectacular. No matter the early start, the entire ship seemed up to take in the view.

As you sail, the channel continues to narrow and the mountains soar a higher. Then you start to see ice floating… then bigger and more ice (including one large chunk that the ship actually hit, drawing some gasps from passengers as the shock reverberated through the steel of the ship).

Ice flow being hit by a cruise ship
The moment the ship and ice collided, you could hear and feel it throughout the ship.

There’s no town here, no development. It’s simply 100% untouched landscape of mountains, forests, and snow. And then at the end of the fjord, you see Dawes Glacier. It’s a massive ramp of ice, and while we couldn’t get right up to it due to the ice floats thickening in the water, you could see just how impressive it is. Combined with the sun shining, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect image of Alaska.

In all, the trip through the arm took a couple of hours. At the end, the ship turned in place and headed out to the afternoon’s port of call, Juneau.

Dawes Glacier
While it might be tough to see in the picture, you could easily see Dawes Glacier (center) form the ship. Before we got too close, however, we had to turn around due to ice.

Arriving in Juneau to Strike it Rich

Arriving in Juneau around noon, it was once again a clear and warm day. Blue skies, and 70 degrees is not usual for Alaska when talking to the locals, but certainly welcomed.

Juneau is the state capital and sits at the base of mountains. It’s a small town (especially for a capital city), and the mountains with the narrow space it occupies gives it a quaint feeling.

Juneau, Alaska as seen from a cruise ship.
Juneau sits at the base of mountains, giving it a cozy feel. It’s the largest town we are visiting, but still plenty small.

There are several piers and today they were all full with four ships in port. Luckily, we docked at the closest pier, which is literally right at downtown Juneau.

Today I booked an excursion that took us panning for gold. It featured a short bus ride around Juneau with the guide pointing out some of the landmarks around town. Then we headed to the appropriately named Gold Creek.

After a short demonstration of how to pan for the gold, each person was given a bowl with some paydirt to pan. The setting is right next to the crystal-clear creek, which itself is at the base of mountains. In other words, if you want to feel like an old-time prospector hoping to strike it rich, then it will certainly put you in the mood.

It doesn’t take long to get the hang of panning and with a few techniques they show you, we were all able to find a little gold. From there, you use the droppers and small vials they have to extract the gold from the pan and then you have an awesome souvenir — some genuine Alaskan gold that you can take home.

Gold panning
Sifting through my paydirt netted some gold flakes. It ain’t much, but it’s real Alaskan gold!

Overall, I loved the excursion and the guide in particular was great. The price ($89) was a bit steep for the overall experience, however.

Riding back to the ship, I decided to do some exploring of Juneau on my own. The city caters to tourists, but has a lot of other things going on, including the state government. I headed over the capitol building, which looks like a cross between a courthouse and an office building, and it’s just a few blocks from the port.

You can head in and give yourself a tour of the entire place, including both chambers, legislator offices, and the governor’s office. It was surprisingly relaxed and quiet. Security guards at the front just waved me in casually and suggested I start at the fifth floor and work my way down to see whatever I wanted. I was struck with a feeling that I shouldn’t be able to just roam freely, but no one seemed to mind at all.

Alaskan State Capital
The capitol building is free to explore on a self-guided tour and just a few blocks from the cruise port.

From there, I explored around Juneau. The city slopes up from the water, meaning walk a few blocks and you now can look down and see all the way to the ships. I stopped in and checked out a few stores and then stumbled upon an great open-air beer garden with small restaurants. I ordered up some fish tacos for dinner, had a drink, and just took it all in before exploring around a bit more and then heading back to the ship.

While all-aboard wasn’t until 7:30, I had to make it back early for a reservation at the North Star. If you haven’t sailed on Quantum-class ships before, there’s a glass-enclosed pod attached to a boom on the top of the ship. Passengers can ride it up to get a view… way, way above the ship.

While it’s $19 on days at sea, in port it is free, but you have to make a reservation. (One tip: If you can’t get a reservation, head over anyway and see if someone didn’t show up. That’s exactly what happened today and a couple who just walked up was able to ride right away.)

View from the North Star
A ride on the North Star took our group up over the ship, giving great views… but if you don’t like heights, then skip it.

If you don’t like heights, then this isn’t for you. It definitely made me feel a little hesitant, but the views you get are unreal. And in a port like Juneau, with a ton of natural beauty, it was definitely cool to get a bird’s eye view.

Tomorrow is a day at sea. Given that, I plan to combine Day 6 and Day 7 (sea day/Victoria, British Columbia) into one post.

Interesting Observations

  • If you sail to Alaska, then I think the weather we’ve had thus far isn’t always the case. Our first sea day was wet and cold, but since then it’s been warm, dry, and sunny. I’ve heard several mentions from locals about how lucky we are to be visiting when it’s so nice.
  • Honestly, I’m happy to have a day at sea tomorrow. The ports have been amazing, but after three straight days of going out and exploring, it will be nice to not have any sort of schedule and just relax a bit more. The time change, constant activity, and long days are starting to take their toll.
  • Internet service has been really bad on this cruise. I’ve never had that before. It went out around 10 p.m. last night and didn’t come on again until this morning. When I went to the desk to ask about it, there was already a line of upset passengers. Not sure what the issue is exactly.

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