I love Alaska. I always have. That’s why, when I had a chance to take a small ship cruise to our largest state for the third time I didn’t hesitate. I’m typing this from my hotel room in Juneau, and I spent my first full day here exploring massive Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest as well as the peaceful and bucolic St. Terese Shrine just outside of town.I started out this morning with bad advice from my Jamaican front desk clerk, who told me with a straight face that a taxi would cost about the same as a tour bus to the glacier. I inexplicably reasoned that no one could possibly have more knowledge about Alaskan transportation options than this native of the tropics, and of course the hotel (The Goldbelt) wouldn’t be so obtuse as to hire someone who’s completely unqualified just to fill a quota, so I actually believed him. Naturally, I now realize that was foolish of me, since the derisive laughter of the incredulous cabbie is still ringing in my ears, but at the time it seemed perfectly normal to think that a hotel employee wouldn’t answer a simple question by making up an answer out of whole cloth just to avoid pleading ignorance- but that is what he did. Or maybe he hated his job. Or me. Or both. I don’t know.
And so it was with a sense of adventure and foreboding that I left the hotel again searching for a tour bus on the other side of town, having been directed there by the aforementioned clerk, whose competence and veracity I was beginning to doubt. On the way, however, I blundered into the city bus, which went within 1.5 miles of Mendenhall, and I decided that was close enough, especially since it was only $2 vs. $20 for the tour, I’m cheap, and I didn’t want to take a chance that the clerk was wrong again.
I am not sorry I did, because the ride allowed me to enjoy the scenery in parts of town I would never have otherwise visited, including the Red Dog Saloon, the city dump, and a house decorated with a set of mossy moose antlers. I was also able to enjoy the people watching that public transportation always provides, including a family of Tlingits, a wino, and other misinformed tourists like myself.
In the event, we were eventually dropped off, and after only 30 minutes of slogging through a cold drizzle, I arrived at the park ticket booth, which was manned by no one at all. Thus, marveling at the efficiency of government-run facilities, I entered for free and continued on to the visitor’s center, which had a movie worth watching, especially since it was raining. After that, the clouds parted and the rain stopped long enough to actually see the ice blue giant, and my troubles, as well as all other human endeavors, seemed pretty petty in comparison. They still do now, and I’d recommend seeing Mendenhall if you’re ever in the Juneau area.
After a few dozen pics, I called for a cab, and I was lucky enough to get Rosa from Juneau Taxi and Tours (9075861111), who was willing to take me to the Shrine of St. Therese for a flat rate of $70/hour. Rosa is my polar opposite-a bright, cheery woman who laughs at everything:
“I had bears tear through all of my garbage last week. HAHAHAHAHA!”
She’s a native Alaskan (born in Ketchikan), she lives in a trailer outside of town, and she loves her city, though she allows drugs are a problem now and the state is trying to take money from their pension fund to pay for current expenses. I tell her you can’t trust the government no matter where you live:
Anyway, when we arrive at St Therese, she tells me she’ll turn off the meter so I don’t have to pay for her to wait, which is awfully nice of her. But she wants her money for the trip from Mendenhall now ($30), so when she drives off I cynically don’t think I’ll ever see her again.
St. Therese is at once a shrine to the saint, a Catholic retreat center, a series of nature paths, and a waterfront park complete with grottos and gardens. The shrine is on a peninsula that juts out into Pearl Harbor (no typo) and is accessible via a land bridge from the mainland. Once you cross that bridge, you’re putting the world behind you, and you’ve entered into a realm of peace and calm that really is otherworldly. You approach the shrine on moss-padded ground through a dense forest of conifers that hide the building until you’re almost on top of it and then voila! There it is, a perfect little stone chapel in the woods, like something out of a fairy tale.
I spend the next hour wandering along the paths, looking at the marine life in the harbor, and watching the salmon run upstream in a creek near the road. Oh, and praying in the beautiful little chapel. It’s all very tranquil, very quiet, and very holy. You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this. I’m not, and I did.
When I’m done, I call Rosa, expecting the worst. She’s there in less than 5 minutes because she never left the area. I feel bad that I ever doubted her. We laugh all the way back to town, I grab some dinner at the Twisted Fish (good but expensive), and now I’m back at the hotel, writing this instead of doing what I should be doing, which is sleeping.
Tomorrow, I, along with 37 other hearty souls, will board a small ship to cruise the smaller coves and byways of coastal Alaska for 9 days. But for now, I’m pooped.
What to wear: Bring rain gear and binos. Galoshes aren’t necessary unless you’re going on an extended hike.
How to get to St Therese: Taxi or rental car.
The taxi from Mendenhall to St. Therese cost me $30. Then I paid an additional $60 to get back to town, including a substantial ($20) tip. You can call any one of several cab companies from a list posted at the ranger station ticket booth. I recommend Rosa at Juneau Taxi and Tour.
If I had to do it over, though, I might rent a car. You don’t need one in town, but you do for these two attractions. Expect to pay $75 a day and up for a car. But then, with my ride from the airport, I’m already in this for $112 in transport through two days.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can go to Mendenhall like I did on the city bus on the way out, but that takes extra time and leaves you with a substantial hike just to get to the main gate. Plus, you can’t get to St. Therese this way. Not recommended.
How much time does it take to see Mendenhall? To do what I did (and what most tourists do) at the glacier, which was to watch the movie in the visitor’s center, walk along a couple of short paths nearby (the Bear Trail and the viewing trail), and snap some pics from the Pavilion, only about 2 hours on site. But some of the trails could add as much as a full day to your time.
How much time does it take to see St. Therese? Allow 90 to 120 minutes on site.
How much time does it take to go to/from Mendenhall with a rental car or taxi, including viewing? Allow 3 hours
How much time does it take to go to/from Mendenhall by city bus, including viewing?
Allow 4 hours
How much time does it take to do both Mendenhall and St. Therese by taxi/rental car, including viewing? Allow 5-6 hours
What about a helicopter tour? I’ve done that, and it’s worth it, because realistically it’s the only way you’ll ever set foot on the glacier, as well as get to see the true size and scope of it. Breathtaking isn’t too strong an adjective to describe it.
Will I see bears? I didn’t, but bears are on the Bear Trail (duh!) almost every day. The park rangers say there’s no particularly good time to see them, but Rosa says late afternoon is best.
Should I seek out the advice of a Jamaican hotel clerk? No. You are in the wrong hotel.