Shore excursion review: Glacier Gardens Rainforest and Mendenhall Glacier
We were docking in Juneau with Norwegian Pearl in June 2010. With a party of five and age ranging from 3 to 74 we were looking for a shore excursion that:
* would maximize visual impression without too much lecturing
* makes little to none physical challenge
* does not punch a hole in the wallet
We have picked “Glacier and gardens” bundle and I think it did the trick – especially that Juneau was our first port of call.
We have booked shore excursion with NCL in advance. There are some pros and cons in it.
On the good side, it gives you certain peace of mind and convenience of on-line booking from NCL website. Tour buses are dedicated for your ship only – they are waiting next to the pier and know exactly how many people have booked, do if you happened to be late to get off the ship, they will wait for you.
On the opposite side, price is on the higher side: Glacier Gardens excursion is $20-$25, and visitor center at Mendenhall Glacier is $3, so we have paid about $40/person extra for bus transportation and the peace of mind. Buses are waiting for people running late, so if you happened to be among the first to leave the ship, you may have to wait in the bus for a little while.
Glacier gardens are just a short drive from the pier (well, everything in Juneau is just a short drive). Nevertheless, bus took us through all of the “downtown” Juneau, and the drive was long enough to feed us with all possible information about Juneau.
Glacier Gardens tour is about 1 - 1.5 hrs and if I have to pick one word to characterize it it is “unusual”. There is a story about creation of the gardens that I leave aside – in case you are going to take a trip on your own, I do not want to ruin your chance to hear it first hand – but the fact that such a beautiful garden was never planned to exist, is unusual. Upside-down trees with beautiful annuals blooming on their roots are one of a kind – I do not think I have ever seen anything like this – even at the pictures. Explosion of colors for such a northern location was amazing – I still do not understand how gardeners manage to get such flower festival given short, cold and rainy summer. I haven't seen that colorful petunias in much warmer climates like Seattle or Boston.
Overall landscaping of gardens is very nice – even though they are much smaller than you may guess from advertisement. Booklet says gardens are about 50 acres – which probably refers to the total area of the property, while landscaped part is more along the line of 5 acres. Still, few acres of beautifully landscaped gardens with wooden sculptures, waterfalls, rock gardens and unique upside-down trees is quite unique sightseeing.
If you are gardening enthusiast or just like flowers, you will be impressed like we were - please take a look at more pictures from Glacier Gardens. I also shot a short video clip in the gardnes - link is on your left.
After short narration about story of gardens (which is not that long , BTW – gardens were established in mid-80s) we were placed on the “shuttles” - some sort of gas-powered golf carts – and driven to the top of 580 ft hill. (Tour guides insist on filling up each vehicle, so if there are few large groups at the boarding station, there may be some hiccups).
Dirty road going up is narrow, steep and partially supported by wooden structures, so it is not quite typical dirty road as well.
Views around it might be typical for the area and can be seen anywhere around for free – but for us who were first time at these latitudes in America, and probably not getting there again for a while, Alaskan Rainforest is quite an experience – it's just a wilderness of plants growing on nothing and fighting each other for a glimpse of a sunlight.
At the top of the hill there is a system of wooden decks/ramps, arranging something like an observation deck. You can see Juneau international airport from the top, Chilkat mountains and Mendenhall valley. In theory, we should be able to see all the cruise ships docked in Juneau – but weather may impose some corrections on this, so we couldn't. Again, it is not most amazing view – bit quite unusual – have you ever seen a plane taking off, looking at it from the top?
On the way down, which takes much less power from the car engine leaving possibility for the conversation, tour guide gave us some overview of rainforest ecology. We were told that there are no crocodiles and jaguars in Alaskan rainforest, and not even shakes – the only compelling danger is mosquitoes.
Well, there supposed to be bears (that we haven't seen alive for the whole cruise) and we were taught how to distinguish a black bear from grizzly bear: if you run away from the bear and climb a tree, black bear would climb after your and eat you, while grizzly bear would just knock down the tree and eat you...he-he...
After 90 minutes at the garden, we have boarded the bus and have had another short (about 15 minutes) drive to the Mendenhall Glacier. We have read an ad that this is “the only glacier accessible by a car”. It is true to a certain degree – you can get to a point where you can see the glacier and from which you can hike to the glacier – but it's about 1.5 mile from the visitor center and the end of the road to the glacier itself.
We were given a bit more than an hour at the visitor center – plenty of time to take pictures
and explore visitor center, but definitely not enough time to hike to the glacier, even if we were up to.
Views of the glacier are pretty good, though. You can also see multiple icebergs floating in the beautiful, glacier-formed Mendenhall lake. We were surprised by the milky-green (!) color of the water, created by huge amount of silt dispensed by the glacier. We were also surprised how dirty is the glacier itself – it is nothing like crystal-white show-covered mountains, glacier carries with it a lot of dirt and silt from the ground it displaces, so it has layers of blue ice interleaved with earthy-dark membranes.
Since we could not reach the ice, visitor center provided everyone a chance to touch it at least – they pull out smaller icebergs from the lake and place them on display for everyone to touch.
We could also see other options of exploring the glacier “from aside” - there were people hiking to and from glacier, people kayaking to the glacier and people helicoptering to the glacier – and it makes plenty of people, needless to say.
We were told about possibility to see a wildlife and “don't feed the bear” rules. Well, the only wildlife that can be seen from the visitor center are sea gulls – about 1:1 ratio to the number of people visiting. There are some stuffed wolfs and bears displayed in the visitor center, though. Visitor center also has three telescopes to see closer views of the glacier – much closer than 250 mm lens I have on my camera, so do not miss that.
And probably more impressive than glacier and birds is an energy of flowers and trees – there is no crack or cavity in the rock that is not occupied by a flower, moss or a tree.
Once again, Juneau was our first port of call, and we were quite amazed by the views of the glacier. On the later thought, if your itinerary includes Glacier bay, you will see bigger glaciers from closer distances and with no additional fee.
On the way back, driver had given us a choice to get off in the middle of the downtown Juneau or to be taken directly to the pier. Downtown offers few more attractions, including “tram” - cable-way to the top of the 2000 ft Mt. Roberts. It's about a 1 -1.5 mile between downtown and the pier where NCL sips dock (others are even closer) and there are free shuttle buses running between downtown and piers, so you have a nice option to extend your shore excursion if you wish.
If you managed to read to this point and still like it, you can find more pictures of Mendenhall Glacier here and a short video clip of Mendenhall Glacier on your left.