Image: Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska
Chris Miller  /  AP
A lone, cross-country skier is dwarfed by the Mendenhall Glacier, just 12 miles from the heart of downtown Juneau.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 7/23/2007 9:53:15 AM ET 2007-07-23T13:53:15

Juneau never hibernates. As state capital, and thus home away from home to dozens of state legislators and their staffs, it hosts visitors year-round and has niceties that many other tourist-oriented Alaskan destinations lack: pretty neighborhoods of Victorian homes, well-run hotels (as opposed to overpriced, rundown motels open only for the short summer season) and restaurants that need to be good enough to attract visitors year round.

Of course, no one comes to Alaska for fine dining, urban strolls or beds swathed in thousand-thread-count sheets. They come to experience nature at its wildest, and Juneau has that in abundance: camped in the suburbs is the world’s most accessible glacier, heading out from downtown are hiking trails that lead you into the heart of nature and a boat ride away are humpback whales, orcas, sea lions and even more glaciers, at both Tracy Arm-Ford’s Wilderness Terror and Glacier Bay National Park. You choose Juneau, therefore, if you crave the best of both worlds: civilized amenities and gloriously uncivilized landscapes, among the most beautiful on earth.

7 a.m. - 8 a.m.: Grab a post-it note, scribble down your order and make sure the cooks see it at Costa’s Diner , a waiter-free zone that just happens to have the heartiest, tastiest breakfasts in town.

8 a.m.-noon: Instead of going for the usual drive-up latte, head to the drive-up glacier, Mendenhall Glacier ,just 12 miles from the heart of downtown Juneau. It’s not threatening the city—like most glaciers in this era of Global Warming it’s in retreat—but it sure looks monstrous and impressive. Tour the Visitors Center (its films and exhibits will make you a quick expert in glaciology) and then take the “Trail of Time” path, which traces the evolution of plant-life in the wake of the shrinking glacier (from lichen to full grown trees). If you have the time and stamina, hike the steep 3.5 mile trail to the chilly face of the glacier itself.

Entire day alternative
Glacier Bay is a bit far to do as a day trip, but you can get to and from Tracy Arm-Ford's Terror Wilderness in about 8 hours. Two narrow fjords, they boast as mighty if not as many glaciers as Glacier Bay, and the Sawyer Glacier here is known for the fierceness of its calving: it’s not uncommon to witness 747 plane-sized ice cracking off and hitting the water with a thunderous boom. Along with the icy spectacle are colonies of sea lions to ooh and ahh over, along with orcas, humpback whales and bald eagles swooping overhead. Book a trip on one of Goldbelt’s high-speed catamarans.

12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m.: Follow the Filipino and Indonesian cruise ship crews to Eddie’s Fast Food , where the specialty is—you guessed it—Filipino and Indonesian fare. That means crisply fried fish, savory curries and mounds of rice, all expertly and yes, quickly prepared and served.

1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m.: To get the skinny on all you’ve been seeing (and on the Native American culture in these parts), spend one hour indoors at the Alaska State Museum . You’ll learn all about Secretary of State William Henry Seward’s purchase of Alaska from the Russians, the Gold Rush, even how Native Alaskans diapered their babies (hint: moss was involved).

2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.: Lace up your hiking boots for a walk along the Perseverance Trail . An easy three mile loop, it leads to Silverbow Basin where the original gold strike was made, sparking the gold rush in these parts. Along the way, you’ll pass rusting mining equipment, a 1000-foot deep pit dug by the gold-hungry miners and other remnants of that heady era.

5:30 p.m.-7 p.m.: If the day’s a clear one, take the Mount Roberts Tramway up to the treeline for a view that takes in the entire Gastineau Channel. You can toast the spectacular vista with a fresh-pulled local beer (from the Alaskan Brewing Company) at the Timberline Bar and Grill, not far from the tram exit.

7 p.m.-9 p.m.: Escape Alaska and head to the continent of Europe at the elegant, sophisticated DiSopra Restaurant . Attached to the more casual Fiddlehead bakery and café downstairs, it features a changing roster of fresh fish dishes, creatively sauced and logger-sized, and exceedingly tender cuts of beef and venison.

9 p.m. - on: If there’s a good band playing, head to The Hangar , a local’s hang-out  right on the waterfront in a converted airplane hangar. If not, do the tourist thing and go to the pseudo-Gold Rush era Red Dog Saloon . Yes, it’skitschy but it can really get hopping as the night progresses.

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Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

Costa’s Diner on Merchant’s Wharf, no phone.

The visitor center for the Mendenhall Glacier is at the head of Glacier Spur Road, phone 907-789-0097. It’s open daily in summer from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., in winter Thursdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $3 adults, free for kids 12 and under.

Goldbelt Tours, 76 Egan Drive, phone 800-820-2628 or 907-586-8687;www.goldbelttours.com/.The day-long tour, departing at 9 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. costs $147 per adult, and $102 for children 12 and under.

Eddie’s Fast Food, 225 Front Street in the Miner’s Mercantile Building, phone 907-523-8026.

Alaska State Museum, 395 Whittier Street, phone 907-465-2901; www.museums.state.ak.us/. Admission is $5 for adults, free for those 18 and under. Open daily from 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., mid-May through mid-September and Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m. the rest of the year.

The Perseverance Trail begins at the end of Basin Road, about 1.5 miles from the heart of downtown Juneau. Bring ample water and sunscreen.

Mount Roberts Tramway, 490 South Franklin Street near the cruise ship dock, phone 888-461-8726, 907-463-3412; www.goldbelttours.com/. A full-day pass is $24 adults, $13 for children ages 6-12, free age 5 and under. It’s closed from October through April. 

DiSopra Restaurant, 429 W. Willoughby Avenue, phone 907-586-3150.

The Hangar, 2 Marine Way, phone 907-586-5018.

The Red Dog Saloon, 278 South Franklin Street.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Photos: Amazing Alaska

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  1. Mendenhall Glacier

    Located in Mendenhall Valley, the Mendenhall Glacier is a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles. It is approximately 12 miles long, and 1.5 miles in width at the face. It is located 12 miles from downtown Juneau. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bald beauty

    A bald eagle dives for dinner in one of the many remote lakes within the Tongass National Forest. With almost 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation's largest national forest covering most of Southeast Alaska, surrounding the famous Inside Passage. (Ron Sanford / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Scenic adventure

    Experience the panorama of Juneau and the Inside Passage from 1,800 feet above the city on the Mount Roberts Tramway, one of the most visited attractions in Southeast Alaska. (Stuart Westmorland / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bright nights

    A cruise ship floats on Auke Bay near Juneau, Alaska. The summer sky is still bright at 11:00 p.m. (Bob Rowan / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Flying high

    Take a scenic flight over the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icecap. Flight-seeing tours are the only way to see the glaciers and fields that make up the fifth-largest ice field in the Western Hemisphere. (Lee Cohen / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Awe inspiring

    A humpback whale shows its fluke during a dive while a fishing boat cruises by. Humpbacks may be seen at any time of year in Alaska, but during spring, the animals migrate back to Alaska where food is abundant. Whales seen in Alaska during the summer months are from Hawaii. (Buddy Mays / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / AccentAlaska.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool city

    A winter view of the Anchorage skyline with the Chugach Range in the background. The Chugach Range forms a 300-mile crescent outside the town of Valdez, Alaska, east of Anchorage. (Robert Olsen / ACVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Majestic mountain

    Denali, North America's tallest mountain at 20,320 feet, is visible from Anchorage even though it's 140 miles to the north. (John Brecher) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Reindeer games

    Mel Leskinen, left, talks as Albert Whitehead walks his pet reindeer Star along 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 2, 2005. Half of the nation's population thinks most of Alaska is covered in ice and snow year-round. One out of every eight believe that the 49th state is either a separate country, a U.S. territory, a commonwealth or just aren't sure. Thanks to a poll commissioned by Gov. Frank Murkowski, Alaskans know a bit better the misperceptions Americans have of their neighbors to the north. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Lighten up, moose

    A bull moose with Christmas lights tangled in its antlers rests in a field in Anchorage, Alaska, on Dec. 25, 2005. The lights, which did not seem to bother the moose, could pull off as the he wonders through Anchorage neighborhoods. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wow, that's a snowman!

    A young boy poses in front of a 16-foot tall snowman in a residential neighborhood of Anchorage, Dec. 24, 2005. Thousands of people trekked to the house to see the creation. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A refreshing ride

    A windsurfer rides the wind as he jumps across waves in the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, Alaska on May 18, 2006. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Iditarod

    Mitch Seavey mushes past a patch of open water on the Yukon River after leaving Ruby, Alaska on Friday, March 12, 2010 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Glacial beauty

    An iceberg from the Portage Glacier is locked in the frozen Portage Lake south of Anchorage, Alaska in this Jan. 6, 2004 photo. The glacier, which is a major Alaska tourist destination near Anchorage's southern edge, has retreated so far it no longer can be seen from a multimillion-dollar visitors center built in 1986. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Artistic awe

    Alaska's favorable climate makes ice carving a popular activity and spectacle for visitors. (Anchorage CVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Flight of freedom

    Tom Melius, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, left, Lisa Pajot, second left, and Gary Bullock, second from right, with the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center, and Pat Lampi, with the Alaska Zoo release a bald eagle in Anchorage Alaska Sept. 25, 2006. The eagle was cared for by the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center after it lost its tail feathers and was released after the feathers grew back. (John Gomes / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Snow-plowed

    Two snowmobiles collide, knocking one rider off, as they race around the track during the Fur Rendezvous Sno-X races in Anchorage, Feb. 26, 2005. The 17-day winter festival includes the World Championship Sled Dog races, dog weight pull, snow sculptures and other events to break up the long Alaska winter. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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