Day 7 - August 23, 2013 - Juneau: To Dog Sled or Not to Dog Sled (That is the Question!), plus Whale Watching, Mendenhall Glacier, & the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure! Oh...and Palo Dinner too! From the moment we decided to first book an Alaskan cruise, I knew that I wanted to go dog sledding. As we neared the date for booking our excursions, I researched all of the various options (excluding those run on dirt roads, away from the snow, because frankly that does not count), discussed them with my wife and daughter, and decided that Juneau, sledding atop Mendenhall Glacier, was the best place to do it! My wife and daughter, neither too keen to fly in the helicopter, much preferring whale watching and a salmon bake, decided on another excursion. The night that our booking window opened, I was online and nabbed a spot first thing! I grabbed the first time available for that morning, and here is why: in 2011, while on the Disney Dream, I booked the second parasailing (another bucket list item) excursion on Castaway Cay; as I sat there eagerly awaiting my turn, the first group returned, laughing and talking about how religious their experience was; unfortunately it would be the first and only parasailing for the day because the wind was determined to be too strong and my ride was cancelled. This time, I figured lightning couldnt strike me twice, but not to tempt fate I reserved the earliest time slot available. Too bad, this logic does not play well with reality one bit. In any event, I was so excited about the opportunity! Finally, the big day came...we docked in Juneau! We went up for a quick breakfast and then I excused myself to head over to Wavebands for the meet up. Why wife actually teared up a bit because she knew how excited I was for this and was so happy that it was finally going to happen. Grabbing a seat in Wavebands, I observed the same symphony of orchestrated chaos among the cast members as I had the day before in Skagway. Soon, I saw a male cast member enter the room and whisper something into the ear of a female cast member organizing the paperwork on the center stage table. All I could hear from this conversation was the woman saying, OK, I will tell them. Immediately, my heart sunk down into my stomach and I knew something was wrong. The woman called out our group and asked us all to come together in a seating section stage left. Once all there, after a sigh of her own, she spoke, "We are sorry to inform you that..." You can guess the rest of what she said...lightning had indeed struck twice! Apparently, while the weather in Juneau proper was fine for flying a helicopter, it was not conducive on top of Mendenhall Glacier for landing. To say that we were all disappointed is an understatement, but safety first always. You could just feel the energy drain away from everyone in our group. As the cast member continued her speech (which I am sure she had given many times before), talking about refunds and alternative excursions, I got up and headed straight for the Excursions Desk. A quick word about the weather during our Alaskan cruise...for the most part we enjoyed fabulous weather. It was definitely chilly, mostly overcast, but there was no bad weather per se, just a few moments of light rain here and there. The weather did sadly play a role in affecting my plans in Juneau this morning, but that was the only time that it did. It rained a bit as we got off of the ship and during our excursion in Ketchikan, but that in no way impacted the memories and laughs that we had that day (more on this later)! Unlike my experience on Castaway Cay, though I didnt really want to, this time I prepared for the worst! In my pocket, printed on a piece of paper, were the names of two alternative Juneau excursions to my liking. I was second to arrive at the Excursions Desk from our group. Standing there, I listened intently as a family discussed options with the cast member and the viability of other Mendenhall dog sledding trips occurring later in the day. The cast member simply shrugged her shoulders, saying, If Disney could control the weather, then we would, but we cant, so there is really no way to guarantee whether or not we will be doing this excursion today. The family chatted briefly amongst themselves and decided to chance it, booking the same excursion for later in the afternoon (I found out later that evening that all of the Mendenhall dog sledding excursions were eventually cancelled; I hope that family found something else fun to do). I, on the other hand, decided that I didnt want a maybe at this point. I wanted to do something fun and exciting, so I booked the Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip! That doesnt sound very exciting to you? Well, names can be deceiving! New excursion ticket in hand, I returned to Wavebands to meet up for the float trip. Our group was summarily called up to get our character stickers and before we knew it we were heading off of the ship to our shuttle bus. After a 20 minute or so drive, we found ourselves dropped off next to the eerily placid, bluish-grey Mendenhall Lake, nestled in front of the mighty glacier. Liability paperwork signed, we met our excursion crew and began to suit up! Suit up? Yes, we suited up! Everyone was asked to remove their shoes (and other loose items) and place them into a large bin (read this as, no loose items equals no camera, so sadly no pictures...but maybe not). We were then given a set of waterproof chest waders, lifejackets, and calf-high boots to put on, which believe me, is not really the easiest thing to do. Resting partially in the water sat our conveyance du jour, a large river raft, divided width-wise by four benches (bench #3 belonging to the guide/rower) that, as we would learn, would not only serve as our seats during this adventure, but our sole means to hold on for dear life (if necessary)! After receiving a bit of instruction on how to properly board the craft and safety guidelines, we were assigned our seating locations and one by one mounted the vessel. No, the next few minutes were not the most glamorous for us novice rafters. I could totally hear the Benny Hill theme song as we tried to climb in and claim our spots. Finally, we pushed off and headed out into the lake. A second raft, piloted by another staff member, took the lead and carried the bin with our personal belongings. The plan was to float across the flat, calm lake towards a river head on the opposite side and then down the river. This portion of the trip was most tranquil (quoting Alex Winter as Bill in Bill & Teds Excellent Adventure), offering a tremendous straight on view of the glacier. Even though we were not floating right in front of it, you could still be is awe of its grandeur and beauty. At the southeast corner of the lake we entered Mendenhall River, our course for the next six miles. Almost immediately the current increased, though it was still pretty tranquil; lets just say that our raft pilot, who I should add was the only one of us rowing (we were not given paddles), didnt have to work as hard to keep us moving forward. Gradually, the speed increased and within minutes we were immersed in our first bout with whitewater! In a word, it was exhilarating! According to our guide, we would be experiencing stretches of Class II and III whitewater along the way. I dont know what class we had, but it was fun! Now, on their website, the company that contracts with Disney to run this excursion states that the rapids are perfectly safe, just exciting enough for beginners and appropriate for all ages -- a treat for experienced rafters too! I would say that this is a fair description of what we experienced. At no time did I feel in fear for my life, which is a good thing, but still there was plenty of excitement, pure joy, and adrenaline, especially when some of that frigid water splashed up and went down the back of my shirt! Brrrr! The full length of the river was not totally white water. In between the more rapid sections laid expanses of complete serenity. Tall forest green trees (yes, forest green, get it?), claimed by our guide to be home to lots of bald eagles, surrounded us on both sides. Where the water did level out, we soaked in views of the riverbank, dense foliage, and distant snowcapped mountains...and several submerged automobiles (our guide explained the purposeful reason for that, which was interesting). At one point, our pilot steered our raft near the riverbank to find teams of salmon attempting to swim upstream. Later, he called our attention up towards the sky as a lone bald eagle flew directly overhead! And, what I thought to be one of coolest memories from the trip, he brought us to a meeting of two rivers, where our glacial blue-grey water intersected that of a dark green river. The spiraling colors in the water where the two mixed together was so unusual. I wish that I had my camera for this, but oh well. As we neared the end of our final section of whitewater, we all noticed a man standing on the riverside taking our picture. I didnt know this it at the time, but these pictures would be made available to us at the end of the ride. At the haul-out we rolled off of the raft and walked up to a makeshift rest area where they had our stored personal belongings, drinks, snacks, and a photo printer station set up. After removing all of the rafting gear and re-shoeing, I hopped over to the picture station, reviewed the four prints that they were offering, made my selection and got my souvenir (one print was included in the price of the excursion, but you could buy more if you wanted): Once everyone was ready, we boarded our shuttle bus and returned to the ship. At this point, I was still a little bit hungry, so I popped up to deck 9 and grabbed a slice of pizza. I then returned to our cabin, grabbed the camera and headed back off of the ship. My destination was the top of Mt. Roberts! Now, even when I originally planned on going dog sledding, I also scheduled the Mt. Roberts excursion as well. While my wife and daughters port adventure would take most of the day, the dog sledding or the river rafting were only a few hours, so I knew that I would have time to do something else in Juneau. Conveniently, the pass for the Mt. Roberts Tramway was for the whole day. Off the ship, I jumped on the next shuttle bus into town, which dropped us off right next to the tramway base. I should note here: the Wonder docked somewhat inconveniently away from the town center. While one could walk to the downtown area, it would take some time, so they arranged buses to shuttle us back and forth. Later on, while walking by the Red Dog Saloon, I saw another cruise ship docked seemingly on top of the town. I dont know how these parking spots are assigned, but those other cruisers certainly had a better one. Cest la vie! With very little queue in the tramway base, I quickly found myself in the tram, heading up and up and up towards the peak of Mt. Roberts. The incline of the cable system that carried us up the mountain was very steep, but the tram stayed comfortably level the entire time. In less than a minute, we arrived at the upper terminal! I stepped out and immediately went to the partially enclosed observation decks on either side. I say partially enclosed because the windows could be opened, which definitely made for better pictures: After taking in the incredible view, I headed back towards the main complex. Surrounded by spruce trees, the Mountain House includes a bar & grill, a theater, and access to a nature center. I bypassed all of these. Instead, I headed out back to the hiking trails for a leisurely walk around. After about thirty minutes of soaking in nature, and I swear I never came upon one of those Bear Viewing Stations their website mentioned, I returned to the main building to check out the resident bald eagle. The Juneau Raptor Center Bald Eagle Display is permitted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to care for injured birds and allows them to be displayed for educational purposes. This magnificent bird was there today: According to the attendant, this illustrious emblem of our nation was shot through the beak and suffered a fractured wing by a human assailant. No longer able to fly, she cannot be released back into the wild. A bit of a show off, the eagle seems to like kids and frequently spreads her wings out wide and flutters up and down when she sees them. A father and son soon joined me at the exhibit and sure enough she did her thing! Leaving a bit of cash in the donation box, I headed back to the tram station and returned to sea level. Heading down Franklin Street, I had two stops in mind, well maybe three. The first was a local store that supposedly specialized in local arts and crafts, but I found the selections too artsy for my liking. They had some very nice things, just not what I was looking for; plus, I kept reminding myself that many others said that Ketchikan offered the best shopping. Continuing down Franklin, I arrived at my second destination&the Alaskan Brewery Company Store! Cue the angelic chanting of Franciscan monks again! Wow, what a great store...if you like beer! While they didnt actually sell any of their alcoholic products, they did sell anything and everything that they could paste those product labels onto. Shirts, sweatshirts, hats, coasters, drinking glasses of all shapes and sizes&they even sell their beer taps. I really wanted one of these, but I was fearful about safely lugging it home...perhaps a visit to their website might be in my future! Anyway, while I had read that they did offer a for fee (not free) shuttle service from the store to their actual brewery for a free (yes free) tour and tastings, the primary reason for coming here was to buy a gift for my brother and his wife, who were watching our house while we were away. They too are beer aficionados, so I knew that they would appreciate something nice from here. Searching through the store, I came upon the perfect gift: a nice German made set of drinking glasses etched with the Alaskan Brewing Company primary logo. Purchase made, I walked back towards the ship, popping my head into the infamous Red Dog Saloon for a second. Not impressed, I quickly departed. Nearing the shuttle bus pickup, I walked by a jewelry store (one of many), where an aggressive salesman (I mentioned before that I hate aggressive salesmen, right?!), noticing the hat I was wearing (purchased from the Roots store in Vancouver), asked me if I was from Vancouver. I responded that I was from Southern California, San Diego to be specific, and he immediately smiled and got excited! So am I, he chirped, And so is my girlfriend who is working here with me! He asked me where specifically in San Diego, so I told him and as it turned out they grew up not far from where I did. Noticing my Disney Cruise Line lanyard, he asked if I had claimed the free charm that their store was offering. Since I had not and I knew that my daughter and mom were collecting them as they could from shops in the various ports, I agreed to enter the store to get them. Meeting his girlfriend, we exchanged pleasantries about our childhood homes, and she was kind enough to give me two charms (since I mentioned both my daughter and mom). Of course, she then offered to sell me a beautiful gold chain at a great price to hang them from (ugh!). After politely declining, I thanked them and returned to the ship. As I stepped off of the shuttle bus, I noticed mom walking down the gang plank. I paused to meet her and see how her day and earlier excursion had gone. She had chosen the Deluxe Tour of Juneau, which took her to Mendenhall Glacier, the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, and finally the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. She absolutely loved it! She said that the glacier was magnificent, while the hatchery was just ok. The gardens, though, were her absolute favorite. She pulled out a number of post cards that she bought there and told me how beautiful all of it was. While there, they provided a gold cart to transport guests to a viewing platform, offering scenic views of the Mendenhall Valley. Top it off with a little tea and pastry service at the end and you had one happy mom. Glad to hear that she had such a splendid time, I told her that I was going back onboard to get a late lunch; she wanted to go into town to look around, so I directed her to where that shuttle picked up and we parted ways. After a solo visit to the Beach Blanket Buffet, I returned to our cabin to relax. Not long after, my wife and daughter arrived, immediately wanting to know how my dog sledding went. With a sad smile, a shake of my head, and a shrug of my shoulders, I told them it was canceled due to weather. My wife almost started to cry, but then I told them about what I did do, showing them the wonderful picture from my whitewater adventure and the sadness dissipated quickly. Their excursion was the Best of Juneau, which included whale watching (guaranteed whale watching mind you), a visit to a local lodge with a salmon bake lunch, and finally time at the Mendenhall Glacier. They both had a wonderful time! According to my wife, the whale watching vessel was the nicest that she had ever been on! In years past, she has been on several such excursions out of Southern California, both as a passenger and as a staff volunteer, so she definitely had other vessels to compare to. The crew was ever so nice, professional and knowledgeable. Did they see any whales? Aye matey, humpbacks -- but at a safe distance of course (for them and the whales)! She absolutely loved the Orca Point Lodge (first image below), their lunchtime salmon bake destination. Located on the southwest corner of Colt Island, well west of Juneau, on the other side and opposite of Douglas Island, she raved about how nice the facilities were. She added that the food was good, not amazing, but decent. Heck, our daughter ate it with glee, so that is a definite two thumbs up! Lastly, their adventure took them to Mendenhall Glacier, where they enjoyed the Visitor Center and wonderful views of that frigid giant wall of frozen goodness. Time for dinner...well, sort of! Tonight was a combo...semi-formal night paired with Toy Story night! All of the main dining rooms would be offering the same Toy Story inspired menu and this evening we were back in Animators Palate. Conveniently, this was also Palo night for my wife and me! I say conveniently because it was one less night that we would have to really dress up for dinner. Knowing that our daughter and mom still needed to eat dinner, we planned to join them in Animators, expecting on eating lite. But before going to the restaurant, we first headed to the main lobby to check out the Pixar Pals Party! As it turned out, the Party was basically a super hyper cast member, who as it turned out was the same one who told my dog sledding group that our excursion was cancelled this morning, dancing and yelling over loud pulsating music with a variety of Pixar characters. Mr. and Mrs. Incredible were there, as were Flick from A Bugs Life, Mike and Sully from Monsters Inc., and Carl, Russell, and Dug from Up! One by one, each character showed off their best moves with the cheery cast member in front of Tritons. We watched the happenings from up above, where it was safe, and much less crowded. Party over, we hit Animators Palate. Awaiting us, were our usual drinks, iced tea for my wife and mom, a Shirley Temple for our daughter and a Roy Rogers (Coke with grenadine) for me. Fully expecting not to eat anything in order to save room for Palo, I then read the menu...lobster!!!!! Um, there is always room for lobster, right?! Or is that Jello? I always get those confused. Anyway, I couldnt miss out on lobster, could I?! Darn right I couldnt! Informing my disapproving wife of my decision, I explained my selection and the reasons thereof to Januar and he said, No problem. Perfectly pleased, I sat back with a grin, looking very forward to my upcoming crustacean! As the entrees arrived, Januar placed my plate in front of me, offering to separate the meat from the shell for me and drizzle it with clarified butter. Yes, thank you, I replied. With the expertise of a chef, he did the deed and it was time to feast! The lobster was wonderful; full of rich flavor and impeccably prepared. As I relished each delicious bite, I glanced over to my wife, who was enjoying a few bites of bread, and smiled happily. She just shook her head and smiled back. Once our daughter and mom finished their meals, we escorted them to the Walt Disney Theater, where they planned to spend a little quality time together and see the Toy Story stage show. Afterwards, mom would sign her into the kids Club and we would claim her after our dinner. As we arrived at Palo, I was pleasantly surprised to see the honeymooning couple from Pennsylvania sitting in the lobby. I greeted them, introducing them to my wife, and then Matt, the husband, asked me how I did on the Disney parks attraction trivia contest that they ended up leaving. When I told him that I won the whole thing by myself and received a prize package, they both laughed and Matt, shaking his head, said, I knew that we should have stayed! Did you win a hat, he asked (he really wanted one of the hats from the sports trivia contest). I nodded with a big smile, replying, Among other things. He simply smiled and shook his head. Escorted to our table, we were very pleased to discover that our server this evening was the same man who took care of us at brunch earlier in the week. He greeted us very warmly, asked us how my mom was doing, and then gave us the 411 on his plans for our meal. With the exception of selecting our own entrees, we basically let him manage the wonderful meal that we were about to experience. As it turned out, his selections for us perfectly matched out tastes and likes. He started with two glasses of the house red wine for that evening; full bodied, rich in flavor, and delicious. The warm bread service came next, served with a variety of fabulous dips. This was followed by the antipasti course, which included a plate with thin sliced prosciutto and bresaola (an aged, air-dried, salted beef), Parmesan Reggiano, marinated olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Accompanying this was a second plate with fried calamari and cherry peppers (which were quite hot). As a post-antipasti and pre-entrée treat, he then brought us a tapas size portion of the lobster and mascarpone ravioli, which was stunningly, amazingly, wonderfully good! As our entrees, my wife and I both ordered the Palo Beef Tenderloin, served with both the signature red wine and gorgonzola sauces. Both of our entrees were, to steal a line from Marry Poppins, practically perfect in every way, but there was no practically about it! Dessert was of course the famous Palo Chocolate Soufflé and coffee; hands down, one of the best desserts we have ever enjoyed. As the grand finale, we were presented with two small glasses, partially filled with a bright yellow liquid. Your digestivo, he eloquently stated. Light and lemony, this concoction, which was not Limoncello, was partially lemon sorbet and partially liquid manna from Heaven; it was truly the flawless ending to an impeccable meal. And no, my earlier lobster snack at Animators Palate did not prevent me from finishing everything at Palo. You see, there is always room for lobster! As we were finishing up, the honeymooners (no, I am not going to call them Ralph and Alice), finished with their Palo experience, walked by our table to wish us well and say good night. They told us that their meal was unbelievable as well and one that they will never forget. Soon afterwards, the couple that we met while queued up for our picture during Formal Night also passed by our table to say Hello. They too just finished a wonderful Palo meal and asked how my dog sledding excursion went. They were kindly disappointed for me that it had been canceled, but pleased that I found a happy alternative. We wished them a wonderful rest of the cruise and bid them good night. What were the odds that we would run into both of those nice couples that evening? It had me humming Its a Small World the rest of the evening. Arriving at the Club to pick up our daughter, we learned that she had been transferred over to the Lab because it was Chill night. Basically, all of the girls were having fun in the Lab, while all of the boys were chillin in the Club. Special events were planned for each group; for the girls, they were doing their hair, putting on make-up, and painting their finger nails (all things that our little girl loves)! Seeing us at the Lab kiosks, our daughter immediately ran over to us, waving her arms, and happily yelling, Go do something else! Go do something else! Needless to say, she was not ready to leave. My wife and I looked at one another, agreed to let her stay for a bit more, and then found ourselves back at the Outlook, ordering another round of specialty coffee. We claimed her about an hour later. Up next - Day 8 Ketchikan: Saxman Native Village, the Lumberjack Show, Shopping, & Taste of Alaska Night!