The food in Southeast ports like Juneau is becoming as much an attraction as the world-class scenery

juneau alaska food scene
Credit: Courtesy of Kelly Barnaby

Alaska has always been extraordinarily lucky, when it comes to eating—all that briny, cold water, overstuffed with some of the world's best tasting seafood makes pretty much any mealtime memorable, without much trying. Lately, however, there's been an explosion of culinary talent and creativity, much of it in the state's more temperate Southeast, also known as one of the most popular cruise destinations in North America.

Each year, from late spring until early fall, travelers come from around the world to see the region's glaciers, wildlife and pristine wilderness—in 2016, it was estimated that more than 1 million visitors entered the state via cruise. (That's more than the population of the entire state, which has roughly 750,000 inhabitants in a land area the size of, say, half of the American mainland.

Predictably, many popular cruise ports—in some cases, small towns of just a few thousand people—became notorious for their seasonal tourist traps; just like anywhere else large cruise ships dock, one could travel deep into the Northwest wilderness, hop off a boat and find the same jewelry, the same art, the same assorted tchotchkes on offer in pretty much any cruise destination around the world. Well, that and—typically—somewhere to eat really good halibut and chips, or king crab legs, or what have you. That and a really strong cup of locally-roasted coffee, or a proper amber ale. (Alaska's always been good at those things.)

Recently, however, the winds have been shifting in more than one Alaska cruise port, to the point of surprising arriving passengers geared up for their various forays out into nature, or on to local cultural attractions—the stuff of a typical port day. In Juneau, where the food scene has grown the most in recent years, there's enough going on that local food blogger Kelly Moore—everyone calls her Midgi—founded Juneau Food Tours, in an attempt to help visitors with limited time make the most of their stay in town. With seven stops and a generous nine tastings, plus locally brewed beer and even a glass of wine, it's more than worth the fee ($129 per person, April-October).

Not that you need to hang around waiting for a guide to delve into Juneau's scene—a lot of what's good in this compact town of 33,000 is an easy walk from the cruise dock. From morning coffee and pastry at The Rookery Café to tastings at the acclaimed Barnaby Brewing, king crab tostadas at The Taqueria, russian dumplings at Pel'meni's, rustic pastas, pizzas and salumi at In Bocca al Lupo, fine dining at the ambitious SALT, ice cream with a distinctive Alaskan flair at Coppa (birch syrup, local beer, and even candied salmon have found their way into the mix here)—within just a few blocks, visitors can get a crash course in the best new food in town.

Not that Juneau just learned how to eat and drink, or anything—one of the state's best coffee roasters, Heritage, has long been a fixture here; this is the home of Alaskan Brewing Co., brewers of the state's best-known beer. And yes, there's always been the seafood. For many visitors, the most memorable meal in town will be down at Tracy's King Crab Shack, around for about a decade now and easily Juneau's most famous restaurant. Highly regarded for crab bisque and absolutely monstrous, locally-caught king crab legs, they recently expanded out of their dockfront shack into a sparkling new storefront; you'll probably encounter a line if you dont' get there when they open in the mornings, but as anyone who's eaten their share of fresh seafood in Alaska can tell you, it's well worth the wait.