For many visitors, Juneau is the last bastion of old-fashioned Americana. Tam Leach discovers a land of reindeer burgers, bearded lumberjacks - and the best bagels outside of New York

So my visit to Juneau was intended merely as a means to an end. What got me to Alaska eventually was the promise of untracked spring snow; the capital of America's 49th state was simply to be our gateway to the heli-skiing promised land, a major airport with connections to the north.

It didn't quite work out that way. Yes, we found our white gold: the state is blessed with some of the finest off-piste snowboarding on the planet. But that - well, that, I expected. What I couldn't have predicted was that I'd leave Juneau with a craving for baked goods, and a burning desire to return.

It was mostly the hotel's fault. The Silverbow Inn was built in 1914: officially "historic" for Alaska. Robert Louis Stevenson novels came to mind immediately, and not simply because of the name. Though described on the website as a "boutique hotel", stepping into the reception was like walking into my grandmother's parlour - if my grandmother lived in a seaside town straight out of a children's book and had pirating in her past, that is. Doilies and knick-knacks jostled for space with ancient maps, well-thumbed books and copies of the New York Times.

In the corner sat an old man sporting a ferocious grey beard, playing chess, with, apparently, himself. Still dazed from the long flight and the shock of the sparse northern light, I half expected a parrot to come squawking out of a corner. Instead, up popped Jill Ramiel, proprietor extraordinaire.

Young and eminently capable, with boundless energy and laid-back style, Jill and husband Ken Alper washed up on the shores of Juneau in 1997, searching for an America now sullied down south. They remodelled the place, but the new mod-cons - "private bathrooms, phones and internet access" - are hardly flashy.

When we were shown to our rooms, my first impressions were confirmed: the inn was unlike any boutique hotel I'd ever visited. There was a distinct lack of minimalism, but what it had was lashings of homely comfort. My bedroom, like all the most interesting residences, appeared to have evolved, lived in for generations by intriguing occupants.

"Breakfast is served in the lounge," explained Jill, "but if you need to leave early, you can just grab something from our bakery. And tonight we have live music in the back room."

Curiouser and curiouser. The bakery on site is the oldest in Alaska, predating the inn by some 16 years. Its most recent owners have completely revamped the place, baking up a storm with different speciality breads on offer every day, overstuffed sandwiches at lunch, inventively flavoured coffees and a dessert menu to drool over. And then there are the bagels. Ken and Jill wanted bagels where none existed. The answer? Shipping ridiculously heavy ovens up from the south in an attempt to bring the ring to Alaska.

A good bagel can be fiendishly difficult to find outside of New York. Not yet fully comprehending the force of Jill and Ken's determination, I was at first suspicious. But the ovens were closed for the day; judgement had to wait.

We set out for supper. Despite being the third-largest city in Alaska (population 30,000), at first glance there was not much to the place. The brick Victorians of the old town cling, limpet-like, to the steep hillside that cups the harbour. Above loom the peaks of Mount Roberts and Mount Juneau; across the broad Gastineau Channel lies Douglas, essentially western Juneau by another name. A solitary road snakes out of town, through the quiet suburbs of the Mendenhall Valley, past the airport and the ferry terminal at Auke Bay, coming to an abrupt halt at, wait for it, The End of the Road. There, it stops. Boats and planes are the only way in; Juneau stands alone.

Yet the small downtown area is almost hectic. Founded in 1880 following the discovery of gold, the port now peddles a different treasure: in summer, visitors descend on the port from giant cruise ships to search for the soul of Alaska in the town's historic wooden buildings, old-time bars and obsolete mine tailings. Over 800,000 visit each year; the lucky ones make it past the gift shops to look for bears along rocky shores, hike amongst forests of Sitka spruce, and soar above the shimmering expanses of the Juneau Icefield.

Come winter, tourists are replaced by the state legislature, who fly in each week, returning home Friday nights and grumbling all the while that really, Anchorage, with its strip malls and high rises, would be the more appropriate governmental seat. It's thanks to them that Juneau's restaurants rise well above those of the average tourist trap. We stumbled into a converted aircraft hanger, now an airy pub, and waited half an hour for a table.

The place was packed. There were indeed a couple of lumberjack shirts, but also a few suits; many of the customers appeared to know each other, but not one head turned as we entered. And as we were to discover is the norm elsewhere in town, the food was fresh and simple, seafood-heavy and with local ingredients substituted for traditional American staples: reindeer burgers, halibut tacos.

After dinner, my companions retired for the evening, and I nervously shuffled round the doorframe into the crammed back room of the Silverbow. Hackneyed or not, it really did feel a bit like stepping on to the set of Northern Exposure, only busier. The man with the ferocious beard was there, plus a few others who looked as though they'd be at home with a parrot on their shoulders. Punky-looking kids who worked at the bakery were hanging out with old folkies near the front; old-timers and pasty white newcomers mingled happily. Ken and Jill were busying to and fro, keeping everyone supplied with drinks and snacks.

Doggedly determined to follow their principles, they have established their inn as Juneau's alternative arts centre. One month might host a gay-pride festival, another a fundraiser for the local midwife group. Saturdays are film nights, with screenings of political documentaries, arthouse dramas, or cult comedies that miss the multiplex. Bustled into the room and into conversation, as a guest I had the unusual experience of feeling part of a community, rather than a disconnected tourist.

That feeling only grew with my days in Juneau. The place is suffused with those cherished qualities that the rest of America is always banging on about, that odd combination of community and independence: Alaskans might not pay taxes, but the pioneering ethos is still vital, quick and breathing. In the past 40 years, Juneau's population has more than tripled; for many new arrivals, it's the last refuge of the American dream.

But the night I leave Alaska, my dream is about bagels. No word of a lie. They're that good. I was wrong to doubt Jill and Ken, because I've hankered after the fruits of their labour ever since. I do also yearn for the Slush-Puppy blue tumbling of the glaciers, and the sight of eagles cutting through a silent twilight, but I have to admit it's the bagels that I really crave. Hunger pangs hit and my mind slips to a place where July the Fourth fireworks explode over the Gastineau Channel, a place where a whale swims solemnly up the sound, and I sit on the shore with a Super Cinnamon Special, celebrating the independent spirit that brought this bagel here.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting There

There are no direct flights to Juneau from the UK. Alaska Airlines (01992 441517; www.alaskaair.com) is the carrier from Seattle; depending on special offers and your time of travel, it can be cheaper to book that segment of the journey directly through the website rather than buying a ticket for the whole trip. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and United Airlines (0845 8444 777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) fly direct to Seattle from Heathrow.

Staying There

The Historic Silverbow Inn, 120 Second Street, Juneau (001 907 586 4146; www.silverbowinn.com). Doubles start at $98 (£54), including breakfast or breakfast picnic from the bakery.

Eating There

Hangar on the Wharf, Merchants Wharf, Juneau (001 907 586 5018).

The Fiddlehead and Di Sopra, 429 West Willoughby Avenue, Juneau (001 907 586 3150; www.thefiddlehead.com).

Further Information

Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau (001 907 586 1737; www.traveljuneau.com).

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