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Warm bed: Cool idea

Juneau Hostel a worldwide gem, but overlooked by locals

Posted: June 30, 2012 - 11:02pm
The entry to the Juneau Hostel welcomes many weary travelers.  Melissa Griffiths
Melissa Griffiths
The entry to the Juneau Hostel welcomes many weary travelers.

It sounds like a riddle: Name a place in Juneau known around the world, but nearly invisible to locals. It’s the Juneau Hostel, located on the corner of Sixth Street and Harris Street in downtown Juneau.

If you live here, you likely haven’t stayed at the hostel — one of the rules in the charter is that it is not open to local residents.

“This hostel is well known all over the place, except for in Juneau. It’s such a good resource, though,” said manager Kristin Cox.

The hostel, started 40 years ago, is a non-profit entity run by a board of long-time locals, many of whom have been on the board since its founding. It started off in a church basement, Cox said, where visitors were charged a few bucks for a place to stay.

“It started 40 years ago, you know, in the summer time, just in the basement of a church where they charged a few dollars to let backpackers sleep on the floor and in the 80s, during the oil boom, they got a grant from the state to buy this building, so the building is owned and run by the non-profit board pretty much.” Cox said.

The current location, a historic home purchased with a grant, counts on the manager and guests to handle most of the upkeep and cleaning — guests are assigned a chore in addition to paying $12 per night. A few times a year, the board will organize a major cleaning party, as well.

Not much has changed in the years since the hostel was founded.

“Nothing changes, it’s been run the same way for many years.”

The hostel has 47 beds total available to guests. It is set up with a women’s dorm upstairs and a men’s dorm downstairs, plus there is a handicap accessible suite designed for families traveling with children. The hostel isn’t part of any particular network of hostels and handles reservations and everything internally. Reservations for the dorms are taken during the busy summer months — it’s busiest June through August — while during winter it is first come first serve and unlikely to fill up.

The common spaces in the hostel are comfortable. The living room has wide windows and plenty of places to curl up on a cold evening. There is a fully functioning kitchen and a dining space, so visitors can cook meals for themselves to save money, rather than going out to eat.

As manager, Cox works part-time at the hostel, which closes between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. There is a curfew of 10:30 p.m. in the winter and 11 p.m. in the summer. Guests are not allowed to drink in the hostel or return intoxicated.

“It’s a family atmosphere here.” Cox said.

She and her daughter live on the premises and she balances having her own business practicing naturopathy.

Most guests fall into a few categories: backpackers or short-term visitors from around the world, seasonal workers looking for longer-term housing and new people looking for longer-term housing or people passing through.

“We do accommodate a lot of people from Southeast… a lot of people from outlying communities for doctor’s appointments, a lot of people who are waiting for other transportation — they’re coming in on a ferry, leaving on a flight — that sort of thing.” Cox said.

There is a five-day limit for staying at the hostel.

“We don’t do (extended stay), otherwise we’d be full, and there’d be no room for people traveling.”

Though there are a number of rules at the hostel limiting a visitor’s stay, Cox said she is more than happy to help people find a situation that suits their needs. She has helped countless people find longer term housing, has directed people to try couchsurfing, and she is hoping to start some sort of database of people with rooms to rent short term so she can better help people get settled in town.

For Cox, managing the hostel has been a positive experience for a number of reasons.

“It’s exciting and fun, it’s a great place to live, it’s a great experience for my young daughter…”

She also has met people from around the world and, while there have been some less than pleasant experiences, most guests are respectful and have a lot to share.

Though Cox admitted it might sound cliched, the biggest thing she’s learned managing the hostel for the past few years is, “Really, don’t judge a book by its cover.”

“There might be a tough biker-looking guy, but he’ll sit down at the piano and play beautiful music.” Cox said.

Music, food and stories are things that are frequently shared at the hostel in the evenings. And the experiences are vast, with visitors from some of the farthest reaches of the planet.

“It’s interesting meeting people from places you’ve barely heard of.” Cox said.

She has had a traditional meal prepared for her by Kyrgyzstani visitors. Each winter South American visitors work at Eaglecrest. A German man traveled around the world, heli-skiing and mountain climbing to raise money for a charitable cause.

Cox said it’s different from visitors coming of the cruise ships, who stay for a few hours and experience only a small piece of Juneau. Visitors who stay at the hostel experience more of Juneau and sometimes manage to integrate more into the greater community.

“There are people doing motorcycle journeys from Tierra del Fuego. Last summer there was a woman and her 12-year-old son doing a three-month trip and he really wanted to see bears and we got them right in the back yard…” Cox said.

“Sometimes I’ll take them hiking or take them to the glacier, call them when the Northern lights come out — it’s just so great to share this place with people.” Cox said, “and now I have friends all over the world, if I want to visit, like, Kyrgyzstan.”

While Cox’s most positive memories are of pianists, cooks and new-found foreign friends, not all visitors are as respectful of the rules or as mindful of what they are doing.

“There are people who don’t want to do their chore, who expect fresh breakfast and new linens each morning,” Cox said. She has had to revoke the right to stay at the hostel on occasion.

There was also a case of an absent-minded Australian visitor who put the kettle on for tea, but turned on the wrong burner, startling Cox’s daughter and some of her friends, who started shrieking when a cereal box set on the back of the stove ignited.

Needless to say, he had a little cleaning up to do.

“There have been few to no scary situations… it’s surprising, for all the people who come through, most people are nice and considerate and really appreciated it.”

The most troublesome situation is if the hostel gets overbooked — if someone shows up at the end of the night, Cox finds it hard to turn people away. But, paying only $12 a night, most people are pretty flexible, she said.

If reading about the hostel is making you wish you could be a part of it, it is possible to help preserve and shape this Juneau gem.

Some of the board members, Cox said, are looking to retire. More board members are needed. For a local person who is interested in travel and who enjoys sharing Juneau with visitors, becoming a board member is a great opportunity.

“This is a great facility and we really need some new board members,” Cox said, “Ideally it would be young people, locally situated, maybe neighborhood people who are interested and invested in the neighborhood, maybe people who have traveled or are interested in traveling…”

For more information on the hostel or if you are interested in becoming a board member, contact Cox at the hostel at 586-9559 or visit juneauhostel.net.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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