“Quick, grab your binoculars and check out the beach on the starboard side of the ship. I see two bears, a mother and baby moose, and wolves moving toward the forest,” boomed the Park Ranger’s voice over the loudspeaker.
That was before breakfast. By noon we had spotted whales, otters, and mountain goats. And we glided up close to colossal ice-age glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park.
Weeklong Alaska Cruise
Four days earlier, we left Vancouver, Canada, aboard a Holland America ship for a weeklong cruise in Alaska. We made stops in Juneau and Skagway and cruised up the Inside Passage, home to impressive rainforests and glaciers reaching deep coastal fjords.
READ MORE: World’s Most Scenic Cruises
High on our travel bucket list was seeing the glaciers. We’ve watched documentaries and read a lot about the melting glaciers for years. “Let’s go before they melt,” was my husband’s rationale for a trip to Alaska, as if he needed a rationale.
Our cruise ship inched up close to the 200-foot high, above the waterline, ice wall of the Margerie Glacier that spilled into the sea. That’s as tall as a 20-story building and the face of the glacier is almost one mile wide, at the waterline. The glacier is estimated to be about 21 miles long and begins in snowfields in the Fairweather Range where elevations exceed 9000 feet.
Captain George Vancouver and His Expedition
When Captain George Vancouver and his expedition sailed into Glacier Bay in 1794, a glacier covered the bay completely. His expedition was stopped by a wall of ice 20 miles wide.
“Decades of data show that Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the earth, causing dramatic changes. The state has an estimated 100,000 glaciers, (only 664 are named) and they range from huge valley glaciers to tiny mountain glaciers.
A handout from the National Park Service states “95% are currently thinning, stagnating, or retreating. The rate of thinning is increasing in Glacier Bay’s glaciers, following this trend”.
Cruising through Glacier Bay National Park
As we cruised through Glacier Bay National Park, we spent hours on the open decks taking in the scale and magnificence of the massive ice walls of five glaciers. A family of sea otters floated on their backs nearby, seals sunbathed on rocks and humpback whales spouted in the distance.
To protect the National Park, only two cruise vessels may enter each day during the summer months. A team of experienced park rangers boarded our ship while we cruised up to the glaciers. They brought educational materials (bear and otter pelts) and educated us with enthusiastic commentary.
“This is a story of water and ice, retreat and advance – truly poetry in motion”, Adam, the ranger said.
“This is really remote in so many ways”, commented Rob, a New Zealander, sipping a Kalua-laced hot coffee, standing next to me on the bow of the ship. “Not just remote, everything is larger-than-life”, he added.
Margerie Glacier was the highlight of our cruise through Glacier Bay National Park.
A Passion for Fishing. “Unlike Anything I’ve Ever Seen”
Wildlife is everywhere in Alaska. In Ketchikan, we joined a tour on an ex-Bering Sea Fishing boat to see crabs, eagles, whales, octopuses, sea lions, porpoises, wolf eels and maybe even sharks.
For us, a bonus was to hear true stories from real-life crab fishers aboard the Aleutian Ballad, a boat well known, having been on the Discovery Channel’s award-winning TV series Deadliest Catch.
We watched the skilled crew haul and set long lines, barrel pots and huge 700-pound king crab pots and pull up to the day’s catch, ranging from crab to a 30-pound Halibut to a slimy, dark red Giant Pacific Octopus, the largest octopus species in the world. About 30 bald eagles pinwheeled overhead and dove into the water as they caught fish off Annette Island or Taak’w Aan (Tlingit).
Most impressive of all was the Captain, David Lethin and his crew who shared their tales of life on a crab fishing vessel in the Bering Sea – assaulted by horrendous storms and ice.
I had a lump in my throat as they described the dangers, hardships, and tragic deaths of numerous friends. The fatality rate among Alaskan crab fishers is shockingly high. No wonder the Alaskan king crab, fished in the Bering Sea, is called ‘the deadliest catch.”
A Big Splurge: A Helicopter Excursion
One morning at breakfast we sat next to a couple from Yorkshire, England. While they devoured their “real English breakfast” of bangers and beans, they raved about their “once-in-a-lifetime adventure to see five glaciers by helicopter.
“We are celebrating 2 big birthdays and booked 10 months ago,” they said. “With the glaciers melting, we never know if we’ll have another chance. It was worth every penny.” The helicopter tour excursions range from $400 to $900 per person.
Advantages of a Big Cruise Ship in Alaska
In addition to seeing the glaciers, I told my husband, “I want to have a week when someone makes all my meals, I can sleep in, and I’ll have a choice of activities, food, and entertainment”.
We were pampered. Holland America’s pinnacle class ship, Koningsdam, ferried us around Southeast Alaska in comfort. Food, beverage and entertainment were part of the big ship experience. We feasted on lobster, fresh Alaska Halibut and French, Italian and Asian dishes in the specialty restaurants.
We attended the live music and dance performances, danced to the BB King Band and listened to Rock’n’roll. One day I treated myself to a massage at the Spa.
Another Day at Sea in Alaska
Why not, we asked each other? Like the other cruisers aboard, we loved the wining, dining and all the activities aboard. I took spin and yoga classes in the well-equipped gym, attended nature and wildlife lectures, and took Pickleball lessons.
Other cruisers enjoyed watercolor painting, trivia contests and movies. One day we attended a Mixology Class. Now that’s something we’d never do at home!
Alaskan Glacier Ice
We mixed Gin and Tonics with Holland America’s 150th Anniversary signature gin, made of unique modern botanicals that hint of Dutch tradition. As we swizzled the cocktail in our glasses, we asked ourselves if we could taste the flavors orange, rose, elderberry, lemon verbena, lemon, raspberry, or juniper. Garnished with a thin slice of cucumber, a lemon wheel, and a fresh sprig of mint, the waiter added a chunk of Alaskan glacier ice.
That’s right. Alaskan glacier ice is served in some cocktails on the ship. The ice is hard-packed and promises not to dilute your cocktail while providing an effervescent “bergy seltzer”. Tiny air bubbles are compressed deep within glacier ice. As the ice melts, these ancient air pockets create an ice sizzle.
Stocking Up on Glacier Ice
Every week, when the ship stops in Juneau a new supply of glacier ice is purchased from an entrepreneurial Alaskan, formerly a commercial fisherman, who harvests the glacier ice.
To Cruise or Not to Cruise?
No matter how you choose to get around Alaska, from road trips to planes, trains, motor coaches, or cruise ships, the journey is part of the adventure.
For us, a 7-day Holland America cruise offered an easy, economical way to see a lot and chill out. When we left home, we both needed to de-stress. The grandeur and the wildness of Alaska offered pure nourishment for us.
Seven days of cruising was hardly enough time to do justice to Alaska’s many wonders …. but it was enough to give us a taste of adventure and an appetite to return for more.
Travel Tips: If You Go to Alaska
Book early. Alaska is an extremely popular travel destination in the summer when the weather is most cooperative.
If you choose to cruise, the ports that most Alaska cruises depart from are Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles Seward and Whittier. Don’t forget your passport for departures from Vancouver.
Excursions from the ship are the best way to get out and explore. It’s not easy to stroll around small towns like Skagway or Ketchikan when three large cruise ships are docked in town. Tours offer an opportunity to kayak, pan for gold, or take a panoramic helicopter ride. Book excursions early, as they sell out.
Consider the cruise itinerary carefully. Glacier Bay National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its magnificent glaciers and spectacular wilderness scenery and wildlife. Cruise ships visiting Glacier Bay typically spend nearly a full day there. Not all cruise lines have permits to enter the bay. Holland America has permits and quite a few ships sailing the Alaskan waters, making it one of the most experienced operators in the area, having operated there for almost eight decades.
Many cruisers tack on a land portion option, allowing them to visit Denali National Park or stay in local land resorts to learn more about the culture.
When is the Best Time to Visit Alaska?
Many experts say that July and August are the best time to cruise to Alaska, as these months offer warm sun, long days, and abundant wildlife. These are also the most crowded and expensive months to cruise. We traveled in the shoulder season, the month of May, and we had fabulous weather, no mosquitoes and we saw lots of wildlife.
Never leave home without insect repellent, good binoculars, a rain jacket, and a water bottle.
Author Bio: Marybeth Bond is a California-based National Geographic writer of best-selling travel books and articles. Her career has included a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show with her book Gutsy Women and she was the featured travel celebrity in the New York Times Travel Section.
Marybeth left a career in the tech world for a two-year solo trip around the world. She has hiked, cycled, climbed, and kayaked in 100+ countries on seven continents —and she met her future husband in Kathmandu after a month of trekking.
She is the creator of GutsyTraveler and serves as a freelance Global Correspondent reporting from locations worldwide. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.