"It seemed inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us," observes naturalist Johh Muir in his book "Travels in Alaska," which describes Muir's discovery of Glacier Bay in 1879.
My husband and I toured this "ice world" on Island Princess in July 2007, and Muir got it right: you almost have to summon a whole new vocabulary to describe the wonder of this incredibly quiet place -- one of the most complete ecosystems on earth, above and below the water surface. Watching from our balcony as the iridescent Margerie Glacier calved, or set loose, an iceberg wasn't just a cruise highlight, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Glacial tourism, which began in the 1880's -- in large part due to Muir's writings -- is huge today. Remarkably, more than three million tourists will visit Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the centerpiece of Alaska's Inside Passage cruises this season.
This was the first cruise my husband Gil and I have taken where the trip wasn't about the ship or the ports of call -- but instead, the natural world around us. As Richard Becker, a National Park Service ranger, put it: "This is landscape that speaks to the heart."
" One of the things Princess excels at is onboard programming that complements the Alaska itinerary. During our seven-day cruise, for instance, naturalist Thom Eley gave three terrific presentations on glaciers, bears and whales. And the children's program has been beefed up this year: the National Park Service now offers "ranger talks," which include a component for children and teens. And how's this for serendipity? The day we scheduled our Gold Rush Sled Dog Tour in Juneau, an amazing experience involving 120 Alaskan huskies, we also attended an onboard lecture by 1985 Iditarod champion Libby Riddles, the first woman ever to win the famous dog sled race.
Our cruise -- which started in Whittier and ended in Vancouver, B.C., with stops in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan -- also focused nicely on signature Alaska cuisine. How many ways can you prepare salmon? Lots, as it turns out. I ate salmon spread, salmon jerky and salmon that was grilled, smoked and poached. The crew also staged a terrific on-deck culinary event one afternoon that featured, of all things, reindeer chili. And where better to enjoy Baked Alaska than in Alaska?
Setting Sail for an Ice Age
Island Princess felt instantly comfortable because we had previously cruised the Panama Canal on Coral Princess, its sister ship. This trip, however, we splurged and booked a mini-suite -- a step up in space and amenities from a balcony cabin (with a larger living area and two televisions -- one for viewing from the bed and one from the couch).
Okay, no one needs two TV's, but the stateroom was spacious, and I prefer the bathtub/shower configuration to the smallish shower we had on Coral Princess. Ultimately, though, when you get right down to it, a cruise like this is all about the balcony.
Thirteen of us, friends and family, took the trip -- and I think everyone would agree that we spent more time on deck or on the balcony than anywhere else. Our first morning, I couldn't wait to revisit the aptly named Promenade Deck. In a bracing, cold wind, Gil and I walked for an hour in a venue that for me had no parallel: College Fjord, in the remote upper reaches of Prince William Sound.
The fjord, definitely an ice world, is a study in blue and white. In 1899, an elite expedition of scientists named the fjord and 11 of its glaciers after the universities they were attached to (including Williams, my husband's alma mater). That was one of the facts we picked up at a lecture that afternoon given by maritime geographer and naturalist Thom Eley.
Basically, Eley prepared us for the wonders of Glacier Bay, the three-million-acre preserve that's only accessible by plane or boat. On our lookout list were the following: humpback whales, which would be feeding in groups; sea otters; sea lions; and brown bears, which often can be seen along the coastal edge eating grass. Of the 40,000 brown bears that live in the U.S., 30,000 call Alaska home, so I was feeling hopeful. As for birds, likely suspects tend to be comorants, arctic terns, puffins, the black oyster catchers and harlequin ducks.
"It's a place where you can see almost anything," Eley told us. "Naturally speaking, tomorrow's the day."
Glacier Bay on the 4th of July
How fitting to spend Independence Day in one of the nation's most storied parks. Tidewater glaciers are rare, and Glacier Bay boasts 12 of them, the highest concentration in the world -- including the famous Margerie Glacier, one of Alaska's most active glacial faces.
We entered Glacier Bay just before 9 a.m. and didn't leave it until almost 12 hours later. In a morning talk called "If Mountains Could Speak, What Would They Say?" Ranger Richard Becker"" set the tone nicely for what was to come.
In John Muir's time, Glacier Bay was in the process of creation -- and still is. When Muir made his legendary discovery, he found that the end of the bay had retreated 40 miles from Icy Strait. Today, the glacier that bears his name is some 60 miles from Icy Strait. Such rapid retreat is known nowhere else. If the next 250 years are like the last, Becker told us, Glacier Bay will be forest again.
"The cruise today is a time capsule, a journey back to the Ice Age. Most parks' mission is to prevent change. Ours is to watch change happen, to understand change in the natural world," he added. "It's important to experience the intellectual part of the park. Then go out and experience it emotionally."
Because the day is, in essence, a "sea day," we lingered over lunch in the formal dining room (ordering, what else, but salmon, this time poached). Later, Gil and I returned to the Promenade Deck, where we spotted whales, sea otters and bald eagles. But nothing compares to the endless icy landscape, itself so alive. As Muir framed it, "The very thought of this, my first Alaskan glacier garden, is an exhilaration."
Throughout the day, the park rangers broadcast live commentary from the bridge. Wisely, Princess doesn't schedule events or activities that would detract from the Glacier Bay visit. The casino and boutiques close, and there are no shipboard announcements or advertising of onboard services.
On this day, we started to understand that there was something distinctive about an Alaska cruise, in part because of the glow that attends the nearly ever-present daylight. But there's also the chill in the air. It's a mind-bend, in July, to see deck crew dressed in woolen caps and jackets, dispensing flannel blankets and serving hot toddies.
Cruise ship traffic is tightly regulated to preserve the environment. At the moment, a maximum of two cruise ships are permitted on some days -- and one or none on others.
Just after 3 p.m., we arrived at Margerie Glacier, understandably one of Alaska's most photographed features. This great river of ice is about a mile wide, with an ice face that reaches 250 feet above the waterline and a base that dips 100 feet below sea level. The reflection of the light makes it look blue. Everything is cold -- and still.
One of the rangers had said that glaciers have a sound of their own. You not only see them but hear them. By now, on our balcony, with the ship just turned, we have a perfect portside view of Margerie.
Suddenly, we hear a loud crack, then a noise that sounds like a thunder clap. Next, the glacier calves an iceberg that drops grandly into the bay. A few minutes later, it happens again.
What else to do but applaud?
Our First Port: Skagway
As the gateway to the Klondike, Skagway embodies Alaska's colorful gold rush history. It was here at the head of a stunning fjord flanked by mountains that tens of thousands of fortune-seeking prospectors headed toward the gold fields in the late 1890's. Almost overnight, the place exploded into Alaska's largest town with a population of 20,000.
Today, during the May to September tourist season, it's cruise passengers who fill the streets. There are several ways to relive the Gold Rush. The National Park Service Visitor Center, located in the former White Pass and Yukon Railroad Depot, offers free ranger presentations, guided walking tours and a movie. There's also a self-guided walking tour that includes stops at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, its facade covered with 20,000 pieces of driftwood; Gold Rush Cemetery; and the oldest structure in Skagway, the Moore cabin, built in 1887 and 1888.
Our choice was a two-hour shore excursion with the Skagway Streetcar Company, which has operated since 1923 when the first cruise ships began calling here. The tour gave us a nice snapshot of Skagway: colorfully painted storefronts, a view of the town from Inspiration Point and a walk through the cemetery, with its shoot-'em-up past.
After enjoying a late lunch at an instantly forgettable local dive, we strolled through the streets -- and were struck by the number of jewelry shops, at least 11 of them. Somehow, it didn't feel very Alaska-like.
Going to the Dogs in Juneau
One bad thing about traveling is leaving our two dogs behind, so we were thrilled in Juneau to visit a summer kennel that houses 120 Alaskan huskies -- some of whom have raced in the Iditarod, others who will. Matt Hayashida, who's done the grueling 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome four times, runs the camp. Talk about out of the way: the kennel is nestled, off-off-road, in a steep mountain valley that's had 2.5 million tons of gold taken out of it. The dogs, who live to run, train here during the summers.
To our surprise, an Alaskan husky weighs just 50 pounds on average. As Hayashida put it: "You never see a Sumo wrestler running in a marathon."
After Hayashida gave an overall sketch of the Iditarod, musher Joe Paweleck took us on the ride of our lives. Imagine it: an 800-pound vehicle that looks like a dunebuggy with 6 passengers and 14 dogs on a single leash. The second Paweleck hooked them all up; they began barking and jumping like kangaroos ready to run while the rest of the yard erupted in howls.
The dogs have a robust vocabulary of 20 words: "Left!" "On by!" and "Hike!" or "All right!" (meaning "Go!"). Each dog has a name. "We're family," says Paweleck. Our leaders, Rooster and Rainbow, followed a course of about a mile or so. Twice, we stopped to give the dogs a breather. If you're a sled dog, the ideal temperature is 10 to 20 degrees below zero. To them, 50 feels warm. Each time we stopped, the dogs lifted their legs in unison, all 14 of them. If you happen to walk dogs, like we do, you can appreciate the poetry in a moment like that.
That afternoon, in a "Princess exclusive," 1985 Iditarod champ Libby Riddles recounted her win after a daring and strategic move with her dogs across Norton Sound in a deadly blizzard. Her story inspired the T-shirt you still see everywhere: "Alaska. Where Men Are Men And Women Win The Iditarod." Riddles, who trained four years for the race, continues to compete, and to breed and train sled dogs. (In fact, she's looking for handlers to help her raise future sled dog champions at her kennel near Homer. Interested? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Gil and I did a quick pass through Juneau, the state capital, before calling it a day. It's a handsome town, only accessible by plane or boat, with historical markers directing "excursionists," as the first tourists here were called, to points of interest. Of note are the state capitol, the city museum and Marine Park, a small waterfront park. There are quite a few restaurants, but we opted for the sidewalk vendor selling reindeer hot dogs, which tasted surprisingly like kielbasa, and halibut tacos.
Once again, we couldn't help but notice the plethora of jewelry stores, many of them identical to the ones we had seen in Skagway.
What's that about?
Kicking It in Ketchikan
In Ketchikan, we got our answer.
Of all the ports, this was my favorite -- and only because, after being tipped off by a Princess insider, we walked inland and discovered historic Ketchikan. In the process, we bypassed what essentially exists as a company town: all those same jewelry stores we had seen in Skagway and Juneau, bunched up together.
The jewelry stores only operate during the four-month cruising season and pay a promotional fee to appear on the cruise lines' recommended shopping lists. Ketchikan, however, is fighting back with an initiative that would limit the number of new jewelry stores and tighten planning and zoning guidance in its downtown district.
For the record: On its shopping maps, Princess clearly discloses that the stores it "guarantees" pay an advertising fee to promote their merchandise onboard. The unfortunate thing is that some passengers may not venture beyond the company town and miss, just blocks away, historic Creek Street. A former red light district, this collection of boardwalk buildings on stilts over Ketchikan Creek has a terrific collection of shops -- notably, Soho/Coho, a contemporary art and craft gallery; Parnassus Books; and Alaska Eagle Art Gallery.
Halfway up the street, there's also a tram that whisks passengers up a hill to a hotel, restaurant and civic center complex that has a great view of the downtown and Tongass Narrows. Also not to miss: the spectacular Southeast Alaska Discovery Center at 50 Main Street, just one block from the cruise ship dock. The displays and guided tour put everything we'd seen so far into perspective. If you have any lingering questions about natural Alaska, you'll find your answers here.'
Ketchikan lies in the heart of the 16.8 million-acre Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, and the Discovery Center showcases the region's natural and cultural history. Among the highlights are exhibits on totem poles, ecosystems, native traditions, Alaska's rainforest and natural resources. There's also a "fish cam" where visitors can view steelhead trout and the four types of salmon that spawn in Ketchikan Creek. The center also has a terrific bookshop with a sizeable selection of books about Alaska.
Just before 6 p.m., we set sail -- knowing Alaska was largely behind us. What we'd seen was wonderous, but just a snapshot. You can't visit this vast state and not think about coming back.'
By 9:30 that night, we would be in Canadian waters.
One Last Day at Sea
Princess operates the largest fleet in Alaska, and next season its Alaskan fleet will get even bigger with a record eight ships positioned there. Although Gil and I tended to be balcony rats on this trip, Island Princess, fully loaded with over 2,300 passengers, offers lots of shipboard stimulation.
Electric slide lessons, gambling, afternoon movies, variety shows -- you want it; it's here. On our final day, overcast with rain and fog, we participated in an On Deck for the Cure 5K walk to raise money for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. About 30 of us walked the Promenade Deck and raised $15 each for the foundation, a global leader in the fight against breast cancer.
That night at dinner, as often happens on farewell nights, conversation revolved around one topic: Where in the world would we cruise to next?
--by Cruise Critic contributor Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer based on Maryland's Eastern Shore.