Avid Cruiser Voyages: Alaska’s Glaciers

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Wave for the camera! For some in this photo, taken in 2006, seeing the glaciers of Alaska was the last thing on their bucket lists. At least two people had terminal illnesses. © Ralph Grizzle

There’s more than one reason that so many people choose to sail to Alaska more than once. We can think of three reasons to cruise Alaska multiple times: Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier, and the Sawyer Glaciers (okay, make that four reasons).

To get a glimpse of the grand and imposing natural glaciers that grace the 49th state is probably the primary reason that people cruise to Alaska. And while most cruises are likely to call on Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier, or the Sawyer Glaciers at some point during the course of their voyages, not every Alaskan cruise features glacial scenic cruising. So if your reason for going is to see glaciers, pay attention when choosing your itinerary.

A view of Alaska from deck of Veendam

Alaska

Of all of the glaciers in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park remains the quintessential experience, with the sprawling Margerie Glacier being the most visited by cruise ships. Stays here typically last an entire day and are punctuated by hours of scenic cruising for varying vantage points of the glaciers.

This day is an experience to remember. Passengers may be bundled in wool blankets or only in T-shirts, depending on the weather. On cool days, waiters stroll the decks offering a variety of concoctions, some with alcohol, some without, to chase away the chill. On warm days, you can always get glacially cold concoction.

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Ralph Grizzle enjoying a cold drink on a warm day at Margerie Glacier in 2003.

On a memorable trip to Glacier Bay aboard Holland America Line’s Zuiderdam in 2006, we sat on the teak promenade deck relaxing in the line’s steamer-style chairs, wrapped in multicolored blankets and sipping on the line’s signature split pea soup. Then, it happened.

Celebrity Millennium alongside Hubbard Glacier, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

At first it sounded like a thunderclap: sharp, piercing and filled with power. Gradually, the face of the ice started to change before us, loosing texture and definition until it became almost featureless.

Gravity took hold, and the better part of a 50-foot section of the face of the glacier slid into the sea with a thunderous splash that made even the 932-foot long Zuiderdam bob up and down in the oncoming swell.

It’s just one of many memorable experiences we’ve had in Glacier Bay.

Because access is so tightly controlled to Glacier Bay, with cruise lines bidding on (and paying top-dollar) for the few spots that open each season, a suitably impressive alternative was found in Hubbard Glacier. Located farther north than Glacier Bay, Hubbard is more imposing at first glance simply due to its sheer size. Ships can also get slightly closer to Hubbard, since it doesn’t exist in the narrow spits like Glacier Bay.

Alaska

The Sawyer Glaciers are a bit of a double-edged sword. Located at the end of Tracy Arm fjord just a few hours south of Juneau, their prime location makes them an included feature on many itineraries.

The trouble lies within Tracy Arm itself: Although exceedingly beautiful to the point of rivalling Norway’s famous Geirangerfjord, Tracy Arm is often so choked with ice that navigating a large cruise ship through the channel is often impossible. This causes most ships to stop halfway down the fjord, rotate using their thrusters, and retrace their steps out again.

Sun Princess sailed to Alaska for many years before finding a second home cruising the South Pacific. Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises

But there is hope for those wanting to see the beautiful North and South Sawyer Glaciers: Some lines, like Norwegian Cruise Line, offer excursions to the glaciers that depart from Juneau on smaller, faster, purpose-built vessels. This multi-hour excursion whisks guests right to the glaciers themselves, then returns further up the fjord to your waiting cruise ship. Not only do you get to view these magnificent glaciers up-close and personal, but boarding your cruise ship in the middle of a misty fjord is endlessly memorable.

Read more about Alaska and check out our Alaska videos on Avid Cruiser’s Port Profiles.

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