Let me say upfront: cruises are not generally my favorite way to travel. I went on several with my family growing up, and while they were fun, as an adult I’ve avoided cruising in favor of other, more active methods of travel that allow me to explore the place I’m visiting in more depth (and sample the local food without feeling like I’m wasting money). However, there are some places that are undeniably made to be seen by cruise ship, and one of those places is Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. I would definitely have regretted visiting Alaska and not doing anything except cruising, but after an active, adventurous first week trekking all over the state, it was an easy decision to spend our second week ogling glaciers from the comfort of a cruise ship deck and having a “vacation to recover from the vacation.”
My primary criteria for the cruise were: 1) seven days, 2) one way from Alaska to either Vancouver or Seattle and 3) at least two days primarily devoted to glacier viewing. Princess Cruises’ Voyage of the Glaciers met those requirements the best. This cruise goes one way between Alaska and Vancouver, and includes either College Fjord (northbound) or Hubbard Glacier (southbound) in addition to the famed Glacier Bay.
We began our cruise adventure in Whittier, a tiny town of about 200 people. Many Alaskan cruises leave out of Seward, which would have been more even more convenient, but the drive from Seward to Whittier was less than two hours and (like pretty much all drives in Alaska) was quite scenic.
Our ship sailaway was delayed from the scheduled 8 pm until about 10 pm, but thanks to the almost midnight sun we were still able to enjoy beautiful views of Prince William Sound and a gorgeous sunset as we set out.
Our first full day on the ship was our visit to Hubbard Glacier. Although it was overcast and a bit drizzly as we entered Yakutat Bay, it was still pleasant enough to be out on deck and enjoy the increasingly nice views. We had a cheap interior cabin and I’d heard negative things about crowding on deck during glacier viewing days so I was a bit nervous. Fortunately, we didn’t find the decks crowded at all, probably due to the large number of people who had balcony cabins and were enjoying the view from their own cabins.
Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater (meaning, it meets the sea), glacier in North America, and its face is six miles wide. Interestingly, it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing rather than retreating. Its size is truly impressive in person.
Due to the good weather, our cruise ship was able to get very close (closer than any ship so far that season, we were told), and we enjoyed spectacular close-up views of the face of Hubbard. The ice on the face is almost 500 years old!
Hubbard Glacier is very active, and we were lucky to witness it calving over and over again during the hour or two that our ship was parked right in front of it.
The views leaving Hubbard were even nicer than the views approaching it. I hung out at the ship’s stern and snapped away. This was by far my favorite day of the whole cruise and I’m glad I was able to savor every minute of it.
I’ll be honest. After Hubbard, Glacier Bay was a little bit of a letdown. But I’m very glad we visited it, because it seems we got very lucky at Hubbard and if the weather had been different, Glacier Bay could have easily been the highlight of the trip. If there’s anything I learned from this cruise, it’s that a cruise with two glacier days is absolutely essential, if viewing glaciers is the primary purpose of the trip.
In Glacier Bay it was cold and raining and it was painful to be out on deck, even with all the warm weather gear we brought (including wool coats, hats and gloves). I would probably have tried to tough it out more if we hadn’t just had such a great day at Hubbard, but as it was I didn’t feel too guilty about spending much of the day inside the heated dining room, which had floor-to-ceiling glass windows that allowed for good viewing, if not photography. (These photos were all taken from the outdoor portion of the deck, but I was regularly running back into the dining room to warm up with some hot chocolate).
We did get even closer to these glaciers than we did to Hubbard, but I thought we got plenty close to Hubbard.
I believe the specific glaciers you visit in Glacier Bay vary depending on the ship’s schedule and weather. We saw two, Margerie and Lamplugh. Margerie was very nice and we saw it calve several times (although it was little bits of ice and not huge chunks), but I didn’t see Lamplugh (the last picture below) calve at all.
I wasn’t very impressed by the narration of the park rangers who came aboard our ship for the day. They told us about a million times why glacial ice is blue, and then very casually mentioned that someone had seen a bear on shore without providing any details about where it was. I thought the narration at Hubbard (provided by the cruise ship’s naturalist) was much better. There was certainly plenty of beautiful scenery to enjoy at Glacier Bay though, and even a less-than-perfect day of glacier viewing is still a great day.
I’ll share some more thoughts on the onboard Princess experience in my next post (where I’ll also cover our remaining stops in Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan), but the short version is that I was pleasantly surprised and thought Princess compared well to Holland America, Royal Caribbean and NCL in terms of food, cabin and ship quality. I found the onboard entertainment a bit lacking but I suspect that may have been due to the fact that we were in Alaska and most passengers (us included) considered the scenery the primary entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to cruise with Princess again if the itinerary & price were right.