You might not expect to find Harvard, Amhurst and Yale this far northwest. But when the 1899 Harriman Expedition came upon a fjord filled with glaciers tucked into the northern part of Prince William Sound, the group decided to name them after Eastern US colleges. Harvard is distinctive for its face about 1.5 miles across.
As a fjord, the area is not as wide a watery expanse as Glacier Bay but its long, narrow confines is home to several glaciers. There are about five each of good-sized valley and tidewater glaciers and about an other six smaller glaciers. The fjord is perfect for photo-album snaps.
We crossed Prince William Sound to Whittier to start our land adventure.
Tips: Try to book an excursion that includes Sitka. A beautiful town that still maintains its Tlingit Indian and Russian heritages, Sitka is on the western side of Baranof Island. Our ship stayed to the Inside Passage, thus skipping Sitka.
If you like a sense of turning back to the end of the 19th century and old narrow gauge rails, you’ll like Skagway. More than 20,000 gold prospectors built the town overnight and turned it into a rough and tumble “old-west” in 1898. They were on their way to make their fortunes in the Klondike.
When you disembark, walk the shops and take the White Pass & Yukon Route train for terrific scenery (not for people who avoid heights.) This is the place to buy a replica of the famed White Pass Engine if you have a train buff at home.
Glacier Bay National Park
Cruising into Glacier Bay with its nine tidewater glaciers (they empty into the bay) is unforgettable.
Put on the jacket and go on deck. You will see glaciers calving (breaking off of a chunk of ice). Listen for a roar and get the camera ready. Here you will also see icebergs and sea lions. Our ship stayed in the bay all afternoon and moved close in to the glaciers to see deep blue crevices, cracks and caves.
Imagine a short ride up the street from your state’s capital to dead end at a gigantic, year-round block of ice. As Alaska’s capital, Juneau is worth a visit, but if you have never walked or been bussed on the Columbia Ice Fields in Alberta Canada, then do so on the Juneau Icefield.
You can take a “flightseeing” tour of the Icefield that includes landing on it and a lesson in how to hike the ice and information on what you are seeing. You can also get a close-up look of arguably Juneau’s most familiar name: the Mendenhall Glacier. To do a flightseeing tour arrange ahead of time with TEMSCO, a veteran Alaskan flight company.
We have walked the Columbia Ice Fields so our choice was to see Mendenhall through our ship’s tour but arrange for whale watching on our own.
Because we arrived before the main tourist season we were able to walk up to a hut on the pier and book the next boat out from Orca Enterprises with Capt. Larry. Not only did he know where to go to find pods of whales, he also knew the islands and channels where we could see eagles and other wildlife. Plus, the boat was small so we could get up close and were not part of a large group.
As beautiful as we heard Alaska was, we still were not prepared for so many awesome sights. And we hadn’t yet seen Glacier Bay National Park
Flying into Vancouver, B.C. is the perfect opener to an eye-popping scenic adventure. Miles of forests, rivers, straits and mountains surround the city, whetting the appetite for the gorgeous scenery to come. To stay overnight in Vancouver, we chose a hotel on the water within walking distance of our port. But we arrived early enough to take a scenic bus tour around the city. Floatplanes constantly took off and landed outside our hotel, giving us our first idea of how important small planes are for getting around in BC and Alaska.
As host to the Olympics in early 2010, Vancouver added several hotels so finding one to meet the budget and travel style is not a problem.
Jaded travelers may say that Ketchikan, usually the first port of call, is a mere tourist trap. Maybe if a visitor spends the entire time on shore browsing the cute village shops, the person would leave with the impression the town is about shopping. We did our share of browsing but what we loved in Ketchikan was the Saxman Native Village. The town claims to have the world’s largest collection of totem poles. Many of them can be seen at Saxman, Totem Bight State Park and the Totem Heritage Center. After sitting and putting away more food that was good for us, we also liked the hike to Saxman, particularly passing trees filled with eagles and houses that had totem poles out front.
You think a spectacular phenomenon such as the glaciers in Alaska will remain amazing no matter when you manage to travel there. That is unless you attend a climate change conference or the new, temporary “Climate Change” exhibit that opened at Chicago’s Field Museum June 25, 2010. After seeing in graphic detail that Greenland and the glaciers across the northern hemisphere are shrinking, going to Alaska takes on a new urgency.
Now that it’s high on the list comes the interesting part – looking at all the options that turn a good trip into a great one. The best options are the ones that fit your lifestyle.
We were traveling with another couple so a few compromises entered the planning. The result was to take a Princess Line cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, just over the Canadian border, to travel up the Inside Passage. Our option, booked ahead, was to leave half the passengers who were just doing the cruise, then continue on with Princess across Prince William Sound for our land portion. We chose Princess because the company has lodges in different Alaskan locations and buses to get us there so we could relax and leave the arrangements to someone else. That is not our usual style but it worked well for Alaska.
• Book a room in Vancouver or from wherever you will be sailing the night before you leave on your cruise. Not only does this apply to Alaska, but is a good tip for taking any cruise, anywhere in the world. Weather and transportation schedules are too iffy to chance “missing the boat,” as the saying goes. In addition, towns like Vancouver are worth seeing as part of your trip.
• Consider traveling just before or just after the main tourist season. For Alaska, tourist season is summer when the mosquitoes are large and swarming and the prices are higher. The end of May into early June is a better time to go. The weather is not so cold as to hinder sightseeing and you won’t have to share the sights with hundreds of other visitors. Just add a jacket and a couple of turtleneck shirts to the suitcase.
• Speaking of packing, bring binoculars to better spot whales and other sea life and bring more than one pair of comfortable walking shoes. If you like dressing up, throw the fancy duds into the suitcase but you don’t really need to pack a tux and gown any longer. A jacket for men and cocktail dress for women will get you through the door on formal nights.
• There is not a lot of open sea time traveling to Alaska. People who want a spa treatment aboard should look at the schedule when booking the trip, then make an appointment for the treatment well in advance to get the desired time. This is true for any cruise. The same book ahead advice applies to snagging a seat for an evening splurge in the fine-dining restaurant.