Soaring high off the starboard railing, an eagle spots its prey
in the mirrored waters below. Pulling its wings back while
extending a deadly pair of razor-sharp talons, the predator dives
toward the water its black and white plumage an incredible sight
against the blue sky. Just yards away, an angered harbor seal rises
up like a phantom submarine, defending its own favorite fishing
Amazing? Yes. But, this close encounter was repeated numerous
times on my recent Glacier Bay Cruiseline journey in Alaska. The
Seattle-based, small-ship adventure line introduced a new Prince
William Sound itinerary for the 2005 season. I was fortunate enough
to escape the heat of Miami for one of the inaugural sailings this
summer. The eight-night trip began with a pre-cruise stay at the
AAA four-diamond Alyeska Resort, 40 miles outside of Anchorage. The
next morning, Glacier Bay guests boarded a motorcoach for the ride
to Whittier, Alaska, where the 69-passenger, 156-foot Wilderness
Our roundtrip cruise from Whittier would take us through the
glacial and ecological wonderland that is Prince William Sound.
Boasting stunning tidewater glaciers, breathtaking alpine peaks,
lush green meadows and more picture-postcard waterfalls than I ever
imagined, the region ranks among the planet’s most pristine
An ecological disaster propelled the area to worldwide
notoriety, however. In March of 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez
struck Bligh Reef, causing a massive oil spill and the worst
man-made environmental catastrophe in history. Sixteen years later,
through continuing efforts, Prince William Sound is again one of
the most beautiful places on Earth.
The Wilderness Adventurer was the perfect vessel for exploring
the wonders of this part of south-central Alaska. Her shallow draft
and compact size allows her to go places where big cruise ships
cannot. She can anchor in hidden bays and cruise through dramatic,
narrow passages. These passages called “arms” in these parts lead
to much of Prince William Sound’s most breathtaking vistas.
With three decks, the Wilderness Adventurer never feels cramped,
even for a guy like me, who likes to stretch out. I was pleasantly
surprised by the roominess of the cabins, as well as the amount of
storage space. But, this wasn’t a cruise where anyone spent much
time indoors. The spacious sun deck on top was the hub of the
vessel: The place to watch for whales and photograph the
breathtaking panoramas or simply to hang out, enjoying the cool,
crisp Alaskan air and the bright sunshine.
My fellow passengers on this Prince William Sound adventure were
a diverse lot: Baby Boomers, 30-somethings like me; families with
kids; and a few active seniors. Everyone shared a love of adventure
and a desire to see a different Alaska than the traditional big
cruise-ship experience along the Inside Passage. We soon became
quite friendly, almost like a family that had come together for an
adventurous reunion. Five onboard naturalists opened our eyes to
amazing facts, natural phenomena and incredible wildlife sightings
throughout the journey.
We spent several days cruising Prince William Sound, where
playful sea otters and harbor seals surrounded us at almost every
stop and passage. We spotted brown and black bears lazily soaking
in the sun in the high grass at the water’s edge. But the real
stars of the show were the big marine mammals. We were “cruising
for critters,” as onboard naturalist Erick Toussaint described it.
Breaching whales, bow-riding porpoises and noisy sea lions seemed
to follow us, as if to welcome the Wilderness Adventurer on her
Glacier Bay prides itself on its “off-vessel adventure
activities,” and kayaking is foremost among them. A portion of the
sun deck and much of the stern were dedicated to the impressive and
well-coordinated kayak operation. Passengers were divided into
groups depending on their desired activity level. Naturalists led
the way, as we paddled along the shorelines spotting wildlife. Our
leader, naturalist Alli Astrella, explained that if you speak
softly and sweetly to a harbor seal it will approach you for a
close-up look. She was right. A harbor seal followed along with us
for the afternoon, seemingly as curious about us as were about
On another day, we spotted an extremely rare black-coated brown
bear napping near a mountain stream. It made me especially glad
that I had purchased a small dry bag in the vessel’s gift shop for
my camera. The photo opportunities were amazing that afternoon, and
many other afternoons, for that matter.
There’s nothing like a full day of paddling to work up an
appetite. Chef Joe Bailey’s culinary masterpieces were almost as
impressive as the natural wonders we encountered on our journey.
The daily menus featured all things Alaska, from king crab legs to
almond-crusted halibut to mouth-watering grilled salmon. There were
savory steaks, pastas and salads, as well as a vegetarian option at
every meal. In the afternoons, we’d have freshly baked cookies on
the sun deck. In the evenings, bartender Ben French, who also
played a mean classical guitar, whipped up the best mojitos I’ve
had outside of Little Havana.
Midway through the week, the Wilderness Adventurer called at
Valdez, Alaska known as Little Switzerland due to its steep,
snow-capped mountains. The line offered two tours there, a glacier
walk and a whitewater-rafting trip. Afterward, there was plenty of
time to shop for souvenirs, visit the museum dedicated to the
infamous oil-spill disaster or even grab a naturalist and hike some
amazing trails. An easily accessible tourist center provided maps
for those that wanted to hike on their own. We also made a stop in
College Fjord, where an early exploration team named the glaciers
after Ivy League universities.
This being the inaugural season, Glacier Bay still had some
glitches to work out. On our cruise, the line still had not secured
the necessary permits allowing us to disembark and hike along the
way as promised. But Glacier Bay is working diligently to iron out
any rough spots. Hotel manager Jelena Malenica encouraged us to
fill out comment forms on our last day onboard.
“Our practice is to build on suggestions we’ve received from
passengers during the inaugural season,” she said.
As the vessel returned to the dock at Whittier, I couldn’t
recall a weeklong vacation where I’ve felt more relaxed, and at the
same time rejuvenated. It was obvious that my fellow passengers
felt the same way. Glacier Bay believes the Prince William Sound
cruise has the potential to become its most exciting adventure
destination yet. They’re hoping the word will get out. As more
people visit the Sound, more will be interested in this incredible
adventure that is nothing like a mega-cruise-ship experience.
Cruise Line: Glacier Bay Cruiseline
Vessel: MV Wilderness Adventurer
Length: 156.6 feet
Passenger Capacity: 69
Number of Cabins: 32 on three levels.
All the cabins were renovated in 2000 and have lower berths. A few
also have a Pullman-style upper berth to accommodate a third
Plugging In: 110-volt American current
Commission: Glacier Bay Cruiseline pays a base
commission of 10 percent on all cruises as well as an additional
percentage for consortia member agencies.