Glacier Bay is a sensory as well as anticipatory experience.
Travelers wait eagerly to see, hear and feel ice rumble, grind and
tear off a glacial face a half-mile wide. They rush to the ship’s
railing to see ice chunks oftentimes larger than their house drop
to the sea in what seems to be slow motion. The subsequent wave
rocks the boat to the oohs and ahhs of the passengers. The
spectators anticipate it, squinting in rain and blustery winds to
observe it from start to finish. I’ve seen handicapped people work
their way slowly onto the deck to take a look. An elderly woman
standing next to me couldn’t stop talking about the ice calving.
There was a vigor in her smile, an amazement in her eyes. She
glowed. Such attractions are sure winners.
Unparalleled adventure is another main attraction of this
region. Flightseeing, kayaking, sportfishing, biking and wilderness
trekking; it’s all here. Kayakers enjoy paddling in mirrored water
so flat and blue it takes a second look to ascertain where sky
meets water. Wildlife abounds, with moose, bears and deer on
Glacier Bay is also a 3.3-million-acre time machine; a look at what
much of the North American continent experienced during the Great
Ice Age. As you travel from the glacier, you can see the transition
from ground-hugging lichens to wildflowers to mature forests 200
Glacier Bay is a highlight of Alaska’s Inside Passage cruises.
While many people have experienced Glacier Bay on a cruise,
relatively few have disembarked and seen below the tip of the
“A cruise ship is a very dissatisfying way to see Glacier Bay,”
said Corey Child, Glacier Bay Lodge general manager. “If people are
paying that much to get to Alaska, it’s a shame they don’t set foot
on solid ground and get up close and personal with wildlife and
everything else that Southeast Alaska has to offer.”
According to National Park Service statistics, 95 to 99 percent
of the 353,000 annual visitors are satisfied with their visit to
Glacier Bay National Park. The exploratory day trips into this
wilderness imprint on visitors like water imprints on young sea-run
trout: Both return time and time again to the same location. It’s
easy to understand why.
According to lodge owner Sandi Marchbanks, two types of tourists
visit Glacier Bay.
“Glacier Bay is on the travel list of most folks because it’s a
national park,” she said. “They have some expectations from
watching TV travel shows. We label these folks as tourists. They
come, they see, they leave.
“Then, we have ‘travelers’ who book a day cruise to view the
glaciers, and additional days viewing the park itself,” said
Marchbanks. “They go for a flightseeing tour over the bay, they
hike or bicycle or rent a car and drive around. They sit at the
coffee shop and talk to local people. They sit quietly on the beach
trying to count all the shades of blue that lay before them. They
sit in a kayak anticipating what type of animal is gliding through
the water and then come to the realization that there is not one
other sound being made at that moment. Travelers return to Glacier
Bay for that.”
To properly experience Glacier Bay in this fashion takes several
days of independent discovery.
Glacier Bay Lodge/Baranof Wind
Located in a rainforest overlooking Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay
Lodge is the only authorized concessionaire in Glacier Bay National
Park. The lodge’s modular accommodations offer multi-tiered
walkways that course through the surrounding rainforest. The
forest-view rooms are comfy at $185 per night, but the $205
water-view rooms are worth the price to watch the evening sunsets.
Expect easy walking from the lodge to the park’s immediate
The Baranof Wind is docked nearby and is currently the only
day-tour catamaran permitted inside park boundaries. Narration on
the park features wildlife from the onboard park naturalist along
the 62 miles to the head of the bay is superb in delivery and
content. The Baranof Wind pulls up to the smaller glaciers, stops
for a while to allow photos and continues on its way. Tourists can
expect to view several of the bay’s 16 tidewater glaciers. Some of
the heavyweights include the Grand Pacific Glacier, a full two
miles wide at its terminus. Margerie Glacier is over 250 feet tall,
and is popular for its ice calving. Johns Hopkins Glacier is my
Passengers should dress warmly, with a hat, coat and gloves, and
remain on the outer decks for the best views of glaciers and
wildlife. Seals, mountain goats and puffins are almost always
sighted. The Baranof also offers a camper/kayaker drop-off service
at designated locations in the bay.
The Forest Loop Trail near the lodge offers an excellent
after-dinner hike with many interpretive displays that describe the
flora, fauna and history of the area.
Not Your Average Whale Watching
My experience with whale watching has been glassing at dots in
the distance. So a half-hour out of Gustavus, when the skipper
announced whales off our port bow, I wasn’t too impressed. A
tourist attraction. No big deal.
But these whales leaped, frolicked and wallowed around our boat
like veteran performers warming up an audience.
A mature humpback shot skyward and rotated in a grand pirouette
fins extended as the breach exploded with power generating gleeful
applause from the audience. The thundering reentry drew oohs and
aahs from the crowd. The dominant whale slowly rejoined the pod,
and the swimming performance continued like an allegro of graceful
movements paralleling our boat. A young whale frolicked at the
surface while larger whales continued on, exhibiting a fluidity of
form that is remarkable for 20- to 45-ton mammals.
Another pod surfaced nearby and the whales exhaled a staccato
chorus of misty plumes. The spray inundated the passengers with
water droplets that smelled of fish and shrimp. Rather than wipe it
off, the passengers relished the moment. Getting blasted by a whale
sneeze is a badge of honor to take home.
The humpbacks ended their performance and glided effortlessly
toward open ocean. Their massively curved backs sliced the ocean’s
surface, and the tails of each flared up for the last time.
Youngsters on the shoulders of their parents imagined the whales
were waving goodbye, and waved back. I even managed a quick nod
I’ve lived in Alaska for 30 years, and I believe whale watching
like this is simply the best the state has to offer.
Glacier Bay Country Inn/Flightseeing
Glacier Bay Country Inn is a refined Alaska hideaway buffered by
160 acres of dense rainforest and meadow with a private airstrip.
Owners Ponch and Sandi Marchbanks introduced my wife and me to our
furnished cabin near the main lodge, followed by a quick lunch and
overview of the day’s activities. Ponch conducted a preflight of
his Cessna parked behind the lodge, and within a half-hour, we were
flightseeing over the mountain peaks and rainforests of coastal
Alaska. Best of all, we landed not on paved runways, but on remote
saltwater grass flats and river gravel bars, taking in the scenic
wonders of the region.
The Country Inn’s main lodge is an oasis of luxurious country
living, Alaska style. Five themed guestrooms, each accommodating up
to four guests, are guaranteed not to disappoint with their plush
comforters and meticulous housekeeping and service. A large dining
room with huge glass picture windows overlook the meadow, where
wildlife is often seen during breakfast or dinner. Recommend your
clients spend some time on the second floor. There they can find a
book from the comprehensive Alaska library and cozy into one of
several comfortable couches. The TV/game room offers several
hundred videos and DVDs. But with the huge scenic windows and
fabulous scenery, the TV blessedly doesn’t get much use. Inside the
front door, a computer room offers Internet access as well.
A few hundred feet from the main lodge, five comfortably spaced
cabins house up to four guests each. This is good for couples who
want privacy, or for a family or group of vacationers who wish to
spread out their gear, kick back on their porch and take in the
evening with good conversation. The cabin option is an ideal
location for your clients to enjoy time spent with new or old
friends or negotiating future business opportunities.
The service at Glacier Bay Country Inn is vintage Alaskana. Each
evening, we had time to relax and watch moose in the meadow, or
just enjoy the remote setting. It’s like visiting a store when
you’re hungry: Everything looks good. The lodge’s three-course
meals have been featured in Food & Wine, Saveur and Bon
Appetit. Dinner begins with an appetizer like blackened shrimp or
delectable crab cakes fresh caught from Icy Strait. Salmon en
croute with green peppercorn sauce, or tea-smoked breast of duck
over rice vermicelli is a favorite. The raspberry cheesecake can’t
Gustavus on Two Wheels
The next day, we opted for another wildlife sightseeing trip by
boat in Icy Strait, and a bit of fishing in the afternoon with
Ponch and Sandi’s son, Justin. We caught king salmon, halibut, chum
salmon, silver salmon, rockfish and ling cod. By midafternoon, we
had to stop fishing, as we had over 100 pounds of fish fillets to
ship home. On a side trip to visit Elfin Cove, a local boardwalk
community, Justin offered insights as to why Gustavus is becoming a
tourism hot spot.
“Cruise line advertising prompts most people to visit the area,”
he said. “Since not everyone wants to experience a cruise, folks
tend to look for alternatives, from the Internet or talking to a
travel agent. Good airline access makes visiting here a breeze.
Once they arrive, the country sells itself.”
On our final day, my wife and I explored Gustavus by bicycle, a
town that surprisingly has no law enforcement officers. Visitors
feel safe touring the area on foot and on bikes. I can see why. The
Marchbanks packed us a lunch, provided a map and my wife and I
Most of the road is easily biked. We wandered like schoolkids,
exploring old gas stations, buildings and fishing boats. Narrow
trails rimmed with fireweed and flowers called to us, and we walked
on remote sand beaches where the exhaled plumes of whales shimmered
in the distance. Nearly all the locals wave to tourists on bikes,
so steering with one hand while waving is a necessary skill. We had
trouble finding a bike trail. A local woman asked if she could
help, and peddled a mile out of her way to show us the hidden entry
point. On our way back, we stop for a kayak lesson, and called it a
We left Glacier Bay with hundreds of photos; two 50-pound boxes
of fresh salmon and halibut fillets vacuum-sealed and frozen; and a
promise to return.
The interest in Alaska’s glaciers has led to national headlines
in recent years. Unusual weather patterns have many glaciers
incurring record melt. This is nothing new. In the 1790s, Glacier
Bay was covered under ice 4,000 feet thick and 20 miles wide. It
retreated nearly 50 miles in 86 years, and is still retreating one
of the fastest retreating areas of glacier ice in the world. If
global warming continues, many experts predict substantial melting
and possibly the demise of many glaciers within 50 years.
So don’t give Glacier Bay the cold shoulder. There is more to
Glacier Bay than what can be seen from a deck chair. It can warm
the hearts of your clients like no other place on earth.
The vast majority of visitors to Glacier Bay arrive by cruise
ship. In 2006, nearly 30 ships from the major lines will ply
Alaska’s waters, with many stopping in Glacier Bay on popular
seven-day Inside Passage itineraries. The cruise season in Alaska
is short (May-September), and large cruise ships (not more than two
per day) are allowed into Glacier Bay for only eight hours or so.
But that’s long enough to make a lifelong impression.
Rangers from the National Park Service board each cruise ship at
the entrance to the Bay, offering a running commentary on the
area’s geology, ecology and wildlife. Cruise ships typically stop
in front of the Margerie, Johns Hopkins or Grand Pacific glaciers,
slowly maneuvering a 360-degree turn, so that passengers can get a
good view from the top decks, observation lounges or verandahs.
Holland America Line and Princess Cruises are the powerhouses in
Alaska, although Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival, Celebrity, Royal
Caribbean, Radisson Seven Seas and Crystal Cruises offer an Alaska
program with stops in Glacier Bay.
Princess wins consistent accolades for its Junior Ranger and
Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay. Holland America Line boasts
the largest number of Glacier Bay entries of any major cruise line,
and offers some exclusive experiences, such as a Huna Totem native
“We’re seeing excellent demand for the 2006 Alaska season
already, so if there is ever a time to book early, this is it,”
said Paul Allen, vice president Alaska marketing and sales for
Large cruise ships don’t offer the only cruise experience in
Glacier Bay, however. The National Park Service allows three
smaller boats, which it calls “tour vessels,” into the Bay each
day. For 2006, this category includes luxury yachts, expedition
vessels and authentic sternwheelers operated by American
SafariCruises, American West Steamboat Company, Glacier Bay
Cruiseline, Cruise West, Lindblad Expeditions and Clipper
Cruiseline. The boats carry 12-235 passengers, and can maneuver
into inlets, get close to wildlife and can even provide kayaking
One line, American Safari Cruises, will offer perhaps the most
intimate and immersive Glacier Bay experience of any cruise line in
2006. The National Park Service has awarded them a unique permit to
spend two consecutive days in Glacier Bay and to overnight there as
well, meaning lucky American Safari passengers will be able to wake
up with the glaciers.
|Glacier Bay by Land: Local Favorites|
There is no road to Glacier Bay. Alaska Airlines flies to
Juneau, with connecting flights to Gustavus, the official gateway
to Glacier Bay National Park. Alternatives include a charter
flight, boat or ferry from Juneau. Juneau to Gustavus is about 50
Juneau is a good base to conduct additional tours. Independent
clients can overnight there and spend several days touring Tracy
Arm, Mendenhall Glacier and Visitor Center and the Mt. Roberts
Glacier Bay Lodge is the only authorized concessionaire in
Glacier Bay National Park.
General manager Corey Child said the lodge served about 4,000
visitors in 2005, with an average stay of 1½ nights. Recent
upgrades include new carpet in the lodge and new carpet and drapes
in rooms. In 2006, all guestrooms will be refurnished with new
lights, furniture, mattresses and a phone system with voice mail.
Internet access via kiosk and Wi-Fi will be available in the
“An all-inclusive deal is currently in the works that will allow
guests to pay one price for transport, lodging, meals and tours,”
he said. “The goal is to make it easy for guests and to prevent the
feeling that they are being ‘nickled and dimed’ during their
The eight-hour Glacier Bay Tour aboard the Baranof Wind includes
lunch, beverage, souvenir mug and all transfers from airport or
dock. Cost: $199 per person The Point Adolphus whale watching
offers views of humpback and orca whales, sea otters, sea lions,
puffins and bald eagles. Forget the specks in the distance. Your
clients get up close and personal because dozens of whales feed
each summer in the food-rich waters of Icy Strait. Cost: $85 per
person for a half-day trip, two trips per day.
The only thing more exciting is booking a kayak rental. Kayakers
paddle out from a boat, and stay in small rafts, watching whales
breach in front of them. Do-it-yourself kayak rentals and guided
instruction is available at Glacier Bay Lodge.
At Glacier Bay Country Inn rooms rent for $185 per person; $215
for deluxe cabin and includes three gourmet meals per day.
Saltwater sportfishing is $295 per person, and $500 per person for
fly-out bushplane sightseeing or a day of guided flyfishing for
salmon and trout on remote streams.
Where to Stay
Glacier Bay Lodge and Tours
Glacier Bay Country Inn