Get More Out of Glacier Bay

As a destination, Alaska’s Glacier Bay mirrors one of its many sapphire-hued icebergs: Most tourists see only the tip, while the bulk of it remains hidden from view. Take time to learn its many secrets, and Glacier Bay’s primary and secondary attractions will increase your bottom line and keep clients returning year after year. The reason is obvious.

By: Christopher Batin

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 spruce-blanketed mountainsides.
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 years old.

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 iceberg.

“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 attractions.

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 personal favorite.

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 myself.

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 be refused.

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 started peddling.

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 day.

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 interpreter onboard.

“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 HAL.

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 opportunities.

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.

Ana Figueroa

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 miles.

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 Tramway.

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 lobby.

“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 stay.”

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
907-264-4600, 888-229-8687

Glacier Bay Country Inn