As noted in my previous blog, our cruise ship departed from Skagway on Wednesday night and set sail north towards Glacier Bay National Park. One of the main reasons we chose Princess Cruise lines is that they are one of the few cruise lines that has a permit to sail through Glacier Bay National Park. And not all of their cruise ships do. I believe there are other ways to see Glacier Bay National Park via excursions on smaller boats, but it was really neat to cruise through their aboard the Crown Princess. In 1925, this area had been proclaimed a national monument by one of my favorite Presidents, Calvin Coolidge. And for good reason.
The views were absolutely stunning. Some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. On Thursday morning, we approached the Lamplugh Glacier and spent about 45 minutes there. It was so close it almost looked like we could touch it. We saw some kayakers out in the water as well as some hikers out near the glacier. Earlier in the morning, some rangers from the National Park Service had boarded our cruise ship. They were on board in a special area of the cruise, taking questions first hand. But they also got on the loud speaker (which could be heard in all the public areas, including on the Lido Deck and all the open air areas of the ship) and talked to us about what we were seeing.
Then, we sailed further into Glacier National Park towards the Marjorie Glacier. As we were on our way there, the park rangers pointed out some brown bears that were on shore. The mountains are so large and the shore looks so close, but once you see life out there, such as these large bears, they looked so small. I had to put my extra zoom lens on my camera and really zoom in to get a better look.
Shortly thereafter, we made it to the Marjorie Glacier. This was probably the most impressive sight on our entire voyage. Our cruise ship stayed there for nearly an hour. It was just hundreds of yards from the glacier and took a very slow 360-degree turn. At least a half dozen times, we witnessed a “calving” of the glacier. This is when large pieces of the ice fall into the water. What was neat is that before it actually falls, you hear a sort of “cracking” sound and then shortly after, as it hits the water, you hear what sounds like a rumble of thunder. So, even if you were not looking at the glacier, you can tell by the sound that there had been a calving somewhere. And that “cracking” sound usually gets your attention in time to take a more intensive look to see it fall.
It was very peaceful being out there. During the entire trip, we saw some bald eagles, seagulls going into the water after fish, and just a quietness as we drifted. Earlier, we had seen some brown bears on shore. I remember one of the things the park ranger said while we were observing the glacier: she said that our presence here was pretty much irrelevant. What was going on around us would be happening whether we are here or not. I think that was important because I think we human beings with all our gadgets, toys, and control over things these days, forget that all the natural phenomena that we were observing is happening with or without our doing. She said once we leave, that glacier would still be calving, those seagulls will still be diving in the water for those fish, and those bears will still be patrolling the shores for food. There aren’t many people that come through this area. It is mostly untouched and nature is doing her thing. It is truly an awesome sight.
The next day we also continued sailing north. During the afternoon, we were able to see some humpback whales (a few put on quite a show) and, in the early evening, we arrived at an area called College Fjord. This area is remarkable because there is just glacier after glacier (most named after various American colleges and universities, mostly from the northeastern United States). We must have passed one or two dozen glaciers over the course of an hour. And the scenery was absolutely fantastic. We also were cruising right through icebergs! (small ones, nothing like the Titanic). They even told us about the difference of the icebergs we were cruising through compared to the one the Titanic hit a century ago in the North Atlantic.
At one point, when we arrived at the most scenic area, the cruise ship again slowed and did one of those 360-degree turns so everyone on the ship (including those who had rooms with balconies) could get a view. At one point we spotted a bald eagle sitting out on a big chunk of ice in the water. It was majestic. The sun was also very bright. We were quite north now and in late June, we were within a few days of the summer solstice (which took place the day we departed Vancouver). Later that night, as we docked at the port in Whittier (where we would disembark the next morning), it was still really bright out at 11:30 PM. Even though the sun technically “sets” around 11:30 PM that time of year, it doesn’t really ever get pitch black dark. It also “rises” around 3:30am.
We actually said goodbye to our parents on Friday night as they had an earlier flight and had to be off the ship by 6:30am! I met up with Tony and Ann around 7:30am, which was our disembarkation time. I was very impressed with the Princess disembarkation process (even though I was previously skeptical considering how structured it seemed). Since we had gone through U.S. customs in Vancouver, before boarding the ship, we did not have to go through any customs when disembarking in Whittier, which is a port about 45 minutes from Anchorage.
Cruise ship guests were going in many directions, so there was a specified bus at specified times for everyone. Some were hopping the train to Denali (which left right from the port at Whittier). Others were hopping buses to go straight to the Anchorage airport. And others, like us, were going to downtown Anchorage, where Princess has its own hospitality center. They also transported your larger bags (the night before) to the hospitality center (or the airport, or to the Princess lodge in Denali, depending on your destination). Once at the hospitality center, we picked up our bags and walked just a few blocks to the hotel that Tony and Ann had booked. They stayed one night in Anchorage, mostly due to getting a better flight option back to San Francisco the next morning.
This worked out well for me because my flight was leaving Anchorage at 8:30 PM that night (a red eye to Atlanta). I was able to leave my bags in their room. We then went out and grabbed an early lunch, then rented some bikes from a bike rental place just a block from the hotel. The sales guy there was excellent and he gave us a map and pointed us to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which we were told was rated the second most scenic bike trail in the United States! The first is apparently Lake Tahoe, which we plan to conquer soon. Then again, I’ve since tried to do research on this, and there are lots of different lists, depending on the source.
We did a 22-mile round trip on the trail. It was very scenic. At one point, we could actually see Mt. McKinley way out in the distance. It is the highest mountain peak in North America.
Much of the trail skirted water and other parts went through a sort of mini-forest. We saw a moose along the way, but that was nothing. Some people just a few days before had seen black bears crossing the trail (they showed us pictures and video). We also saw a bald eagle at one point. Other than that, we just enjoyed the exercise, the fresh air, and the great scenery.
One part of the trail literally went right by the runway of the Anchorage airport. We saw some HUGE jetliners flying over us (mostly taking off). Another part went by the other runway, where they were landing. What a sight, but it’s a little nerve wrecking seeing such a huge piece of machinery taking off that close to you. The bike sales guy had told us those planes would be so close we could high-five the pilots. He wasn’t kidding.
We returned the bikes around 3:30 PM, got a snack, went back to the hotel, where I showered and rested for about an hour or so. Then, I said my goodbyes to Tony and Ann and walked back over to the Princess Hospitality Center, where I boarded the last bus of the day (6:00 PM) to the Anchorage airport, which was just a 15-minute ride away.
I then met up with Jesse and his parents at the airport, who had flight times around the same time as mine. They were headed to Orlando via Minneapolis. I was head back to Tallahassee via Atlanta. I noticed as we were leaving every part of our trip in Alaska – the cruise ship to the bus, the bus to the hospitality center, the bus to the airport, etc – everyone in Alaska was so nice and friendly. They kept saying “come back soon.” Others told us “We need people here!” Yes they do.
Alaska is huge: two and a half times the size of Texas, with roughly the same population as Delaware (actually, Alaska has less). I once lived in Delaware so I can picture the population of that entire state and I can’t believe that few people are inhabiting such an expansive place like Alaska. Then again, Alaska is not only not a part of the continental United States, it is freezing cold. We were there in the summer. That’s the time to visit.
Alaska was certainly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s hard to compare to anywhere else. I always say the Grand Canyon was perhaps the most magnificent natural beauty I’ve ever seen. My brother Tony and I also enjoyed the magnificent sights of Guilin last year in China. But Alaska is right up there. It’s unlike any other place. If you’ve never been – put it at the top of your list of places to see. A cruise was a nice way to see it, but do plenty of excursions on land (or in the water!). I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to return one day, but if I do, I would definitely go further inland and see what else this natural wonder has to offer.