When a monumental chunk of ice splits off a glacier and thunders into the sea the impact shoots water hundreds of feet into the air. You hold your breath as you catch the moment on film. Then you wait for it all to happen again. And it does: Glacier Bay has more actively calving tidewater glaciers than anyplace else in the world.
If you didn't know any better, you'd think Glacier Bay ostentatious for the way it flaunts its ice. The glaciers practically terminate in your lap. A cruise to Glacier Bay National Park will show you a UNESCO World Heritage Site that protects a unique ecosystem of plants and animals living in concert with an ever-changing glacial landscape.
No roads lead to Juneau, which gives the Alaskan capital a misty inscrutability. You need to come by air or water, but when you arrive, the place will delight you with its bounty of water, forests, and mountains. Squeezed between the Gastineau Channel and Coast Mountains, Juneau offers a lot of variety in close proximity. The massive Mendenhall Glacier and the immense Juneau Icefields are at its back door. The vast Tongass National Forest stretches away to the northeast. You can shop downtown or get out and kayak, dogsled, raft, hike, whale watch, flightsee or fish. The adventures are as bountiful as the daylight.
Ketchikan clutches the shores of the Tongass Narrows, with many shops and houses built right out over the water. The stairways are weathered and the vibe is cheerful in the town that calls itself the Salmon Capital of the World. Besides the main attractions – Creek Street, the Tongass Historical Museum, Totem Bight State Park and Saxman Village– try a flightseeing trip to Misty Fjords National Monument. These deepwater fjords were gouged out by retreating glaciers, leaving granite cliffs towering thousands of feet above the sea and countless waterfalls plunging into placid waters.
There is a spot in College Fjord where you can see eight glaciers at once. The fjord pokes into the Chugach Mountains at the north end of Prince William Sound and it's the only place in Alaska that surrounds you on three sides with glaciers, five of which terminate at the water. The Harriman Expedition that explored College Fjord in 1899 was funded by Ivy League colleges, and all of the glaciers were named for the various schools in their honor. As you travel into the Fjord, the glaciers on the left are named for women's colleges and those on the right are named for men's colleges. Harvard Glacier is the biggest – its face is a mile and a half across.
The Alaska Panhandle fractures into a million little pieces between the Canadian border to the south and Glacier Bay in the north. Everywhere you look there's an island, a fjord, or a scenic town along the water's edge backdropped by forest and misty rocky heights. At the center of the region is Frederick Sound, a thoroughfare for marine life bounded by Kupreanof, Baranof, and Admiralty islands. In the summer, the humpback whales gather in the hundreds to feed, and the waters teem with sea lions and migratory seabirds. It's not just the water: Admiralty Island, to the north, is home to the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.
Haines nestles on the shore of America's longest fjord, with the horizons bounded by the snowy heights of the Coast Ranges. Like so many towns, Haines got a jump-start supplying miners headed for the gold fields of the Klondike. Today, the town's chief exports are adventure and scenery. Raft the Chilkat, hike the Takshanuk Mountains, or fish Chilkoot Lake. Outside of town, you're likely to spot bald eagles, moose, bear, wolves, seals, and orcas. Inside of town, stop by the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, the Tsirku Canning Company Museum, or numerous local art galleries.
Come face to face with a gigantic wall of ice that fills your view and extends for miles in either direction. Hubbard Glacier is a titan on the move, advancing faster than almost any other glacier on the continent. When it begins to disgorge its ice, by this point 400 years old, into the salt water at Disenchantment Bay, this behemoth is five miles wide and 40 stories high. It dwarfs ships. As you glide along, watch for seals basking on ice floes, listen for the loud, deep rumble and wait for the mighty crack and thunderous crash.
Icy Strait Point adorns the north end of Chichagof Island and is a jumping off point for Glacier Bay, just across Icy Strait to the north. Close to the town of Hoonah, a venerable Tlingit community, Icy Strait Point gives you the chance to explore secluded beaches, hike old-growth forests, or kayak along rich coastal waters. If your adrenaline stores are low, you can take a 60 mph ride on the world's longest zip line.
The mountains are so close to the city limits you'd think they were trying to nudge Seward into Resurrection Bay. Located along the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula, the city is vital fishing port, a major stop for railway passengers heading north, and the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park and its steep-sided, glacier-carved valleys and flourishing wildlife. The park is also home to the Harding Ice Field, the largest entirely within U.S. borders. Watch for bald eagles, listen to the sounds of thousands of seabirds and share the waters with Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, Dall's porpoises, sea otters and whales.
The onion domes of St. Michael's Cathedral are your first clue that Sitka was once a key Russian settlement. Indeed, it was capital of Russian America, seat of the bishop of Kamchatka, and the most important port on the West Coast for the first half of the 19th century. Catch a performance by the New Archangel Dancers, be greeted by native Tlingit people, then stand on the spot where the United States took possession of Alaska in 1867. The dramatic setting in the shadow of Mt. Edgecumbe is one of the loveliest in the Great North.
Some of the aspiring Klondike gold rushers who made it to Skagway took a look at the 500-mile journey that still lay ahead of them and decided a change of profession was in order. This is where the historical Gold Rush took place. Skagway was the largest city in Alaska by the end of the 19th century. Booms fade and dreams move on, but the glory days still reverberate through the town. Ride the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway, step into the Red Onion Saloon or peruse the restored buildings and wooden boardwalks of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Stephens Passage takes a hard right turn into the sheer rock of the Boundary Ranges at Tracy Arm, a narrow, twisting, 30-mile-long fjord that ends at the twin Sawyer glaciers. Lush rain forest recedes to reveal bare rock, and verticality predominates: 7,000-foot peaks, sheer rock faces, waterfalls at every turn. And tucked away at the end of this remarkable waterway are two very active reminders of the Ice Age – the twin Sawyer Glaciers, calving icebergs into the jade-colored inland sea.
A departure port and one of the most beautiful cities on the West Coast. Harvester of trees. Provisioner to gold rushers. Gateway for sea commerce. Incubator of jazz and grunge, jets and literature, coffee and computer software. Seattle is as much about reinvention as it is a landscape. But what a landscape! There are lakes and mountains and forests everywhere you look. The rest is an archipelago of neighborhoods studded with boutiques and coffee shops. Catch a salmon at Pike Place Market, ride to the top of the Space Needle, sample a local microbrew in Fremont, or slurp a bowl of steaming pho down in the International District.
Another departure port. If you could watch the history of Vancouver as a time-lapse movie, you'd see the creation of a sawmill and a community that grew up around it, which then became the townsite of Granville. Then comes the railroad, and development of the great natural harbor. Then: a sudden linkage to the Orient, Eastern Canada, and Europe. Immigrants come, business blooms, and the skyscrapers rise up along Burrard Inlet, always with the mountains visible in the spaces between the buildings. Go for the galleries, boutiques, public markets, and restaurants of every flavor. Visit vibrant Chinatown and Stanley Park, with its 1,000 acres of forests, gardens, lakes and lawns in the heart of the city.
Hello, England. Fancy meeting you here! Victoria is a city that started as Salish Village, spent a roustabout adolescence as a main port for gold prospectors and opium traders, and then transformed itself into an icon of British gentility after the completion of the trans-Canada railroad put neighboring Vancouver in the ascendant. Two events were seminal: the opening of Butchart Gardens in 1904 and the completion of the Empress Hotel in 1908. Butchart is a collection of gardens more than a single garden -- highlights for cruise visitors include the Sunken Garden (built from a former limestone quarry), the Italian Garden, the Japanese Garden, and the Rose Garden (breathe deeply). The Empress Hotel is merely a national icon. Come in for high tea.
April - September