Power and Beauty Beyond, Breathtaking
Southeastern Alaska is a kingdom of water and ice, a natural masterpiece in progress, “a solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious,” as naturalist John Muir wrote during his visit in 1879. Just 100 years before, the area was completely choked with ice, and now the massive glaciers continue to advance and recede at their leisure, and boats are still the main way of getting around. In this sea wilderness, the whale is king.
Schools of orcas and humpbacks feed here and mate before swimming thousands of miles to winter in the warm waters of Hawaii and Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Seal pups frolic on passing iceberg bits and bears roam the shoreline and streams, hunting for salmon. One third of visitors to Alaska come for the cruise on the 1,000-mile Inside Passage, a route through the narrow strip of mainland and islands that make up Alaska’s panhandle. Almost twenty cruise lines sail these waters each summer, operating ships that range from small expedition vessels to floating cities that carry 2,000-plus passengers.
Departing generally from Vancouver, British Columbia, at the route’s southern end, Alaska’s easygoing capital city of Juneau at its northern end, or Seward on the GuIf of Alaska, they cruise the panhandle’s calm crystal waters and dramatic fjords, visiting touristy ports such as Ketchikan or (if you’re lucky enough to be on one of the small ships) untouristy ones such as Haines and Petersburg. Sitka, known as the “Paris of the Pacific” during the 19th century, is still redolent of its days as trading outpost of the Russian empire.
The far-northern end of the lnside Passage is capped off by the beautiful Glacier Bay National Park, a branching 65-mile fiord that’s home to a dozen glaciers and abundant wildlife. It’s accessible by boat from the mainland town of Gustavus, which stands right at the head of the bay, where it meets lcy Strait.
ln such raw country the genteel and welcoming Gustavus Inn seems wonderfully incongruous and makes a great base from which to experience the Glacier Bay area, if you’re not the cruising type.
What: site, experience, hotel.
Cruises: small-ship lines (with vessels that carry 40-140 passengers) are the way to go in Alaska if you want to really experience the wilderness. Among them, the better operators are Lindblad Expeditions (tel 8OO-EXPEDITION or 212-765-7740; www.expeditions.com), Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises (tel 800-451-5952; www.glacierbay/cruiseline.com), and Cruise West (tel 800-580-0072; www.cruisewest.com). Radisson Seven Seas Cruises offers a much more luxurious experience on a midsize, 700-passenger vessel (tel 877-505-5370; www.rssc.com).
When: cruise season runs May-Sept. Cruise lengths are generally 7 nights.
Gustavus Inn: at the mouth of Glacier Bay. Tel 800649-5220 or 907-697-2254, fax 907-6972255; www.gustavusinn.com. Cost: $150 per person per night, double occupancy, includes all meals, airport transfers, afternoon nature walks, use of bikes and fishing poles.
When: open mid-May-mid-Sept.
Best Times: May and Jun get the least rain; Jul and Aug are warmest; Jun-Aug is whale mating season; snow in Sept is not uncommon.