Pining for the fjords? Alaska’s fjords are just a cruise away

Darin Lietz
Seattle, Wash.

Photo: Darin Lietz Sawyer Glacier as seen from the Tracy Arm Fjord in south-east Alaska.

Photo: Darin Lietz
Sawyer Glacier as seen from the Tracy Arm Fjord in south-east Alaska.

It stands to reason that many readers of Norwegian American Weekly are (a) well familiar with the majesty of Norway’s fjords, and (b) living in North America. If you’re longing for a dose of that glacier-carved beauty, but not likely to make your way to Scandinavia soon, you might be pleased to know that those Norwegian fjords have some pretty spectacular cousins right here in the U.S. and Canada.

One area where fjords are abundant and reasonably accessible is the Inside Passage, which runs from Washington State to the southeast arm of Alaska. If you have some cash to burn, there is no end to the adventures you can charter into the many fjords that streak the coastline. However, if your budget is more modest, a viable option is to take one of the Alaska routes offered by major cruise companies. While these offer a more limited scope of pure fjord exploration, they are affordable, comfortable, and can make for a very rounded trip by also providing time to experience the unique towns of southeast Alaska.

Photo: Darin Lietz Some of the cruise ships, with their waterslides and shuffleboard, look like they’d be more at home in the Caribbean than among the ice.

Photo: Darin Lietz
Some of the cruise ships, with their waterslides and shuffleboard, look like they’d be more at home in the Caribbean than among the ice.

The Inside Passage is run by nearly every major cruise line, from the regular party boats to swank luxury liners. The itineraries vary, but most trips depart from (and return to) either Seattle or Vancouver, although some begin or end further north in places like Anchorage, Seward, or Whittier. They run from late spring to early autumn, and are mostly between 7-14 days in length. The cheapest cabins will be the viewless ones, but for this scenery and wildlife-rich journey, you might want to ensure that you at least have a window. Most ships will announce when there are whales cresting or other things to be seen, and having a view from your cabin might spare you a bit of the mad dash to catch the action.

The fjord and glacier cruising can also vary in length, location, and extra excursions available, according to which cruise you select. One of the more common inlets these boats travel is the Tracy Arm Fjord, from which you can glimpse the twin Sawyer Glaciers. By the time cruising season is in full swing, the temperatures are usually rather mild, but if you go early in the season, there’s a good chance that you’ll be drifting past huge chunks of melting ice, peppered throughout the frigid inlet waters. The bobbing icebergs, creeping glaciers, and snowy cliffs can make an ironic backdrop, if you’re on a Caribbean-style party ship with a massive spiraled waterslide crowning the upper deck. Fortunately, the ship I was on provided blankets and hot mulled wine for those who wished to kick back on the sun chairs and look for bears, seals, and mountain goats.

Photo: Darin Lietz Fortunately, the ships provide blankets for those who choose to enjoy the scenery despite sometimes cool weather.

Photo: Darin Lietz
Fortunately, the ships provide blankets for those who choose to enjoy the scenery despite sometimes cool weather.

Further to the north, there is another prolific cruising area, Glacier Bay, with over 50 glaciers, as well as a multitude of channels and inlets teeming with wildlife. The nearby Icy Strait Point, a relatively recent tourist destination built around a former cannery, has become a popular port of call that affords cruise-goers even more opportunity to explore the Glacier Bay area through additional excursions. If your trip is one that begins or ends even further north, more near Anchorage, you’re likely to cruise College Fjord, which counts among its unique features a vantage point where you can see eight distinct glaciers at once. Also in that vicinity, the port town of Seward is a common stop that is nestled right against Kenai Fjords National Park.

Pay attention to each cruise’s itinerary, as some cruises will spend only a day perusing fjords and inlets (which, for some people, is plenty), whereas other trips—particularly the longer ones—will explore at greater length. Generally, the itineraries will specifically name scenic areas that the ship will cruise through in more depth (i.e., “Cruising Tracy Arm” or “Cruising College Fjord”). If a given day on the itinerary just says “scenic cruising” or “Cruising Inside Passage,” that usually indicates passing through broader waterways. There sea life might be spotted, but the surrounding lands are generally distant or only a fleeting highlight.

The major cruise lines all offer extra excursions that you can take for an additional cost. Generally, these occur when the ships are in port, but some ships have small excursions available while actually in a fjord or near a glacier. Most commonly, these are opportunities to board a smaller boat to explore the water and shoreline more intimately. If you’re lucky, you might get a sea otter escort, or hear the “white thunder” of ice columns cracking off a glacier and falling into the sea.

The excursions offered during ports of call provide other means of transport to explore nearby fjords and glaciers, as well a great many other scenic areas not directly accessible to the cruise ships. The costs range widely, as they can go by any combination of land, sea, or air, and can take anywhere from a couple hours to the better part of the day. Some focus heavily on things like wildlife encounters and journeys guided by nature experts, while others simply provide the chance to do things like dogsled across a glacier, go 4x4ing through the mountains, do some puddle jumping in a floatplane, or survey the vast swathes of land and sea from a helicopter. Several trips provide a hybrid of experiences, even offering access to other fresh air activities like fishing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, gold panning, zip-lining through the temperate rainforest, or taking lunch at an outdoor salmon bake.

However, when contemplating which excursions to pursue, you’d be wise to balance your schedule, in order to save some time for the port towns themselves. While the soaking up the awe-inspiring natural beauty is definitely worth the trip all on its own, if you neglect to discover the culture of Southeast Alaska, you’ll be missing half of the journey’s rewards. Next week, I’ll tell you a little about what you can find when your feet hit the shore in Alaska’s main ports of call.

This article originally appeared in the June 20, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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