Gazing at Glaciers: Visiting Nature’s Icy Earth Movers on Your Next Cruise

Glaciers, one of the most breathtaking and powerful forces on earth, provide spectacular scenery for many cruise ship tourist. Powerful rivers of packed snow harden into compacted ice, carving out valleys during the process of advancing and receding. Receding glaciers sometimes leave spectacular fjords, bays and lakes in their wake. These glaciers act like very slow moving rivers with super slow motion versions of what would be called rapids and calm on a liquid river. They provide some of the most memorable experiences for cruise travelers who venture away from the Caribbean to more exotic destinations.


The most popular destination for American’s wishing to see glaciers is Alaska. During each summer, from approximately May to September, over 1 million visitors come to the state of Alaska and spend at least one night on a cruise ship, with the majority of those visitors spending much of their time on a cruise ship. The cruise ship passengers can view a variety of different glaciers during their visit either during the scenic cruising day or as part of an excursion ashore.

During our two visits to Alaska we saw an abundance of these natural wonders including the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, The Hubbard Glacier in the Yakutat Bay, and the many different glaciers along the College Fjords. We first visited the Mendenhall glacier during our 1993 Holland America Alaskan cruise on the “old” Rotterdam. Cruise Talk recently named the Helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier as our number one cruise excursion of all time. Any one who has ever done this ride will surely understand the reasons: this excursion offers amazing views of all aspects of the glacier and the opportunity to explore the glacier on foot.

The excursion begins on a bus that takes cruisers to the airport where they are fitted with glacier walking boots. From there, passengers board a helicopters that take them out to the glacier. From the air the passengers can see expansive nature of the glacier, the many lakes, ponds and waterfalls fed by the glacier, and the surrounding mountain scenery. The helicopters dop off passengers at one of the “calm” areas of the glacier where they can explore a roped off area on foot. On the return ride to the airport the helicopters take passengers by some of the higher cliffs where they can see daring cliff hugging mountain goats and the expansive ice field that fuels the glacier. This excursion is my most memorable experience in Alaska.

We also visited another spectacular glacier during both of our Alaskan cruises, the Hubbard Glacier. This glacier has the longest tide water face of any Alaskan glacier, with a calving face over 6 miles wide. This glacier continues to advance every year. During our 1993 visit the glacier was heavily calving and we noticed an abundance of wildlife in the ice floes including otters and seals. In 2007, with less ice present in the water, we saw nearly no wildlife. However during both visits we were lucky enough to have beautiful weather that highlighted the beautiful colors in the water and glacier ice.

During our final “sea” day on our 1993 cruise we visited the 8 glaciers of the College Fjord. Explorers who discovered the College Fjords named the many glaciers in the area after prestigious North Eastern American colleges in 1899. Here we spent many hours up on deck just taking in the beauty of this seemingly pristine Alaskan wilderness. We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular beauty and power of each of the glaciers we visited during our Alaska cruises.

Alaska has two other impressive glacier areas that we have yet to visit. The first is Glacier Bay. When George Vancouver first discovered Glacier Bay, in 1794, it wasn’t a bay at all, but rather a glacier that extended all the way to the opening of what is now Glacier Bay. In 1879, naturalist John Muir found that the ice had retreated almost all the way up the bay. By 1916, Grand Pacific Glacier was at the head of Tarr Inlet, about 100 km (65 miles) from Glacier Bay’s mouth. This is the fastest documented glacial retreat ever. Today this bay is a protected national park and only allows a small number of large cruise ships to visit per day. From the deck of their cruise ship, visitors can see sixteen glaciers, twelve of which reach shorelines and calve (shed broken pieces of ice) to produce icebergs. The other popular area for cruise ships to visit in Alaska is the Tracy Arm. This fjord near Juneau, named after a Civil War general named Benjamin Franklin Tracy,was designated as a wilderness area by the United States Congress in 1980. The Tracy Arm area covers 653,179 acres and consists of two deep and narrow fjords: Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. Both fjords are over 30 miles long and one-fifth of their area is covered in ice.

South America and Antarctica

A cruise to South America and Antarctica also provides vacationers the opportunity to view many spectacular glaciers. Here, in the extreme southern tip of South America and the easily accessible areas of Antarctica, the glaciers are abundant. One particularly beautiful area is Beagle Channel. This channel was named after the ship HMS Beagle during its first hydrographic survey of the coasts of the southern part of South America which lasted from 1826 to 1830. The Beagle returned to the channel during a subsequent expedition with Charles Darwin aboard. Darwin himself said after first glimpsing the bay’s glaciers “many glaciers, beryl blue, most beautiful contrasted with snow”. Cruisers may also see many glaciers during the voyage through the Magellan straights. Several friends just returned from a South American cruise. The cruise traveled around the horn, and then backed tracked for some calm scenic sailing in the Magellan Straights. Their favorite glacier was the Skua or Amalia glacier, a tidewater glacier located in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. During cruises that take passengers down to Antarctica, many cruisers enjoy the spectacular scenery of Paradise Bay. This area, located on the Antarctic Peninsula, provides fantastic scenic views of glaciers, ice, and wildlife in every direction.

New Zealand

Though New Zealand has many glaciers, the best opportunity for cruisers to see them is an extended stay before or after a cruise beginning or ending in New Zealand. The most dramatic glacier is the Franz Joseph glacier located in Westland National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Nearby is the
Fox Glacier, New Zealand’s largest commercially guided glacier, only 21 km’s south of Franz Josef. Several companies offer guided hikes and climbs on these glaciers for several different fitness levels. The most sedate tours include a hike of the glacial valley. However, for more active adventure travelers some of these tours include actual hike/climbs on the most rugged gradients of the glacier. Companies also offer helicopter tours of these glaciers. Visitors who enjoy both glaciers and volcanoes may enjoy a visit to Mount Ruapehu, or just Ruapehu, an active volcano that also is home to 18 glaciers. The three largest glaciers are the Whangaehu, Mangatoetoenui and Summit Plateau glaciers. An active volcano, Ruapehu has occasionally spurted ash and rock debris over them, and its volcanic heat tends to accelerate melting. Cruiser would probably want to book a land tour or land/air tour that includes a glacial experience in order to get the most out of their pre or post cruise stay in New Zealand.


Cruiser who are lucky enough to book an Arctic Circle cruise that sails to the Northern reaches of Norway will also have the opportunity to enjoy some of nature’s icy earth movers. Perhaps the most picturesque sight is the small village of Olden. This village lies at the end of a 60 mile arm that was cut into the fjord by a powerful, now receded glacier. Near the village, tourist can visit the Briksdalen Glacier, Jostedals Glacier, Boyabreen Glacier, and the Norwegian Glacier Center. Another highlight of these arctic circle cruises are the many fjords providing dramatic scenery. These fjords are the result of thousands upon thousands of years of glacial activity carving steep cliffs and scenic arms.

If you are looking for incredible, unforgettable scenery, nothing surpasses a glacier or the results of their earth moving action. A cruise provides a luxurious way to travel to these glaciers. Check with your travel agent or favorite cruise line to discover what options they have to offer you for your next vacation.