26 Glacier Cruise Review: The Best Way to See Glaciers in Alaska
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A frigid wind blows into our faces as the boat nudges slowly through the ice-laden water. We’re approaching the face of a huge tidewater glacier, looking in awe at the stunning blues, towering ice formations, and dramatic crevasses that are visible from our small, low perspective on the waters of Prince William Sound.
Seeing glaciers is one of the top things to do in Alaska, and draws many visitors there each year. But what is the best way to see them? You could go hiking, or visit Glacier Bay National Park as part of a multi-day cruise… But if neither of those things fit your plans, you might also look at doing a day cruise to see glaciers up close and personally. This is where Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise can be the perfect option; as the name suggests, it’s a cruise focused on seeing the many glaciers visible in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In this post, I’ll share my 26 Glacier Cruise review from our 2021 trip to Alaska.
After what feels like a lifetime of cruising in Kenai Fjords (growing up in Alaska and on return trips since), I decided to prioritize a cruise in Prince William Sound on our trip to Alaska in September 2021. Mr. V and I made our way to Whittier through the famous tunnel, spent a little time exploring Whittier, and boarded our 26 Glacier Cruises boat – the M/V Bravest – with a goal of seeing glaciers. And by golly, we saw lots of them! In fact, I’m pretty sure we saw more than 26 of them!
If you’re trying to decide whether to book the 26 Glacier Cruise, read on. In this post, I’ll cover our experience from embarking to wildlife spotting and even whether the glaciers live up to the hype. I also include a few packing tips to help you stay comfortable throughout the day’s adventures. As you’ll see: I recommend the 26 Glacier Cruise for anyone who has their heart set on seeing loads of glaciers in Alaska. Keep reading for all the details!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) and Dënéndeh peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Booking, Embarking & On-Board Orientation
Let’s start at the beginning: booking, checking in, and getting onto the ship. It’s easy to book the 26 Glacier Cruise online, and you get a confirmation and reminders by email; my favorite email was the one detailing exactly which time you need to leave Anchorage or Girdwood and which timing of the tunnel you need to catch to make the cruise on time.
Once you arrive, you check-in at the main booth, then line up to board the ship. Most people were not observing any sort of social distancing during this process, but everyone was masked up and we were outdoors.
Everyone has assigned seats at tables on board the ship, which is nice for keeping things organized throughout the day. Once you arrive at your table, you can pull off a few layers and settle in for the day’s adventure without worrying if someone will take your spot.
Regarding the current health situation, everyone was required to wear masks indoors while onboard at all times. Unfortunately, people got quite lax about replacing their masks when coming back inside or after eating/drinking as the day wore on. I totally get that it’s not the crew’s job to police disrespectful passengers, but I would have appreciated a few announcement reminders to help curtail the blatant disregard many people were showing.
Lunch & Other Ship Amenities
I don’t often take a really firm stand when there are so many great companies offering cruises that I want to support, but I’ll be the one to say it: Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise has the best Alaskan day cruise lunch of any I’ve tried. I was super impressed with how delicious the lunch was. We chose the salmon chowder option (the other choice is hearty vegetarian chili); it was warming and hearty, and came with a fantastic julienne vegetable salad, roll, and a few other snacks.
In addition to the provided lunch, there’s a coffee, tea, and cocoa stand available at all times throughout the cruise. That’s super handy after standing out near the face of the glacier when your hands get chilly.
They also have a full bar with drinks available for purchase. The signature cocktail is a glacier ice margarita; our crew fished up a few chunks of ice from the water near Harvard Glacier and our bartender chipped off pieces to make the drinks for everyone – and it was a very popular option, based on the number of glasses I saw! I went a different route and ordered peppermint schnapps “on the rocks” (over glacier ice), a throwback to my Uncruise adventure where we did a drink luge with glacier ice.
Lastly, there’s a gift shop/supplies area if you need anything else, ranging from souvenirs to seasickness meds and extra hats, gloves, and hand warmers. After decades of operating in these waters, they know exactly what to offer to keep everyone happy on board.
Exploring Prince William Sound
5.5 hours is a nice amount of time to explore Prince William Sound, which is a huge waterway off the coast of Southcentral Alaska. Even with a whole day, you couldn’t see it all, so this cruise itinerary samples some of the best areas for seeing glaciers and possibly spotting wildlife.
In particular, the cruise route takes you from Passage Canal (where Whittier is located), across Port Wells and around Esther Rock, up College Fjord, and into Blackstone Bay. This area has a ton of glaciation and evidence of past glaciers so it’s a perfect area to give visitors a good experience without requiring too many hours on the boat. (This is especially nice as Prince William Sound can definitely get hairy during bad weather!)
Speaking of weather and the motion of the ocean, thanks to the catamaran style of Phillips Cruises and Tours ships, you’re going to feel a lot less wave action than on other types of ships. They also sell everything you need to fight seasickness should it strike. (I’m super sensitive to waves and had no problem at all on our cruise.)
Glacier Viewing on the 26 Glacier Cruise
As their name suggests, Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise is all about seeing glaciers – and in that department, they definitely do not disappoint! Based on their brochure map, there are up to 33 glaciers visible along the route of the cruise, though I wasn’t counting (and, to be fair, it’s not like there are borderlines on glaciers to help delineate them!). I can say that we definitely saw a lot of glaciers, so if that’s one of your big goals for visiting Alaska, this is a great way to tick that experience off your list.
In particular, our route took us up College Fjord, which is so named for the nearly two dozen glaciers that line both sides of the waterway; on the left are some of the famous men’s Ivy League colleges, while the women’s colleges line the right.
We spent a lot of time at Harvard Glacier, which has one of the biggest faces at the tidewater level – and is more active as a result.
We also cruised into Blackstone Bay, which has another half-dozen glaciers – including tidewater ones. (Here I’m not sure the exact name of the one we stayed at because they all look like one big ice field on the map!) At times throughout the cruise, there was literally no direction you could look and not see a glacier. It was especially impressive how many tidewater glaciers there are – these ones are far more interesting to me than the alpine or hanging glaciers that sit up on the rock and never break off huge chunks of ice into the water.
As you can see from the color of my photos, our experiences varied a lot between glaciers: some were beautiful with almost-blue skies, others were overcast and raining. The glaciers and ice fields are so large in the area around Prince William Sound that they affect the weather and it can change quickly.
Don’t despair if the weather looks bad for your cruise though – overcast skies bring out the richer blue colors in the ice than cloudless skies. I’ve also included a section at the end of this post about what to pack so you’re ready for whatever weather Prince William Sound decides to serve up.
In addition to seeing glaciers – the obvious goal and highlight of the 26 Glacier Cruise – we also did see wildlife during our cruise. This isn’t the priority for this cruise (different from Kenai Fjords) but our captain was sure to point out any wildlife we passed, and we made a stop at a sea lion rookery.
Throughout the day, we saw those sea lions, as well as eagles, harbor seals, and a few otters. (On my cruise through Prince William Sound with John Hall’s Alaska we also saw a bear, puffins, and whales. It’s definitely possible to see whales in this area during the warmer summer months when more whales are in this part of Alaska’s waters!)
So while you’re admiring the glaciers all around you, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for furry faces in the water and wild animals on the wing. There’s plenty of wildlife to spot on a 26 Glacier Cruise, even if that’s not your primary objective
26 Glacier Cruise Review: Overall Thoughts
After cruising so many times in Kenai Fjords as a kid and on return visits, I’ve always wondered about the 26 Glacier Cruise, and was really pleased to finally experience it. I absolutely recommend this cruise to anyone who wants to visit Whittier and focus their day cruise specifically on seeing loads of glaciers.
Seward and Whittier are totally different in terms of the experience of each town, and Whittier has a greater logistical challenge with timing your arrival and departure around the tunnel. Despite being much smaller and offering fewer amenities in town, plus being a little more complicated to reach, the 26 Glacier Cruise is worth the effort. The crew does an incredible job of making the day comfortable and interesting, and the glaciers do their part by being beautiful, easy to see, and active.
As I said earlier: if your goal is to see glaciers in Alaska, the 26 Glacier Cruise is an ideal way to do so.
What to Pack for the 26 Glacier Cruise
Before wrapping this up, I wanted to provide a few last tips to make sure your glacier-viewing experience is perfect. After all, Phillips Cruises and Tours can only bring you there and make the boat cozy – if you want to enjoy the day, bringing the right gear will be your part. (Though, as I mentioned, they do sell some basics in the gift area on the ship.)
Specifically, in addition to all the normal items I recommend packing for Alaska, I recommend packing the following for the 26 Glacier Cruise:
- A Waterproof Raincoat – Not water resistant – waterproof! Rain can happen throughout the summer months in Prince William Sound, so prepare for it. I’m wearing the Eureka Pendleton rain trench; I recommend the Helly Hansen Dubliner for men.
- An extra layer – I always recommend packing an extra layer so you can adjust for any weather or temperature. My go-to is the UNIQLO Ultra Light Down for women or men.
- Water Resistant Non-Slip Shoes – Wet feet are the worst. I have a list of boots and shoes I recommend for Alaska, but if you decide to buy XTRATUFs, that’s what I would wear.
- Hat, Gloves, and Scarf – Even on a clear, sunny day, katabatic winds blow down off the face of the glaciers and can make it a chilly prospect to stand their watching for ice calving. These small basics will keep you cozy (though you can always warm up with a hot drink when you get back inside).
- Binoculars – If you have them, otherwise you can rent a pair for $5 from the crew (which is what we did).
- Your Camera – Of course! Shoot with whatever you love, but the photos in this post were shot with a Nikon D7500 and our iPhone 12 Pros.
Ready to book your 26 Glacier Cruise? Click that link to get started, or let me know any questions you have about the experience in the comments below!
Our trip on the 26 Glacier Cruise was sponsored by Phillips Cruises & Tours.
This post was produced as part of that partnership.
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Thanks Valerie. I have booked 26 Glaciers cruise. My question is do I need to go on Kenai Fjord cruise as well? I want to watch glacier calving- does that happen in Prince William Sound?
Thanks for reading! Did you see this post where I compared Seward/Kenai Fjords and Whittier/Prince William Sound: https://www.valisemag.com/whittier-or-seward/ I hope that helps make the decision!