There are countless reasons people are drawn to Alaska: First, it was fur, then gold. Oil is important, obviously. But there’s more to The Last Frontier than the resources it offers; today, tourists are drawn for the experiences and sights you can only find in this beautiful, sprawling state. That includes hearing the white thunder of a glacier calving into the ocean and watching the joyful splash of a whale breaching above it – plus so many others.
Roughly 50% of people visit Alaska by cruise each year, and may not care about seeing any more glaciers or whales when they visit. Whether you’re in that half of prospective visitors or not, you’re likely doing research to try and see whales, glaciers, or both – and might be getting confused about where – Whittier or Seward – to book the best cruise to do that.
I grew up in Alaska, and though my family has since moved away, I try to visit at least once per year (twice in 2021!). I’ve taken day cruises from both Seward (most recently in 2017) and Whittier (2021), and have seen what each waterway has to offer visitors under the best conditions (blue skies, calm waters 😌) and the worst (torrential downpour, 6-foot swells 🤮). I’ve seen humpbacks, orcas, sea otters, sea lions, puffins, and many, many glaciers.
In this post, I’ll break down which waterfront town is best for each of these things, with a special focus on glaciers and whale-watching, since I know those are two of the main reasons people book a day cruise in Alaska (even if they’ve already done another cruise!). Read on to discover whether Whittier wins at whales or Seward’s sweeping views include the most glaciers.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) 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.
Whittier vs. Seward & Day Cruise Options
I want to spend a little time talking about both Whittier and Seward, and the day cruise options offered by each one. This will help you get a sense of each town; then I’ll dive into which one is better for different Alaskan experiences you might want to have.
To begin, Whittier is a small Alaskan waterfront town, home to 318 people at last count. It is located at the head of Passage Canal in Prince William Sound, roughly 60 miles south of Anchorage. You can reach Whittier by train in roughly two hours on the Alaska Railroad, or drive from Anchorage in about 90 minutes. Either way, you’ll enter Whittier through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, constructed as part of Whittier’s strategic military history.
Once in Whittier, there’s a small working waterfront where you can book day cruises, grab a coffee or meal, or arrange a kayak excursion or fishing charter. There are also hiking trails near Whittier, including the Portage Pass Trail – though you’ll need a car to reach most of them.
On the other hand, Seward is much larger and home to roughly 2,773 people. Located at the head of Resurrection Bay, in the Kenai Fjords waterway (which comprises Kenai Fjords National Park). It is a 2.5-hour drive (or 4.25-hour train ride) from Anchorage.
While visiting Seward, there are loads of things to do, including hiking, tide-pooling, and tours – like helicopter sightseeing, dog-sledding, and fishing. The crown jewel of Seward attractions is the Alaska SeaLife Center, where you can get up close and personal with rehabilitated and rescued animals from the area’s waterways.
When it comes to day cruises, Seward has a lot more options. At my last count, there are 17 day cruises from Seward and only two from Whittier. That’s not to say Whittier is lacking – one of the cruises, the 26 Glacier Cruise – is among the most popular day cruises in Alaska! What’s more important than the raw number of options is what each cruise has to offer – and how well that maps onto what you want to see on a day cruise.
Which is Better for Seeing Glaciers?
Seeing glaciers is one of the experiences I think most Alaskans overlook or underestimate how much visitors enjoy. After all, I saw glaciers all the time growing up in Alaska. Go for a hike? See a glacier. Take a drive? See a glacier! Fly to the Lower 48? Glaciers all over, under the plane.
But glaciers are not common elsewhere, even in places meant to protect them – like Glacier National Park. So for many people – and perhaps you, dear reader – seeing glaciers is super high on their Alaska bucket list. In that case, Whittier is the best place to book a glacier viewing day cruise.
While Kenai Fjords (Seward) has some glaciers – including tidewater glaciers –, there are far more visible and easily accessible tidewater glaciers (by boat anyway!) in Prince William Sound (Whittier). Specifically, there are 38 glaciers in Kenai Fjords and over 100 in Prince William Sound. This means your chance of seeing a glacier is just way higher if you cruise from Whittier.
You’ll also notice that when comparing cruises between the two waterways, any of the Kenai Fjords cruises that mention glaciers do it as part of a wildlife viewing cruise, whereas the most common Prince William Sound cruise is literally called the 26 Glacier Cruise. (And you see way more than 26 glaciers on that cruise!)
For seeing glaciers to your heart’s content, book a day cruise from Whittier.
Which is Better for Seeing Whales?
Let me be clear here: you can see whales in both Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound. I have seen whales in both Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound. Whales live and feed in both waterways… but whales also move around, so there’s no guarantee you’ll see whales in either Kenai Fjords or Prince William Sound on any given day.
However, if whale-watching is one of your Alaska must-dos, Seward is a better option.
First of all, there are no day cruises in Whittier that focus specifically on whale watching. This naturally suggests that while you might see whales, it’s not common enough that the tour operators are willing to stake their business on it.
Secondly, Whittier is located much further inland, about 75 nautical miles from the ocean, where whales enter Prince William Sound. Seward, on the other hand, is less than 20 nautical miles from the open ocean. This means whales have to travel only about a quarter of the distance to be close to Seward compared to whittier (or a better way to say it is that our boats have to go about a quarter of the distance to reach more common whale waters).
In any case, if you have your heart set on humpbacks or are overwhelmed by orcas, Seward is a better choice.
Which is Better for Seeing Other Sea Life?
If you want to see whales and/or glaciers and other sea life, you’re in luck: both Seward and Whittier offer plenty of opportunities to see other sea life.
This includes crowd-pleasers like sea otters and puffins, as well as others like seals (more common near glaciers, so perhaps a bit better in Whittier), sea lions (active in communities all over the waterways of both Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords), and seemingly countless species of sea birds. You can also spot bald eagles in the trees along the shore or on the wing across both parts of the coast.
While less common, it is possible to spot moose and bear near the shorelines too, but very rare. If you have your heart set on seeing these animals, be sure to plan a trip to Denali National Park to spot Alaska’s Big Five (including moose and bear).
Which is Better for Other Activities?
Both Seward and Whittier have other activities in town, but the reality is that Seward is better if you want to enjoy other activities in addition to a glacier viewing/whale-watching cruise.
Seward is a larger town than Whittier. There are plenty of things to do in Seward and shuttles that take you to Exit Glacier, the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by land. Seward has more hotels and restaurants too. (Some of my favorites include Seward Brewing Company and Sea Bean Cafe.)
If you choose Whittier, there are still things to do, just fewer options.
So if you want to do a day cruise and explore beyond the cruise, Seward is the way to go.
Which Cruise Port is Better?
If your Alaska travel plans include a cruise, you might find yourself wondering about the fact that some cruise companies start and end in Whittier (Princess & Holland America), while others have a terminal in Seward (Royal Caribbean, also Holland America, Celebrity, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas). As you now know, there are differences between the two towns, so you might wonder: which cruise port is better, Seward or Whittier?
There are a couple of ways to answer this question, so let me try to do that for you:
- If you are on a Southbound cruise, I recommend embarking from Seward. You can take the Alaska Railroad south from Anchorage 1-2 days before your embarkation and explore the town.
- If you are on a Northbound cruise, it doesn’t matter as much, though Whittier is perhaps slightly better depending on your own itinerary. While you can certainly disembark and stay in Seward for a day or two, most people are so excited to head to Anchorage and Denali that they board the train straight away and might return to Seward later in their trip. Whittier is closer to Anchorage, so from that perspective it may be better to disembark in Whittier and have a shorter train ride.
Y’all know I prefer a Northbound cruise (post coming soon to explain why!), so from that perspective, my answer is: both Seward and Whittier have good cruise ports and it depends more on your Alaska itinerary once you disembark!
Whittier or Seward – or Both?
In the end, there’s no right answer to whether you should visit Whittier or Seward – on a day cruise or as a cruise port.
As you’ve read, they are definitely different and have two different experiences to offer. Whittier is better for glaciers, and Seward is better for whale-watching – but that doesn’t mean you won’t see whales from Whittier or spot glaciers on your Seward cruise.
Ideally, you have the budget and time to visit both! And the weather will be great so you never feel seasick!
No matter which one you choose, be sure to review my 26 Glacier Cruises review (from Whitter), my Major Marine Cruises review (from Seward), and my list of the best Kenai Fjords cruises to choose the one that’s right for you.
Have any questions about visiting Seward or Whittier, or where to cruise from? Let me know in the comments!
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