Have you ever wanted to come face to face with a glacier closer than what you’d get with a mass-market cruise? Want to feel like you’re the first explorer in the channels of the Last Frontier? Are you spending time on land in Alaska but really want a glacier experience? Then take a day cruise in Prince William Sound!
Whittier is a small port town used by Princess Cruises for many of their one-way Vancouver-Anchorage itineraries. (Most other cruise lines will disembark in Seward instead.) The railway is right across the street from the Princess cruise dock, so travelers coming from Denali National Park or even Anchorage can take the train the same day if they prefer and be on the cruise ship within 5 minutes of getting off the train! Most travelers view Whitter simply as a whistle-stop… but there’s another reason to visit Whittier, though, and that’s for access to Prince William Sound.
Prince William Sound is a beautiful marine wilderness, with 3800 miles of coastline, to the east of the Kenai Penisula and to the south of Anchorage. It has over 150 glaciers including 17 tidewater glacier. As the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says, “More than 220 species of birds, 30 species of land mammals, and at least a dozen marine mammal species are found in the region. Bald eagles are plentiful along treetops and shorelines. Among the estimated 200,000 seabirds that summer in the sound are marbled murrelets, black-legged kittiwakes, and glaucous-winged gull.”
There are two major companies that will take you on a cruise of Prince William Sound, but I chose Lazy Otter Charters for my May 2019 trip because of their small groups (6 people – they do have another boat for 27 if your party is larger) and I was not disappointed! Despite their name “Charters,” they run small group tours, which I didn’t realize initially so I didn’t contact them at first. I’m so glad I found out more about them before crossing them off the list — so my mission is to assure you that yes you too can experience this wonderful trip without hiring out a whole charter!
They do need a minimum of 4 people to run, so if you’re only 2 people, they will tell you if anyone else has signed up for that day already, and combine groups. For instance we joined a party of 4 people who already knew each other. Corresponding with Lazy Otter Charters was very easy. Their typical day tours are listed on their website. (By the way they also transport kayakers and hikers as a water taxi service – seriously, is there anything they can’t do?) If you have any questions about what’s “better” or what fits your schedule, just ask them – they are so helpful and kind! (Hint: the longer you can stay on the boat, the more you will see. Puffins, for instance, are a little further out, so we didn’t see them on the 6.5 hour tour.)
There are three major itineraries – “Full Day” (8-9 hours), Harriman Fjord (6-6.5 hours), and Blackstone (4-5 hours). We were on the Harriman itinerary – we were definitely tired at the end of it so a small part of me was glad we didn’t have another 2 hours with the longer tour, but I do wish I’d gotten to see puffins and had time for a beach landing/hike. I think the 9 hour tour would have been perfect if I was spending the night nearby, or if I hadn’t just gotten off a 7-day busy cruise and been up late packing the night before. 😉
You can do these tours either before or after your Princess Cruise, because generally the Princess ships depart quite late from Whittier. So you could leave Anchorage in the morning, spend the day with Lazy Otter, then walk over to the cruiseship and finish the boarding process and start your 7-day southbound cruise.
After disembarking our Princess cruise we telephoned Lazy Otter who sent Captain Mike with the truck to take us and our luggage to their cafe. It really is close to the port so I wouldn’t have minded walking once I realized how close it was (about 10 minutes walk) so this will depend on the amount of luggage you have. Lazy Otter Charters welcomed us and invited us to have a coffee on the house while we waited for the tour to start. Their cafe is delightful and plenty of people were popping in to grab snacks and hot beverages. Our tour was slated to start around 11am, so we had plenty of time to charge our phones and enjoy the delicious coffee. There’s also a restroom in the cafe if you prefer to limit your use of the tiny restroom onboard.
You’ll want to dress in layers and bring rain gear for sure, and bring a small backpack for your extra layers, binoculars, and anything else you need for the day. It was raining pretty steadily when we left, so I was glad for my raincoat and waterproof boats, but it did stop later on that day; at times close to the glaciers the temperatures did significantly drop so I was glad to have a winter hat, gloves, and scarf in my backpack too. Like any trip to Alaska, you have to be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and dampness all on the same day! You can stay inside the boat if it’s raining, but there’s also two outdoor areas and you can switch indoors/outdoors as you like. I was also glad I brought an external charger for my phone so I could take as many photos as possible without worrying about battery life.
Once everyone was there, our captain Gabe arrived and introduced himself and led us to his boat, which was also loaded up with coffee, hot water for tea, and plenty of snacks.
Because it was a small boat and is customized to your interests, we could ask the captain to detour anywhere we wanted, so we could explore different channels and passageways as we kept our eyes out for bears. Captain Gabe had tons of stories about exploring the Alaska coastline and we could ask him whatever we wanted and it was so wonderful getting to talk to native Alaskans and continuing to learn more about this Great Land.
The other travelers in our group were very friendly and well traveled and it did not feel awkward at all sharing the boat with them. They were very kind towards us and generous in sharing their experiences of the land tour they had just finished (since we were headed to the interior of Alaska ourselves soon). I think travel and experiences can really connect strangers!
We spent the day exploring Prince William Sound, found a young female whale feeding, spotted a rare Golden Eagle, photographed lots of birds, raced dolphins in the water, saw many families of sea otters, and got to see Cascade Glacier calving. The small boat got us so much closer to the glaciers than any large cruise ship could, and we were even supposed to have a glacier beach landing for a small hike but the tides weren’t cooperating. Most of Lazy Otter’s charters do include a glacier beach landing though.
We had a picnic lunch and plenty of coffee and tea onboard too. Lazy Otter Charters was also very accommodating in making sure there were no nuts for Mr TravelObservations’ allergy; we had bagels and homemade salmon dip for snacks and then there were also Kaiser buns with lunch meat and cheese and condiments for lunch, along with delicious chocolate chip cookies. We were not hungry at the end of the trip, that’s for sure. I wish I could have some of that salmon spread right now!
We got back to Whittier before the Lazy Otter Cafe closed, so we were able to collect our baggage and then we walked back to the train station (it’s literally a tent instead of a brick-and-mortar-station… so don’t worry about being there exceptionally early). Lazy Otter will get you back on time! Then we took the 6:45pm train to Anchorage, which was also a beautiful ride as well! We arrived in Anchorage around 9pm and took an Uber to our hotel, before flying to Fairbanks the next day to start a land tour of Alaska.
I highly recommend making Lazy Otter Charters part of your budget and itinerary for a free day in Whittier, either before or after embarking an Alaska cruise. The surreal experience of being the only boat within miles, gently pushing by huge slabs of ice as we approached the glacier, filled with the forest silences as an otter popped its head above the water, was an incredible one that I’m so glad I partook in. Or if you are only exploring Alaska on land and have no plans to take a 7 day cruise, this is an amazing day trip to get you up close to glaciers and wildlife. Also, they are one of the few tours that operate all year round!
You would easily be able to do this as a daytrip from Anchorage or Aleyska or any other close towns. I have no hesitation in recommending Lazy Otter Charters for an upclose Alaskan experience!
Their website is: https://www.lazyottercharters.com/
Please note: I did not receive any compensation from Lazy Otter Charters for writing this post, I simply enjoyed my experience and want to share them with other travelers!
Interested in more Alaska travel? Curious about other Alaska trips?
Check out my article on different ways to explore this beautiful state. Make sure to contact me if you’d like some help; Alaska is one of my favorite itineraries to design as part of my services as a certified travel agent.