After Seventy Five Years, Holland America Still Sails to Alaska with the Same Intrepid Spirit

The cruise line has blazed a trail for travel into Alaska, pairing unrivaled access to nature with timeless glamour.
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Holland America Line

“Honestly,” I hear my pilot, Logan, say through the headset, “the first time I came to this glacier, it was like a kid's first time at Disney World.”

We are just landing the helicopter on the massive bluish-white Mendenhall Glacier, streaked with dark rock particles and silt. I sit stupefied by the sight of this wonder wedged among the jagged peaks of Southeast Alaska. I was raised in Florida; before this trip to Alaska on Holland America Line's Noordam, I had never even seen a glacier. Standing on this immense, silent, slow-moving force, I feel the unmistakable thrill of adventure: For a few seconds, I'm Jason Bourne or James Bond.

One of our guides takes the requisite photograph of me jumping into the air atop the glacier. I hop down into push-up position and lower my body enough so my lips touch the rivulet of water running into a crevasse. I have traveled to five continents and more than 60 countries—why have I never come here before?

Juneau—like other ports of call along this sail from Whittier, Alaska, to Vancouver, British Columbia, including the Gold Rush settlement of Skagway and rustic boomtown of Ketchikan—hugs the Pacific Ocean, deep within the Inside Passage of narrow waterways and forest-covered islands along the rugged western coastline of North America. While it is possible to fly directly to Juneau and drive through this region, there's only one proper way to take in the misty fjords and craggy headlands, the turquoise waters full of aquatic life, the ferns and firs of the temperate rain forests, the icy glaciers and snowcapped mountains: by sea.

Alaskan cruising is now nearly fully back on track after the interruption of the pandemic. Holland America Line, the first passenger line into Alaska, has been creating travel experiences here continuously since 1947, before statehood. Over the past couple of decades, Alaska has become one of the most popular destinations in cruising. But Holland America Line has certain ad-vantages over its competition thanks to proprietary access to the land, which has allowed it to create some of the first-ever cruise-tour experiences to Denali National Park and into Canada's Yukon Territory.

However, unrivaled access to nature is not Holland America's only appeal. There is also the glamour in the sleek lines of Noordam, the 936-foot-long Vista-class cruise ship. Every morning, just after dawn, I stroll through the ship, Americano in hand, the dark blue of the hull and the wood paneling of the decks evoking Holland America Line's 19th-century origins as a transatlantic passenger line, ferrying immigrants and wealthy vacationers across the Atlantic from Rotterdam—sometimes heading as far south as South America.

My fellow passengers, whose eyes gleam with lifetimes of stories, enjoy the pools and restaurants and shops and shows on board. Several have cruised in Alaska before. Just after our departure from Whittier, I venture to the dinner for single and solo travelers in the ship's main dining room. I sit next to Miss Barbara, a retired insurance adjuster from eastern Tennessee, whose husband passed away a few years ago. She regales me with family stories with a folksy flair that would make Dolly Parton proud. I dine on chicken and waffles, Miss Barbara on lobster, while Noordam slips out of Prince William Sound. It doesn't take long before she reveals to me her secret to cruising: “You can stay on the boat if you want to. You can get off the boat if you want to. You can do what you want to.”

On one of those stay-on-the-ship days, we sail quietly up the middle of Glacier Bay. The water is turquoise and smooth like a glass tabletop, except near the shoreline, where it laps rhythmically against towering walls of gray rock and dust-specked ice. Tiny chips of ice float between the ship and the shore, sparkling white like the snow-covered peaks on the horizon. The sound of seagulls pierces the quietude. Every single passenger of Noordam seems verklempt, stunned into silence by the unexpected grandeur and fragility of the confluence of ice and stone and sea and sky. In the next moment, a large chunk of the glacier breaks off and falls into the bay. I spy it drop into the cold, clean water. And a second later, the thunderous crack reaches my ears.

A seven-day Glacier Discovery cruise on board Holland America Line starts at $589 per person;

This article appeared in the December 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.