Cruising Alaska, day nine: Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska on Star Princess

Our alarm blared at 5:00am. Though I was up wrangling sea-bound WiFi and posting about Skagway until after 1:00am, it was no matter…time for glaciers! We quickly bundled ourselves in warm layers, grabbed our cameras, and set up camp on the balcony. A quick glance up and down the side of the ship revealed a similar scene on nearly every balcony. The Star Princess had begun her journey into the Tracy Arm fjord.

Turning into Tracy Arm Fjord, hoping to be able to get close to the glaciers!

Glacier Bay is the common destination for cruise ships to catch a glimpse of the icy behemoths. Tracy Arm may be off the beaten path, but the area known as “Little Yosemite” is worth the trek. The fjord is 29 miles long, but only 1.5 miles wide. The narrow cliffs rise up to an elevation of 3,000 feet. Shari Newitt, a naturalist on staff with the Star Princess, narrated portions of our scenic cruise through the fjord. Here’s what you would have learned if you were on our balcony with us: A fjord is any area carved out by a glacier and subsequently filled with salt water. The Tracy Arm fjord was created by an ice sheet so large it once covered all of Southeastern Alaska, Canada’s Yukon Territory, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. It could have held the entire population of the world on its surface and we’d still each have 10 feet of space all to ourselves. An ice sheet, in glacier speak, exists prior to the smaller ice field (i.e. the Juneau ice field Heather and I recently experienced). The glacier, then, is an even smaller piece of an ice field (i.e. the five glaciers I saw from the air and the Mendehall to which Heather hiked). From there you get down to icebergs and ice shards, respectively, through which our captain skillfully navigated all morning.

Sailing through iceberg, with 90% of their mass hidden below the water. Just hold your breath and cross your fingers. 

Our goal was to sail around Sawyer Island. We would either sail on the left or the right depending on the concentration of icebergs, and get as close as possible to the South Sawyer Glacier in the south arm of the fjord. It was clear by the time we reached Sawyer Island, there was no way for Star Princess to make it though the icebergs guarding the glacier. The ship slowed to a crawl and we buzzed with anticipation. Will we turn around? Are we done? Are we going back to bed? Will our captain pinball his way through it? How have we even made it this far? The ship started moving.

This is as close as we could safely get to the South Sawyer Glacier. Sawyer Island is in the foreground.

Doing my best to zoom in on the glacier and convey the electric turquoise color of its face.

A few facts for your ice literacy toolbox (depending on the cocktail party, one never knows when this will come in handy): A white color indicates a lot of air, cracks, and loose ice. Blue ice is the glacial motherlode. You want your glaciers to be blue, and many are a nearly electric turquoise hue. This means they are pure glacial ice with no air pockets. They have been rolled and turned to the point of incredibly density. As you watch the icebergs float past, it will appear as though there are streams of pollution in the water every so often. It’s almost like an oil slick, but typically yellow and grainy. In fact, this is most often minerals and even pollen floating near the surface. It can be freed from the melting ice or simply fall from the hemlock stacked on either side of the steep fjord walls. Calving is probably the most exciting glacier experience one can have. Calving is when skyscraper size chunks of ice fall from the face of the glacier and splash into the ocean. We did not see any calving this morning. We did, however, see the rarely-visited north arm of the fjord.

Pure ice is solid and blue. White ice indicates air pockets and loose ice. 

The Star Princess sailed right next to this iceberg, our captain confident and cool as a cucumber. Or should I say as a glacier?

The north arm of the fjord is rarely visited, because the water is rarely passable, making this the more illusive of the two glacial experiences. Our captain decided to go for it and we were eventually successful in reaching the North Sawyer Glacier! It is turquoise and massive and gorgeous. Later, over the ship’s broadcast system, the captain said: “It was a rare treat to make it to the north arm and see the North Sawyer Glacier. This will be a highlight of my cruising season. I hope you enjoyed that experience and for those of you who have traveled Tracy Arm before, you know how special that was.” I haven’t traveled to Tracy Arm before, but I do agree we had a special experience this morning.

Everyone was full of anticipation as we rounded the corner into the mysterious North Arm.

Victory! The illusive North Sawyer Glacier, described by our captain as the highlight of his sailing season.

After the fjord, and after 178 photos of ice, we enjoyed an afternoon at The Lotus Spa. We timed our spa day well after three full days of active excursions, an intentional decision when we pre-booked our treatments along with our excursions two months ago. My girlfriends and I always get a giggle out of the creative, usually pretentious, ways spas describe their treatments. Heather and I were recently booking a spa day for a friend’s wedding in San Diego and are still laughing at the “body mousse soufflé” that normal people call “lotion.” For the record, this is what happened to us today:

Heather booked the Thai Herbal Poultice Massage (75 minutes): “This treatment utilizes warmed muslin poultices of Thai and Chinese herbs that are steamed and applied directly to the body in a kneading action. This traditional ceremony has been practiced to soothe muscle tension and stiffness on key areas. Heat and herbs are absorbed by the body to help reduce aches and pains, increase lymphatic drainage, and condition the skin.”

I booked the Exotic Lime & Ginger Salt Glow with Massage (75 minutes): “An exotic exfoliation ritual that will invigorate and revitalize your body. Warm oil is dripped luxuriously over your body before our lime and ginger glow is applied. We then apply Elemis Exotic Island Flower Body Lotion, leaving skin replenished and vibrant. After rinsing away the salts you will receive a deep tissue muscle massage.”

The Lotus Spa & Fitness Center, including an adults-only pool.

The treatments were excellent with high-quality products and professional service. However, my girlfriends and I have turned spa days into an Olympic sport. We’ve had them all over the world and we know of which we speak when it comes to indulgent pampering. Keeping that in mind, the one thing I’ll say about my treatment: Princess needs to invest in a Vichy shower for its scrubs and wet body treatments. Rather than a ceiling-mounted track of warm shower heads raining down on me while my therapist salt scrubbed away, I laid on what felt like a combination astronaut slash camping blanket, a silver hypothermia baked potato crinkly thing. I then hopped in a shower and rinsed the salt away before returning to the massage table, now foil free and outfitted with a soft sheet. Vichy shower, Princess. Vichy shower. Trust me. One additional comment that actually relates to our previous review of the yoga classes. Efficiency rules the day at The Lotus Spa, just as it rules the yoga class. What does not rule the spa is a lush spa experience. This could be mostly remedied with a proper lounge, one in which guests find tea, water, fruit, magazines, plush chairs and ottomans, etc. Typically the genders are split with private lounges. As it is, the spa and fitness center are more or less connected and with no real space to decompress. The outdoor pool, with two hot tubs, is adults-only and a quiet place to relax; but there should be an indoor option. This is standard design for quality spas and more attention should be paid to this at The Lotus Spa. Our solution: Allow guests receiving spa treatments to access The Sanctuary free of charge on the day of their services. This is an existing infrastructure that can remedy this issue almost completely.

Peaceful surroundings at The Lotus Spa.

I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. You can follow along on each day of the adventure through my Live Voyage Report landing page. If you're interested in following other Live Voyage Reports, visit The Avid Cruiser website to see where the team is exploring now!

Bon voyage…and love,

This article was originally published on the Avid Cruiser Live Voyage Report website. 

Cruising Alaska, day ten: Sailing Toward Canada on Star Princess

Cruising Alaska, day eight: Skagway, Alaska on Star Princess