Image: Alex Demyan

Departing Juneau, a cruise ship plies the Inside Passage’s Gastineau Channel.

The next morning, as I stood on the ship’s bow munching a just-baked croissant and sipping strong coffee from a gilded porcelain cup, I shrugged off any reservations at being a temporary resident of a floating city. The sea crashed like a roaring waterfall around the prow of the Star , and on both sides of the channel, beaches littered with sun-bleached driftwood delineated a vast coastal rainforest: a cloud-shrouded arboreal sea of western hemlock and spruce stretching east and west in undulating hillocks that would grow into mountains as we headed deeper into Alaska.

Alaska’s capital is a city isolated in the wilderness.

At this hour, the sun’s nascent light cast a pearlescent glow on the water, which seemed as uniform as quicksilver, without so much as a riffle. Then I nearly dropped my cup into the sea, startled by a snort, then a splash that sounded like an air-dropped Volkswagen. Humpbacks! No more than a hundred yards ahead, four—no, six—whales cavorted in our wake, waving barnacle-crusted flukes skyward, then diving for fathoms before hurtling nose-first into the air like submarines rocketing from the deep.

And so the morning passed, as did the next.

At 2 p.m. the following day, the Star arrived in Juneau, where three other cruise ships were already docked at the seawall in Gastineau Channel and another waited offshore at anchor. Alaska’s rain-soaked capital is a city isolated in the wilderness, accessible only by air or by sea, the skyline dominated by boxy concrete-and-steel government office towers, including one the locals call the Spam can. Instead of following the masses out to Mendenhall Glacier or riding the aerial tram halfway up Mount Roberts, we walked to the Alaska State Museum, where our children whizzed right by treasures and artifacts from the state’s Russian past (Alaska was the czar’s property until 1867) and, despite the fact that we had been living on a ship for several days, made a beeline for the quarterdeck of a kid-sized rendition of the HMS Discovery , where they pretended to sail off into the unknown.

At sea two mornings later, 50 miles north of Juneau, an iceberg floated past our porthole, heralding our arrival at the grand finale of the Inside Passage: Glacier Bay.

Helen and I roused our children, cocooned them in wool blankets, took them to the promenade deck and deposited them on lounge chairs with cups of hot cocoa, while we joined the throng at the rails. As the sun rose, the seamless fog that had obscured the bay lifted like a curtain, revealing a sight so magnificent, so—as Muir put it—“indescribably glorious,” I had to hold my eyes open to be sure the image burned permanently into my mind.

While stewards plied the crowd with hot buttered rum from rolling wooden carts, Helen and I held hands and stared out at the face of Muir Glacier, a wall of ice 100 feet tall and a quarter-mile wide, stretching like a frozen superhighway through a valley it had carved for itself. Over the public address system, a National Park Service ranger told the story of Muir’s 1879 sojourn by canoe, how the naturalist was rendered speechless by the “jaw-dropping grandeur” of the vista before us. Bergs drifted by, crackling and popping as they bobbed like styrofoam in the saltwater (as glacier ice melts, it sizzles, releasing air trapped for centuries; on some cruise ships, the ice is netted and becomes the secret ingredient in fizzy Glacier Bay cocktails). The thunder of calving bergs, the “wild aural splendor” of it all, was precisely as Muir had described.

But even his words somehow failed to capture the absolute majesty of the place. As did my camera. To understand what I mean, you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.