Johns Hopkins Glacier and Fairweather MountainsBack from a week or so of vacation and I’m feeling a little dirty, if not guilty, about what I’ve just experienced. Now, before I get into cruise ship bashing, let me first say that this trip allowed for several positive experiences that might not have been possible (or at least easy) given the circumstances.

For my wife’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, it was decided that a cruise would be the easiest and most economical way for 30 people to all get together, celebrate, have fun, and not become an undue burden on any one family. So, after nearly two years of planning, we set sail for Southeast Alaska from Vancouver, BC. We could have gone on any number of cruises, but for a diverse family who appreciates the mountains and didn’t want to be in the tropics in mid-July, this was the best option.

It was a fantastic way to see a part of the world that none of us had seen before, and it allowed everyone to take things at their own pace. The kids—there are 14 of them, ranging from 3 to 20 years old—had an incredible time. And while you can fly into Ketchikan and Juneau, and drive to Skagway, they’re all difficult to get to. In addition, cruising allows you to see some of the world’s largest glaciers—in Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord—which you cannot get to without a boat or airplane. These glaciers and the surrounding landscape really are incredible, and I’m grateful to have seen them close up in this way.

All that said, the act of cruising on a large ship is about as far from an ecological vacation as I can imagine. The Diamond Princess accommodates nearly 3,000 passengers (and almost as many crew members) and, as if these people aren’t already conspicuous consumers, places them in an on-board environment of consumption that borders on the grotesque. The amount of food on the boat was truly alarming, and the waste of food is unthinkable. While I don’t have any hard facts about how much food is consumed or disposed of, I can tell you that my own healthy eating habits went right out the window in the face of excess and convenience.

Eating’s consumptive companion is, of course, shopping. And there was no shortage of things to buy on board. Gift and duty-free shops simply aren’t enough for the serious cruiser. At any given moment there was what amounted to an on-board flea market of bad jewelry, art and clothing. And it didn’t stop when you left the ship. The port towns of Ketchican and Skagway have been transformed into tourist towns of unbalanced proportions (Juneau has fared a little better), to the extent that there is really little economy left after cruise ship season ends. Adding insult to injury, the cruise companies have bought up much of the retail real estate closest to the docks, allowing little opportunity for local businesses to separate visitors from their dollars and then simply closing up shop in the off-season, denying the local economy access to this real estate.

While the opportunity to view disappearing tidal glaciers up close is one of a life-time, I have to wonder what impact the parade of cruise ships into these waters has on the local ecosystem. Ships aren’t allowed within about 5 miles of the large Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay due to pupping seals, but they penetrate deep into this national park and College Fjord near Valdez. This, to me, is the largest conundrum of cruising in this area. How can we as a society appreciate and understand what needs to be protected if we aren’t aware of it? Yes, I think everyone (including indifferent teenagers) was awed and impressed by the massive, in-your-face beauty of Southeast Alaska’s geography and wildlife, but is this experience alone enough to change the habits of most Americans?

Glacier Bay National Park rangers and naturalists joined us on board during our time there, providing continual commentary while cruising, making a fantastic presentation in the ships theater, and interacting with passengers throughout the boat, including visiting with kids in the “Fun Zone.” This was invaluable interpretive time enjoyed and appreciated by many on board, and was an opportunity taken advantage of by the park rangers to impress upon passengers just how much impact a warming world is having upon these shrinking glaciers. But duly worth noting, these glaciers have been receding for the past 200 years—long before global warming became the cause du jour—inspiring many comments heard on deck to the effect of, “I guess global warming isn’t such a big deal after all.”

“Cruising” has been a popular vacation option for travelers for decades…and beyond. From the Titanic to the QE2 to “The Love Boat,” cruising has long been romanticized as a form of luxury travel. And for my part I’m glad to have had the experience, both for the positive experiences provided and for the opportunity to see what its all about. But I believe cruise ships have a negative impact on the environment and reinforce our bad habits of overconsumption. I don’t recommend a cruise for anyone with an environmental conscience , and I won’t be taking a cruise any time in the near—or far—future.