Boarding Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth ship in Vancouver for a 10-day journey through Alaska’s Inside Passage, I see signposts to the British cruise line’s long and illustrious past everywhere.
The main deck’s display case is stuffed with memorabilia and newspaper clippings of royal family members either christening, sailing on or touring a Cunard ship. From the endless portraits of the Queen to the presence of the Golden Lion, a traditional English pub serving up pints of stout and nightly pub quizzes, the ship’s heritage is unmistakable.
Our destination, on the other hand, is as representative as you can get of the rugged, rural spirit of America. After a 27-year hiatus, Cunard is back sailing in Alaska’s waters, hoping to strike that balance between marvelling at all this frontier state has to offer and providing the elegant onboard experiences its guests expect.
“[What] makes Alaska special is this is a place where you can still come into contact with truly wild places,” says Dr. Rachel Cartwright, naturalist and author of The Alaska Cruise Companion, who is onboard to lead in-depth, energetic lectures. “I don’t think people realize how invigorating contact with nature really is … it boosts serotonin levels.”
Her No. 1 piece of advice for first-time visitors: Look at the towns as jumping-off points to get out into Alaska’s wilder places.
“These ports are very, very busy now,” she says. “Plan an adventure.”
Heeding her words at our first stop in Juneau, I head out on a whale-watching boat that whizzes by the blue sparkle of distant glaciers and the 2,300-metre, snowcapped mountains of the Chilkat Range cresting up from Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest.
“Just remember, keep one hand on the boat and one hand on your cocktail, or coffee – whatever your preference – then everything should be all right,” says captain Paul Wright, standing in the wheelhouse looking the part, with a salt-and-pepper ponytail, wraparound sunglasses and a long knife strapped to his belt.
“Now, go ahead and use those binoculars on your seats to help me out – the more eyes out there, the more likely we are to see something special.”
Within three minutes of leaving the dock, we do – a five-metre plume of mist shoots up into the air courtesy of an exhaling humpback whale. All marine life is protected in this area, so the boat keeps a respectful 90-metre distance and only stays with an animal for 30 minutes.
During the three-hour evening whale quest, we spend time with two more humpbacks, watching their long curved backs break the still water before they give one big wave of the tail, diving deep down to fill up on the krill, plankton and small fish that thrive here.
The diverse food cycle that brings the humpback whales here every year is thanks to the mineral-rich silt created by glaciers grinding through the mountains, as well as the oxygen-holding ability of these cold waters.
“You can think of the ocean itself as a watery forest,” tour naturalist Samantha Wilson says.
As the 9 p.m. sun casts the scenery in a golden glow, we nibble on delicious local delicacies from the onboard buffet, including reindeer jerky, snow-crab cocktail, caribou sausage, creamy halibut olympia, candied salmon and pickled bull kelp.
This diversity of nature’s beauty is the obvious draw of an Alaskan cruise. But what attracts guests to a Cunard voyage specifically is a certain level of onboard grandeur.
For one, there’s the formality. A strict dress code (jackets for men, dresses or smart trousers for women) is in place for evening dining at most venues, and a number of special gala evenings – ours were a Black and White Ball and a Roaring Twenties Ball – where tuxes, ballgowns and fascinators were encouraged and surprisingly spry couples jived, tangoed and waltzed to a live orchestra on the ballroom floor.
“When you think Cunard, you don’t think shorts and t-shirts,” entertainment manager Paul O’Loughlin tells me one night. “We want to maintain our style and our brand, but also give guests choice … it’s finding that balance.”
The expansion of the cruise-ship infrastructure along the Alaskan coast, such as new docks and guest-transfer services, was a siren’s song for Cunard to return. The huge leap in the number of tour operators and options in each port of call was also a major factor. When O’Loughlin first came to Alaska in the 1980s, fewer than 10 tours were available; now Cunard offers more than 100 shore excursions.
His top choice is the historic White Pass Scenic Railway, which was built during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush and plunges down nearly 1,000 metres in just 48 kilometres of hairpin-turning tracks. We take it as we return to the coast after a day in Skagway, where I spent the day busing through the aptly named Tormented Valley to Carcross, Yukon, learning about the perilous trails the gold-hungry Stampeders trod and spotting roadside brown bears.
As the Queen Elizabeth makes its way to the next port, I spend a sea day steam-room hopping at the Mareel Wellness & Beauty Spa and feasting on scones and jam at the daily English tea service. When we dock near Hoonah on Chichagof Island the following day, I swap any pretense of sophistication for a pair of waders and try stream fishing for the first time.
“There’s a few in there hanging where the rapids come and begin to dissipate,” master fisherman and guide Chris Austin says, pointing out the good spots. “You want to keep it moving and give it a little twitch every second and a half or so.”
My little twitch catches me a small Dolly Varden char, which quickly unhooks itself and flips back into the river. Not that I mind – the tug of the freshwater swirling around my legs and the pleasure of the silence only this landscape can offer are the reward.
“The pull of the wilderness is very strong," says Austin, who moved out here with his family years ago to live off the grid and the land. "It’s one of the last places, at least in America, that you can be a pioneer and make your way. You’re not relying on the bus schedule, you’re relying on tides.”
Back on board, captain Inger Thorhauge, who has sailed around the world with Cunard for 21 years, echoes Austin’s thoughts.
“Alaska really beats everything because of being so majestic, so huge, so breathtaking. The scenery never ceases to amaze you,” she says. “It makes you realize how small you are compared to Mother Nature.”
Indeed, after 10 days exploring Alaska’s coast aboard the Queen Elizabeth, it’s clear that while she may be the civilized queen of the seas, nature reigns supreme above the 55th parallel north.
The writer travelled as a guest of Cunard Line. It did not review or approve this article.
Queen Elizabeth will be sailing through Alaska again (round trip starting in Vancouver) from June 2, 2020 through until Sept. 8, 2020. Itineraries range from nine to 19 nights, and start at $1,298 a person. For more info, call Cunard at 1-800-728-6273 or visit cunard.com.
Since Queen Elizabeth embarks and disembarks in Vancouver, plan to stay a couple extra days on either end. Fairmont Waterfront is situated a few blocks from downtown and directly across the street from the port access (the hotel porter will even deliver your luggage to the ship). Be sure to also ask about their Hives for Humanity beehive program and take a tour of the rooftop garden to visit their thriving urban hives.
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