If elegant travel is more your speed, a cruise aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth is just the ticket. Jacqui Loates-Haver boarded in Vancouver for the journey to Alaska – home of wilderness, wildlife and perhaps the freshest air on the planet.
Tethered around the vast dock of Vancouver’s downtown Canada Place, mega-cruise liners from around the globe are roped to their moorings. Behemoths, one and all.
At first glance Cunard’s famous Queen Elizabeth is enormous, but even she is dwarfed by some of the other ships in port. She’s not the biggest or the brashest boat in harbour. She’s more refined, a grande dame of ocean-going vessels, her 12 decks liveried in white, red and black. She looks steadfast, a safe pair of hands. Which is comforting, given she is taking us to Alaska.
Built in 2010 everything about the Queen Elizabeth is designed to evoke the glory days of ocean-going liners - when life at sea was a whirl of silver service, dressing to the nines, gala evenings and quiet contemplation over a dry martini.
This is refined travel – where nothing is too much trouble and where you can while away hours exploring the charms of this ship. From the Grand Lobby on deck 2 to The Lido restaurant on the top deck, the interior is art-deco inspired and understated. No flashing the cash here. It is quiet luxury on a grand scale sketched in a palette of cream, ochre and royal blue accents.
Cunard prides itself on its “white star service” and a large team of staff (about one staff member for every two guests) manage proceedings with quiet efficiency and little fuss.
Need help to book an onshore experience? No problem. Just head to the tour desk and everything will be taken care of. Locked yourself out of your room? (as I did), don’t fret, this will be sorted in mere moments. It’s this level of service that has earned Cunard its stripes as one of the best in the cruise business.
Room with a view: inside the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship
If there one piece of advice I can give it is to book a room with a balcony - it’s good for the soul. You’ll have a private space to lounge on your deck chair, binoculars poised for humpback whales (56 whale sightings were observed from the bridge on our cruise). You can bask in the beauty of the sunrise and sunset and eat your breakfast with the best view in town.
Cunard’s Britannia cabins (or staterooms as they are referred to) are compact at about 21sq m but clever in their design. There is ample cupboard and wardrobe space for clothing, suitcases and personal effects.
On arrival to your room you’re greeted with a lovely bottle of fizz, a fruit bowl and a welcoming note from the Captain. It’s all quite glamorous.
What else? Comfy twin beds, a flat-screen TV, fridge, a kettle with coffee and tea, and a sofa for reclining on.
The bathroom is small, but completely manageable. There’s a shower (with surprisingly good water pressure), loo and basin. Toiletries are by smart British perfumers Penhaligon’s and as part of Cunard’s sustainability policy, they are presented in generous refillable bottles, no single-use plastics here, thank you.
Our room steward, Yandy, who is all smiles and quiet efficiency, tends to the room twice a day, which is quite the treat.
For days spent at sea you can choose from the vast array of activities on board – think theatre, lectures, dancing, fine art talks in the on-board gallery, watercolour painting, fitness classes, massage and beauty treatments, music, swimming, practising your golf swing – the list is exhaustive. Or you could just sit and read a book in the library.
A night out on the Queen Elizabeth can be as fancy or as relaxed as you make it. Fine dining is by way of the Steakhouse at the Verandah. Crisp white linen tablecloths, cushioned booths and a magnificent picture window so you can admire the sunset view.
The service here is top-notch, as is the food. A selection of excellent steaks are on the menu, (you can also choose your cutlery from a selection of steak knives) as well as salt marsh lamb cutlets and whole grilled dover sole, plus a rather posh hamburger. Dining here does incur an additional cost though.
For smart dining you can’t go past The Britannia restaurant, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It pays to book though, if you don’t want to risk queuing for a table.
The menu changes every day, and the standard is consistently good – think crispy goats’ cheese with wild mushrooms to start, followed by grilled fillet of Alaskan hoki and Italian hazelnut cake to finish. Dessert wine recommendation from the sommelier? Yes please.
If you’re in the mood for something relaxed, The Lido restaurant is the place to be. Located on deck 9, the buffet food is plentiful – from a carvery to crepes, dumplings, fish and chips, chicken and steamed vege, plus cheeses, fruit and puddings galore.
There is literally something for every palette. Or if you fancy some traditional pub grub, head to the Golden Lion for craft beers on tap and baked mac and cheese. The dining options on board are many and varied.
Entering Alaska’s inside passage: a visit to Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier
As we set sail from Vancouver, our course is charted through the Queen Charlotte Sound, on to the Hecate Straight and into Alaska’s Inside Passage, a region of more than 1000 islands, its glacial water home to whales, porpoises, white sharks and sea-lions.
Once you enter the Passage, the air becomes crisp, keen, invigorating. It invites you to fill your lungs. The scenery here is a confection for the eyes. The mountains are snow-dusted and the land is studded with fjords and forests. This is a life-affirming, soul-expanding kind of place.
Our first stop is the Tracy Arm fjord and the Sawyer glacier, which is about 0.8 of a kilometre long and majestically frosted in bright white and icy blue. Unless you’re very lucky and the ship can navigate all the way down the fjord, you’ll need to take a tender boat to get up close, which weaves its way around the icebergs that have calved from the main glacier and on which seals are lolling.
The place is inaccessible by air or road, so this is a rare opportunity and a must-see. The glacier, like most in Alaska, is in retreat so there’s no time to lose in seeing this natural wonder.
Exploring Sitka: history and wildlife
Our stop on day two is Sitka, a fascinating city of about 9000 people, which lies on the shore of the Tongass National Forest. It must be the only place on earth that blends native Tlingit culture with Russian history.
The story of this place is long, and sometimes bloody. The Russians arrived in 1799 and fighting with the Tlingkit ensued, with many lives lost on both sides. The city became the capital of Russian America, but was sold outright to the United States in 1867.
Much of the Russian history remains today, including the Russian Block House and the beautiful St Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the centre of town, which was rebuilt in 1966 due to fire, but still houses Russian art and religious treasures.
Sitka is cradled by nature, an expanse of ocean in front of you, rainforest and mountains at your back. The wildlife here is rich and abundant – but it’s the bears and birds we’re here to see.
The Alaska Raptor Centre is a short drive from the centre of town and it’s worth a visit. The charity’s sole purpose is to rescue and rehabilitate injured raptors – or birds of prey.
You can observe the birds in their recovery habitats and you’ll find bald eagles, great horned owls, hawks, kestrels, kites and the most enchanting of all – Tootsie, the tiny northern saw-whet owl, who weighs in at just over 90 grams.
If you follow the road further out of town – along the shoreline of Silver Bay, named for the old silver mines in the area – you’ll happen on Fortress of the Bear, a non-profit centre that currently cares for eight orphaned black bears (smaller and cheekier) and brown bears (bigger and not to be messed with).
A clever system of walkways enables visitors to see, from a safe distance, the bears in their enclosure. To be able to watch 5-year-old brown bear sisters Nikiski and Nuka play rough and tumble is a moment indeed.
Whale tales in Juneau
Back on board the Queen Elizabeth, replete with a good meal and a refreshed with a sound night’s sleep, we dock at Alaska’s capital city, Juneau.
Bring your camera and a sense of adventure as there’s much to see and do here, including the Mount Roberts Tramway, the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier, and grabbing a bite to eat from the legendary Tracy’s King Crab Shack. But it’s the world-class whale watching we’re here for.
If you take a bus out of Juneau along the poker-straight Glacier Highway, under the watchful eyes of the many bald eagles who wheel in the sky, you’ll arrive at Auke Bay.
This is where the camera comes in handy. The scenery is spectacularly good – an expanse of glassy water ringed with mountains, it’s a photographer’s dream.
As the boat leaves harbour, it’s only a matter of minutes before we spot two orcas and it just gets better from there.
As we sail out into open water, we spot a pod of seals who have hauled themselves up on to a harbour float, enjoying the sunshine.
Three and a half hours later our whale-spotting tally is impressive – including a mother and calf. Back on the Queen Elizabeth, resident whale expert and award-winning naturalist Dr Rachel Cartwright tells us the mother was Sasha – a humpback whale who has calved before in Alaskan waters where she returns each summer to feed.
Fun fact: every humpback whale has a unique fluke (underside tail marking) so scientists can follow their migratory journey every year.
A Ketchikan stopover
Our final stop on this voyage is Ketchikan, Alaska’s first city and salmon capital of the world, where sea planes buzz in and out of the harbour and where you’ll find some of the most photographed buildings in the state.
We meet our Tlingkit guide, Joe Williams, at the dock. He’s going to be showing us the sights. Joe has lived here all his life, so his 90-minute historic walking tour is right on the money.
We leave the dock and wend our way through some of the city’s back streets – although wooden walkways is more apt, as many parts of the city are built on “stilts”, with the seawater lapping underneath.
There are more than 80 native American totem poles in Ketchikan including the beautiful Thundering Wings eagle pole and a pole that tells the story of the Fog Woman, who is said to have brought salmon to Ketchikan.
Our last stop on the tour is historic Creek Street, its quaint 1900s buildings as colourful as its past as the city’s red-light district. You can still go into Dolly’s house which was operating as the last brothel in town until 1954. It’s now a museum of ill-repute and has been preserved much as it was in its heyday.
Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth sails to Alaska from Vancouver between June and September, with prices for a 10-night sailing departing July 22 2024 from NZ$2589pp in a twin share Balcony Stateroom. Flights additional. cunard.com