(4:08 p.m. EDT) -- After nearly 30 years, Cunard Line is back in Alaska. Its ship, Queen Elizabeth, is sailing just a handful of voyages for the 2019 season, but is already scheduled for more departures in 2020 including the coveted permissions for Glacier Bay National Park (which last a decade).
So how does a British cruise line tackle the Last Frontier? With poise, of course. Maiden calls already made, we're onboard Cunard's second Alaska cruise round trip from Vancouver and learning about how Queen Elizabeth is distinguishing itself from the rest during its inaugural season -- and a record season for the cruise industry -- in Alaskan waters.
Striving for Authenticity
It would be easy enough to put together and sell an Alaska cruise after decades away, and then rest on the laurels of Cunard's existing onboard experience -- especially given that so many people sailing to Alaska are entirely new to cruising. But thought and consideration were given to the 10-night itinerary, which is long enough that passengers are able to immerse in five Alaska ports, not including scenic sailing days along Tracy Arm and Hubbard Glacier.
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Special emphasis is placed on the call in Icy Strait Point, a native Tlingit-owned and -operated port in Hoonah, Alaska. In an interview with hotel director Robert Howie, he mentioned that it was important to include an indigenous perspective among the other Alaska ports, which can feel a bit touristy at times.
In addition to this, Cunard hosts a Native Voices program onboard, inviting guest speakers from the Tlingit tribe, called Cultured Heritage Guides, to offer their unique insights on Tlingit culture and its significance today. This program also extends to the kid and teen clubs onboard, integrating indigenous teachings into youth programming.
Given the special attention to having an authentic experience in Alaska in many of the other aspects of the cruise (more on the food and drink below), we feel that some locally made items offered in the shops would be a welcome addition. We're told it's under consideration for 2020.
But Retaining a Traditional Onboard Atmosphere
We were overstressed about being underdressed on this sailing; and our concerns were validated. While casual venues are designated onboard (the Lido buffet, Golden Lion Pub and Yacht Club nightclub), "smart attire" is required each evening in many of the public spaces (theater, bars and the Britannia Restaurant main dining room) -- and these rules of attire are enforced.
Cunard's version of a relaxed dress code, catering mainly to North Americans (which are about 50 percent of passengers on these Alaska itineraries), is two gala nights -- picture tuxes and gowns -- in place of the usual three on a sailing of this length. Jackets are optional in the main dining room on the first night only.
The formality can be jarring to those used to other cruise lines, especially in Alaska. For Cunarders, this level of decorum maintains the "sense of occasion" onboard that has become integral to the line's reputation for more than 175 years.
Packing for a 10-night Alaska cruise with full days and formal nights can be daunting -- especially when you then have to find nooks and crannies to unpack everything into. Laundry services can be pricy, but guest launderettes are free and scattered around the ship if your travel wardrobe needs a refresh (if you can find available machines -- the laundry rooms are a popular hangout).
The Golden Lion does a pub dinner on select evenings, and it's a couple notches above fish and chips; taking a few nights "off" from adhering to dining room attire helps alleviate the pressure of dressing to the nines by 5 p.m. each night. Note that while an alternative dining option is held in a section of the Lido Buffet throughout the cruise, it is not casual like the Lido, and men will be required to wear a jacket or turned away.
Need help figuring out what to pack for an Alaska cruise? We break down 10 items you shouldn't board without.
Themed Food & Drink Set the Mood
Stiff cocktails and afternoon tea are a hallmark of British cruising, but touches of Alaska are incorporated on special menus in the cafe and Commodore Club; spiked hot drinks at the Garden Lounge; and a themed tea held once per sailing. You'll find a ubiquitous gin cocktail but with Alaskan berries, beer from Alaskan Brewing Company or local salmon finger sandwiches and pumpkin spice scones served at the Champagne high tea.
While all of the above offerings are for an added fee, we continued to find Alaskan inspirations elsewhere -- including a complimentary king crab buffet lunch one afternoon that seemed to be on a need-to-know basis (we didn't see it advertised, save a potential stampede). There is also an Alaskan-themed buffet in the Lido for dinner one evening (this was listed on the daily program).
The executive chef onboard disclosed that he had successfully made his own salmon jerky, and was considering making it available to the ship in the future. We had the chance to sample these salmon treats and wholly approve.
Enrichment Remains Strong
The Cunard Insights series brings guest lecturers onboard to keep passengers informed and entertained on topics from constellations to classic liners, and Alaska is no different when it comes to enrichment.
An onboard naturalist stays with the voyage for its entire length, providing commentary during scenic sailing, lectures on spotting wildlife and drops by the Alaska Outpost for office hours, a station set up in the Garden Lounge with maps and insight on the itinerary and its key sights.
Unlike most other lines, Cunard continues to offer talks on other topics outside of Alaska, which means you don't just have to learn about the destination if you want to pause to learn about what it was like to grow up among an Inuit community in the High Arctic as the daughter of a British explorer.
They're Not Done Yet
With just two Alaska sailings on the books and only two more to go for this first season back, Cunard has done an intelligent thing: They are listening to passenger feedback and improving the experience for an expanded season in 2020. What they are already offering is a direct result of customer feedback.
For example, not only did Cunard passengers want to see Alaska but they also wanted to see Glacier Bay, and they wanted to see Hubbard Glacier up close in a small boat. So the line made it happen. In a truly unique experience for a ship of more than 2,000 passengers, up to 150 participants who purchase the $260 Hubbard Glacier excursion -- as part of the line's Urban Adventure program -- can board a small vessel to get even closer to the calving glacier and seals floating by atop icebergs. A similar excursion to Tracy Arm might be available for next season.
Already announced for next year in Alaska -- in addition to Glacier Bay and other onboard improvements -- is an Ice White Ball that will integrate a gala night with the iconic white color of Alaska's snow-capped mountain peaks. Destination-focused touches don't end there; treatments are available in the revamped Mareel Spa onboard that are inspired by the wilderness. An Alaskan Wellness Experience is a 2.5-hour treatment that involves a guided meditation and incorporates elements of the environment.
With only one ship in the region, Cunard seems committed to standing out when it comes to the Alaska cruise experience, and we think they pull it off with panache. Just don't expect them to sacrifice too much of their trademark formality to make it happen.
Alaska voyages onboard Queen Elizabeth are still available to book for 2020.