virtuoso global October 2019 Return to Alaska

Return to Alaska

The Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier.  
The Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier.  
After a 30-year hiatus, Cunard once again sails the Last Frontier. Virtuoso advisor Celeste Auger-Munshi hopped on board to witness calving glaciers, learn about indigenous culture, and spy native wildlife.
Alaska has more than 6,600 miles of mainland coastline. Add the state’s islands and inlets, and the number swells to nearly 34,000 – around one and a half times the coastline of the U.S. “Alaska’s enormity really makes you appreciate how truly precious the state is,” Virtuoso travel advisor Celeste Auger-Munshi says. She and her husband, Rajiv, joined Cunard’s 2,081-passenger Queen Elizabeth for an 11-day sailing, which marked the line’s return to Alaska after three decades.
 
The ship’s Inside Passage route along the state’s southeastern coast skirted the Tongass National Forest – North America’s northernmost temperate rain forest – and included insight into the area’s indigenous heritage. Here, Munshi shares an inside look at what to expect on a Cunard Alaska voyage – and her picks for upcoming sailings.

Majestic Glaciers

Alaska is home to around 60 tidewater glaciers, which develop as snow from nearby mountains flows into the North Pacific Ocean year after year. The granddaddy­ – the largest on the continent – is Hubbard Glacier. Stretching 75 miles long and more than six miles across, Hubbard is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Its face reaches 400 feet tall, and some of its calving icebergs – the huge chunks that break off into the sea – are the size of four-story buildings. For Munshi, Cunard’s morning cruise-by of Hubbard Glacier was the highlight of the trip. “The blue color of the water was mesmerizing, and I’ll never forget the creaking and thunderous booms the glacier made,” she says.
The Hubbard Glacier was named in 1890 for Gardiner Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society.
The Hubbard Glacier was named in 1890 for Gardiner Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society.

Tlingit Culture

Alaskan’s three indigenous groups – Indian, Inuit, and Aleut – divide into 11 distinct cultures with 20 different languages. Most indigenous Tlingit people, one of the largest native groups, live in small villages around southeast Alaska. Cunard cruisers have a chance to visit the community in Hoonah when the Queen Elizabeth calls at Icy Strait Point. Munshi’s small group joined a Tlingit clan leader, who talked about daily life while leading them around the village and its outdoor totem-carving studios. The cultural immersion continued as Tlingit tribal members came aboard as part of Cunard’s Alasks Native Voices program. “It was truly a privilege to get the inside story of Tlingit culture and traditions,” Munshi says. “The experience offered an authentic look into the lives of Alaska’s First Peoples.”
Cultural Heritage Guides Alice Haldane and Bertha Franulovich share stories with Cunard cruisers at the Glacier Bay Lodge.
Cultural Heritage Guides Alice Haldane and Bertha Franulovich share stories with Cunard cruisers at the Glacier Bay Lodge.
Photo by Courtesy of Alaska Native Voices

Wilderness Sanctuary

“The eagles!” Munshi says. “I just couldn’t get enough of them.” She spotted plenty of other bird species, such as arctic and Aleutian terns, as well as whales and harbor seals in Disenchantment Bay. Cunard’s onboard naturalist, Dr. Rachel Cartwright, gave lectures on the wildlife of Alaska’s Inside Passage and the evolution of glaciers, and set up a daily “Alaska outpost” in the ship’s Garden Lounge, with a map showing the best times and places for wildlife viewing. While there were a few brown bear sightings during the trip, the best bear viewing happens between mid-July and early September, peak salmon-run season.
Brown bear litter sizes can range from one to four cubs, but twins are most common.
Brown bear litter sizes can range from one to four cubs, but twins are most common.

Dancing Queen

When night fell, Cunard passengers traded fleeces and hiking boots for formal wear, including for the Alaska-themed “Ice White Ball.” Munshi enjoyed watching couples glide around the Queens Room ballroom: “There’s a serious contingent of folks who love to dance and take advantage of the Queen Elizabeth’鈥媠 beautiful, expansive floor,” she says. “It’s wildly popular, whether the orchestra is playing or there’s recorded music.” Daytime classes balanced ballroom instruction with Latin styles and line dancing, and dance hosts were on hand to spin solo travelers across the floor.
For 2020, Virtuoso travel advisor Celeste Auger-Munshi recommends Cunard’s 13-day Alaska round-trip sailing from Vancouver.
For 2020, Virtuoso travel advisor Celeste Auger-Munshi recommends Cunard’s 13-day Alaska round-trip sailing from Vancouver.

Onboard Life

The Queen Elizabeth sparkled from a November 2018 stern-to-bow refurbishment, which unveiled a new holistic spa, Mareel Wellness and Beauty. The updated accommodations, Munshi says, have “a little something-something.” “The bathrooms are roomier, the textiles are luxurious, and there’s plenty of storage,” she adds. “It was very inviting ­– like home.” Thoughtful touches, such as an electric kettle and Alaska-themed turndown treats completed the feeling. Dining onboard was another highlight, especially afternoon tea. “The live quartet starts to play and a parade of white-gloved, white-jacketed servers flow out into the crowd with their silver platters,” Munshi says. She suggests arriving early for this popular once-daily event.
The <em>Queen Elizabeth</em>’s Art Deco-inspired Grand Lobby welcomes guests on board.
The Queen Elizabeth’s Art Deco-inspired Grand Lobby welcomes guests on board.

2020 Highlights

Next year, the Queen Elizabeth will sail Alaska’s coastline with new voyages, longer stays in port, guest speakers, and pre- and post-cruise journeys aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train.
 
Cunard will offer 10-, 11-, and 12-night Alaska passages round-trip from Vancouver that feature Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier. One to consider: Sir Ranulph Fiennes – named the “Greatest Living Explorer” in 1984 by the Guinness World Records – will join the 11-day June 2 sailing to share accounts of his adventures, including the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica.
 
Munshi recommends the 13-day July 9 departure that calls in Kodiak – an untrammeled, wildlife-rich area – and College Fjord, where visitors can see eight glaciers in one viewing. During this cruise, travelers also have the chance to explore Denali National Park from Anchorage. “This is a great choice for those who have already done the typical Inside Passage itinerary,” she says.
 
To cater to guests with a hankering to travel farther inland, Cunard partners with the Rocky Mountaineer train on three- to five-night land tours that include hotel accommodations; up to three days of railway transportation in bilevel, glass-domed railcars; and activities such as crossing Vancouver, B.C.’s 450-foot-long Capilano Suspension Bridge and riding its Grouse Mountain gondola.

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