Merna Queen stepped off the first cruise ship to dock in Juneau this season and offered a quick assessment of her surroundings:
"It's phenomenal," Queen said, as she and three friends from Riverton, Wash., waited to board a bus for a helicopter sightseeing tour.
Queen was one of more than 1,300 people who arrived in Juneau aboard the Holland America line's Amsterdam. Industry forecasters said another 770,000 visitors may follow - up 50,000 from last year. Queen and seven of her friends from Washington came to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Alaska, she said.
The low prices offered by the cruise industry this season spurred many bargain hunters to take an Alaska cruise despite fears surrounding the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Most of the major cruise lines have reduced rates in order to fill to capacity this season. Holland America's prices are "more competitive this year than they were last year," said John Shively, the company's vice president of government and community relations.
Caryn and Lary Drake, of Damascus, Ore., chose to cruise to Alaska because "the price was something we could afford," said Caryn Drake.
Judy Rist, of Boston, Mass., treated her daughter, Amy Rist of Fort Collins, Colo., to an Alaska cruise for the same reason, she said.
The Rists took a walk on Front Street before flying to the Taku Glacier Lodge salmon bake.
The Drakes headed directly for the Mount Roberts Tramway, taking advantage of the last bit of blue sky before the clouds rolled in. They planned to pan for gold while in Juneau, but had not signed up for helicopter flights or whale-watching tours.
Alaska appealed to the Drakes because of its beauty and remoteness, said Caryn Drake.
"Coming into (Gastineau Channel) was just awe-inspiring," she said. "I don't know how else to describe it."
Ernie Varnum, who was traveling with Queen's group from Riverton, chose traveling with his wife and friends rather than sitting at home and worrying about the war and SARS. He wasn't completely worry-free, though.
"We were actually more concerned about the Norwalk virus, because that was this ship," he said.
Passengers on four sailings of the Amsterdam last year were infected with the Norwalk or Norwalk-like viruses. But the virus has not been a problem on Holland America ships since last fall, said Shively.
Holland America substantially changed its procedures for identifying and quarantining people infected with the Norwalk virus, Shively said.
As passengers disembarked and headed to their shore excursions, some employees at downtown shops hustled to make last-minute preparations for the season.
Four employees at the Alaska Jade Shop, a new store on South Franklin Street, were unpacking and shelving jade figurines and jewelry when the cruise ship arrived.
The store, owned by Kirk Makepeace and Earl Matheson, features "polar jade" from a mine in northern British Columbia, said Myrinda Makepeace, assistant manager of the store. The owners had planned to open a shop in Skagway, but changed their minds when fog forced them to stay in Juneau last September while on the way to Skagway.
"They just said, 'Why not Juneau?' " Myrinda Makepeace said.
Makepeace is optimistic about the upcoming season.
"It's our first year, so we're just hoping that it goes well," said Makepeace.
Some veteran store owners are looking forward to the fast-paced cruise ship season.
"It's wonderful - I just love it," said Carol Carlson, owner of Gold Mine Gifts. She's been working at her store since March to prepare for Monday's opening.
"It's just so hectic trying to get ready for the first cruise ship," she said.
Forty-four ships operated by 17 cruise lines plan to make 581 calls in Juneau between May and September, according to information released by the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Christine Schmid can be reached at email@example.com.