The Empress of the North may not have tennis courts or pools or a 24-hour buffet table, but operators of the sternwheeler, which made its debut docking in Juneau on Wednesday, hope the ship's old-time riverboat feel will give it a special niche in Alaska's cruise industry.
"We don't want to show them just the beauty of Alaska, but also its history," the ship's captain, Bob Wengel, told some Juneau residents, including Mayor Sally Smith, at a reception on the boat.
"This is the best way to see Alaska. It really is," he added.
Smith presented Wengel with a painting to add to the ship's extensive art collection to commemorate its first stop in Juneau.
"We know Juneau is a place that will make your passengers very, very happy," she said.
In return, Wengel presented the city with a painting by Wrangell artist Brenda Schwartz of the image of the Empress of the North painted on a chart of Southeast Alaska.
The American West Steamboat Co., based in Seattle, had the $50 million Empress of the North built last year by a company in Washington state. The ship is decked in American flags, and patriotic music is piped through the boat.
"We're registered in the U.S., and we have an all-American crew," said Joel Perry, vice president of marketing for the American West Steamboat Co. "We know it costs more for us in terms of taxes and wages, but we really think it's worth it for the American theme here and the support of the American community."
To support Alaska, the ship serves Alaska salmon and bottled beer from the Alaskan Brewing Co., Perry said.
The boat, powered mostly by its stern wheel with the support of two Z-drive engines, is the first sternwheeler to cruise the Inside Passage in more than 100 years, company representatives said. It can reach speeds of up to 14 knots but usually cruises at 10 knots, Wengel said.
The 360-foot sternwheeler holds 235 people in 112 state rooms and brings 84 crew members on every sailing, said Perry.
The ship's 12-day journey from Seattle to Juneau, or 11-day journey from Juneau to Seattle, starts at $3,500 per person and includes shore excursions at each of the trip's nine ports.
Passengers who arrived in Juneau Wednesday spent the afternoon at the Mendenhall Glacier and at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake, Perry said.
Juneau residents who visited the boat were happy to see a smaller boat filling the historic niche in Alaska cruises.
"I think that the entire cruise industry is getting very creative about the type of product they're offering," said Lorene Palmer, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. "This one in particular has a lot of nostalgia that harkens back to early Alaska, so I think that's part of the appeal."
The boat will make two trips between Seattle and Juneau this summer. The trip that arrived in Juneau Wednesday left Seattle on Aug. 10, and will begin its return trip today with a new set of passengers. Another sailing will leave Seattle Aug. 31. The boat will spend the winter cruising the Columbia, Snake and Willamette Rivers.
Next summer, the Empress of the North will spend May to September in Alaska and add an eight-day cruise that starts and ends in Sitka.
To learn more about the American West Steamboat Co.'s expansion to Alaska, visit www.empressofthenorth.com.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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