Sternwheeler makes debut in Southeast Alaska

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) The first sternwheeler to cruise Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage in more than a century made its debut in Juneau this week.

Operators of the Empress of the North 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 Wednesday.

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.''

The 360-foot vessel is powered mostly by its stern wheel with the support of two Z-drive engines. It can reach speeds of up to 14 knots but usually cruises at 10 knots, Wengel said.

The sternwheeler holds 235 people in 112 state rooms and brings 84 crew members on every sailing, Perry said.

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.

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,'' Lorene Palmer, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Juneau Empire. ''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 was scheduled to begin its return trip Thursday 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.

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