CRUISING: ALASKA EXPERIENCED

For al­most a cen­tury, trav­ellers have come to ad­mire Alaska’s spec­tac­u­lar scenery and wildlife. Hol­land Amer­ica has op­er­ated there longer than any other cruise line.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY RODERICK EIME

Hol­land Amer­ica Line has been op­er­at­ing in Alaska longer than any other cruise line.

The lit­tle craft skipped across the water like a lazy stone tossed by a young gi­ant. In the back, a mas­sive fan pro­pelled us along on a cush­ion of air, while in­side the cabin it was re­mark­ably quiet, just an earnest buzz from the lit­tle diesel en­gine driv­ing the whole she­bang.

“We can get her up to 35 knots,” Skip­per Steve tells me, a trace of his Louisiana drawl still lin­ger­ing de­spite years driv­ing boats in Alaska. “Steer­ing takes a bit of prac­tice though.”

Steve’s right foot is not on an ac­cel­er­a­tor, just a big brake pedal, that slows the lit­tle craft just enough to al­low him to drift it around cor­ners.

I’m aboard Allen Ma­rine Tours’ tiny six-per­son hov­er­craft op­er­at­ing shore ex­cur­sions for Hol­land Amer­ica out of Juneau. We skim across the water, mud­flats and grass­land as if it were nothing, all the way to the foot of the mas­sive 56-kilo­me­tre long Taku Glacier. We get out for a stroll along the foot of the glacier in among the moraine – an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of rock and gravel de­bris ‘bull­dozed’ along the val­ley floor. Yes, the mas­sive Taku Glacier is one of the few in the world still ad­vanc­ing.

Such are the op­tions avail­able to cruise guests nowa­days in Alaska. Add he­li­copter flight­see­ing, float­plane adventures, dog-sled­ding, salmon fish­ing and sea kayak­ing and you have some idea of the scope of ac­tiv­ity laid out for you when choos­ing what to do when in port.

Cruise tourism has been a fea­ture of Alaska for around

100 years, when the early steamships car­ried freight, ore and pas­sen­gers along the shel­tered wa­ter­ways of the In­side Pas­sage. Could these pi­o­neers have fore­seen such dra­matic ad­vance­ment in both tech­nol­ogy and num­bers? One man did.

When the first waves of Alaska cruise tour pas­sen­gers be­gan ar­riv­ing aboard the Alaska Steamship Com­pany ves­sels in 1947, Chuck West was there to meet them. The swash­buck­ling former WWII pi­lot and tourism vi­sion­ary quickly built a small em­pire us­ing char­tered pas­sen­ger/cargo ships, tourist ho­tels, mo­tor coaches and teams of ex­pert local guides.

Alaska in 1947 was a very dif­fer­ent place with a pop­u­la­tion of barely 100,000. This re­mote, but re­source-rich ter­ri­tory was bought from the Rus­sians in 1867 for two cents per acre and only be­came a US state (the 49th) in 1959. Un­til the dis­cov­ery of oil in 1968, most of Alaska’s econ­omy de­pended on tim­ber, fish­ing and the oc­ca­sional gold rush. Tourism, al­though pop­u­lar, was a mere frac­tion.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that even the ear­li­est of cruise brochures fea­ture lux­u­ri­ous ships me­an­der­ing past mas­sive glaciers thrust­ing out into the sea. It’s these in­cred­i­ble con­struc­tions of na­ture that con­tinue to draw trav­ellers to gaze in awe at the tow­er­ing ice faces that seem to emerge mirac­u­lously from the frigid depths.

Back in the day, a typ­i­cal cruise was aboard the Chilcotin, first sail­ing in May 1947 on 10-day voy­ages to Sk­ag­way via the Gard­ner Canal with calls at Prince Ru­pert, Ketchikan, and Juneau.

Fares were up to $375, which in­cluded nightly motion pic­tures and the ser­vices of a cruise di­rec­tor and host­ess who over­saw recre­ational pro­grams such as shore ex­cur­sions on the White Pass & Yukon Route rail­way from Sk­ag­way into the Yukon Ter­ri­tory.

West grew his business, now called Wes­tours, in line with the rapid growth in pop­u­la­tion of the sec­ond new­est state, but eco­nomic pres­sure and global forces be­yond his con­trol forced him to find in­vestors to keep the com­pany he had built from liq­ui­da­tion. Hol­land Amer­ica Line (HAL) bought West’s cruise and tour business in 1971.

HAL pro­ceeded to ramp up op­er­a­tions in Alaska and moved in their new­est ship, the Prin­sendam (350 pas­sen­gers), fol­lowed by Veen­dam, Sta­ten­dam (880 pas­sen­gers each) and the flag­ship Rot­ter­dam (1,500 pas­sen­gers). These high ca­pac­ity ships quickly changed the na­ture of cruising and tourism in Alaska.

Fast for­ward to 2017 and here I am aboard one of HAL’s newer ves­sels, the 2,100-pas­sen­ger, Euro­dam, sail­ing the pop­u­lar seven-day round trip from Seat­tle. En­ter­ing ser­vice in 2008, this Sig­na­ture-class cruise ship is one of six sim­i­lar ves­sels op­er­ated by HAL in Alaska this year.

As the cruise line with the most ships, HAL alone brings more vis­i­tors to Alaska than any other means. Each vis­i­tor spends nearly US$1,000 con­tribut­ing more than $2.42 bil­lion an­nu­ally and gen­er­at­ing 38,700 jobs. Tourism – and par­tic­u­larly cruising – is now big business in Alaska.

If ever I needed a re­minder of the ex­po­nen­tial growth in cruise tourism in Alaska, it is when I board Euro­dam in the state’s cap­i­tal, Juneau. Since my last visit in 2012, a new wharf has ap­peared. Nostal­gi­cally chris­tened the Alaska Steamship Dock, it boosts the city’s ca­pac­ity from five ships to seven and in port to­day be­side us are HAL’s sis­ter ships, Nieuw Am­s­ter­dam, Ruby Princess and Celebrity Sol­stice.

With around 2,000 peo­ple from each ship, plus crew, wan­der­ing the streets and com­ing and going from shore ex­cur­sions, there’s quite a hus­tle and bus­tle along the frontier-style shop­ping strip. Ev­ery­thing from craft beer, faux fur coats and hats, gem­stones and jew­ellery are be­ing hawked in a style not un­like the en­ter­pris­ing mer­chants who “mined the min­ers” in the gold rush days, sell­ing them ev­ery­thing from eggs at a dol­lar apiece to gold-sniff­ing go­phers.

De­spite the added at­ten­tion, Alaska has re­mained mod­est, her vast forests of hem­lock, cedar and spruce still stand tall, her wildlife con­tin­ues to flour­ish, her great glaciers main­tain their majesty and her guests al­ways de­part awed and hum­bled. •

Open­ing im­age: Hol­land Amer­ica Line’s Oos­ter­dam at Hub­bard Glacier. Clock­wise from right: A bear re­flects; The Euro­dam off Dis­cov­ery Point, Seat­tle, © Steve Schim­mel­man.

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