JUNEAU, Alaska The new paddle wheeler Empress of the North drew
curious spectators as it traveled the Inside Passage recently on
its maiden voyage. In each port, locals and big-ship passengers
alike snapped photos of the vessel, the second ship of the
Seattle-based American West Steamboat Co.
Obviously, the Empress of the North is not your typical cruise
ship. It’s small 360 feet long with room for just 235 passengers
and it looks like the riverboats that ferried passengers throughout
Alaska in the 19th century.
Plus, the big red paddle wheel which pushes the vessel to 10
knots while auxiliary propellers increase the speed to 14 knots is
a marvelous sight to see, rotating and splashing in the water.
“We give clients an experience they won’t get on a big ship,”
said Joel Perry, American West’s vice president of marketing.
That includes slowing down just outside Glacier Bay and turning
the ship so everyone on board can get an eyeful of a playful pod of
humpback whales as they spout and leap or watching a sea lion with
a fat salmon in his mouth as he swims alongside your balcony in
The Empress, just finishing its first season, will operate
eight- and 11-night cruises here next summer, using Sitka as a
homeport. During the rest of the year, the Empress will join sister
ship Queen of the West in Portland, Ore., operating on the
Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers.
Rates Include Tours
Brochure rates for 2004 start at $4,859 per person, double
occupancy, for the 11-night cruises. That includes many excursions,
such as a daylong Glacier Bay boat tour, a ride on the scenic White
Pass & Yukon Route train in Skagway, a bus tour of Sitka and
its Raptor Center, and a Mendenhall Glacier tour and salmon bake in
Optional excursions are offered as well, including sea kayaking
in Ketchikan ($75), sportfishing in Sitka ($179) and helicopter
sightseeing and dog-sledding from Skagway and Juneau ($389).
The add-ons are commissionable when pre-booked, Perry said.
Assistance for Agents
More than 90 percent of American West’s cruises are booked by
travel agents, he said, so the line likes to assist agents with fam
trips, seminars and direct marketing that steers potential clients
to an agency.
Last spring, the line hired seven multiline reps to market
American West cruises to agencies around the country. Three
full-time sales people are based in the company’s Seattle
headquarters and another full-timer is based in Northern
The on-board experience is more regimented than on a typical big
ship, with set meal schedules and light alternate menus available
only until 4 p.m. There is no room service, but the cappuccino
machine and soda dispensers are always on.
After dinner, entertainment is provided at 9 p.m. it could be a
magician, a jazz singer or a storyteller with tales of the gold
There are few other on-board activities; on various cruising
days bingo or a trivia game might be held. All meals and activities
are announced on board; the intercom can be turned off in
Television reception was spotty on my cruise, so the
well-stocked DVD library came in handy for those who wanted
something to watch in their staterooms.
There is no Internet access on board.
American West’s cruises are designed for seniors, who seem to
appreciate the meal schedule and included excursions. Perry said
the typical client is 62, has accumulated wealth, a paid-for house
and car, and investments, a pension or Social Security for
About 90 percent have cruised before, Perry said, although there
were a few first-timers on the inaugural voyage who said they had
worried about seasickness but didn’t feel a thing on the
Theresa Norton Masek, TravelAge West’s cruise editor, was the
only journalist on the Empress’ maiden trip Aug. 10.