New Paddle Wheeler Turns Heads

As spectators gawked and snapped photos, 'Empress of the North' takes maiden voyage in Alaska

By: Theresa Norton Masek

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 Skagway.

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 Juneau.

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 California.

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 rush era.

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 cabins.

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 travel.

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 smooth-sailing Empress.

Theresa Norton Masek, TravelAge West’s cruise editor, was the only journalist on the Empress’ maiden trip Aug. 10.