Cruise line steams ahead to the Last Frontier By Jorge Sidron / December 28, 2001 Share 1 -- SEATTLE -- America West Steamboat Co. is bringing its sternwheeler concept to Alaska in 2003. The Seattle-based company, which operates the 163-passenger Queen of the West sternwheeler on seven-day cruises through the Columbia and Snake rivers from Oregon to Idaho, signed a contract to build a 236-passenger sternwheeler that will sail Alaska's Inside Passage starting June 2003.The $50 million Empress of the North will be built by Nichols Bros. Boat Builders in Freeland, Wash., the same firm that built the Queen of the West in 1995. The company said it plans to offer seven- and 10-day cruises through the Inside Passage, with stops in Sitka, Skagway and Glacier Bay, and Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, among other ports.Rates, departure dates and specific itinerary information will be available in January, the company said.After its inaugural summer season in Alaska, the ship will reposition to Portland, Ore., in mid-September for cruises on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers.Joel Perry, America West Steamboat Co.'s vice president of marketing, said the sternwheeler concept will offer clients an alternative to both the large and small ships that ply Alaska's waters."The major appeal of this vessel will be its combination of space, luxury and ability to get close to the destination," Perry said."But we will target our ship at clients who have evolved beyond small-ship exploration and are looking for on-board amenities and entertainment that the small ship typically doesn't offer," he said.The ship will feature a collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs and artifacts depicting the heritage, culture and natural history of its two cruising areas.When the ship visits a port, themed lectures, on-board entertainment and meals will reflect the people and history of the area.The sternwheeler design is reminiscent of the paddle wheelers that cruised the rivers and coastal shorelines of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska in the mid-1800s.Of the ship's 112 suites and staterooms, 105 will have private verandas.Every cabin will feature an outside view, a television with DVD, a minibar, a telephone and individual air conditioning and heat controls.A chandeliered dining room will be able to accommodate all of the passengers at a single seating.The ship also will include a showroom that will be able to accommodate all the ship's passengers; a bar and grill on the top deck; a gift shop, and a library.For information or reservations, call America West Steamboat Co. at (800) 434-1232.