In cruise lines' eyes, the more the merrier in '04

SEATTLE -- Alaska is going to be a hot destination in 2004 -- for cruise ships, anyway.

More than one of every five North American cruise passengers in third-quarter 2003 cruised to the Last Frontier, making it the most active seasonal destination for passenger cruise travel "by far," according to the U.S. Maritime Administration. Alaska accounted for the greatest number of cruises among the 15 destination categories reported.

In October, Paul Allen, Holland America Line's vice president of Alaska sales, said bookings for the 2004 Alaska season were ahead year-over-year. By January, he said sales were "rocketing."

"The booking activity has been extremely strong, so we're satisfied," Allen said. "We're way ahead of last year."

As the number of cruise ships continues to grow, lines are continuing to add berths to the market. In 2003, more than 30 ships visited Alaska ports.

A few smaller ships -- such as ResidenSea's the World, Princess' Pacific Princess and HAL's Prinsendam -- won't be back this year. But many ships will return to the 49th state, along with some newcomers: Luxury operator Silversea Cruises will join the market for the first time.

Longstanding players like Princess, HAL, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line will add berths. These new ships all are 85,000 tons or greater, most carry more than 2,000 passengers, and most are less than 2 years old.

NCL's parent company, Star Cruises, will reposition its SuperStar Leo into the Alaska market to replace the Norwegian Sky, which will reposition to Hawaii early.

And for those who haven't sailed the Norwegian Star in Hawaii, the vessel -- with its newly added casino -- will be in the Alaska market this spring.

Of course, there are the old favorites that sail in Alaska every summer, such as HAL's Amsterdam and the Carnival Spirit.

The following is a quick guide to summer sailings:

Carnival Cruise Lines

Carnival operates one ship in Alaska, the 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit. On Carnival's Web site, a pull-down ad invites people to "experience Alaska -- Fun-Ship style." Click on the ad, and Carnival invites you to "glide beside majestic glaciers, lush forests and snow-capped mountains."

The line operates seven-day north- and southbound cruises from Vancouver to Anchorage. Three shoulder-season cruises in May and September are roundtrip voyages from Vancouver that include all-day cruising in Glacier Bay, the cruise industry's best-known glacier-viewing experience.

Cruise West's Spirit of Discovery sails beside LaConte Glacier in Alaska. The line expanded its roster of Inside Passage sailings this year.Cruise West

Cruise West is like the Alaskan cruise line for noncruisers: It touts 78- to 114-passenger ships, and onboard activities are limited (no gala dinners or hot action in a casino) due to the ships' size.

This year, the line expanded its roster of Inside Passage sailings entirely within Alaskan waters and added an excursion to Hyder -- a town on the Canadian border -- for "optimum bear-viewing opportunities."

Zodiacs or other inflatable excursion craft will be used on five of eight ships, Cruise West said, and it added ports to its Bering Sea cruise to Russia, including Kenai Fjords National Park on the Kenai Peninsula, Nunivak National Wildlife Refuge in the Bering Sea and the native village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island.

Celebrity/Royal Caribbean International

Celebrity Cruises will be back with three cruise ships: the Summit, the Infinity and the Mercury.

Royal Caribbean International's Radiance of the Seas will be joined by its younger sister, the Serenade of the Seas, which replaces the older Legend of the Seas.

Cruises between Vancouver and Seward on the Mercury, the Summit and Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas will include a new port, Icy Strait Point, which is a purpose-built cruise destination with wilderness and cultural activities.

And then there's Royal Caribbean's new shore excursions, which include "helicopter ice-climbing" and something called a "mountain point snorkeling adventure."

"You're wearing these quarter-inch wetsuits with a hood, boots and gloves," said a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman. "You get to explore Alaska's diverse marine life, including the kelp beds, a variety of sea stars, urchins, cucumbers and fish.

Crystal Cruises

The Crystal Harmony will continue its 12-day Alaska itineraries from San Francisco, which were "a smashing success last year," according to a spokeswoman.

The line said the roundtrip cruises from San Francisco were perceived as very convenient, not only for passengers in the Bay Area but also for people in Southern California and for passengers in other parts of the country who fly to San Francisco.

In addition, the spokeswoman added, "We're the only luxury line cruising regularly from San Francisco. We're the only line cruising roundtrip from San Francisco that calls in Glacier Bay."

Holland America Line

Seattle-based HAL offers seven ships in Alaska this summer, including its new, 1,848-passenger Oosterdam.

Allen said the Oosterdam was "popular right off the bat." He added that the appeal of Alaska is its expanse of nature.

"You can take two trips down the same road and have an entirely different experience on two successive days," Allen said. "One day I was snowed on, the second was crystal-clear and I flew around a mountain."

Princess Cruises

Princess said its 2004 Alaska season will feature "the company's most diverse cruise and tour options."

The line slated 120 departures on seven ships, including two vessels under construction, the 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess and Sapphire Princess.

Princess also is refurbishing and expanding its Mount McKinley and Denali Wilderness Lodges to add 96 rooms and 80 rooms, respectively, in each of the hotels. It also struck a deal with the port facility in Whittier, about 65 miles from Anchorage, to homeport its ships there instead of in Seward.

Norwegian Cruise Line

The Norwegian Star and Star Cruises' SuperStar Leo will join up in Seattle in May for NCL's Alaska season.

The Norwegian Sun, which sailed from Seattle in 2003, moves to Vancouver this year.

The Alaska cruises will be the Norwegian Star's first long-term deployment out of Hawaii, where it has sailed seven-day cruises since its debut. The Star replaces the Norwegian Wind, which moves to Hawaii for 10- and 11-day cruising.

The SuperStar Leo, meanwhile, typically sails with an Asian-sourced clientele, but NCL said on its Alaska runs the ship will have "a fully specified NCL product and offer the Freestyle Cruising program found on all other NCL ships."

The Norwegian Sun also calls in Wrangell, which NCL opened up to as a cruise port last year.

Radisson Seven Seas

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises increased its Alaska capacity in 2003 by replacing the Seven Seas Navigator with the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner.

The line will keep the Mariner in Alaska this year and offer seven-day cruises between Vancouver and Seward.

Silversea Cruises

Silversea is embarking on its first Alaska venture with the Silver Shadow and said it expects to carry about 4,200 passengers on 11 voyages to the state.

Silversea's spokesman said the region so far was one of the line's strongest sellers for 2004. The spokesman said the line knew the cruises would be popular from feedback from past guests.

"We knew there wasn't an option like Silversea doing Alaska -- you had megaships and then the expedition ships," he said. "That's why we're pulling people who may have done Alaska on Crystal, or maybe a higher cabin on Princess."

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

Another cruise line calls Whittier, Alaska, home

MIAMI -- Carnival Cruise Lines will begin using Whittier, Alaska, as a home port for the Carnival Spirit during its seven-day one-way cruises in Alaska.

Previously, Carnival ships departed from Seward, but the line said Whittier was more convenient for travel to the Anchorage airport, as well as for longer stays in Sitka, the first stop on the southbound itinerary (and the last stop on the northbound itinerary, which starts in Vancouver).

Carnival's sister brand, Princess Cruises, earlier said it would swap Seward for Whittier for its 2004 season.

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