Lines point to San Francisco for longer cruises

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Move over, Vancouver; step back, Seattle. Cruise lines, especially the big ones with a large presence in Alaska, are taking greater notice of the City by the Bay as a starting point for voyages to the Last Frontier.

It's a longer cruise from the Golden Gate Bridge to Ketchikan -- the first port of call in Alaska -- than it is from the ports of the Pacific Northwest, to be sure, but more time at sea is just what many seasoned cruisers want, according to some cruise executives.

Crystal Cruises has had San Francisco as its jumping-off point for 12-day Alaska cruises aboard the Crystal Harmony since 1997.

This year, it will be joined by Princess Cruises' new 688-passenger Pacific Princess, which will offer 11-day sailings to Alaska, and by Holland America Line, which announced in November that the 794-passenger Prinsendam would spend this summer running 14-day cruises to Alaska from San Francisco instead of sailing through Asia and Europe.

HAL's 2003 San Francisco roundtrips are the line's first regularly scheduled departures from that port, a spokeswoman said.

"We've seen a very strong demand for our other California departures," the spokeswoman said. "And this is a unique itinerary."

Even without counting HAL -- but counting Celebrity Cruises' Mercury, which is operating scheduled San Francisco service down the coast -- passenger volume in 2003 will be at a 17-year high, trafficking more than 110,000 passengers, according to figures from the Port of San Francisco.

Doug Wong, executive director of the port, said the city has worked for several years to develop more cruise business.

"These cruise lines' announcements couldn't have come at a better time for San Francisco's visitor industry," he said.

All three ships will offer the sights that roundtrip cruisers from Vancouver or Seattle normally see.

"Each itinerary is a little different in [port] order, but they all include the key Alaska ports," said Dean Brown, Princess Cruises senior vice president of sales. "Passengers want to see Juneau, they want to see Ketchikan, Skagway. And they want a glacier. So we've included all the basics."

On the Princess cruises, guests sail to Victoria or Vancouver, British Columbia; Sitka, Juneau and Skagway; and cruise Tracy Arm.

Crystal passengers will visit Vancouver and Victoria as well as Sitka, Juneau and Skagway. They'll also cruise Hubbard Glacier or Tracy Arm or, on the July 8 cruise, Glacier Bay.

HAL's Prinsendam, which offers the longer, 14-day itinerary, calls in Astoria, Ore., and Wrangell, Alaska, in addition to Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria. It also visits Tracy Arm and Hubbard Glacier.

Because of the complex port schedules and the number of ships in Alaska, the port calls are not always in the same order.

Cruise executives pointed out three major advantages to San Francisco: An easy sell to a large drive market in the Bay area; convenient airlift that reduces travel time; and the ability for guests to combine a cruise with some San Francisco or Napa-area sightseeing.

Adam Leavitt, Crystal's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the line offers three-day, pre- or post-cruise tours of the Napa region to accompany its Alaska itineraries.

"That's been, generally, a fairly popular program," he said.

Brown agreed Alaska cruises are a popular draw for California residents.

"We've been sailing cruises from San Francisco for as long as I can remember, well back into the '80s," he said. "For that market in the Bay area, there's no reason to get on a plane."

But even for those not within driving distance of the Embarcadero -- the boulevard that runs along the San Francisco waterfront -- there's still a good reason to recommend clients fly to the city.

A flight from Miami, the nation's cruise capital, to San Francisco is about six hours, nonstop.

Alaska Airlines operates a nonstop flight from Miami to Seattle that takes a little under seven hours; but more likely clients will have to connect -- especially if they're flying to Vancouver.

Of course, flying to San Francisco for an Alaska cruise means that guests will be taking a cruise nearly twice as long as a standard, seven-day Inside Passage voyage.

It takes one day at sea to sail from San Francisco to British Columbia.

And with a more costly airline ticket to San Francisco, as well as a choice of three smaller ships on three upper-market cruise lines, clients will pay a little more to sail from the City by the Bay.

But executives said a longer cruise, with extra sea-days at the start of the voyage, was what these guests -- especially seasoned cruisers -- are looking for.

"For slightly longer itineraries, which our past passengers appreciate, there's more time on board the ship," Leavitt said.

"We have people who do want to stay on board," a Crystal spokeswoman added. "They want the Crystal [experience] ... so a roundtrip from San Francisco to anywhere is a bonus."

The smaller sizes of the three vessels -- none carry more than 1,000 passengers -- also is a plus.

Brown said that although Alaska as a destination attracts a large number of first-time cruisers, the Pacific Princess probably will track a higher number of repeaters.

"The experienced cruisers always speak [about] wanting to cruise on a smaller ship," he said.

And, Brown added, San Francisco is not Princess' largest Alaska market; hence, a smaller ship fits the line's needs.

Last year, Princess moved the 1,590-passenger Regal Princess to San Francisco, a post-Sept. 11 repositioning of that ship away from a planned Suez Canal transit.

This year, HAL plans to do a similar thing with the Prinsendam.

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