Sternwheeler cruises spotlight nature’s majesty on the Inside Passage

A float in Alaska: sternwheeler cruises spotlight nature’s majesty on the Inside Passage

Pat Woods

PUFFY GRAY CLOUDS HUNG SUSPENDED above basalt cliffs blanketed in thick green Sitka spruce. Below us, blue icebergs floated within a stone’s throw of our veranda. Fed from a melting tidal glacier, the aquamarine water was deep and calm.

The captain had arisen at 3:30 a.m. to pilot the sternwheeler Empress of the North through Tracy Arm, a narrow, twisting fjord in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage.

While we ate made-to-order omelets, Mother Nature provided a spectacular show outside the dining room windows. Ribbons of water from the melting Sawyer Glacier merged into cascading waterfalls running through evergreens down 2,000-foot cliffs. The Empress slowly rotated, giving us a 360-degree view of nature’s splendor.

The Empress’ small size (360 by 58 feet) and 12.5-foot draft enabled us to explore secluded waterways, navigate narrow fjords, and dock in tiny ports inaccessible to larger ships. Besides the pristine scenery, passengers liked the included shore excursions, casual dress, and friendly, laid-back ambience. Launched in 2003 by American West Steamboat Company, the vessel carries 235 passengers.

A highlight of our 11-day cruise was Skagway, Alaska’s garden port, where colorful flowers decorated the downtown and historic district on a sunny, 72-degree August day. On the optional Skagway Streetcar tour, Nikki, our talented driver in period costume, regaled us with colorful histories of the town and streetcar. Nikki described dark, windy winters where the 811 year-round residents eagerly await the weekly barge bringing supplies from the Lower 48.

Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route excursion train, we climbed 3,100 feet during the 27-mile trip to Fraser, British Columbia. While enjoying glorious alpine scenery, we visualized gold prospectors making 40 roundtrips to carry 2,000 pounds of required supplies up this steep mountainside in 1898.

Near the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, where we easily transferred from the Empress to an enclosed three-deck catamaran. The ranger onboard shared her glacier expertise and pointed out whales, stellar sea lions, a brown bear, mountain goats, and bald eagles. While we sat inside drinking hot chocolate and eating lunch, the wind whipped rain against the windows.

Every day the Empress took us close to amazing natural wonders. At the massive LeConte Glacier, the crew maneuvered within a quarter mile to give us a ringside seat for watching the glacier calve icebergs into the frigid turquoise water. While basking in 75-degree sunshine outside Petersburg, we admired a huge double rainbow. Alaska’s 18 hours of summer daylight gave us plenty of time to enjoy the eye-popping scenes.

The Empress has a relaxed, intimate feel and rides smoothly. Her small size enables frequent sightings of breaching whales, porpoises, bears, seals, sea otters, and other wildlife. Whales and porpoises put on several “shows” as the Empress quietly moves closer for better views.

Exploring history, native cultures, and local customs enhances the flavor of Empress cruises. An onboard historian gives presentations on Alaskan lore, flora and fauna, icebergs, and Russian heritage.

Motorcoaches took us to museums, raptor centers, a fish hatchery, lumberjack show, and totem centers in Sitka, Ketchikan, and Petersburg. In Sitka we watched Russian folk and native Tlingit dancers. Tlingit Indians in Juneau shared their native culture.

Like many Inside Passage towns, Juneau, Alaska’s capital of 31,000, is accessible only by boat or aircraft. From town we went out to Mendenhall Glacier, the state’s most accessible glacier. That evening, we dined at an outdoor salmon bake while listening to local folk music.

In Petersburg, a charming Norwegian fishing town, we learned about the rise and fall of the local salmon industry. Teenagers bearing homemade pastries came aboard to perform Norwegian dances.

Empress passengers, most of whom are 50-plus, hail from throughout the U.S. and beyond. Ellanor Revenga traveled from Madrid, Spain, to cruise with her friend, Ann Henning, from Ojai, California.

“I loved Skagway and the LeConte Glacier,” said Revenga. “Nothing has disappointed me–it was worth the long trip.” Two Northwest river cruises on sister sternwheeler Queen of the West convinced Betty McMurray of Fairfield, California, to try an Empress Alaska cruise. “American West Steamboat is a neat company–they make the boat feel like home and go out of their way to help disabled folks,” she said. “Strong crew members picked up my sister’s wheelchair and carried her over some muddy spots.”

Like many other passengers, we mingled with Tom and Mary Lou Carman, a congenial couple from Camas, Washington, at meals and shore excursions. We later learned that Tom–the president of American West Steamboat Company–was onboard to experience the cruise as a typical passenger to determine if anything needed fine tuning.

The Empress features staterooms with a window, writing desk, minibar, television with DVD, clock radio/CD player, and telephone with voice mail. Women like the large lighted wardrobes, larger bathroom with clothesline, and handy storage nooks. Most staterooms have a private veranda.

An extensive art collection is displayed throughout the vessel. More than 700 historic artifacts, paintings, and photographs celebrate the region’s native cultures, Alaskan wildlife, Russian exploration, early steamboats, and gold rush prospectors.

The Empress’ plush interior decor reflects the Romanov era when Czar Peter the Great and Catherine I ruled Russia and authorized Alaska exploration. Their portraits grace one wall of the Romanov Dining Room, which features an ornate ceiling, brocade drapes, glistening chandeliers, and large windows.

Breakfast and lunch are served in a single open seating with two open seatings for dinner. Popular booths along the windows encourage camaraderie with new friends.

Five-course dinners include two choices each for appetizer, soup, and salad. Entrees include meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetarian options. The gracious all-American staff provides friendly, efficient service throughout the vessel.

On the top Vista Deck, guests who prefer light informal meals gather in the Calliope Bar & Grill for self-serve continental breakfast and lunch options of hot dogs, salads, soups, sandwiches, and fresh-baked cookies. Complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages, including fresh-brewed lattes and cappuccinos, are available 24 hours.

Superbly designed, the Empress offers many amenities. The Paddlewheel Lounge features nightly entertainment and provides a handsome setting for daytime functions, puzzles, cards, and a library.

Elegantly decorated with ornate chandeliers, rich furnishings, and large water-view windows, the Golden Nugget Showroom provides nightly entertainment beginning with a pre-dinner cocktail hour. Themed shows include Broadway, Country Western, Riverboat Jazz, Big Bands, and Golden Oldies, followed by dance music.

After cruising in scenic British Columbia, our southbound Sitka-to-Seattle cruise docked at Inner Harbor in Victoria, a picturesque London-like city, with 1,100 pretty hanging flower baskets, red-coated Canadian Mounties, and a bagpiper playing tunes. Shore excursions included the world-class Butchart Gardens and the Royal Museum of B.C., with a free afternoon to explore shops and other attractions.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, we toured the famous 1,000-acre Stanley Park and Vancouver Aquarium, where we watched white beluga whales frolic in the sunshine.

My best-ever vacation memories are the glorious 45-minute sunset outside Juneau, the icebergs in Tracy Arm, and sipping a Peppermint Patty (schnapps in hot chocolate) during the calliope concert at LeConte Glacier.

“We wanted my brother to join us on this cruise, but he could not get away. said a smiling Sarah Taylor at the Captain’s gala steak-and-lobster farewell dinner. “Wait until I e-mail him images of seals frolicking on the icebergs at LeConte Glacier!”


Between May and September, the Empress of the North offers seven-night roundtrip cruises from Juneau, plus two 11-night positioning cruises between Juneau and Seattle in May and September. During fall and winter, the Empress is based in Portland, Oregon, and plies the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette rivers.

Fares for a seven-night Alaska cruise start at $3,148 per person. Free airfare between Juneau and Seattle is available for those who book before Feb. 26.

For details, call (800) 434-1232 or visit

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