There's a traffic jam of sorts shortly after 4 PM in Elliott Bay every Saturday afternoon this summer, and it's not the "jumbo" ferries (a mere 440 feet long) jockeying for position at Coleman Dock. Up at Pier 91 in Smith Cove, two cruise ships, 950 feet long and 17 decks high, back slowly out of their berths. Another thousand-foot behemoth nudges away from Pier 66 at the foot of Bell Street. Each one carries over 2,500 passengers and about 1,200 crew members on week-long cruises up the Inside Passage to Juneau and Ketchikan. ("Heaven would look like Alaska," cruise regulars like to say.)
This weekend, Holland America's Westerdam was the first to steam along the base of Magnolia Bluff, with NCL's Norwegian Jewel close behind, and the 109,000 ton Golden Princess, one of 16 in the company's fleet, slipping out in third place.
In the 1970s, a cruise director on a Princess ship wrote a memoir about life onboard; it was turned into a movie and a TV series called "The Love Boat," which revitalized the moribund cruise industry. Cruising today is a $30 billion industry; the 16 ships in the Princess fleet have a ten-percent market share. Just building a ship like the new Royal Princess (delivery in June of next year) creates thousands of jobs for the Fincantieri shipyards in Monfalcone, on Italy's Gulf of Trieste.
Cruise ships made about 200 stops in Seattle last year, half of them spenidng at least one night in town. During the summer season alone, cruise ships bring half a million visitors to Seattle. For passengers who board or debark in Seattle, there's almost always a hotel night or two before or after. The Port of Seattle estimates $2 million in local revenue generated by each "call."
The Alaska run is more like a touch-and-go landing: the ships pull in at seven in the morning, disgorge their well-fed guests, load up with fresh fruit and vegetables, and welcome a long line of newcomers aboard. Gangplanks up by mid-afternoon, cast-off and traffic jam at 4.
What does a cruise to Alaska cost, you ask? Let's assume you want a cabin with a private balcony (or verandah, as Holland America calls it); the Golden Princess has over 700 of them. Even the smallest are reasonably spacious (200 square feet or so), only twice the price of the cheapest inside cabins. Balconies are actually sold out for the rest of the season, but Princess Cruises will happily let you reserve for May, 2013, for about $1,250 per passenger. Not bad, actually, since meals (but not drinks) are included. You can have an elegant breakfast served on your balcony, if you like, for an additional $32 per couple. Or, for $20 or $25 extra, dine à la carte in the ship's Italian restaurant or steakhouse dining room.
Before she sailed, the Golden Princess loaded 30 tons of fresh provisions. "A light load," according to her food and beverage director, Anthony deFellippis. All the Princess ships are part of the prestigious international gastronomic society called the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, by the way. The ship's culinary staff (about 200 cooks and stewards, over 200 servers) do their own butchering and baking (1,300 lbs. of flour a day!) under the watchful eyes of classically trained kitchen managers: corporate director of culinary operations Pierre-Marie Leprince (Brittany), corporate executive chef Carlo Persia (from Florence), executive chef Joel Directo (Philippines),chefs de partie like baker Orso Giordano, kitchen GM Ivano Calderi, Maitre d'Hotel Angelo Balbiani.
All those Italian names? Holdovers from the old days and an Italian company called Sitmar Cruises (Societa Italiana Transporti Marittimi) that was purchased by P&O Lines, with many of its ships transferred to a P&O subsidiary called Princess Cruises. The cruise industry is positively Byzantine, in case you hadn't noticed. Ten cruise lines, accounting for half the industry's revenues, are now part of the British-American Carnival Corp. (including Princess, Holland America, the old P&O lines, Cunard, Carnival Cruises itself, and the unfortunate Costa).
There's a big emphasis, in the kitchens, on Italian dishes like pasta and pizza (10,000 slices served over the course of the cruise). There's also a 30,000-bottle wine inventory under the direction of a South American sommelier, Eduardo Angulo. Yes, you can spend $140 for a bottle of Ornellaia, but the Barbaresco will only set you back $38, and the Valpolicella is $25.
Provisions! A corporation like Carnival, even a nominally autonomous operation like the Princess Cruises, has a thick book of procurement standards and a short list of acceptable purveyors. Obviously you've got to know the right people in each port to deliver all that lettuce. The steaks come from Australia, but the three finishing salts they offer tableside comes from Seattle: Salt Works in Woodinville.
The Space Needle's Sky City, Seattle's highest-grossing restaurant (somewhere north of $15 million), can't hold a candle to a ship like Golden Princess in terms of volume. The Needle serves perhaps 500 lunches and dinners, 750 max. Golden Princess, with 2,600 passengers, must prepare something like ten times that number meals. No wonder they keep 200 cooks busy.
So sit back, by the one of the four pools, perhaps, or at a table in one of the ship's many cafes overlooking the three-story atrium (called the Piazza and designed to create the feel of a European village square), order a glass of bubbly and contemplate your nearly 500 menu choices for the week ahead. When you get to Alaska, you can take a daytrip to go salmon fishing; if you catch anything (don't worry, you will), you can have your fish shipped home, or, better yet, prepared by the Golden Princess chefs and served to your table.
Coming next year, a new flagship, the Royal Princess, with even more elaborate restaurants and spas, an even bigger piazza, and balconies for 80 percent of all staterooms. What's more, in one of those bizarre cosmic shifts, the whole Saturday enterprise shifts to Sunday.
Passenger liners used to be the only way to travel long distances; even early cruises ("Getting there is half the fun") were as much about the destination as the ride. Nowadays, for most passengers, the appeal of going on a cruise isn't the canned shore excursion on Santorini as it is the unlimited buffet and "freestyle dining" onboard. Hence the attention lavished on the handmade, ricotta-filled ravioli with black truffle shavings, or the heart-shaped, Caillebaut chocolate mousse called the Princess Love Boat Dream. The successful lines recognize that the cruise ship itself is the destination.
More photos online.