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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
When the Norwegian Bliss, the largest cruise ship ever to visit Ketchikan, arrived on Monday morning, a group of local officials, tourism industry representatives, and press were invited aboard.
The visit consisted of a plaque exchange ceremony and a tour of the brand-new, 20-deck ship. It was the Bliss’ second time in Ketchikan, following its arrival to the region this past week.
The tour began with an elevator ride to the 14th floor, where the ship’s bridge is located. There, the group met the Bliss’ master, Captain Karl Staffan Bengtsson.
Bengtsson described the ship’s recent history. After its completion in April, the Bliss embarked on a publicity tour with stops at several major U.S. cities. It became the largest cruise ship to navigate the Panama Canal, before arriving in the Pacific Northwest and beginning its Alaska cruise season. The ship is estimated to carry between 4,700 and 4,800 passengers each week throughout the summer.
Bengtsson reminisced about his first time working in Alaska and noted the industry’s recent surge in the area.
“Personally, I’m happy to be back in Alaska. I did one season here 28 years ago … That season, it was us and a Holland America ship, I think it was the Rotterdam — those two ships sailing Alaska for the whole season. It’s a bit different today.”
Two or three other cruise ships, not to mention crowds of tourists and tour buses, were immediately visible from the bridge on Monday morning. The Bliss’ towering bridge held a commanding view of Ketchikan and the other cruise ships below.
Bengtsson’s said that piloting a ship of this size comes with significant challenges, especially in Southeast Alaska.
“You need more time,” he said. “You need more room. Like I mentioned before, the windage is the big difference. You have to watch the wind very carefully…. Ketchikan is really, that way, the most problematic port in Alaska. Not because of the port, per se. It’s to get in here and get out of here. It’s very narrow passages in both ends.”
Growing cruise ships come with hurdles for Alaska, too. With bigger ships forecasted for the Alaska market in coming years, the city has planned major port upgrades to be able to accommodate them, including installing new floating docks, streamlining upland infrastructure for pedestrians, and blasting an underwater rock formation near Berth 2. Ketchikan Vice Mayor Bob Sivertsen said that ships like the Bliss are the reason why.
“This type of vessel is exactly why we’re doing it,” Sivertsen said. “The amount of ramps that they can get down equates to how fast they can get the passengers on and off the vessel. ... And so the floating dock is, I guess, the tool that they need in order to put four ramps down or five ramps down.”
Bengtsson and Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis exchanged plaques commemorating the Bliss’ first season in Ketchikan and made short speeches.
“I think that having the Bliss come to Southeast Alaska and to Ketchikan is an extraordinary honor,” Landis said. “This community has seen a large increase in our economy because of cruise ship traffic and the visitors that you bring here.”
The tour continued up to the 15th floor, to the ship’s observation deck. The room’s main feature is a massive window, with equally impressive views as those of the bridge below. The high-ceilinged room is decorated in a modern, luxury style, with comfortable seating placed about.
According to the Bengtsson, the observation deck was included in the Bliss as a special feature for Alaska, as it is convenient for landscape and wildlife viewing in cold or rainy weather.
The tour navigated past a handful of restaurants and an exclusive area called “The Haven,” with more expensive rooms and various private facilities.
The Bliss’ roof (Decks 19 and 20) houses a number of elaborate attractions. The roof was empty when the tour passed through, as nearly all of the ship’s passengers seemed to be exploring Ketchikan. The area’s attractions included a UFO-themed, outdoor laser tag arena, a waterpark with slides dangling over the ship’s sides and a two-story go-kart track.
The tour wound through more restaurants and bars, a large casino and concluded in a 150-seat theater. Two musicals, “Jersey Boys” and “Havana,” are performed there twice daily.
Toward the end of the tour, Sivertsen, who attended the ship’s christening in Seattle and was on its three-day exhibition cruise from Seattle, expressed admiration for the ship.
“The ship itself, it’s just absolutely fantastic,” Sivertsen said. “Being aboard the ship, the events aboard the ship, their amenities, it’s amazing. And they built it specifically for this Alaska market, which makes it kind of unique.”
“It really cements the relationship, we feel,” Landis added. “It’s a very positive development.”