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Cruise to Alaska

Visiting the 49th state by sea means you're in for scenic grandeur and grand hotel comfort

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Turku is the home of one of two shipbuilding facilities owned by Kvaerner Masa-Yards. It is one of the few shipyards in the world where big cruise ships are built, though the Volendam, it happens, was not built there. I was there to look at the genesis of all this luxury. There, in the steel-cutting rooms, were the plates for a ship that will eventually be one of the biggest cruise liners.

"The first cruise designs were based on ferries," said Kaj Liljestrand, a naval architect and executive vice president of Kvaerner Masa-Yards. "At that time the perception was that only retired people were cruising. It was considered boring for young people."

Kvaerner Masa-Yards’ first large cruise ship, built for Royal Caribbean, was called Song of Norway and was launched in 1969. It was an 18,416-ton ship, big for its day. (In the world of shipping, a ton in this case means 100 cubic feet of enclosed space.) It originally carried 880 passengers.

At that time, about half a million people went to sea on cruises every year. But today the industry has grown to some 250 operating ships. It serves about 10 million people a year and generates an estimated annual gross revenue of $13 billion. Since 1980 the North American cruise industry has grown by an average of 8.4 percent per year, but that seems to be accelerating: in 2000 alone there was a 16 percent increase in the number of passengers over 1999.

Today’s boom is credited to many things, from the television series The Love Boat, which originally ran from 1977 to 1986, to the increased capacity on cruise ships. Other reasons cited are that the baby boomers are getting older and that people have more disposable income; that more younger people are interested in leisure and that cruising is simply one of the least stressful vacations around. "All you have to do is show up," one frequent passenger told me. "They do all the rest." As a result, cruises have become one of the most profitable parts of the travel industry. This has led to a boom in cruise-ship building. And, because cruise passengers seem to make more demands as they grow in number, the boom has led to all sorts of innovations.

More elegant and far more varied in attractions than the Titanic...

The progression of these demands is represented in a chart of "Musts and Wants" that Liljestrand and several others at Kvaerner Masa-Yards showed me. In the 1970s people required only one thing of the ships they boarded: safety. They wanted value for their money. In the early 1980s they needed safety and reliability; they also started to think about what Kvaerner Masa calls "special attractions"—things like Las Vegas-style shows, and fitness centers. In the 1990s the needs list grew to include "environmental friendliness," and people also wanted "impressive design." Now the wants list has grown to include multiple choices of things to do or places to eat on board, and at the top, the idea that a cruise should be a unique experience.

"We’ve studied everything from submarines to airships," Liljestrand said, "and anything in between that floats." The result is ships that are even more elegant and far more varied in their attractions than the Titanic.

For me, however, as for most people, the first impression of the ship was its size. Out on the upper decks we were ten stories above the water. Down among the cabins, several decks of halls stretched away into a distant haze of identical doors, like halls of mirrors.

Suzanne and I had boarded this ship in Canada because of a U.S. law that forbids a ship such as the Volendam, which wasn’t built in the United States and isn’t owned and crewed by Americans, from picking passengers up in one U.S. port and dropping them off in another.

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