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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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As the ship motored northwest between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, the landscape became wilder: a few fishing boats, a couple of tiny logging towns, an Indian reserve on an island.

I woke early and went out onto the deck, all but alone at 6 A.M. The air was cold. Wraiths of moonlit cloud draped the forested shoulders of mountains. I leaned on the rail looking out at the rugged world sliding past and thought again about Finland.

The yard by the office of the Kvaerner Masa-Yards in Helsinki looked as if it had been hit by some bizarre kind of earthquake that scattered chunks of apartment buildings all over the place. The chunks were pieces of cruise ships, called blocks, each several stories high. Men clambered over them, installing pipes and cable tracks, before the blocks were welded together to make a ship. "It’s like Lego pieces," said Henrik Segercrantz, also a naval architect, who was my guide. "This is how we build ships."

Those blocks can sometimes weigh more than 400 tons each. A cruise ship is made out of some 100 of them. Air-conditioning ducts, insulation, machinery and even stairways are installed in blocks before trucks larger than train cars carry them to a vast indoor dry dock and overhead cranes lift them into place. When I watched one being installed on a ship, it was impossible to imagine that this was the beginning of luxury.

Luxury in plastic-wrapped boxes

Outside, however, luxury was waiting in plastic-wrapped boxes. The boxes were staterooms, manufactured in a nearby plant and trucked here. They would be popped into the blocks when the blocks were ready. To me these boxes sitting on the dock were a testament to the extraordinary precision of modern engineering. The builders of the boxes had absolute faith that the slots they were going into were all going to be the right size. As they waited on the dock, the nearly completed staterooms already had mirrors on the walls, and there were hair dryers in the drawers.

 In their designs, Kvaerner Masa-Yards architects try to give balconies to as many of the staterooms as possible. They have managed to design and build two cruise ships in which as many as 70 percent of the staterooms have a little porch overlooking the water.

We did not have a balcony, but the outside deck was a fine, breezy place to be as the Volendam started up the Inside Passage to Alaska. It’s a labyrinthine path through an archipelago clothed in inscrutable forests of western hemlock and Sitka spruce. The ship turned left at the end of Vancouver Island and then headed north among those woods in mist, and the forests seemed as silent and full of secrets as time itself.

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