On a Tuesday docked in Juneau, the Norwegian Bliss dwarfs everything around it. Alaska’s new “megaship” looks less like a boat than a high-rise hotel turned on its side. Each deck — there are 20 of them — is crowded with tiny staterooms, giving the impression that if you put the ship on its stern and chopped off the bow, it’d fit in at any resort destination.
That’s the dockside impression one gets, anyway, before climbing aboard. On Tuesday, the Empire tagged along with a group of business and municipal dignitaries for a maritime “plaque exchange” ceremony on the Bliss, which included a tour.
Standing on the dock before boarding the ship, newly-appointed Capt. Stephen White, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Juneau commander, said he “can’t imagine” being at the helm of such a big boat. At 1,092 feet, the Bliss is what’s called a “new panamax” or “neopanamax,” ship, Capt. Steven Bengtsson later explained.
It’s a term for a size limit for travelling through the Panama Canal. New panamax ships are built under a 1,201-foot limit set in 2016. A regular panamax ship can’t exceed 950 feet in length.
The Bliss is about twice the size of the Norwegian ships which normally visit Juneau, Bengtsson said, and is the largest ship to ever pass through the Panama Canal.
Norwegian Bliss first impressions: reminds me of Las Vegas. pic.twitter.com/L2T0O0tVFZ— Kevin Gullufsen (@KevinGullufsen) June 12, 2018
“It’s a big operation, that’s a challenge in itself. But of course for me as a captain, the biggest challenge is to bring a ship of this size into Alaska,” Bengtsson said. “Bringing a ship this size in takes a lot of preparation.”
Put in context, the Bliss has seven more decks (or floors) than the Norwegian Pearl, which is more or less the typical size of a cruise ship in Southeast Alaska, tour guides say. The Bliss can feed, shelter and entertain more passengers (about 4,700 at max capacity) and crew (1,600) than all but three Southeast Alaska towns (Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan). Among a list of amenities are 20-25 eateries (depending on how you count them), about a dozen hot tubs, two pools, an 850-seat theater, laser tag, a go-kart track (the only at-sea track in the world), and a bowling alley.
Bengtsson spent a week in a simulator in Seattle preparing to captain the Bliss, he said. That was “great preparation,” to identify where the challenges are in Alaska waters. Local pilots, which captains work closely with in Southeast, also attended the training, Bengtsson said. They’re onboard whenever a cruise ship is in Southeast waters, and lend their knowledge of local waters to navigate cruise ships when they come close to port.
Bengtsson said he often meets pilots for the first time moments before they takeover navigating his ships.
“Now, when the pilots come onboard, we are already a team. Whereas normally, when I come into a ship, a pilot comes on board, and he’s going to be my guide into this port and I’m going to eyeball him in 30 seconds to make sure whether he knows what he’s doing or not.”
Besides being big, the ship is also brand new (it was christened May 31, in Seattle). Maybe that’s why, when boarding, an upbeat ship worker sprayed everyone’s hands with a cleansing liquid in an apparent attempt to keep the ship clean. Whether this was to cut down on cleaning costs or to stop the spread of germs, it wasn’t clear.
“Happy happy, washy washy,” the man said between sprays.
Past ship security, a man in a bear suit gave high-fives and posed for pictures with passengers at the bottom of a staircase. Grey, green and blue carpeting, stainless steel and dark wood is the default motif here and inside other common areas around the ship. Specialty restaurants like the modern “Manhatten Room” or the Jimmy Buffet-inspired “Margaritaville” each have their own interior design.
One of the Norwegian Bliss’ 20 plus eateries, the Manhattan Room. pic.twitter.com/bgELiQcIRI— Kevin Gullufsen (@KevinGullufsen) June 12, 2018
The tour first passed through an atrium, topped by a lavishly lit chandelier, at the bottom of a spiral staircase. Above, the casino could be seen. The tour group entered a small theater space lined with art, which was ostensibly an auction space. There, Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch, Mike Satre, representing the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, White and others exchanged plaques with Bengtsson.
Cruise Line Industry Association Alaska President John Binkley made a few remarks about the Bliss’ economic impact. CLIA represents 13 cruise lines which visit Alaska.
“This ship, at a cost of about $1.1 billion, that was purpose built for Alaska and this trade in Alaska, really shows the commitment this industry has for Alaska,” Binkley said. “When companies are willing to put that kind of capital in Alaska as a destination, it really shows you what their feeling is about the future of Alaska as a cruising destination.”
The Bliss will bring about 80,000 people to Alaska this year, Binkley went on, almost all of those coming to Juneau. That represents almost $60 million in spending, he said.
Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch and reps from the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, Cruise Line Industry Association and others pose for a picture after exchanging plaques with Norwegian Bliss Captain Steven Bengtsson. pic.twitter.com/I0h6l1mlNZ— Kevin Gullufsen (@KevinGullufsen) June 12, 2018
After the ceremony, Bengtsson left the group. A tour guide from the Philippines, Jenmark Opon, led tour from there. Opon took the group first to a Halo-style laser tag facility on the top deck, passing by the “Haven” suites, which were off limits to the tour. That’s the “first class” portion of the ship, Bengtsson’s favorite area of the ship, a “tranquil” space with its own pool, observation lounge and restaurant.
Demographics on cruises, Opon said, have become younger in recent years. Laser tag, along with a go-kart track at the stern of the ship, helps younger passengers stay entertained.
The group worked its way down from the laser tag to an indoor observation deck at the bow of the ship. The ship, as Binkley said, was purpose built for Alaska, and the indoor observation space allows passengers to stay out of the elements while gazing. It offered panoramic views of downtown Juneau, at a height nearly equal to the top of the Hurff Ackerman Saunders Federal Building.
About three floors from the top of the Norwegian Bliss and we’re about as high as the Federal Building. pic.twitter.com/jx4C63wUWZ— Kevin Gullufsen (@KevinGullufsen) June 12, 2018
The group passed the middle portion of the top deck — the pool area. A man tossed a kid in swim trunks into an ovoid pool. Behind it, another pool. A television screen, about 50 feet across, stood over it all, projecting images of Southeast Alaska at sunset and the northern lights.
A go-kart track stands outside at the stern of the vessel. Passengers pay $10 a pop back here for 10 laps around the winding, two-story track, Opon said. Sometimes they don’t want to slow down at the end of their rides, so ship employees take over the go-karts remotely and do it for them.
Go kart track on the Norwegian Bliss, the only at-sea track in the world. pic.twitter.com/McfEhuLd1f— Kevin Gullufsen (@KevinGullufsen) June 12, 2018
A stop by a theater, where the Bliss is currently staging both “Jersey Boys” and “Havana!,” rounded out the tour.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.