(5 a.m. EDT) -- I've had a smile plastered on my face for three days now. Not even my mask can obscure it.
History is being made right now, as Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas officially became the first large- cruise ship to carry paying passengers to an Alaskan port of call in 21 months. The last time a ship was docked in Sitka was September 2019; a date that feels like a century ago.
The anticipation grew this morning as we came in off the Pacific Ocean and entered the approaches to Sitka. We slowed as the Alaskan pilot came onboard -- also the first in 21 months to guide a cruise ship -- and made our way into our first port of call on this weeklong sailing.
Seaplanes buzzed the ship. Passengers had photos taken, appearing both relaxed and enthralled at the same time. Walking along Deck 12, I overheard one passenger FaceTiming relatives ashore, broadcasting the view over the ship's satellite internet: "It's happening!" she exclaimed. "We’re here!"
Serenade of the Seas quietly came alongside the Old Sitka Dock just after nine o'clock Wednesday morning. Passengers were out on deck, and locals were out on the dock to welcome them.
Those who've been here before will be surprised -- pleasantly -- to see a swanky new terminal. Construction started in October 2019, before COVID-19 was a household name. The dock itself has been extended and can now accommodate two vessels at the same time. Next week, Serenade of the Seas will be alongside with Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam -- something that wasn't possible in the "before times."
All of this investment was derailed by the complete loss of the 2020 Alaska cruise season. Allen Marine, the Sitka-based marine tour operator that runs boats out to Misty Fjords, Tracy Arm and others, watched as 98 percent of its revenue dried up overnight.
The 2021 season isn't enough to recoup those losses, but it's a slow burn towards normalcy and a chance to make use of the investments that were planned at the end of 2019.
Locals clapped and cheered as we disembarked Serenade of the Seas this morning on a typical Alaskan day: cool, with moody whisps of cloud descending over the mountain backdrop of Baranoff Island. The entire arrival has had more of a celebratory feeling than I've experienced in the past. Over and over again today, I heard how no one in town takes the cruise industry for granted anymore -- and vice-versa. Royal Caribbean, and other lines, now have better dialogue with their local partners than they ever have in the past.
Passengers will find that old favorites are still here, like the Alaska Raptor Center. The Center derives a little over half its funding from the cruise industry and its passengers, and Royal Caribbean recently made a major donation to the Center to allow it to replace its ageing viewing platform.
The Center plays an important role in the region, rescuing, caring for, and rehabilitating some of the State's most majestic birds. Visitors over the age of five still need to wear a mask (more on masking in Alaska below), but the experience offered is the same: the chance to see bald eagles, owls, Peregrine falcons, and others up-close as they are cared for and prepared for rehabilitation into the wild.
But it's not just old favorites; Royal Caribbean has added new experiences in Sitka as well. In the afternoon, I set out for a few hours of kayaking around the picturesque Siginaka Islands. Operated by Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures and available for booking via the Royal Caribbean app (or onboard the old-fashioned way), this tour is perfect for beginners who are unsure about kayaking and are looking to get their feet wet (not literally), and for experienced kayakers looking to set out for one of Sitka's most picturesque spots.
We took a short water-taxi over to the Siginaka Islands from the cruise dock before being given an orientation, outfitted with gear, and placed into double ocean kayaks. The person in front is in charge of being the lookout and paddling, while the passenger in the back steers via a foot-pedal-operated rudder and paddles.
Along the way, our 90-minutes of paddling was rewarded with ample marine life sightings. Expect to see nudibranchs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, crabs, jellyfish, abalone, and other fascinating wonders of the sea.
For me, though, this was my return to normal. Laying the paddles up on the kayak and listening to the sounds of the ocean lapping idly at the hull, the wind whistling lazily through the trees. In a world that has been so changed by the coronavirus, the wilderness has not. It has been here for centuries and will outlive all of us, COVID or no COVID.
Paddling the kayak felt like a release to me. I love kayaking but my writerly arms normally ache. Not today. Today I paddled. And paddled. And paddled. And in the process, I washed the stress, the anxiety, the pain, the hurt of the past year away. I left it behind me, in the wake of the kayak, to be washed away like flotsam in the outgoing tide.
You, too, might find that cruising to Alaska isn’t just a vacation. For me, it has been therapeutic in ways that are difficult to describe.
It's not just vaccinated adults that can have this freeing experience: Royal Caribbean is welcoming families, many of which have children that are just plain ineligible to be vaccinated.
Since Serenade of the Seas is sailing with a mixture of vaccinated adults and unvaccinated children, the use of face masks is required onboard unless you're inside your cabin, out on deck, or eating or drinking and seated.
Passengers will also find some amenities, like the Adventure Beach Kids Pool area on Deck 12 and the Thermal Suite in the Vitality Spa, are closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
For the most part, though, everything is open and operating. Royal Caribbean has been unapologetic in its desire to continue to cater to families, and there are a good number of families with children of all ages onboard this first sailing back to Alaska.
Face masks are a polarizing issue. But consider that most businesses here in Sitka are recommending -- if not mandating -- masks be worn now as the State grapples with rising COVID-19 cases primarily among the unvaccinated and wearing a mask in certain situations aboard Serenade of the Seas doesn't seem so strange.
The locals are wearing their masks again and social distancing signs are back in the streets.
Once you get past the mask thing and the wearing of the wristband to showcase your vaccination status, here's what hasn't changed about the cruise experience: literally everything else.
People are out reading in deck chairs, swimming in the pools, playing mini-golf and basketball and taking the air on the promenade deck.
You can still curl up with a book and watch the ocean go by. You can still enjoy poolside movies or hit the fitness center for a bit to burn off that second Creme Brule you shouldn't have had, but totally did. The shops are open for your retail therapy pleasure, and donations can still be made to Royal Caribbean Group via the ship's onboard Casino.
Nature is back, too: A pod of dolphins spent half an hour playfully running in the ship's bow wave on Tuesday morning as we sailed the open Pacific Ocean, jumping up and out of the water as I made my traditional pre-breakfast laps around the promenade. If they were bothered by COVID, they didn't show it.
The Cruise Compass daily program (which mercifully still comes in printed form to your cabin each evening) still outlines a bevy of activity options, from Alaskan-themed trivia sessions in the Safari Club to live musical performances in the Schooner Bar and Centrum, to love-them-or-hate-them cruise staples like Napkin Folding and onboard Art Auctions.
I spent an hour sitting outside the NextCruise office onboard, listening to music in the Centrum. If it's any indication, the number of passengers I watched make future reservations for cruises bodes very well for the industry, indeed.
Staff are hard at work touching up the vessel's exterior paint, cleaning windows, and maintaining the ship. Crew greet passengers with a friendly smile (it's there -- trust me) and wishes for a good morning, afternoon or evening.
The level of service onboard is stellar. Cruises are already one of the best vacation choices in terms of value for service provided, and the crew onboard Serenade of the Seas have bravely jumped headfirst into this return to the seas. It's a task that cannot be easy -- going from months of non-operation to restart all in a single weeklong sailing. But the crew onboard makes it look easy.
I've been sailing to Alaska nearly every year since 1998. It is my favorite destination and remains so to this day. Convincing me to enjoy a cruise to Alaska is not a difficult ask.
And yet I worried about this sailing. I worried I'd see boarded-up shops, favorite haunts closed. I grew increasingly concerned about Alaska's recent COVID outbreak and fretted over whether locals really wanted cruise ships back. After all, we've become the world's favorite whipping boy as of late, with standards imposed that far exceed those mandated for airlines, hotels, resorts, theme parks, or even your hometown pub.
I found the raw charm and honesty of local Alaskans hasn't been dented at all. They have welcomed those of us aboard Serenade of the Seas with open arms. The respect is mutual: passengers are thrilled to be back, and the townspeople are thrilled to have them.
As I write this, in the Schooner Bar on Deck 6, the wildlife once again agrees: the whales are putting on the best show I've seen in years as we steam towards Icy Strait Point.
And I can't help but feel things are finally looking up.