Inaugural visit of Crystal Serenity to Nome deemed a success
Prior to the arrival of the nearly 1,700-souls carrying mega luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity in Nome, a bit of anxiety hung in the air over the Gold Rush City. Will the Friday and Saturday storm calm down or will the Bering Sea be too rough to allow for safely shuttling the visitors from ship to shore?
Will there be chaos in the logistics of accommodating the transport of an unprecedented number of visitors?
Will they like the Nome experience? And will we like the massive visitor experience?
Mayor Richard Beneville answered all these questions with a resolute, “We nailed it!”
On Monday, consensus between tour organizers, Berry Festival organizers and local guides was that things could’ve not gone better, except for the weather that throughout the day sprinkled a nearly constant drizzle on Nome. But even that didn’t hamper the spirits of the visiting crowd.
Around 9 a.m. on Sunday morning the Crystal Serenity dropped anchor in Nome’s roadstead and began shuttling its passengers in covered tender boats to Nome’s small boat harbor. According to Nome Discovery Tours Nome operator Robin Johnson, not all cruise guests came off the ship, but approximately 850 passengers opted to come ashore and participated in a total of 773 tours.
The entire Nome school bus fleet of six busses was ready at the floating docks to take guests where they needed to go: 640 passengers participated in on a city tour which included a gold panning experience at East End Park and an educational sled dog demonstration. Other guests were taken to Bering Air for several helicopter or fixed wing flight seeing tours: 26 guests went to Shishmaref and three flew to Provideniya in Russia for the day. Johnson had rented additional nine vans. Two vans with 30 guests each drove to Safety for a bird watching trip. Sixty guests participated in an Anvil Mountain hiking tour, led by Johnson. Five busses with 40 guests each went on tundra wild life tours, which were very well received, Johnson said. The guests were taken from Nome along the Beam Road to Dexter and across the pass back to Nome. Along the way, the guests got to view a herd of musk oxen, pick berries and even find some qiviut left by the musk oxen. Shuttle busses took guests around town and to the Richard Foster Building where Nome youth demonstrated Native Youth Olympics games. Almost 450 guests went through the National Park Service visitor center on Front Street.
This year’s Nome Berry Festival was organized to coincide with the Serenity’s visit to Nome. Due to the rainy weather, the event took place in the Mini Convention Center, where 57 tables were set up and about 75 vendors sold their goods from exquisite ivory carvings to kids selling their crocheted headbands and home-made fairy gardens. Ivory carvers from Savoonga, Gambell, Shishmaref and Brevig Mission joined Nome’s King Island artists in displaying their art for sale. Angela Hansen, one of the festival organizers, said that more tables were needed, and Old St. Joe’s served as an overflow site for Nome Berry Festival vendors.
At 2 p.m. the city leadership including Mayor Richard Beneville, City Manager Tom Moran and Port Director Joy Baker gathered on stage and with the Nome King Island dancers, and danced for the esteemed guests and their captain. Mayor Beneville presented Captain Birger Vorland with a coffee table book of Alaska for the Crystal Serenity’s library and also gave him a book with a special mission. Beneville explained that he used to live in New York City, the destination of the Crystal Serenity on this 32-day voyage. “From mayor of Nome to the mayor of New York City, I will give you this book and the task to bring it to Mayor De Blasio with compliments from Nome,” said Beneville. Capt. Vorland thanked Beneville for the extra task of tracking down Bill De Blasio in New York City, but accepted the job.
Vorland said prior to arriving in Nome he was a bit worried about the pounding swells, but as the Serenity sailed closer and closer to Nome, the conditions got better and the transfer of passengers to the tender boats was no longer an issue. Nome, he said, is one of the inaugural stops along the route and he accepted the symbolic plaque with an ivory key to the city. In turn, he presented Mayor Beneville with a plaque from the ship. “We are the largest ship to ever attempt the Northwest Passage,” Capt. Vorland said. “When I say ‘attempt’ it’s just for show because we will make it, guaranteed.”
He also announced that Crystal Cruises already scheduled a return trip for the Crystal Serenity next year, around the same time.
After the presentations, local musicians, King Island drummers and dancers and the Nome St. Lawrence Island dance group continued to entertain the guests. Just as many locals came to the Mini, enjoying the dancing and browsing through the tables. Hansen noticed that her gifts and art was mostly sold to local residents rather than visiting cruise guests. “It seemed like they [guests] were more interested in the high-end products, such as ivory carvings and the qiviut products,” she said.
The festival, it seemed, had the intended effect. Cruise ship guests mingled with the locals, were engaged in conversations and gained insight to life in Nome. Hansen said she, in turn, caught a glimpse of life on board when she talked with the ballroom dance instructor and a hostess who work on the ship and are part of the monumental journey. Hansen said that the visitors did indeed ask whether this Berry Festival was a regular event. “It’s something that had been going on for several years, we just felt it would be nice to have at the same time as the guests are here,” Hansen said.
To dispel criticism that Nomeites were dancing to the tune of well-heeled visitors, it appeared to the first-hand observer that both guests and locals were curious about each other and that the entertainment and good will offered by Nome was genuine in its effort to show the guests how Nomeites live, work and play, the diversity of its cultures and its residents’ fondness for wildlife and the proximity to Alaskan wilderness.
Johnson hired 31 local guides, who are teachers, gold miners and other professionals in their “real” lives. Johnson said the guides were trained in several sessions for their individual tours, but were not given a script. “We heard from a lot of people that because we have local guides who live here, no two tours were the same,” said Johnson. “They loved that it was not a canned program, they got the stories from their guides based on their personal experiences.”
For example, she said, Augie Krutzsch and his mother Betty were in charge of the gold panning site at East End Park. “They are passionate about gold and mining, so they got to share that passion with our guests,” said Johnson.
Crystal Cruises vice president John Stoll stressed that the guests, savvy and sophisticated world travelers, are keen on experiencing the real thing and authenticity. As soon as the visitors stepped off the bus, clean shoes hit the mud that inevitably covered Nome’s unpaved gravel roads after the incessant two-day rain storm. Nobody seemed to mind. During a sled dog demonstration, guests whipped out their cell phones and showed images of their dogs: A lady pictured on a beautiful beach with her four 100-plus pound Newfoundlanders. Another guest related that her husband had pre-cooked 230 meals for their Labrador dogs they left at home with a dog sitter while going on this cruise.
Behind the scenes, Nome’s agencies had planned for all eventualities.
In a Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting last week, LEPC chair Tom Vaden informed the group that the cruise ship has two doctors and several nurses on staff, including a nursing station and even a facility that can handle small surgical procedures. Nome Volunteer Ambulance chief Vicky Erickson confirmed that the ambulance schedule was filled with volunteers who could respond to eventual emergencies, given that the population onboard is comprised of mostly elderly guests. According to officials, the ambulances were busy on Sunday, but there were no calls relating to cruise ship passengers.
Before the ship arrived, the State Dept. of Transportation helped clean up Front Street, weed-whacked unruly vegetation and graded the roads. Around town, 10 port-a-potties were placed. Robin Johnson said she prepared food bags for the local guides and also prepared “To-go” bags for the guests with toilet paper. ‘Welcome to Nome’ signs were pinned to every business door on Front Street and according to Johnson, Lahka Peacock stationed several ATM machines around town for the visitors’ convenience to withdraw cash. Youth at the Check Point youth center offered a special Sunday postal service by giving visitors the option to send their Nome purchases in prepaid packages or just a plain post card out. The post office later opened to accept the delivery of packages by the Check Point youngsters.
“I think Nome rose to the occasion,” Angela Hansen said, exhausted after a long day. And with the practice run a success, Johnson added, next year Nome will be ready for the announced repeat visit of the Crystal Serenity.