Bremerton’s ship has come in — literally and figuratively.
Cruise ships will dock there for the next 45 Fridays, which will be a boon to downtown businesses and attractions around Kitsap County.
The cruise passengers are often wide-eyed. “Most have never seen seals or whales—things we take for granted, said Jim Rothlin, CEO of the Port of Bremerton. “It’s a special place. People come from across the country to visit.”
Many more will be visiting both Bremerton and Poulsbo as American Cruise Lines has announced it will dock in Bremerton for 45-straight Fridays, up from just about a handful a year ago.
The biggest reason for the huge increase, cruise public relations manager Alexa Paolella said, was the tremendous interest in Pacific Northwest cruises. Also, American has the ships available to handle the increase—with three news ones just this year. The business has grown from seven to 17 ships since 2017.
“We have more ships than ever in our fleet,” Paolella said, adding they are all U.S.-made. They have increased sailings in Alaska and the West Coast, including a new one near Napa Valley, CA. Two ships will be coming locally, instead of just one.
Another reason for more ships is increased “interest in close-to-home cruising.” They are new ships, with large staterooms and all have private balconies, she said.
Rothlin said Bremerton has pulled out all the stops to get the cruises to come to town, including having golf carts available for older passengers to get to and from the nearby USS Turner Joy.
Charlie Birdsell of the Turner Joy said use of the carts is even more popular after they get tired walking around and climbing ladders on the ship.
While the Turner Joy is set up for self-tours, Birdsell said the word has gone out to their volunteers that they could be needed more often on Fridays to answer questions from the cruise visitors.
Recently Birdsell said he talked with a visitor from Nebraska—“The middle of the country where they don’t have water.” He said he’s been told that “our ship was the best part of the cruise.”
Rothlin said they also offer the tourists gift bags with items and coupons from local businesses. The visitors like the boardwalk with its shops and restaurants and the Puget Sound Navy Museum because they are close.
David Emmons, CEO of the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce, said three golden tickets will be given away each week. If passengers who have one visit the matching business, they win a blanket. “The Pacific Northwest does have weather. If you sit outside at night you need a blanket.”
Emmons said the ships will be a boon to tourism as they arrive at 9 a.m. Fridays and are here all day.
Rothlin said the captain of one of the ships is from Bremerton, and he’s excited about it being one of the stops. He likes to “take a slow cruise in front of the shipyard because many passengers have never seen large military vessels or an aircraft carrier. We’re quite a unique location for that.”
Excursion buses also offer cruise passengers trips to places like the Suquamish Museum and downtown Poulsbo. “We’re always looking for cool things to add,” Paolella said.
In past years, American has stopped in Poulsbo.
“We love Poulsbo,” Paolella said, but the Bremerton dock is more convenient for older passengers to disembark.
Passenger Karen Kyhn of Southern California got off the ship last week and liked the Bremerton dock. “It’s interesting to be docked right here by a military ship, and we’re excited about going to Poulsbo and looking forward to a fun day.”
Darlene Epstein of Florida also was a fan. “It’s a beautiful site. All these boats are beautiful.”
The captain’s wife
Joan Hanten, wife of ship captain Michael, is a huge fan of the cruises, going about every three weeks. “It’s the coolest little trip.” She said they have lived in Bremerton and Poulsbo for 30 years, and there’s “nothing we love more than the Pacific Northwest. It never gets old. Mike loves showing people his backyard.”
One of her favorite parts is seeing the whales; over the years she’s seen many breach. “My husband’s the king of finding them. The orcas put on a show.”
She likes that the ships are “big enough to do your own thing” but “small enough to get to know people.” She said the staff knows the guest by the second day, even memorizing their preferred cocktail.
She said many people go on them so much “it becomes like family.”
As for the cruise and tours, at Friday Harbor guests can visit the alpaca farm and take the jolly trolley around the island. In Anacortes and Port Angeles there are “a ton of little hidden treasures.” Lake Crescent is a popular trip out of PA. Out of that town, passengers can also take a ferry across to Victoria, B.C., where they can explore the picturesque downtown or go to the famous Butchart Gardens. Because it’s a U.S. ship it can’t dock in Canada.
While in Port Townsend, folks can go to the Olympic Game Farm and the Lavender Farms in nearby Sequim or also go to Port Gamble. The ships used to anchor in Poulsbo, and passengers were tendered to shore, but because that was difficult for some passengers it will now dock in Bremerton and passengers can take a bus to Poulsbo.
Hanten praised Bremerton for its goodie bags. “You never get them at other ports,” she said.
Lastly, she said on the trip visitors get to see majestic Mount Rainier from so many different perspectives.
“It’s local Americana,” she said of the cruises.
Her husband has been piloting on the cruise line since 2019, after retiring as an engineer in Keyport the year before. He was already getting bored so he answered an Indeed ad and found it an easy transition as it operates very similar to an Army ship he once drove.
“I missed driving ship so it was good to get back to that,” along with teaching young people, he said.
He works three weeks on, three weeks off during the spring-summer, and in the fall-winter they snowbird to Palm Springs. He said that schedule is great for him because he doesn’t get burned out, and he can do his own thing in the summer, too.
Michael Hanten is actually an airplane pilot, too. He started flying at age 17, and actually performs with the Cascade Warbirds in airshows. Ironically, he didn’t fly in the military. “My eyes were too bad,” so he drove ships instead, he said with a laugh.
He pilots the smaller of the cruise line’s two ships. The other starts and ends the season here, but spends most of the summer in Alaska.
He disagreed with his wife about his skill of finding whales. “She’s just been lucky,” he said.
On one trip a pod of whales was killing a sea lion, and “some of the guests were appalled. They wanted us to stop and rescue the sea lion,” he said, adding they really can’t mess with Mother Nature.
Paolella said many of their passengers are retired so there is no casino or buffets or swimming pools, but there are lounges and fitness centers. It’s all-inclusive with food and drink. Cuisine reflects the region. There is entertainment along with a lecturer and historian. Some dates have complimentary air flights, but she said even the flat rate for domestic flights is a good deal.
“It’s a completely different style of cruising,” Paolella said. “This style of cruising is really catching on.”
American Cruise Lines
Grand Puget Sound Cruise: Seattle to Seattle. Constellation: 11 days, 10 nights, 10 ports of call, 170 guests. Harbor hopping around Puget Sound, cruise the San Juan Islands and see native wildlife like whales and eagles. Visit historic seaside towns like Anacortes, where you can taste smoked salmon, Friday Harbor and Port Angeles. Explore the LeMay American Car Museum in Tacoma. Take a guided tour through historic Poulsbo and taste Norwegian pastries. Visit Victoria, B.C., Port Townsend and the last stop is Bremerton.
Puget Sound and San Juan Island Cruise: Seattle to Seattle. American Spirit: 8 days, 7 nights, 6 ports of call. 90 guests. Offers many of the same features, but doesn’t go to Tacoma, and the Port Angeles and Victoria stops are combined.