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A Warm Nome Welcome: First Cruise Ship Brings Energy, Culture, and Commerce

The MS Westerdam idle about one mile off of the shore of Nome. Ben Townsend photo.

Every corner of downtown Nome was buzzing with energy Friday as passengers from the first cruise of the season toured the town. The visitors stopped by Nome on the 11th day of their 28 day cruise. 

Terry Sebren decided to take Holland America’s Alaska Arctic Circle Solstice Cruise over a year ago along with his wife, Mary Sebren. Nome quickly became a highlight of the trip for the couple from Olive Branch, Mississippi. 

“It’s just a different kind of place that we’ve never been to, and to us it’s very scenic. Very beautiful, very calm, very peaceful. All of those things are what attracts us up here,” Terry Sebren recalled. 

The cruise departed from Seattle on June 9 and made stops at several Alaskan communities including Ketchikan, Sitka, Seward, and Dutch Harbor. Mary Sebren’s first visit to Alaska is already leaving an impression on her. 

“This is God's country up here. After being here two weeks, it's like I've never seen beauty like this before. Never."

The MS Westerdam is the biggest cruise ship to ever visit Nome. Due to its 26 foot draft, four feet deeper than the Port of Nome supports, and cartoonish length compared to other boats that frequent the area, the ship had to anchor about one mile off of the shore. Passengers rode on tenders from the ship that seated about 80 passengers each. 

The cruise has capacity for about 1,700 passengers, although not everyone made it to shore for the stop in Nome. For a vessel that large, and with high-paying passengers spending at least $5,499 for a four week vacation, locals hoped to capitalize on the opportunity. 

Youth of Nome lined the streets in recently repainted bus shelters to sell homemade goods. They displayed signs with the cause they were raising funds for with many children hoping to attend summer camps or school trips. Tourists happily doled out cash for local delicacies like fry bread and salmonberry jam.

Robin Johnson of Nome Discovery Tours helped organize transportation and activities for the visitors. About 50 locals were hired to assist with the effort, serving as tour guides and bus drivers. At the end of Friday, Johnson reflected on a visit that for the most part- went off without a hitch. 

“It’s the most welcoming community. Everybody is loving all the activities, we sent six groups out hiking and those have been very well received. Everybody just seems happy,” Johnson said. “I think the only bottleneck the whole time is not enough shuttles, which means we need more vans in Nome.”

Westerdam Nome
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In addition to the activities on Front Street, tourists were encouraged to stop by the Berry Festival held at the Nome Recreation Center. There, six rows of vendor tables were packed into the gym floor. Local artists sold furs, native attire, jewelry, and other small wares perfect for the tourists to take home. 

A stage was assembled on the west side of the gym along with four large speakers. Performers took turns entertaining the crowd with Miss Chief leading off the setlist. In the afternoon, locals and visitors were treated to performances from the King Island Dance Group and Nome Saint Lawrence Island Dance Group. 

Listen to the King Island Dance Group:

Tourists also visited the nearby Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum to learn more about native history and culture. There, visitors were also able to see items from Iditarod history, a favorite amongst visitors disappointed that they were not able to take a photo with the now-destroyed burled arch. 

The final tender returning passengers to the Westerdam departed at 4:43 p.m. With it came a sigh of relief from the community as things, other than an unexpected fire alarm at Norton Sound Regional Hospital, all went to plan. 

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With the town noticeably quieter than just a few hours before, locals began venturing out once again to take in the sunny evening. A rousing performance from the Nome Diomede Dance Group captivated the crowd back at the Berry Festival. Locals made their way to Front Street to enjoy a grilled chicken meal from the Bering Sea Lions Club complete with coleslaw, corn, and a drink for a dinner special price of $12. Vehicles flocked to the adult softball fields near Nome-Beltz for the championship games of a week-long softball tournament. 

Looking ahead, Johnson is optimistic about future cruise ship visits, noting that the Westerdam is already scheduled to return.

“Back next year. June 19. Same ship,” Johnson said.

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