Last updated: 09:53 AM ET, Mon June 06 2016

Denali Square Latest Sign of Alaska’s Importance to Cruise Industry

Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Holland America Line | Tim Wood | June 06, 2016

Denali Square Latest Sign of Alaska’s Importance to Cruise Industry

PHOTO: A view of Denali Square on its official opening day. (All photos by Tim Wood unless otherwise noted)

DENALI, ALASKA — On a day far from the postcard snapshot that makes Alaska tourism gold, executives from Holland America Line and Carnival Corp. convened on McKinley Chalet Resort on June 3 to dedicate a major new addition to the company’s Alaska portfolio.

Denali Square, a mid-resort restaurant and shopping destination in motion for 15 years and built in just 14 months, was officially opened with Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald and Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski among the dignitaries on hand for the ribbon cutting.

The message was clear long before Donald uttered the words verbatim: the company’s "commitment to Alaska is stronger than ever."

“We wanted to create an authentic showcase centerpiece for our premier inland destination, a spot that adds to the Denali National Park oasis that is such added value to the cruising experience,” Donald said.

PHOTO: Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald addresses the crowd at the dedication of Denali Square.

The cruise executives lost a fight with Mother Nature this day, seizing a break in the clouds to hold the ceremony outside only for the skies to spray a cold drizzle on Donald, Holland America Group CEO Stein Kruse and the assembled crowd just as Murkowski arrived 45 minutes late.

But this was about the only downer for the company, and one that Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford did a nice job of spinning as authentic Alaska.

The development consists of four shops that include the resort’s artist-in-residence, the relocated Gold Nugget Saloon and a midsection of fire pits and open seating perfect for outdoor entertainers.

PHOTO: The flame of the fire pit in Denali Square battles the rain and wins.

But the centerpiece of the new attraction is Karstens Public House, a 7,800-square-foot ski-lodge homage eatery named for Denali National Park’s first superintendent, Henry Karstens – just one of many nods to the local culture on display in Denali Square.

PHOTO: Inside Karstens Public House. (Photo courtesy Holland America Line)

The eatery features a wide variety of Alaska-inspired favorites such as reindeer chili, caribou burgers and Alaskan king crab amid a duo of fireplaces that highlight each section of the dining room. A buffet and full-menu breakfast is offered as well as a meals-on-the-go section for those looking to grab something quick before an excursion adventure.

Company executives were surprisingly coy with the total investment spent on Denali Square. It seemed like a clear-cut tally would drive home the numbers behind Donald’s “stronger than ever” declaration. Instead, HAL executive vice president of land operations and customer services Charlie Ball fielded the hot potato, saying the latest development was part of a 15-year renovation costing three to four increments of “tens of millions” each.

PHOTO: Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford got the scissor honors at the Denali Square dedication ceremony with the help of, from left, HAL executive vice president of land operations and customer services Charlie Ball, Holland America Group CEO Stein Kruse, Alaska U.S. senator Lisa Murkowski, Denali National Park superintendent Don Striker and Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald.

PHOTO: Holland America Line donated $20,000 to the Denali Borough School District to emphasize its local commitment during the dedication ceremony of Denali Square.

But what was clear is that Denali Square is the exclamation point on 13 years of change that has strengthened the company’s position in Alaska. Holland America Line and Princess Cruises went from 40 years of fierce competition to being under the Carnival Corp. umbrella when Princess was acquired in 2003. After a decade of merely co-existing, the two cruise lines became marketing and sales partners with the formation of the Holland America Group in 2013.

That was also the year that the group’s CEO, Stein Kruse, spearheaded a purchase of the McKinley Chalet Resort from Aramark, giving the company even more control in creating the desired atmosphere for its cruise customers in two of the company’s nine Alaska properties just next door to each other (the neighbor being the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge).

Since the acquisition, more than 90 of the property’s existing buildings were renovated and/or relocated, including 103 rooms added along the Nenana River.

It’s a lot of rejiggering, but a needed facelift to revitalize the company’s position in Alaska. Carnival Corp. hosts more than 60 percent of the 1 million cruise passengers to come to the state each year, according to company officials. One state brings in roughly five percent of the worldwide cruising public, and Carnival Corp. is making sure they are positioned properly as tourism numbers continue to rise.

And for Carnival Corp., a company with 102 ships, the state brings in 10 percent of total business with just seven ships visiting in 2016. That number will shrink to six ships in 2017 with the new Seaborn Encore coming online, though company officials stress that the total number of cabins available among all ships in Alaska will remain the same.

Denali Square will be open to locals as the resort hold rooms for locals, but the new space is clearly a play to help boost the in-land migration of cruisers. Just 15 percent of cruisers get off the ships and explore the exquisite natural allure of Alaska, a number on the rise but one company executives hope to grow significantly over the next decade making the new development a stop on all Land+Sea Journeys.

“We’re making this investment for a reason,” Ashford said at the opening reception the night before. “Alaska is a key part of the puzzle for the Holland America Group, and we feel spots like Denali Square will only help to draw people inland and serve to compliment and heighten their overall cruising experience.”

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