They weren't at sea yet. Departure was more than two hours away. But aboard the mammoth, gleaming cruise ships anchored in Elliott Bay, the buffets had opened. They're always open...

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They weren’t at sea yet. Departure was more than two hours away. But aboard the mammoth, gleaming cruise ships anchored in Elliott Bay, the buffets had opened. They’re always open.

Noodles and potatoes and chicken and cookies and fruit. Roast beef. Ice cream. Prosciutto. Sandwiches. Pizza. Hamburgers. Pie.

Snack time. It’s included. It would be wrong not to eat.

Dinner’s in four hours.

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Sara Kerklo of Cary, N.C., and her sister Sue Badders, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, soak in a hot tub aboard the Amsterdam. They are modest women — a customer-service rep and a hospice nurse. Here, in the bright sun, in the warm, bubbling water aboard a ship that’s still docked and still has a view of a Port of Seattle parking lot on one side, they are queens.

“We put our swimsuits in our carry-ons,” Kerklo said. “We wanted to get in before it gets crowded.”

The Norwegian Sky

These are the earliest moments of a cruise: the heaping plates, the smug smile at being first in the hot tub, the line at the spa to book a spot in the next seven days — as the ship floats past the wonders of Alaska — to massage this, aromatherapy that and, please, wrap everything in seaweed.

This is the time to glimpse the cigar bar, wonder if blackjack or the slots will prove luckier, consider the disco, contemplate karaoke, peek at the menus, commit to daily exercise, swear off daily exercise, imagine romantic walks on deck.

Quick turnaround

Each Saturday morning, Holland America’s Amsterdam, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky and Princess’s Star Princess dock in Seattle. They bid goodbye to their freshly pampered passengers and by late afternoon, leave with more than 6,300 new guests. On Sundays, the Norwegian Sun heads out with another 2,000-plus.

A hot tub was the first stop aboard the Holland America Amsterdam for sisters Sue Badders, left, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Sara Kerklo of Cary, N.C.

This summer Seattle has become one of the “it” cities in the cruise business, a convenient jumping-off point to Alaska and an attractive choice for couples, friends and families who, since Sept. 11, prefer domestic adventures to foreign ones.

Princess started cruises out of Seattle this year, while Holland began its regular Alaska-bound trips last year. Both will add second ships in 2004, when Celebrity Cruises will begin its push to capture the growing market.

Norwegian, which started cruises here in 2000, added a second ship this year.

More than 190,000 people will take the seven-day cruises out of Seattle this summer, eager to see a part of the country they’ll probably get to only once and enticed by the cruise-line credo of every amenity under one roof.

The Star Princess

Every week, the ships are full — from the slim, interior, no-view staterooms to the suites where champagne on ice awaits, as does a hot tub on a private balcony.

“This is more of a hassle-free vacation,” said Thomas Dow, a spokesman for Princess. “You don’t have to pack and unpack before you go someplace new. Our passengers will go to five or six places and be able to leave their bags here, shower, eat when they want, exercise when they want, go out for an evening, afternoon or morning walk.”

The ships, big as buildings, tributes to unrelenting indulgence, have transformed the weekend waterfront. And they have made everyone who has seen them think, if only for a moment: Am I a cruise person?

Many new cruise converts

Many who would have said no a few years ago are now saying yes. More families are going on cruises, with Princess, for example, reporting that of the more than 2,700 passengers on the Star in any given week, about 400 are children.

White-gloved Holland America stewards stand ready to greet passengers.

Cruise lines are offering more children’s activities, separate activity areas and splash pools, with Princess and Norwegian turning the atmosphere clublike. Common rooms are designed for different age groups, such as a kind of disco for 13- to 17-year-olds, where “mocktails” are served.

Diana and Darin Gee, of Burien, took a honeymoon cruise 20 years ago and decided this summer that a Princess cruise to Alaska — with excursions on shore and supervised activities on the ship — would be a vacation their children, Branden, 12, and Natalie, 7, could enjoy with them. They could be together much of the time, but apart and “still feel safe,” Darin Gee said.

Diana Gee said part of the appeal was “no flying. We just drove down to the ship, parked the car, and we’re off to Alaska.”

Badders and Kerklo, the women in the hot tub, took their trip, a church-group charter, with their 80-year-old mother, Priscilla Scott, of Erie, Pa. Scott uses a wheelchair, which limits the kinds of vacations she can take. On a cruise, nearly everything is accessible, and the variety of activities and proximity of the settings allow the daughters, for instance, to relax in the water while their mother reads a book a few feet away in the shade.

Those are the practical pluses. And cruise-line spokesmen and travel agents will go on about the new, “active” trends in cruising — the kayaking and mountain biking, helicopter rides and wildlife encounters that have changed a lot about who is drawn to a cruise vacation and how the trips are planned and marketed.

Satisfaction is key

But the key remains the ship and how relaxed, stimulated and glamorous the passengers are made to feel. If vacationers aren’t gratified to the extreme, there, the sight of the most majestic glacier won’t compensate.

Ernest Olah, violin, Attila Mohacsi, keyboard, and Karoly Horvath, bass, provide some zesty boarding music.

And so you have the Amsterdam, where musicians serenade you as you come aboard, where the staff greet you in white gloves, and where to add to the ambiance, $2 million in art and antiques decorate the corridors and public rooms.

Elegance is emphasized. The brochures talk of hand-dipped chocolates, always-full champagne glasses and dancing under the stars. At dinner, passengers are summoned “by the melodious call from the chimemaster as he walks the corridors.”

But this isn’t “An Affair to Remember.” And if it were, would Deborah Kerr leave her pink champagne for Norwegian’s 80-minute, $280, two-therapist, four-hand massage?

Would she and Cary Grant exfoliate and apply herbal clay to each other in the Princess’ Lotus Spa? Would you watch that movie?

The Norwegian Sky

“It’s popular,” Dow said of the intensely attentive offerings. “All these treatments have people who swear by them.”

The goal, for all the ships, is to provide quality and variety, said Erik Elvejord, spokesman for Holland America.

“The business is competitive,” he said. “We keep doing what we know people like and we keep adding.”

Passengers want more choices — more ways to unwind, work out, be entertained.

This explains why the Star Princess, the biggest ship sailing from Seattle, has four pools (including one under a roof) and nine whirlpools; three main dining rooms and seven restaurants and snack bars, three show lounges, 12 lounges and bars (some with entertainment), an art gallery, library and a wedding chapel called Hearts and Minds, where during a recent week, seven couples got married.

Plenty of choices

It explains why the Norwegian Sky, with its two pools and four hot tubs, boasts of high tea with white-glove service, the longest cabaret bar at sea, singles parties, gaming lessons, ice- and vegetable-carving demonstrations (more fun than it sounds?) and dining facilities, seven of them, that feature the likes of forest mushroom ravioli in roast onion broth and mille-feuille of sea bass with tomato concassée.

On their second cruise in a year, Ken and Sheila Jennings, of Salt Lake City, play shuffleboard before the Norwegian Sky departs for its weeklong trip to Alaska.

Still, away from the martini, sports and tapas bars and the Vegas-style shows, it’s possible to enjoy a cruise quietly.

Sheila Jennings works for the police department in Salt Lake City. Her husband, Ken, owns a sign shop.

“We want to see Alaska,” she said.

In October, they took Norwegian to the Caribbean, and confronted with all the temptations, they discovered shuffleboard.

On this trip, on Norwegian again, a board on one of the upper decks was among the couple’s first stops.

Gene Halsey, of Woodinville, said he doesn’t require much in the way of entertainment, either. Dinner with friends. Walks on the deck. Time with Aileen, his wife of 56 years. Views of the open water.

“It’s an absolute escape,” he said. “All I need.”

Staff reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report. Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or