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Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

By Elysa Leonard.

When I signed up for Windstar’s “Searching for the Sea of Cortez” cruise aboard the Star Legend  last October, from San Diego, California to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I knew it meant white-sand beaches, crystal blue waters, gorgeous sunsets, snorkeling with sea lions and tropical fish — and if I was lucky, some scuba diving.

Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez

The iconic arch of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is known for a diverse range of itineraries. Their ships are small and this gives them the flexibility to visit ports that the big ships can’t get to and in turn, enables them to develop creative itineraries that please loyal customers who keep coming back for more.

Star Pride pre stretch

Pre-stretch, the 212-passenger Star Legend in Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.

San Diego to Puerto Vallarta via The Sea of Cortez

The 7-night Sea of Cortez cruise began in San Diego, and started with two sea days, followed by a day in each port — Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and Loreto. There  was one last day at sea before the cruise ended in Puerto Vallarta. (For 2021, Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise route will be 10 nights and include two additional ports, Mazatlan and Ensenada.)

 Sea of Cortez cruise map

The 10-night Sea of Cortez cruise itinerary. * Photo: Windstar

Our trip was part of a long repositioning cruise for Star Legend as it made its way back to Italy for an extensive renovation and to be stretched. In the cruise ship world, stretching has become a fairly common way to “insert” new life into smaller, older ships.

The ship is literally cut in half and a new section, which was separately fabricated, is slipped into the middle section of the ship, like a puzzle piece. The new and improved Star Legend will have more suites, more dining options, a waterfall pool, more deck space, and overall updated modern feel throughout.

It will carry 312 passengers when it’s re-launched sometime in 2021.

(Due to the COVID-19 situation and subsequent shipyard delays, the stretching schedule has been pushed out; originally the Legend was to have re-launched in summer 2020. Currently the Star Breeze’s stretch and renovation is slated for a Q4 2020 completion, the Star Legend in first quarter 2021, and the Star Pride in Q2 2021.  Stay tuned for updates.)

You can read more about Windstar’s stretching plans for its trio of 212-passenger ex-Seabourn mini cruisers built in the 1990s in a great article by Anne Kalosh, below. (And we look forward to sharing articles about the Legend and her sisters post-stretch.)

RELATED: How Windstar Plans to Stretch 3 Ships.  by Anne Kalosh

While the interior will be vastly changed from what I experienced in October (2019) once Star Legend emerges from dry dock, I jumped at the opportunity to sample the Windstar experience. And so this article focuses on the Star Legend’s overall vibe; its food, service and the quality and nature of Windstar’s shore excursions, which have always been considered top-end.

A Recipe for Relaxation

Having the first two days at sea gave us time to explore the ship and bond with the crew and our fellow passengers. It also helped us get acclimated to our new day job… relaxing. As the ship’s Internet connection was weak while at sea, we took it as a sign to unplug and explore our new home for the week.

Windstar’s Star Legend had exactly the right ingredients for a relaxing small-ship cruise — large and luxurious suites with sliding glass doors, huge bathrooms and walk-in closets.

There were multiple dining venues, including outdoor options on deck, plus a spa, gym, small exercise pool and two hot tubs, perfect for sunset gazing.

The ship had 206 passengers onboard and there was never a moment that felt crowded, never a line to wait in, or a search for a deck chair.

In fact, sometimes you wondered where all the people were.

Below, a video tour of the Star Legend.

The Food — Plenty of Options

The dining options included the formal main dining restaurant, Amphora, where we enjoyed multi-course dinners made to order and paired with wine.

Veranda was a more casual option serving buffet-style breakfast and off-the-menu items for lunch. The Veranda transformed into a reservation-only Steakhouse restaurant called Candles in the evening.

Sea of Cortez Star Legend

Elysa & Bria enjoying Candles Sunset Dinner.

Room service had a good variety of options for breakfast, lunch or dinner and was available 24 hours a day.

On sea days, for those who wanted to dine al fresco (us!), lunch was served out on deck with live music. Delish dishes included Indian curry with rice, a Mexican taco bar with fresh salsa and guacamole, and a burger bar with steak fries and all the best picnic sides.

Sea of Cortez dinner

The James Beard Seared Scallops. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

BBQ Deck Party

Many of the passengers we met were Windstar alumni. They had been on several Windstar cruises all over the world and always looked forward to the famous deck BBQ offered on each cruise. The entire expanse of the lovely teakwood Deck 7 would be laid out for the event with table after table of salads, grills, seafood, hot plates, and saute’ stations.

crab legs served at deck party

Heaps of crab legs served at the deck party. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

There was also live music and dancing on deck.

The crew went to great lengths to make it special, including carving cute whimsical characters made out of vegetables, no detail was spared.

(Note, in the COVID-19 era, food at the BBQ deck party will now be plated and served by the crew.)

Vibrant Cabo San Lucas

Our Sea of Cortez cruise included three Mexican ports on the Baja Peninsula side of the Sea of Cortez, each with its own special vibe. Cabo San Lucas is a vibrant seaport surrounded by many open-air restaurants and bars, and even more luxury yachts and fishing boats.

My friend Bria went on a Windstar snorkeling and fishing excursion (highlighted in my video further on in the article). For me, I couldn’t resist going underwater for some scuba time. I booked a private tour with a highly recommended dive operator, Cabo Private Guide. A private boat with a captain and a dive master catered just to me!

We explored two famous dive sites, Pelican Rock and Neptune’s Fingers, in the waters surrounding El Arco. This famous rocky arch is a landmark at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

The classic Arch in Cabo. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My tour guide for the day, Adrian, pointed out the beach on the Atlantic side of the rocks was called “Lover’s beach.” The water was calm and perfect for swimming. However, on the Pacific Ocean side, the beach was called “Divorce Beach,” because of its dangerous undertows, rip tides and large waves.

We stayed on the “Lover’s Beach” side for our diving and enjoyed calm seas, beautiful corals and fish.

Sea of Cortez beach stops in Cabo

One of Cabo’s dreamy beaches. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The World’s aquarium

Jaques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez, the world’s aquarium, and now I know why.

The two dive sites were only a few minutes boat ride from each other, they were pristine and the amount of fish and sea life was remarkable. We saw more than 50 species of tropical fish, which is more than I have ever seen in one day of diving.

Just to name a handful, we saw pacific trumpetfish, reef cornetfish, leopard groupers, Cortez rainbow wrasse, panamic green morays, jeweled morays, giant hawkfish, moorish idol, yellowtail surgeonfish, finescale triggerfish, three banded butterflyfish, black nose butterflyfish, guineafowl pufferfish, sharp nose pufferfish, Mexican goatfish, porcupinefish, Cortez round rays and golden cownose rays.

The environment was healthy with many baby pufferfish and eels thriving in the corals.

Here is just a small sampling of the fish we saw:

Snorkeling, Sunbathing & Exploring in La Paz

Our second stop was in La Paz, which means peaceful, and it was completely opposite from our first day in Cabo. This small, sleepy Mexican town was much more traditional. We were greeted by a mariachi band and escorted to our small boat for a tour of the area and a stop at a small island to laze around on Balandra beach and  snorkel with sea lions.

There were also blue footed booby birds; yes the same cool birds you can see in the Galapagos Islands — they migrate to Mexico in the winter.  

Beautiful Beach on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Beautiful Balanga Beach in La Paz. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This Windstar excursion was well executed; the tour operators were great and the tour wasn’t over-crowded. 

We returned to the ship by lunchtime and decided to go out and explore La Paz. We found a small boutique hotel with a restaurant that had a view of the turquoise blue water.

La Paz stop on Sea of Cortez cruise

A view of the sea from this lovely hotel restaurant. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

They served fresh raw ahi tuna with spicy cucumber relish on homemade tostadas.

It was the best of both worlds, a morning excursion and then just enough time to do a little more exploring and get a “taste” of the town. 

Raw Ahi Tuna Tostada in La Paz

Our delicious raw ahi tuna tostada. * Photo: Bria Lloyd

Loreto’s Coronado Island & the Sea Lions!

One of the most exciting things that I thought I would check off my bucket list on this trip was snorkeling with whale sharks. Unfortunately, the Mexican government squashed that dream for now.

We were in Loreto just a few weeks too early and there were not enough whale sharks in the area for the government to open the National Park for the season, so sadly the excursion was canceled.

Instead, we joined a trip to Coronado Island which was 10 miles off the coast of Loreto.

Loreto on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Lovely Coronado Island. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This was by far my favorite excursion besides my diving trip in Cabo. It was well planned out and included multiple stops and cool things to do.

We started out snorkeling on the edge of the island and then hopped back into the boat and headed to another outcropping of rock formations that was home to a colony of very friendly sea lions.

Sea lions colony, Loreto, Mexico

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) sunbathing on a rock near Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

We hopped back into the water and got to swim with them. They were very curious and came within a few feet of us. What an experience!

Here’s a peek:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qjSGswTspM&feature=youtu.be

Once back in the boat, we enjoyed views of the stunning  volcanic rock formations that rimmed this uninhabited island.

We then turned the corner of the island and the captain asked us if we liked dolphins. Just as we all said yes, a large pod of dolphins started swimming alongside our boat, as if on cue. They jumped out of the water to greet us.

He slowed down and let us take photos and enjoy them before heading to an uninhabited sandy beach. There, we spent time sunning, snorkeling and enjoying a feast complete with a grilled freshly-caught grouper.

The fish was served with tortillas, fresh salsa, and guacamole — a lovely lunch. Afterwards, we still had some time to stroll into town and do some shopping.

Below, enjoy this overview of our Windstar excursions: 

We returned to the ship for our last two evenings, with one more full day at sea as we crossed the Sea of Cortez to the mainland of Mexico for our final stop in Puerto Vallarta. Our flight home left early so unfortunately there was no time for a tour of this city, just a taxi ride from our port to the airport.

Windstar’s Loyal Fans

Small-ship cruises tend to have very loyal passengers, as the experience is more intimate and the destinations are special and often off-the-beaten-path. Happy passengers come back again and again to recapture the experience with new destinations.

But the extreme loyalty that we saw with Windstar was quite special. It wasn’t passengers taking two or three cruises with this line, it was 10 to 20 or even more. People were taking multiple trips a year, staying on for more than one week back-to-back and they gushed as they shared stories about past Windstar cruises. 

Don’t just take my word for it, you can listen below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkGQwDfAyRc

Since returning from the trip, I have spoken to some new passenger friends who have already booked another Windstar cruise. It’s clear Windstar has figured out a secret recipe for success.

They know how to make their passengers feel like the ship is their ship, with a welcoming crew that becomes part of the passengers’ extended family. Imagine traveling the world with a crew that makes you feel safe and relaxed, and knows you like your martini shaken not stirred. 

Why would I cruise with Windstar again? They have the right mix of casual fun and luxury. The small size means interesting destinations and unique excursions.

2021 Windstar Cruise Schedule

(Note, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.)

The 312-guest Star Breeze (the first to emerge from the lengthening/renovation) is slated to debut in the Caribbean on January 2, 2021. It will sail on several Caribbean itineraries and then through the canal/up the coast of Mexico and the U.S. West Coast before it heads to Alaska for the summer. Here’s a link to Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise options for 2021.
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit is to resume sailing in Tahiti starting January 7, 2021.

The 148-passenger Wind Star will restart sailing Jan. 16, 2021, with Costa Rica and Panama Canal sailings and then head to the Mediterranean in April 2021.

The 312-guest Star Legend begins sailing April 7, 2021 in the Mediterranean and then Northern Europe.

The 312-guest Star Pride will begin sailing July 25, 2021 in Northern Europe.

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Québec's Baie-Comeau

Canada Bans Cruise Ships Through Oct.

By Anne Kalosh.

Canada extended its ban of most cruise ships through October. This effectively kills the Alaska, Canada/New England, Great Lakes and Canadian Arctic cruise seasons for most operators.

canada cruise ban equals no Northwest Passage cruises

Canadian Coast Guard ship in the Northwest Passage will have no cruise ships to watch over. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Applies to ships carrying more than 100 people

Only the smallest vessels are allowed, those with overnight accommodations for up to 100 people.

The decision had been expected given that COVID-19 is still not under control, especially in the neighboring United States.

“Large cruise ships will not be allowed in Canadian waters until at least Oct. 31,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced during a daily briefing. “This decision extends the one we made in March, which was taken to protect our coastal communities. COVID-19 is still a very serious threat.”

The new regulation is stricter than the March ban, which had applied to ships carrying more than 500 people, including crew.

Canada ban cruise ships to places like Montreal

CanadaNew-England cruises known for their fall foliage are curtailed. Here Montréal. * Photo: Cruise the Saint Lawrence

RELATED: Small Ship Lines Likely the First to Resume Operations.  by Anne Kalosh.

Expedition operators

Also, passenger vessels with the capacity to carry more than 12 people continue to be prohibited from entering Arctic coastal waters. including Nunatsiavut, Nunavik and the Labrador Coast, until Oct. 31.

This means no Northwest Passage expeditions or Canadian High Arctic adventures that are often paired with Greenland and Iceland.

polar bears in the High Arctic

No expedition ships will be taking travelers to see polar bears in the Canadian Arctic this summer. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

canada cruise ban means no northwest passage cruises

No Northwest Passage cruises this year. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Victory Cruise Lines

Coastal operator Victory Cruise Lines, which had earlier decided to field just one vessel instead of two on the Great Lakes this year, scrapped the program altogether shortly before Canada’s notice because there had been too much uncertainty.

John Waggoner, founder and CEO of Victory’s parent, American Queen Steamboat Co., called it “a tragedy for us because the Great Lakes were so well-received, with such positive reviews.”

Canada bans cruise ships

Victory Cruise Lines will not be able to sail the Great Lakes this year because of Canada’s cruise ship ban. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Impact on ports

Many ports will suffer economic losses without cruise ships. For example, the nine ports in the Cruise the Saint Lawrence association — Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Québec, Saguenay, Baie-Comeau, Sept-Îles, Havre Saint-Pierre, Gaspé and Îles de la Madeleine — said the overall economic contribution of the 2020 season would have been $1 billion. This includes direct, indirect and induced impact, as well as 7,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The region had been looking at a record season.

Québec's Baie-Comeau

Québec’s Baie-Comeau will not have any cruise visitors in 2020. * Photo: Cruise the Saint Lawrence

U.S. ports suffer, too

Ports in Alaska and New England will suffer, too. Due to cabotage regulations, non-U.S. flag ships sailing round-trip from the United States need to stop at a foreign port. Without being able to call in Canada, those vessels won’t be able to operate Alaska and Canada/New England itineraries.

However, one ray of hope for small-ship fans: U.S.-flag operators like Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Blount Small Ship Adventures and UnCruise Adventures don’t need to touch a foreign port, so they could still sail in Alaska and New England, provided states and communities allow it.

Safari Endeavour in Frederick Sound AK

Small ships like Safari Endeavour operated by UnCruise can still operate all Alaska sailings, as there’s no need to stop in Canada and they are not subject to the U.S. no-sail order. * Photo: UnCruise

Also, their ships are exempt from the United States’ current COVID-19-related no-sail order because they carry fewer than 250 people (passengers and crew) each.

RELATED: Alaska Adventures with UnCruise.  by Judi Cohen.

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AQSC will return to service soon

First to Resume Cruise Operations.

by Anne Kalosh.

With parts of the United States beginning to open and small passenger ships exempt from the COVID-19 no-sail order, it’s possible U.S.-flag lines will be cruising this summer.

American Cruise Lines hopes it could be the first to resume cruise operations. The aim is to restart service initially on three ships: American Song on the Columbia and Snake rivers, American Harmony on the Lower Mississippi and American Constellation in Alaska.

American Queen Steamboat Co has also just announced they plan to return the American Empress to service on July 6 in the Pacific Northwest.
June 20 from Portland

The plan is for American Song to embark June 20 in Portland, Oregon, on a Columbia and Snake rivers itinerary to Clarkston, Washington. American Harmony would sail June 28 from Memphis, bound for New Orleans. American Constellation would follow in June/July in Alaska.

This plan seems different from the stream of continuously changing cruise line announcements about when operations are “scheduled” and is perhaps a more credible possibility given American’s small vessels and its close relationships with local communities and states.

“We feel our ships are perfectly designed to be one of the first to return to service,” said Paul Taiclet, vice president of hotel operations, American Cruise Lines. He stressed this is a collaboration with ports and communities to “make sure they’re comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Resume Cruise Operations

American Song is targeted to begin sailing from Portland, Oregon, on June 20. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

“We’re working on a safe, comprehensive plan to put ships back into service that will satisfy the communities and keep guests safe and crew safe,” he said.

Customers want to travel

According to Taiclet, American has gotten a “very favorable response” from customers booked on these sailings, along with people on canceled cruises who are eager to travel.

“Our guests like the idea of staying within the United States and some live within driving distance of the ports,” he said.

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Ships carrying under 250 souls not part of no-sail order

Besides American, lines like American Queen Steamboat Co., Alaskan Dream Cruises, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, UnCruise Adventures and others field ships carrying fewer than the 250-person threshold in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order.

As the CDC stated in its April 15 rule:

“Based on substantial epidemiological evidence related to congregate settings and mass gatherings, this order suspends operation of vessels with the capacity to carry 250 individuals or more. Evidence shows that settings as small as nursing homes or movie theaters can proliferate the spread of a communicable disease.

“As the numbers of passengers and crew on board a ship increases, certain recommended mitigation efforts such as social distancing become more difficult to implement. In light of the demonstrated rapid spread of this communicable disease in current cruise ship settings, application of this order to vessels carrying 250 or more individuals is a prudent and warranted public health measure.”

But many factors come into play in order to resume cruise operations

Whether these small ships can resume sailing, however, is up to state health authorities, ports and local communities. Do state health officials deem conditions are safe to allow travel and do governors agree? Would passengers from other states and regions be allowed? Will ports open to these ships? Will communities want these visitors?

Taiclet stressed American will operate only if states want that, too.

“The most important thing is that we do this safely for the guests, the ports and the crew,” he said.

American’s initial three itineraries involve Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana; Oregon and Washington; and Alaska. Depending how the first cruises go and the timeline for opening other parts of the country, American hopes additional ships could resume in July with most of its fleet sailing in August.

Restoring confidence in ship travel

But will people feel it’s safe to travel by ship? Will crew want to return to work?

Lines like American, UnCruise Adventures and others say their loyal customers in particular want to sail and, according to Taiclet, his company’s crew are “eager” and “excited” to get back to their jobs.

Still, as an UnCruise Adventures spokeswoman pointed out: The travel industry as a whole, and particularly cruise operators due to the negative impressions of the pandemic, will need to assure people it is safe to travel.

Small-ship lines are betting people will feel more comfortable on vessels with less crowding, on coastal or inland itineraries that don’t take them far away with the potential of being stuck at sea or in a remote foreign port should a breakout occur.

Anyway, for Americans wishing to roam in the coming months, domestic destinations may be the only ticket available.

“We also have close relationships with the small communities we visit, and we don’t want to go anywhere that would cause uncertainty,” the UnCruise spokeswoman continued. “We are working with local and state municipalities to affirm details and are looking at mid-July to resume operations.”

Uncruise plants to Resume Cruise Operations

Safari Endeavour in Frederick Sound AK. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Detailed new health protocols

The fact that small-ship operators are publicly detailing their enhanced health protocols when many big-ship lines aren’t saying much for now suggests these domestic U.S. operators expect a quicker return to service.

All are talking about pre-screening of passengers and crew for health conditions, added screening at embarkation, changes to allow social distancing on board, heightened cleaning and sanitation and special procedures for port visits/shore excursions.

Occupancy reduced to 75 percent

At American Cruise Lines, ship occupancy will be reduced to 75 percent initially to ensure social distancing, and Taiclet said there is plenty of public space, along with private stateroom verandas, on the three ships that would begin first.

American Song would not carry more than 180 passengers, American Harmony would be capped at 190 and American Constellation at 175. This makes 450 square feet of space per guest.

ACL plans to Resume Cruise Operations

American Cruise Lines will initially limit occupancy to 75 percent. Here, American Harmony, which sails the Mississippi. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

American also teamed with a seasoned healthcare provider, Vikand Solutions, to manage medical operations, support shipboard virus prevention, screen/test guests and crew before they embark and collaborate with ports and shoreside healthcare facilities.

On the ships, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are independent for each stateroom and public space, so air is not recirculated in different areas.

Restaurant capacity will be reduced, and there will be no buffet service. In-stateroom dining can be arranged. Personal protective equipment will be provided on the ship and for guests at each destination, where recommended. Certain shipboard staff will be required to wear PPE.

Shore excursion motor coach capacity will be held to 50 percent. American charters its coaches for exclusive use and they follow the ship. The vehicles will be sanitized before every boarding. The line includes tours on the Lower Mississippi and in the Pacific Northwest so participation is high, ensuring a more controlled environment.

Adding a medical facility and nurse to each ship

Vikand Solutions will provide each vessel a nurse, supported by a shoreside doctor and other medical professionals, and take care of health situations, assessment and an outbreak plan. COVID-19 testing will be available on board, with protocols to be determined as the science evolves. Rooms on each ship will be set aside for isolation, if needed.

Before COVID-19, American did not have medical centers or nurses. As a domestic, inland operator, it was not required to do so. The company is now taking these extra proactive steps to ensure a higher level of safety.

Additional training for crew will cover the new operating protocols and heightened sanitation practices. PPE will be provided for positions like housekeeping and galley staff.

American Queen Steamboat Co.

AQSC‘s partner is Ochsner Health, a system that serves Louisiana, Mississippi and the Gulf South. (The company plans to announce a healthcare partner for its Pacific Northwest itineraries on American Empress in the coming weeks.)

AQSC has partnered with Ochsner Health.

AQSC has partnered with Ochsner Health.

Ochsner Health will conduct assessments of American Queen, American Duchess and American Countess and work with AQSC to implement disease prevention and mitigation strategies across the fleet. Also, Ochsner will reassess the AQSC vessels on a monthly basis and update recommendations as needed based on scientific data and CDC recommendations.

AQSC wants to Resume Cruise Operations

AQSC plans new dining room procedures to enhance safety. Here, American Duchess. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Virtual access to experts

A virtual clinic, powered by TytoCare, will allow employees and passengers access to shoreside healthcare professionals, including infectious disease experts.

In addition, each vessel will carry a certified medical representative to assist with urgent medical care, implement quarantine procedures and coordinate shoreside medical assistance. In an emergency, AQSC and affiliate Victory Cruise Lines have the ability to quickly transfer anyone to facilities ashore by coordinating pick-up at municipal landings and docking facilities.

Ochsner Health personnel will oversee the pre-boarding screening process and assessments for all itineraries embarking in New Orleans, and AQSC plans to identify healthcare partners for its other ports.

Elevated safety protocols include pre-cruise screenings, crew screenings, updated boarding processes, increased sanitation measures and systems like MXP Protect, which incorporates the use of thermal imaging.

AQSC is planning on Resuming Cruise Operations

Embarkation on AQSC vessels like American Queen will include a temperature check with thermal cameras. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Sister brand Victory Cruise Lines

Victory Cruise Lines, operated by AQSC, will implement similar health and safety protocols when it resumes its operations on the Great Lakes and Canadian Maritimes in 2021 (Victory just canceled its 2020 season.) Note, Victory’s two coastal ships are flagged to the Bahamas, not the U.S.

Prior to embarkation, all passengers and crew will have to complete a health questionnaire and a medical travel screening survey. At the pre-cruise hotel, medical personnel will screen each guest and conduct a temperature check. Boarding will be denied to anyone deemed to pose a health risk.

There’s a 24-hour window between the pre-cruise hotel stay and vessel embarkation.

Once people are cleared during the pre-cruise process, embarkation will be conducted via one controlled access point with thermal cameras supplementing the manual temperature checks of the pre-cruise screening.

An on-board medical representative will conduct the gangway screening, complete the health and safety survey and provide reports to the master and hotel director.

Monitoring during the cruise

Throughout AQSC voyages, trained staff will maintain protocols and observe passengers and crew for symptoms. Anyone who has an elevated temperature, shows signs or symptoms of illness or who vessel management determine needs further assessment will be sent directly to a local medical partner for evaluation and testing. Anyone testing positive for a contagious condition won’t be allowed to rejoin the vessel.

Using MXP Protect, AQSC will be able to monitor critical areas on board with thermal scanning. All passengers and crew will be monitored by passive thermal imaging when returning to the vessel in addition to random manual screening.

Public room/stateroom cleaning

And there’s more, much more that AQSC is doing.

Increased sanitation of all contact surfaces such as handrails, tables, chairs, desks, work surfaces, door handles, telephones and elevator controls — both front and back of house — will be conducted hourly with an all-chlorine solution.

All public and crew spaces will be fogged twice daily and multi-purpose disinfecting wipes will be made available in staterooms.

Cabin staff will clean and sanitize all surfaces of the room and use an EPA-approved disinfectant spray, as well as Protexus Electrostatic Sprayers to fog staterooms daily.

AQSC will fog cabins daily

AQSC’s heightened sanitation measures will include fogging staterooms daily. Here, an American Duchess suite. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Self-service buffets are suspended, and waiters will be stationed at buffets to serve food. Crew will minimize guest touch points by manually entering cabin numbers rather than using guest swipe cards and by replacing communal items such as salt/pepper pots, sugar bowls and butter bowls with single-serve packets.

Tables, chairs and countertops will be sanitized on the hour or when vacated by the guest, and menus will be printed on single-use paper and discarded after each use. All table items will be removed each time a table is vacated. All crockery, glassware and cutlery will be washed even if unused. Self-service areas are suspended in the bars, too, and individual bowls of bar snacks will be available on request.

Deck rails, swimming pools, the gangway and other external hard points will be sanitized at least every hour when in use, with the gangway sanitation occurring every half-hour when in use.

Motor coaches will be reduced to a maximum 52 percent capacity. Bus seats, windows and handrails will be sanitized with an EPA-recommended solution daily before boarding and every hour when in use. Liquid hand sanitizer dispensers will be available at the door. All shore excursions will be conducted within the guidelines of the local municipalities visited.

Alaska will be very different this season

If small-ship lines do resume sailing in the coming months, they may have some places to themselves, given many big-ship cancellations in regions like Alaska and Canada/New England.

“Sailing in Alaska this season will be more pristine than ever, and not likely duplicated anytime soon,” according to Capt. Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures.

Capt. Dan Blanchard with Wilderness Adventurer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

He added that Alaska “has always had my heart. I’ve sailed there since I was a boy and I’m excited to get back on board. With anything we do, we will respect local community requests and in part, our sailings are determined by the market.”

RELATED: Alaska Adventures with UnCruise.  by Judi Cohen

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RELATED: A QuirkyCruise.com Q&A with UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard about the new seven-member US Small-Boat Operators Coalition.

 

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Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

Alaska Expedition Cruises.

By Anne Kalosh.

This year’s Alaska cruise season is looking more tenuous as time goes by. Due to port closures and no-sail orders, big-ship stalwarts like Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, at this point, plan just Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., round trips, not the one-way itineraries between Vancouver and Whittier or Seward, and no add-on land tours. Cunard canceled its Alaska season outright, and Norwegian Cruise Line is not sending a fourth ship there after all.

Of the small-ship (Quirky-sized) operators, Windstar Cruises scrapped its 2020 itineraries, too, because Star Breeze is still at the Fincantieri shipyard in Palermo, Italy, where work stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Quirky Cruise detailed earlier, Star Breeze is being lengthened and updated. Instead of debuting in Alaska, the “stretched” ship is now expected to re-enter service in the Mediterranean.

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Victory Heads North

All of this is to say there’s a lot of uncertainty about Alaska expedition cruises for 2020; and about all cruises for 2020. For that reason, many avid cruisers are looking at 2021 instead. And that’s also when there will be a new choice in Alaska to make things even more enticing.

Known best for its Great Lakes itineraries, Victory Cruise Lines (operated by American Queen Steamboat Co.) will introduce its first expedition voyages in The Great Land using a brand-new ship, Ocean Victory.

Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

The 200-passenger Ocean Victory with its distinctive X-Bow profile. * Rendering:vVictory Cruise Lines

Vancouver-Sitka Itineraries

These new “Discover Beyond” adventures sail northbound, from Vancouver to Sitka (11 nights), and southbound, from Sitka to Vancouver (12 nights).

A world-class city, Vancouver offers bountiful museums, parks, a noted aquarium and great restaurants and nightlife. Sitka is a picturesque city of Russian heritage and the starting point for pre- or post-cruise adventures, such as a visit to Glacier Bay National Park.

Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

The cruises sail between Vancouver & Sitka.

Ocean Victory

Equipped with 20 Zodiacs and dozens of kayaks, Ocean Victory will enable in-depth explorations of Alaska’s natural, historic and cultural treasures. Victory is working with California Polytechnic State University to carry marine biologists, scientists and naturalists among its expedition team of 19 to lead excursions and give lectures.

The 200-passenger Ocean Victory, currently under construction in China, is among the Infinity series of expedition vessels ordered by Miami’s SunStone Ships for charter to a variety of operators.

The Infinity vessels sport Ulstein Design’s patented X-Bow for a smoother ride and reduced noise and vibration. Rolls-Royce zero-speed stabilizers reduce rolling, and a dynamic positioning system eliminates the need for anchors in sensitive areas.

Ocean Victory measures 8,500 gross tons and stretches 104.4 meters/342.5 feet. It has 93 suites, 68 with balconies, nine with French balconies and 16 with panoramic windows.

Ocean Victory cabin in Antarctica

Ocean Victory balcony suite. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Two restaurants and an open-deck dining area provide choice.

Observation and lecture lounges, a piano bar, library, gym, spa, heated outdoor pool, pool bar and Jacuzzi are among the amenities. A dedicated launching platform will facilitate Zodiac and kayak adventures.

The ship will be served by 100 crew for a high 1:2 crew-to-guest ratio.

Alaska Expedition cruises

With its big windows, the Observation Lounge will be ideal for viewing Alaskan nature and wildlife from the ship. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Library aboard Ocean Victory in Alaska

And views from the library, too. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

gym on Ocean Victory in Alaska

Workout with a view in the gym. * Rendering: Victory Cruise Lines

Fjordland Conservancy

Itinerary highlights include Fjordland Conservancy, one of Canada’s newest marine parks, home to wolves, deer, eagles, bears and humpback whales. At Kynoch Inlet, a dramatic waterfall drops into a majestic fjord.

Conditions permitting, passengers will explore the Inlet’s Culpepper’s Lagoon with Victory’s naturalists.

Metlakatla & Misty Fjords

Ocean Victory will also visit Ketchikan, “Salmon Capital of the World,” with the opportunity to fish right from Creek Street.

Visit Ketchikan on an Alaska Expedition Cruise

Salmon is big in Ketchikan. * Photo: Seanna O’Sullivan Photography

Metlakatla provides immersion into the rich culture of the Tsimshian people, including a private visit to a long house for a performance by one of Alaska’s best dancing groups. At Misty Fjords National Monument, travelers find lush greenery, granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls wrapped in gossamer mist.

Russian History & Tlingit Culture

Wrangell was originally a Russian settlement, however the Tlingit people were in the region long before Russian traders settled there. Besides learning about Tlingit culture, travelers can look for bears at Anan Creek, take jet boat rides on Stikine River, go charter fishing or see ancient petroglyphs.

Another highlight is Baranoff Island’s eastern coast, where naturalist guides will lead explorations by kayaks and Zodiacs to tucked-away bays at the base of sheer mountains and cliffs.

Also known as “Little Norway,” Petersburg was settled by Norwegians who thought the area looked just like home.

Directly across the water is Kupreanof Island, with hiking trails, while a floatplane experience provides a bird’s-eye view of LaConte Glacier and its dramatic ice fields.

Tracy Arm & Endicott Arm

Rivaling Norway’s fjords, Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm contain the magnificent Sawyer and Dawes glaciers. The 12-night itinerary from Sitka spends two days there, with visits to Tracy Arm, Endicott and Ford’s Terror Wilderness. The 11-night itinerary from Vancouver spends one day and visits Tracy or Endicott, depending on the ice conditions.

Alaska Expedition cruise excursions in zodiacs

Zodiac excursions take you close up to glaciers and ice fields. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Whale country

After a morning visit to the Tlingit village of Kake, Ocean Victory will travel through whale country. As the home of the Five Finger Whale Research Center, the Frederick Sound is world famous for viewing humpbacks, orcas and Dall’s porpoise. A hydrophone will be used to hear the underwater sounds.

Whales on Alaska Expedition cruises

Ocean Victory will travel through whale country. * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Fares for the 11-night northbound cruises on May 21, June 11, July 2 and 23, Aug. 13 and Sept. 3, 2021, start at $4,199 per person. The 12-night southbound cruises, on May 31, June 21, July 12, Aug. 2 and 23 and Sept. 13, start at $4,999. A one-time “Hidden Coast” itinerary, 11 nights, from Vancouver to Seattle on Sept. 24, is priced from $4,199.

Port fees, taxes and gratuities are extra.

Ocean Discoverer Joins in 2023

Victory Cruise Lines is chartering a second expedition new build, Ocean Discoverer, to join sister ship Ocean Victory in Alaska in 2023.

For more info on Victory’s Alaska expedition cruises, go to Victory Cruise Lines’ website.

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Viking Mississippi River Debut

Viking Mississippi River Debut for 2022

by Anne Kalosh.

It has been a long time coming but river-cruise giant Viking plans to begin plying the Mississippi in August 2022. The line is going big and modern with a 386-passenger, five-deck vessel it’s building in Louisiana. [The passenger count is above QuirkyCruise’s 300 cut-off,  but we make exceptions sometimes as we want to report on this!]

Named Viking Mississippi, the vessel is inspired by Viking’s existing river and ocean ships and will feature clean Scandinavian design along with public spaces that are familiar to brand loyalists but reimagined for the Mississippi.

And “no paddlewheels — real or fake,” Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen said.

Viking Mississippi River Debut

Viking Mississippi — five decks high and modern design with no paddlewheel. * Rendering: Viking

Viking itineraries cover Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and Egypt. Yet Hagen said loyalists continue to list the Mississippi as “the river they most want to sail with us.” It is “closer to home for many of our guests,” he continued, “and no other waterway has played such an important role in America’s history, commerce and culture.”

Lower & Upper Mississippi

Viking Mississippi will sail the Lower and Upper Mississippi, between New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota. Ports currently scheduled span seven states: Louisiana (besides New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Darrow and St. Francisville), Mississippi (Natchez and Vicksburg), Tennessee (Memphis), Missouri (Hannibal, St. Louis), Iowa (Burlington, Dubuque and Davenport), Wisconsin (La Crosse and Red Wing) and Minnesota (St. Paul).

The core itineraries are eight days and include “America’s Heartland,” cruising between St. Louis and St. Paul. This Upper Mississippi voyage sails past farms nestled in rolling terrain and steep bluffs rising from tributaries dotted with wooded islands, and traverses locks and dams. Travelers will hear stories about westward migration, Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, John Deere, and the Amish and Norwegian settlements. They’ll experience regional music like polka and Norwegian folk and taste local beer, produce and Wisconsin cheese.

Exploring the Lower Mississippi, “Heart of the Delta,” between New Orleans and Memphis, delves into areas where the French and Acadians settled, the Civil Rights movement and the music of the South — jazz, blues and gospel. Travelers will get to dine on Cajun and creole dishes and Memphis dry-style barbecue, rubbed with salt and spices.

“Southern Celebration,” cruising New Orleans-Vicksburg-New Orleans, also explores the Lower Mississippi, affording visits to historic homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. There will be opportunities to learn about Civil War history and tour sites like Vicksburg National Military Park. As well, travelers can discover the distinct flavors of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The 15-day “America’s Great River” spans nearly the full length of the Mississippi, between New Orleans and St. Paul. Viking Mississippi will travel from the Gulf of Mexico to the northernmost reaches of the U.S. This journey will present a variety of scenery, foliage and wildlife. Travelers can tour plantation houses in Natchez, retrace the steps of Civil Rights leaders in Memphis, ascend the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and visit “The Norwegian Valley” in La Crosse.

Big Views & Alfresco Dining

Viking Mississippi will sport expansive windows and a 360-degree promenade close to the water on Deck 1. A two-story Explorers’ Lounge is situated high up and facing forward adjacent to The Bow, an outdoor seating area with big river views.

Viking Mississippi River Boat's Explorer Lounge

The Viking Mississippi’s Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 1. * Rendering: Viking

An Aquavit Terrace on the top deck, ideal for American-style barbecues, and an indoor-outdoor River Cafe will provide ample alfresco dining opportunities. Besides American classics, the River Cafe will serve Norwegian specialties, recalling the Mamsen’s deli venues on Viking’s ocean ships.

The Viking Mississippi River Cafe

The Viking Mississippi River Cafe. * Rendering: Viking

A glass-backed pool will be situated aft on the Sun Terrace.

The Living Room on Deck 1 is designed for socializing, relaxing and entertainment, with a quiet corner housing a library.

Viking on the Mississippi

The Viking Mississippi Living Room. * Rendering: Viking

The Restaurant, the main dining venue, is also situated on Deck 1, and will serve daily-changing menus of regional dishes and always-available classics prepared with fresh, local ingredients.

Viking Mississippi's main restaurant

The main restaurant aboard the Viking Mississippi. * Rendering: Viking

Verandas or French Balconies

With 193 all-outside staterooms, Viking Mississippi has seven accommodations categories ranging from 268 square feet to 1,024 square feet. All have a private veranda or French balcony, king-size bed with luxury linens, large flat-screen interactive TV, mini-bar, large glass-enclosed shower, heated bathroom floor and 24-hour room service.

Viking Mississippi's Deluxe Veranda cabin

The Viking Mississippi’s Deluxe Veranda Stateroom. * Rendering: Viking

The top-of-the-line Viking Suites have two rooms and a full-size veranda off the spacious sitting room. Travelers in Penthouse Junior Suites (400 square feet) and Terrace Suites (425 square feet) get early room access, expanded double-sink bathroom, mini-bar with alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, water and snacks replenished daily, welcome champagne and laundry, pressing and shoeshine services. Those in Explorer Suites (657 square feet to 1,024 square feet) additionally have a wraparound veranda and included Silver Spirits Beverage Package.

Viking Mississippi Penthouse Terrace Suite

The Viking Mississippi’s Penthouse Terrace Suite. * Rendering: Viking

Viking Mississippi's Forward Explorer's Suite aboard Viking Mississippi

Viking Mississippi’s Forward Explorer’s Suite Living Room on Deck 3. * Rendering: Viking

Enrichment and ‘Privileged Access’

Viking will extend its noted on-board enrichment program to the U.S. heartland. Destination performances are to showcase regional music, and guest lecturers will expand on art, architecture, history, culture and the natural world. “Privileged Access Local Life and Working World” experiences will open doors to places otherwise difficult to visit.

Travelers can take a guided kayaking trip in the Louisiana bayou, visit a working farm near the Quad Cities or immerse themselves in Cajun culture during a Privileged Access excursion to the Rural Life Museum of Louisiana State University.

RELATED: Viking to Offer “Privileged Access” Excursions to Egypt River Cruises. 

Inclusive Pricing

Cruise fares include one shore excursion in each port of call, alternative dining, all port charges and government taxes, beer and wine with lunch and dinner, self-service launderettes, 24-hour room service and Wi-Fi.

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Pacific Catalyst ship Westward

Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst operates a pair of historic wooden ships that have amazingly long and complex histories. Each carries no more than 12 passengers on primarily Southeast Alaskan itineraries to remote locations along the Inside Passage in search of adventure and wildlife under the sea, atop it, on shore and in the air. One of the vessels also cruises to Baja California.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

CATALYST II was built in 1931 as a state-of-the-art oceanographic ship for the University of Washington. In WWII she served as an armed vessel with a machine gun paced atop the pilothouse while carrying depth charges and patrolling the Aleutian Islands looking for Japanese submarines. After the war she worked for various companies, including mining operations, carrying an assortment of cargos. Some owners lived aboard the vessel. Then in the 21st century, she was converted to take up to 12 passengers and a crew of 4 or 5. Enjoy the fine craftsmanship aboard this wooden boat.

Alaska Catalyst II

The Catalyst II in Alaska. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

WESTWARD was completed in 1924 for the Alaska Coast Hunting and Cruising Co. and pioneered fishing, hunting and adventure travel in remote regions of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

Well-known passengers included Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, George Eastman, E.F. Hutton, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Hal Roach, John Wayne, and numerous other VIPs of the era.

During WWII, she became a patrol boat stationed off the California coast before returning to the Pacific Northwest, operating for 20 years as both private yacht and charter vessel. She now takes 11 passengers for her present owner; 12 if one is a minor.

Pacific Catalyst ship Westward

The handsome Westward. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Both sail at 8 knots and operate with their original diesel engines that in itself is a fine feature. Battery power allows them to travel silently for up to 12 hours, ideal for silent maneuvers to get close to animals on shore, creatures in the sea and in the air. Portholes may open or not depending on the cabin.

Diesel Engines of Pacific Catalyst ships

Both ships operate with their original diesel engines. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

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Passenger Decks

2 and not surprisingly, no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Adventuresome types who are serious explorers of the world around them.

Price

Pricey $$$

What’s Included

CATALYST: Excursions (including kayaks), plus wine and beer as well as other beverages are included (though not hard alcohol, which is BYOB).

WESTWARD: Excursions (including kayaks), plus on Sea of Cortez cruises, wine, beer and well spirits are included.

Pacific Catalyst kayaks

Kayaks tethered to the Westward in Alaska. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Itineraries

SE Alaska

Both ships spend the summer in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

  • 7 days in the eastern Inside Passage, Juneau to Petersburg and vice versa;
  • 7 days in the western Inside Passage;
  • 8 days from Juneau, Petersburg, and Sitka with anchorages at Admiralty, Baranof and Kupreanof Islands;
  • 7-, 8- and 10-day intensive touring in Glacier Bay National Park, when most small ships only spend one, while the big ships a half day.
Alaska glaciers

Cruising Alaska up-close and personal. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Depending on the destination, game seen may be black and brown bears, humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, mountain goats, and events such as calving glaciers, plus small isolated villages and the local culture.

Bears on an Alaska cruise

Getting close up to bears on a small-ship cruise. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

San Juan Islands

A 6-day cruise that visits a number of different islands, looking for Steller sea lions, orca whales, harbor seals, minke whales, Pacific Whiteside Porpoises. Drop anchor at Garrison Bay, the site of a British mid-19th-century encampment, to go exploring trails and shorelines. Kayak against the backdrop of stunning snow-capped Mt Rainier, and the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.

Check out Stuart Island for a climb to a lighthouse to watch passing ships and private yachts pass along the channel; Sucia Island with its geological and cultural histories, and also stands of madronas, a broadleaf evergreen tree that keeps its leaves throughout the winter; Matia Island with unique geological and topographical features; and finally a return Friday Harbor hopefully seeing more waterborne species.

Mt Rainier San Juan islands

The backdrop of Mt. Rainier. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Sea of Cortez

These 9- to 12-day cruises, from December to March, explore Baja California with activities such as snorkeling, kayaking and hiking, sometimes on nearby islands. Wildlife to see includes white sharks, sea lions, frigate birds, and gray whales. Lots of whales! Drive over to the west coast, Bahia Magdalena, for migrating whales seen from a panga while moving though a lagoon.

Baja whale watching

Baja whale watching. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Why Go?

Alaska: Serious pursuit of wildlife and while cruising in fjords, bays, narrow inlets, on and near islands, while aboard very intimate ships with personalized service.

When to Go?

Southeast Alaska — May to September.

Sea of Cortez — December to March.

Cabins

CATALYST II has upper and lower bunk cabins, double beds, some with private facilities and others shared.

WESTWARD has single and double bunks, private shower and toilet. Portholes may open or not.

Pacific Catalyst in Alaska

A cozy Westward cabin. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst

Another Westward cabin angle (3). * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Public Rooms

Both vessels have a dining-cum-lounge. And there’s a lounging space at the stern.

Pacific Catalyst ships

The back deck is a popular gathering place. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Dining

Where possible, organic food is sourced from local farmers and fisher folk in cruising areas — SE Alaska, San Juan Islands, and Baja California, especially seafood, fruit and vegetables.

fresh fish in Alaska

Smoked black cod fritters. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst food

A delicious shrimp chipotle handroll. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Activities & Entertainment

The crew is well versed in local history and know where the wildlife is located. Talks are informal and often on site when game is seen such as sea otters, sea lions, humpback whales, mountain goats, grey wolves, black and brown bears. Kayaking may be with a naturalist and hiking along nature trails.

kayaking

Both boats carry along kayaks. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Special Notes

Two historic vessels that have engaged in many different roles and have been lovingly looked after.

Along the Same Lines

Atlas Ocean Tours with its 6-passenger vessel ATLAS cruising the Inside Passage along the British Columbia coast.

Contact

Pacific Catalyst II, Inc. P.O. Box 3117, Friday Harbor, WA, 98250; 360-378-7123.

Captain Bill

Pacific Catalyst’s Captain Bill. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

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kayaking in Alaska

Alaska Expedition Style

By Cele & Lynn Seldon.

We have cruised in Alaska quite a bit over the years, but we had never done it expedition-style, on a small ship with few passengers, exploring the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s Inside Passage. So, we decided to pursue just that last summer and chose to take it one step further by sailing with Alaskan Dream Cruises—an Alaska Native owned and operated line—to immerse ourselves completely in the Last Frontier.

Whale watching in Alaska

Whale watching off the bridge deck of the Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Offering both “Signature” and “Adventure” itineraries, we decided to channel our inner explorer and chose the new seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” from Juneau to Sitka.

Inside Passage itinerary

The new seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” from Juneau to Sitka.

It offered more wilderness and a higher level of activity than many of their other itineraries,

We were attracted to the idea of hiking in rainforests, kayaking amongst the glaciers and exploring the glacial fjords of Alaska’s more remote locations—places the larger ships don’t go—instead of simply watching from the ship.

And, we weren’t disappointed.

kayaking in Alaska

Kayaking amongst the glaciers of Fords Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Our trip started with an overnight in Juneau to adjust to the time change and the light change. Yep, it’s true what they say about close to 20 hours of daylight in the summer.

After a good night’s sleep (with the blackout curtains tightly closed), we dropped off our luggage at the Alaskan Dream Cruises (ADC) hospitality desk in our hotel. Then we had the rest of the morning free to explore Juneau’s compact and very walkable downtown, as well as enjoy a cup ‘o joe and some breakfast at Juneau’s own Heritage Coffee Roasting Company’s Glacier Café.

We met back at the hotel at noon for an ADC-hosted tour of the Alaska State Museum featuring world-class exhibits on the history, art and culture of the diverse people of Alaska’s varied regions. One of the highlights for us was the more than 15,000 Alaska native objects that depicted daily life, as well as ceremonial events. Alaska’s Russian heritage was also well represented with varied objects from the Russian colonial era including one of only two bronze double-headed eagle emblems in the world, a medallion presented to Alexander Baranov by Catherine the Great, and much more from the period. We also enjoyed the extensive Alaskan fine art collection featuring paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures.

Afterward, we boarded a bus and headed 12 miles out of town to what would be the first of many glaciers to come, Mendenhall Glacier. With plenty of time to explore the glacier and take a hike, we knew we were off to a good start when we (and lots of other people) stumbled upon a mother black bear and two cubs off the boardwalk at Steep Creek Trail.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQApYMTFzVU

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The Cozy Admiralty Dream

Back on the bus, we drove the rest of the short distance to Auke Bay, the location of the 54-passenger Admiralty Dream, our home away from home for the next week. At 143 feet in length and with 27 cabins, the ship is the second largest in ADC’s five-ship fleet. And, with just 32 passengers onboard for this sailing, it was going to feel even more spacious.

The Admiralty Dream

The Admiralty Dream, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We were escorted to our cabin on the Upper Deck (there are three decks in total) and given a brief introduction to the few amenities. At 95 square feet, it wasn’t the smallest cabin we had experienced, but it was cozy. With two fixed twin beds along two of the walls, the third long wall consisted of a “shoilet” (a combined toilet and shower unit), a sink and vanity, and a closet. There was a small window next to the door that opened to let the fresh Alaskan air in and to watch the scenery sail by.

Although there was plenty of storage on shelves above the beds, underneath the beds and in the closet, there wasn’t a lot of room to move about. So we chose to let one person dress at a time while the other waited patiently on the bed or headed to the lounge for a cup of coffee. Perhaps next time, we’ll consider a larger cabin option or even a suite.

There weren’t any amenities found on most larger cruise ships (like television and copious electrical and USB outlets), but the beds were comfortable, and we slept like babies in our snug abode.

cabin aboard Admiralty Dream

The basic cabin aboard Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Alaskan Dream Cruises

We then headed to the lounge for our passenger welcome which, with such a small ship, wasn’t hard to find. Our expedition leader, also an Alaska native, did the introductions of the entire staff, explained the ship layout and details, gave us a brief rundown of the itinerary and performed a brief safety drill.

The lounge was a utilitarian space, with a well-stocked bar, plenty of seating, a 24-hour beverage station, fresh fruit and granola bars stashed on the bar and games, books, reference materials and a real-time radar map at the bow. The bulletin board leading into the lounge housed the weekly itinerary, staff bios, daily activities and any updates that would need to be disseminated.

bar on the Alaskan Dream Cruises

The Admiralty Dream bar. * Photo: Alaskan Dream Cruises

Related: Ted’s Alaska Small Ship Primer

Related: Big Ships vs Small Ships to Alaska

Mingling & Mealtime

Once we set sail, we enjoyed the first of nightly happy hours, along with featured hors d’oeuvres. It gave us an opportunity to size up the rest of the passengers, most of whom were fit and active 50- to 70-year olds, although there was a smattering of mid-30-year olds looking for a bit of adventure.

We were looking forward to a unique evening, in that the ship was making its first stop at the company-owned Orca Lodge for dinner. Located about 10 miles from Juneau, it is a private retreat along Stephens Passage that hosts a seafood feast for almost all ADC sailings. Since our itinerary was traveling from Juneau to Sitka, it was a wonderful way to kick off the cruise. Housed in a purpose-built resort setting with all the modern conveniences, amidst the idyllic wilderness of Colt Island and the sweeping snow-capped mountain views of Admiralty Island, it was a perfect spot to stop for the evening.

Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Featuring an open and bright dining room, gift shop, touch tank, deck with picnic tables, lawn games like cornhole, a simmering campfire and a beach for strolling in the near perfect weather, it had the makings of a quintessential Alaska evening. It was a great way to get to know our fellow passengers, enjoy a cocktail (the ship operates on a cash bar system, settled at the end of the cruise by cash or credit card), play a round of cornhole or listen to the Native interpreter tell Tlingit stories around the campfire.

When the dinner bell rang, it was a feast of Alaskan King Crab legs, salmon, prime rib, salad, sides and blueberry cobbler and chocolate fondue for dessert.

Alaskan King Crab legs

Alaskan King Crab legs at Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

For an authentic touch, they even had the fixings for s’mores over the open fire. Once back on board, we settled in for our first night’s sleep aboard Admiralty Dream as we set sail towards Glacier Bay.

Orca Point Lodge in Alaska

Cooking up s’mores over the campfire at Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Orca Point Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Related: QuirkyCruise contributor Judi Cohen’s UnCruise Alaska Adventure

Alaska — Day 1

Mornings on ADC offer an early riser continental breakfast in the lounge or open seating breakfast with a full menu, including a daily special, in the dining room a bit later.

In the wee hours, we had stopped at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve where a park ranger and Tlingit culturalist had boarded the ship. So, during breakfast, we enjoyed a birding lesson of what we’d be seeing in Glacier Bay over our eggs and salmon hash. Shortly afterwards, we spotted dozens of nesting tufted puffins, horned puffins, pigeon guillemots, cormorants and more on South Marble Island. There were also seals, sea lions, otters and even a humpback whale welcoming us to Glacier Bay.

This video from ADC highlights the wildlife you’re likely to see in Alaska.

As we continued sailing into 65-mile long Glacier Bay, we spent time chatting with the first mate in the open bridge, listening to a history lesson of Glacier Bay National Park in the lounge, and bird (and mountain goat) watching at Gloomy Knob.

We arrived at Reid Glacier just about noon and enjoyed the view over lunch in the dining room, featuring a daily choice of soup, two sandwiches, a salad or a burger (including a unique and tasty black bean option).

After lunch, we donned our ADC-provided rain jackets, pants, boots and lifejackets and broke into three groups for a Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB) ride to the gravel mouth of the glacier and a hike along the silt bed up to the mass itself. We were able to touch it and some even climbed its craggy face.

Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB)

DIB ride, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Reid Glacier

Exploring Reid Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

After a DIB ride back to the ship, we spent the rest of the day reading, chatting with other guests and quizzing the ranger about the history of Glacier Bay National Park. We asked him why some glaciers look blue (with little internal air or reflective surfaces, the frozen water is free of contaminants and the absorbed sun is transmitted through the ice and returns as blue) and about the mating habits of tufted puffins.

Happy hour featured smoked salmon with tomatoes, red onion and capers on crackers, while dinner was a three-course regional cuisine affair with a nightly choice of two salads, one soup, two entrees and dessert. Baked salmon and roasted chicken breast were available every night as ADC classics. One free beer or glass of wine is served with dinner, but you are on your own after that. As we enjoyed our meal, the increase of icebergs floating by let us know we were getting close to the epicenter of Glacier Bay.

Salmon in Alaska

Alaskan salmon dinner aboard the Admiralty Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Over dessert, we came into view of the crown jewels—Glacier Bay, Marjorie Glacier and Grand Pacific Glacier—and anchored for the night.

One of the biggest selling points of ADC ships is their ability to navigate and anchor in some of the most spectacular places within the Inside Passage due to their vessels’ small size.

Marjorie Glacier in Alaska

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

The rest of the evening was spent viewing these majestic glaciers on the bow and in the lounge, along with commentary by the park ranger. Although it was nighttime, it was still light enough to ooh and aah over the brilliant blue ice and occasional calving.

Alaska — Day 2

After a hearty Alaskan breakfast (think smoked salmon and blueberry pancakes), we donned our rain gear and went wildlife viewing in Geikie Inlet, where we spotted otters and bald eagles.

wildlife viewing in Glacier Bay National Park

Wildlife viewing at Geikie Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

As we pulled up the anchor to head to Bartlett Cove, we enjoyed lunch and a cultural session—complete with stories, music and regalia—with Mami, our onboard Huna Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador. She shared stories of her ancestors, sang native Tlingit songs and described what it was like to grow up in rural Alaska.

Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador in Alaska

Mami, the Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador aboard Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We spent the afternoon exploring Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove. The only commercial property within Glacier Bay National Park, the lodge features two Glacier Bay Visitor Centers, lodging, a restaurant, gift shop and Glacier Bay exhibits.

There are also hiking trails, kayak rentals, boat tours, a Tlingit totem pole and a Tlingit Tribal house with an on-site storyteller sharing history of the Huna people and their relationship with Glacier Bay. The evening was spent over cocktails, dinner and an evening presentation on plankton with the onboard naturalist.

Huna Tribal House, Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska

Huna Tribal House, Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Alaska — Day 3

Probably our favorite day of the cruise was spent surrounded by the waterfalls and icebergs of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, a very steep, narrow fjord carved out by glacial ice within Endicott Arm. With sign-ups for kayaking and DIB trips, all guests could take advantage of both throughout the day.

Kayaking lessons in Alaska

Kayak briefing. * Photo: Seldon Ink

We opted to be one of the first groups to kayak in the morning, in case we wanted to go out again in the afternoon. After a brief safety lesson, we boarded our tandem kayaks and were free to explore the massive waterfalls and stunning blue icebergs up close and personal.

kayaking among the icebergs

Kayaking amongst the glaciers in Fords Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Bret Love courtesy GreenGlobalTravel.com.

After a late-morning DIB ride deeper into Fords Terror, we enjoyed a second kayak paddle that afternoon and literally had the waterfalls and icebergs to ourselves.

Kayaking in Ford's Terror,

Kayaking in Ford’s Terror, Endicott Arm, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Warm cookies and hot chocolate were waiting back on the ship (as they were every afternoon), along with happy hour, dinner and communal whale watching from the lounge, bow or bridge as we set sail for our next destination.

Open bridge on an Alaska cruise

Open bridge of Admiralty Dream. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Related: Ted’s Alaska Adventures Over the Years

Alaska — Day 4

Hump day was spent in our only true port-of-call, the town of Wrangell (population 2,400). Groups boarded small buses for a morning tour, including a tour of the well-done Wrangell Museum. We paid a visit to the Native American natural rock carvings that depicted whales, salmon, native symbols and faces of the community at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site and we also did a mile-high hike up to Rainbow Falls.

Petroglyphs in Alaska

Petroglyphs at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site, Wrangell, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Afterwards, we enjoyed a fish chowder lunch on our own at Hungry Beaver Pizza & Marine Bar (they only serve their scratch pizzas after 4pm) and explored the charming Northern Exposure-esque town.

Alaska — Day 5

Back in natural Alaska, we spent the morning hiking up to Cascade Falls in Thomas Bay—divided into three groups: active, intermediate and leisurely. With a short DIB ride to the shore, each group took off deep into the rainforest for a moist hike following along the pounding waters coming off the mountain. The active group made it all the way to Falls Lake, while the other two groups enjoyed shorter versions and lots of Alaska flora and fauna.

The violent waters of Cascade Fall

The violent waters of Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay, Alaska. * Photo: Seldon Ink

Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay, Alaska

The crashing waters of Cascade Falls, Thomas Bay. * Photo: Seldon Ink

The plan after lunch was to take a DIB ride to Baird Glacier, but after a failed attempt by the first group—due to low tides—everyone spent the afternoon reading, napping, watching for wildlife or playing games in the lounge. Happy hour and dinner were pleasant affairs and the evening was spent with a Q&A about plankton with the naturalist and a bedtime story about the discovery of Alaska and how it impacts us today by the expedition leader.

Alaska — Day 6

The sun came out on our final day and we enjoyed an unseasonably warm hike through an old growth rainforest to Lake Eva on Baranof Island. Once back on board, a polar plunge was arranged off the stern of the ship for those interested. A hot bowl of smoked salmon chowder or spot prawn boil waited for lunch afterward.

Naturally the testosterone-leaning member of Team Seldon participated and he found himself questioning his manhood afterwards.

Another DIB ride to Basket Beach and a short walk for those interested was the afternoon activity.

After happy hour, everyone enjoyed the captain’s reception in the dining room, with the entire staff in attendance, the captain holding court and a celebratory dinner of Beef Wellington or butter braised halibut. The evening continued back in the lounge with a decadent dessert display and a slideshow recap of our wild week.

And, in fitting fashion, we were escorted by a group of frolicking orcas as we literally sailed into the sunset towards our port of disembarkation in Sitka.

For booking info, visit Alaskan Dream Cruises.

Read more about cruising Alaska on a small ship.

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Great Lakes Cruising with Promenade view

Great Lakes Cruising

By Peter Knego. 

After decades of cruising the seven seas and well over a dozen rivers, I was long overdue for a proper Great Lakes cruise. My introduction to North America’s vast and enchanting inland waterway was via a 10-day voyage this past May aboard Victory Cruise Line’s 4,954 gross ton, 202-passenger Victory I.

Victory I Great Lakes Cruising

Victory I glistens in the Muskegon sun. * Photo: Peter Knego

The replica coastal steamer, with her vertical prow, layer cake superstructure and open promenades was an especially attractive option, one that could easily be taken for a modern version of legendary steamers like the North American and South American, which once offered regular cruises through the five Great Lakes in the first half of the 20th century.

Built in 2000 as the Cape May Light for now defunct American Classic Voyages, the Victory I had a somewhat checkered career for different owners as the Sea Voyager and Saint Laurent until 2016, when Victory Cruise Lines purchased her for Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Caribbean cruise service.

Great Lakes Cruising aboard Victory I

In the Victory I’s most recent overhaul, the al fresco bar at the aft end of Deck 4 was transformed into an enclosed buffet eatery called The Grill.  * Photo: Peter Knego

In late 2018, rapidly expanding American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) scooped up Victory Cruise Lines and infused some much-needed cash into the Victory I and her twin, the Victory II, the former Cape Cod Light of 2001. Their stem-to-stern overhauls saw all cabins fitted with new bedding and soft fittings, the public spaces and decks refreshed and the machinery fine-tuned. In the process, an al fresco bar at the stern was enclosed and reconfigured as a casual buffet eatery and a small gym was added.

Under their new management, the ships operate in a similar fashion to the AQSC river vessels, albeit with an international, versus all-American, crew. AQSC, of course, provides a luxury, mostly-inclusive cruising experience with high-quality cuisine, a strong emphasis on local culture and included excursions in each port.

On the ambiance scale, the Victory ships fit somewhere between the gilded, velvety ornateness of the American Queen and the American Empress and the modern, airy vibe of the recently launched American Duchess.

Guests tend to be elderly, retired, affluent and in the case of our voyage, were mainly from the U.S., with a sprinkling of Canadians, Brits, Australians and Europeans. Evening dress on board is resort casual with men in slacks with collared shirts and ladies in comfortable country club garb.

During the Victory I’s second sailing for her new owners, there were some expected start-up issues but overall, thanks to her tireless, dedicated crew and a culturally rich and scenic itinerary, it was a wonderful experience that I would repeat in a heartbeat.

I am happy that Victory will be sailing from the Navy Pier in Chicago in 2020, so I can spare my tales of woe about the South Chicago pier that was used throughout the 2019 season. The Navy Pier is right in the heart of Chicago’s bustling waterfront and within walking distance of numerous attractions and restaurants. It will be an ideal place to begin this most interesting voyage.

The Layout

The Victory I has five guest decks, beginning at the top with Deck 5, which has open and sheltered deck spaces.

Great Lakes Cruising with Promenade view

Among the Victory I’s most charming vintage features are the promenades on Deck 4. The Category AA staterooms on this level are accessed via the promenade and have first dibs on the outdoor chairs to watch the scenery roll by. * Photo: Peter Knego

Deck 4 is dedicated to Category AA accommodations and has a forward terrace and an open promenade on each side.  At the aft end of Deck 4, the newly-enclosed The Grill is a casual alternate dining venue offering a buffet of limited selections. It is a convenient place to grab a quick bite and provides great views via a panorama of full-length windows.

Great Lakes Cruising

The handsome, mahogany-toned Tavern is located at the forward end of Deck 2. * Photo: Peter Knego

Deck 3 is fully devoted to accommodations while Deck 2 begins with the Tavern, a favorite pre- and post-dinner drink spot with dark beveled paneling and stained glass accents.

Compass Lounge board Victory I

The Compass Lounge is the go-to spot for most of the Victory I’s on board activities. * Photo: Peter Knego

Large enough to accommodate all guests in one seating, the Compass Lounge follows the Tavern. It features oversized crystal chandeliers, hammered tin ceilings, a large stage and a central dance floor and is used for port lectures, quizzes and evening music performances. There is a self-service coffee and tea station with an espresso machine in back and cases with books and games for guests’ use.

The Purser’s lobby on midships Deck 2 has an adjacent gym with two cardio machines and a small spa room/salon. The aft portion of Deck 2 is dedicated to accommodations as is the forward portion of Deck 1.

Great Lakes Cruising on Victory I

Shown facing aft, the Coastal Dining Room is Victory I’s traditional dining venue. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Coastal Dining Room is located on aft Deck 1 and offers buffet style breakfast with select menu items such as eggs to order and a full-service lunch and dinner.  Wines, beers, soft drinks and other non-premium alcoholic beverages are included in the fare and for lunch and dinner, there is a featured red and white selection.

The Cabins

After boarding, I quickly settled into cozy, well-appointed Category B stateroom 317, which measured approximately 146 square feet and featured two large picture windows.

Victory I's Category B cabin

Category B stateroom 317 was my comfortable home for ten days on the Victory I. * Photo: Peter Knego

Each newly refreshed cabin offers a queen or two single beds, plenty of storage space, complimentary Wi-Fi-access, a large flat-screen television with a wide selection of channels, individual climate control and a bathroom with a compact shower and L’Occitaine en Provence amenities.

Great Lakes Cruising in an owner's suite

Owner’s Suites are the largest and most deluxe accommodations aboard Victory I. * Photo: Peter Knego

The Victory I has seven overall categories of cabins from two forward-facing, 335 square foot Owner’s Suites that share a private terrace and boast separate living rooms and bedrooms, a fully stocked mini-bar and complimentary laundry service to 160 square foot Category E ocean views with picture windows and located at the bottom of the ship.

Victory I cabins on a Great Lakes Cruise

Category AA cabins on the Victory I are reminiscent of old steamer staterooms with their exterior access.  Otherwise, their layout is very similar to standard Category B, C, D and E staterooms. * Photo: Peter Knego

Among the most sought out staterooms are the Category AA’s, which measure 166 square feet and are similar to standard outside cabins (categories B through E) but are accessed from outside via the promenade on Deck 4. Reminiscent of staterooms on the old steamer Delta Queen, these cabins are ideal in perfect weather for their proximity to the open air and a deck chair but can be challenged during inclement weather and bug infestations (early Spring).

The magic began that evening when we settled into a booth on the port side of the Coastal Dining Room. From a waterline perspective, we toasted the backlit Chicago skyline as Victory I began to cross Lake Michigan.

Note: our itinerary was slightly altered from the standard published one thanks to another ship being at Mackinac Island on our originally scheduled date. Thus, our second day cruising the Lake was replaced with a previously unscheduled call at Muskegon, followed by a day of scenic cruising before visiting Mackinac Island (in lieu of our originally scheduled call at Sault Ste. Marie).

The Food

As for the food, for the first part of the cruise, it was nondescript but improved significantly when the chef was switched out in Detroit. From the get-go, the service, however, was sterling and within a day or two, the doting staff was effortlessly remembering guests’ names as well as dietary and drink preferences.

dining on a Great Lakes cruise

This is a vegetarian spring roll with chili sauce appetizer served aboard the Victory I. * Photo: Peter Knego

Bay of Muskegon

I awoke at dawn the second morning as Victory I plied through a thick fog in the outer bay of Muskegon. She eventually tied up at the waterfront park, where guests headed off on included excursions to Windmill Gardens in the nearby town of Holland and to visit the World War II vessels USS LST 393 and the USS Silversides submarine.

A local friend took me to the museum ship SS Milwaukee Clipper, a wonderful streamline ferry that used to sail between Chicago, Muskegon and Milwaukee.

Great Lakes Cruising and the Milwaukee Clipper

The Milwaukee Clipper should be prominently featured as a Victory Cruise Lines shore excursion option during calls at Muskegon. * Photo: Peter Knego

The lovingly preserved Clipper should be seen by all who visit Muskegon who have any appreciation for Great Lakes history and Art Deco architecture. Her interiors sport one of the world’s largest collections of Warren McArthur furnishings, which were specially commissioned for the ship in 1941, and there is a terrific museum in one of her former holds dedicated to Great Lakes passenger ships.

The following day “at lake” gave us a chance to ogle the Michigan coastline and get familiar with our ship and fellow guests.

A highlight was the Maharaja-themed tea in the Compass Lounge.

With members of the ship’s staff dressed to the nines in stylish uniforms and tea trays that included freshly made samosas among an array of Mughal-pastries, it was easy to imagine the Bay of Bengal instead of Lake Michigan beyond the picture windows.

Lake Heron

After a day cruising Lake Michigan, Victory I passed under the majestic Mackinac Bridge and entered Lake Huron. * Photo: Peter Knego

Just prior to dinner, I headed topsides to brave a chilly wind as the Victory I approached the magnificent Mackinac Bridge, one of the longest, most graceful suspension spans in the world.

Mackinac Island

With a storm on the way, we were granted permission to berth at picturesque Mackinac Island that evening, well before our scheduled arrival the following day. I walked off dinner on the quaint waterfront — where no cars are allowed and the smell of fresh Mackinac fudge and horse droppings permeated the senses.

Back aboard, as the rain began, I settled in the Compass Lounge to listen to the ship’s band play country music.  Each evening, the four-piece ensemble would take a stab at a different musical theme, from jazz to rock classics and regional folk songs.

A full agenda of excursions on the fourth day began with a horse-driven carriage ride from the waterfront up to the Fort Mackinac in a foggy, drizzle. After stopping at a lookout point called Arch Rock, we had time to wander Fort Mackinac and witness a cannon and rifle firing.

Mackinac Island on a Great Lakes Cruise

No visit to Mackinac Island would be complete without a horse-driven carriage ride along its quaint Victorian streets. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our next stop was the famed Grand Hotel, which boasts one of the world’s longest porches, for an included buffet lunch. On the National Register of Historic Places, it was built in 1887 and is renowned for its romantic Victorian-era architecture and setting. The Grand Hotel Mackinac Island has been visited by no less than five sitting U.S. presidents and was the backdrop for several Hollywood movies, including the 1980 film “Somewhere In Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel on a Great Lakes VictoryI cruise

Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel is world famous for its long porch, which on a clear day offers a beautiful view of the Straits of Mackinac. * Photo: Peter Knego

Eventually, the skies cleared that afternoon, illuminating the charming island, its Victorian style architecture and spring blossoms at their finest. Back aboard Victory I, we enjoyed an engaging talk by the Grand Hotel’s historian Bob Tagatz, before sailing off into Lake Huron, where a magnificent sunset awaited.

Manitoulin Island

Early on the fifth morning, it was all-hands-on deck as the Victory I began her approach to Little Current on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. After passing seemingly endless vistas of Manitoulin’s meadow-fringed shores, the ship tied up at the tiny town. Once Canadian customs finally cleared the ship, most guests headed off on the included tour of the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the Ojibwe Cultural Center.

That afternoon, as Victory I departed, people lined both banks of the channel to watch her pass through the 1913-built Swing Bridge. We sailed through some of Lake Huron’s most beautiful scenery and past several lighthouses as the sun gently crossed the afternoon sky.

a bridge tour on the Victory I

On lake days, guests can sign up for one of the Victory I’s bridge tours. * Photo: Peter Knego

Our sixth day cruising Lake Huron allowed me to catch up on some needed rest and to take one of the bridge tours offered. This time, the afternoon tea was Viennese-themed with the requisite sweets and strudels.

With its well documented ails, Detroit doesn’t spring to mind as a valued cruise destination, so I was more than pleasantly surprised when we pulled up to its rejuvenated waterfront on day seven and tied up in the shadows of the massive GM building. Victory provided an included morning tour to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in nearby Dearborn.

Henry Ford Museum excursion

President Kennedy’s limousine is among the many attractions on Victory I’s included tour of the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation. * Photo: Peter Knego

This remarkable site houses among its many attractions the Rosa Parks bus, the chair upon which Lincoln was assassinated and even the limousine that chauffeured Kennedy on his last ride through Dallas.

After lunch on board, guests had the option of a second included tour to the Detroit Institute of the Arts but I chose to catch up with local friends and enjoy a run along the waterfront.

Cleveland stop on a Great Lakes cruise

A trio of vintage trolleys escorted Victory I’s guests on a delightful tour of Cleveland. * Photo: Peter Knego

Cleveland

For me, the big surprise and a key highlight of the trip was Cleveland on day eight. We began with a trolley tour of the city, which boasts world class architecture and numerous parks.

Tiffany windows from Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery

Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery has a chapel the features stunning glass panels by Louis Comfort Tiffany. * Photo: Peter Knego

After stops in the Lake View Cemetery to admire its chapel adorned with Tiffany glass and a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, we were back at the ship for lunch.

Rock and Roll hall of fame on a Great Lakes Cruise

Victory Cruise Lines provides complimentary tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is a short walk from the ship’s berth in Cleveland. * Photo: Peter Knego

Within walking distance were the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Victory provides free admission) and the preserved Great Lakes ore carrier, William G. Mather, which frustratingly hadn’t opened for the season.

Niagara Falls on a Great Lakes Cruise

Victory’s included tour at Ontario’s Port Colborne begins with a close encounter with Niagara Falls aboard a Hornblower Yacht excursion vessel. * Photo: Peter Knego

Niagara Falls

After a smooth crossing of Lake Erie that night, Victory I tied up at Port Colborne, Ontario, where we were shuttled off on a full-day venture that included a tour of Niagara Falls. AQSC’s parent company also owns Hornblower Yachts, which operate tour boats that sail right into the falls’ mist.

Guests on the ship had expedited access to this thrilling, wet venture before heading off to the Chateau des Charmes winery for a lovely included buffet lunch and wine pairing.

Part three of the tour was time on our own to shop in the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake before returning to the ship midway through her transit of the massive and historic Welland Canal, which links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.

That evening, we crossed Lake Ontario for Toronto, where we disembarked the following morning.

All in all, Victory provided a wonderful adventure filled with scenic and cultural delights. Great Lakes cruising on the Victory I promises to be one of the best options out there, all to be enjoyed without the hassle of long, overseas flights.

For more information, please contact Victory Cruise Lines.

 

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review of American Cruise Lines

An American-flag coastal and inland river company manned by an all-American crew, the line operates ten vessels (passenger capacities 100-185) offering a high level of comfort while undertaking a varied menu of itineraries along the U.S. East Coast from Florida to New England, the Mississippi River system, Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, and North to Alaska and cruises within S.E. Alaska.

American Cruise Lines has built all its vessels (except the acquired QUEEN OF THE WEST) in its Chesapeake Bay yard, hence there are many similarities between ships. Sister brand, Pearl Seas Cruises, operates the Pearl Mist on the Great Lakes, Eastern Canada & USA East Coast itineraries.

The fastest growing cruise line under the U.S Flag also offers the largest cabins, many with balconies, and dedicated single cabins and operates along the Mississippi River system, U.S. East Coast, Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

RELATED: Click here for a QuirkyCruise feature article about American Cruise Lines.

Queen of the West. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

AMERICAN SPIRIT (2005); AMERICAN STAR (2007); INDEPENDENCE (2010); QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI (2012); AMERICAN EAGLE (2015); AMERICA; and acquired ship QUEEN OF THE WEST (1994). Note: QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI became  AMERICAN PRIDE and repositioned to the Pacific Northwest in spring 2016.

Note: A new and larger coastal ship, AMERICAN CONSTELLATION, arrived in spring May 2017 with 350-square-foot cabins for 175 passengers and Zodiacs and kayaks for exploring off the ship  in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. A sister, AMERICAN CONSTITUTION (175p) followed in 2018 to cruise the U.S. East Coast.

Also in 2018, a new style of riverboat appeared, more akin to the European models, rather than Mississippi sternwheelers. Four decks high, they will take less than 200 passengers who will occupy roomy cabins with hotel-size baths and larger and deeper balconies. A bow ramp will give access to more landings and obviate the need to build expensive docking facilities.

This new fleet is being built at the company-owned Chesapeake Shipbuilding. AMERICAN SONG (184 passengers) went into service in the second half of 2018, AMERICAN HARMONY (190 passengers) followed in August 2019, and sister AMERICAN JAZZ in summer 2020. These last two riverboats have six decks, and the JAZZ features wraparound balconies with the Grand Suites.

American Cruise Lines Passenger Profile

Mostly Americans, 55 and up, and a high rate of repeaters. Some British, mostly in groups, and a few Australians.

VLUU L100, M100 / Samsung L100, M100 Queen of the Mississippi. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

American Pride. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

Passenger Decks

4 – 6. Elevators connect all decks, except not highest deck on American Constellation/Constitution

Ships Built Year Built Passengers Passenger Decks Cabins With Verandahs Singles
America 2016 185 5 99 96 14
American Constellation 2017 175 6 89 78 5
American Constitution 2018 175 6  90  78  6
American Harmony 2019 190 6 98 98 9
American Jazz 2020 196 6 99 99 8
American Song 2018 184 5 94 94 7
American Star 2007 100 4 47 27 2
American Spirit 2005 100 4 47 26 2
Independence 2010 100 4 51 40 6
American Pride 2012 150 5 78 66 12
Queen of the Mississippi 2015 149 5 78 72 19
Queen of the West 1994 100 4 70 41 13

 

American Star. * Photo: Ted Scull

American Star. * Photo: Ted Scull

Price

$$$  Super Pricey

What’s Included

Beer and wine at lunch & dinner, and a nightly pre-dinner cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres; Internet; shore excursions are an extra charge, except in Alaska. Many itineraries will begin with an included hotel stay; check the specific itinerary.

American Cruise Lines Itineraries

Many cruises last 7 nights/8 days and some up to 14 nights/15 days.

  • East Coast: 8 days up the Hudson River Valley from New York in the fall foliage season; 11 days Chesapeake Bay, Eastern & Western Shores between Baltimore and Norfolk; 8 days Historic South & Islands between Charleston and Jacksonville; 8 days Great Florida Rivers from Jacksonville/Amelia Island; 11 days Grand New England from Boston as far south as Newport RI and north to Bar Harbor, ME. 8 days New England Islands from Providence, RI; and 8 days Maine Coast from Portland, ME. One-way East Coast itineraries: 8 days Baltimore and Charleston, SC; 8 days Charleston, SC and Jacksonville; and the granddaddy of them all 15 days Baltimore and Jacksonville.
Jared Coffin House, named after a prominent Nantucket ship owner was built in 1845. * Photo: Ted Scull

Jared Coffin House, named after a prominent Nantucket ship owner was built in 1845. * Photo: Ted Scull

  • Midwestern Rivers: Mississippi (Upper & Lower), Ohio and Cumberland rivers from 5, 8 to 11 days. The complete Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Paul is the longest at 15 or 22 days.
  • Pacific Northwest & Alaska: 5 and 8 days along on the Columbia and Snake Rivers; 8 & 11 days for the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands; 15 days along Alaska’s Inside Passage between Seattle & Juneau; and 8 and 11 days in Southeast Alaska.
  • Some cruises offer special themes such as the Civil War, Lewis & Clark, Mark Twain, Nashville country & blues, Columbia Valley wines. Walking tours from the ship are a common offering in many East Coast ports, while buses are used at others and jet-boats ride the Snake River rapids. Two sternwheelers are now positioned here. Most cruises are 7 nights/8 days while a few are 5 and 10, operating from early April to early November.
American Cruise Lines

American Song, with its European-style profile, entered in 2018. * Photo: American Cruise Lines

Why Go?

East Coast America begs to be seen from a small ship whether it’s exploring Maine’s indented shore line, lovely New England islands, the beauty of the Hudson River in autumn, land of pleasant living in the Chesapeake Bay, charms of the Deep South, and the Intracoastal Waterway that ties it all together.

The mighty Mississippi and its tributaries take you to America’s heartland of small towns and large river cities. A passage up the Columbia and Snake rivers offer more variety of landscapes and shore-side attractions than any stretch of river in North America. Cruise the Inside Passage up the British Columbia coast to Alaskan wonders and for an indelible slice of American history and wonderment.

When to Go?

The itineraries are scheduled for the best times of the year in most regions. However, the Mississippi and Columbia/Snake river valleys can be beastly hot in the summer months.

Cabins

There is no question that the cabins are amongst the largest in the small ship fleets with the vast majority 200 square feet and larger, and expanding up to 600 sq. ft. on the brand-new AMERICAN EAGLE. Amenities on all vessels include windows that slide open, many cabins with narrow balconies furnished with two chairs and a small table, good-size bathroom, free Wi-Fi, satellite TV and DVD player, writing desk, roomy closet and drawer storage.

All ships have dedicated single cabins, from just 2 to 19. Additionally, tw0 ships, AMERICA and AMERICAN PRIDE offer in-cabin coffee machines and internal phone for ordering room service, including a balcony breakfast, ideal for those who are not particularly chatty in the morning.

American Pride suite.* Photo: American Cruise Lines

American Pride suite.* Photo: American Cruise Lines

Public Rooms

The fleet shares similar layouts with the main observation lounge furnished with comfy upholstered living room-style armchairs and settees. Additionally, there are a couple of cozy mid-ship lounges (doubling occasionally as embarkation accesses) and a library.

The single dining room is invariably on the lowest deck and aft over the engines, which depending on the speed of the ship may generate some noise. The highest deck offers shelter and open lounge and deck chair seating.

Forward observation lounge aboard the Independence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Forward observation lounge aboard the Independence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dining

The entire fleet can accommodate all passengers at one seating, mostly at communal tables of four to eight. Tables for two are not normally part of the lively social scene. Breakfast offers a window of time for getting your day started, while lunch and dinner are at set times, occasionally depending on the port schedules.

The food is very good American fare with high quality ingredients and special regional offerings such as steamed lobster, and lobster included in many dishes in New England, plus Chesapeake blue crabs, Georgia shrimp, Florida oysters, Iowa pork chops, Wisconsin artisan cheeses, and fresh salmon and sturgeon in the Northwest. Fresh produce is often bought locally, and the food preparation is uniformly very good to excellent.

Passengers choose their lunch and dinner options at breakfast to give the galley a rough idea of what to prepare. Changing one’s mind later is no problem. The young American college and post-college-age staff (sometimes seen as temporary grandchildren to some passengers) provides friendly and efficient, if not always polished service. Dress is always casual.

American Pride - Paddlewheel Lounge.* Photo: American Cruise Lines

American Pride – Paddlewheel Lounge.* Photo: American Cruise Lines

Activities & Entertainment

An historian, naturalist or scientist accompanies all cruises with special interest speakers in some ports. Entertainers and musicians also come on in some ports.

Special Notes

All ships have a small number of dedicated single cabins. Suggested tipping is high at $120 per person for a week’s cruise.

Along the Same Lines

Pearl Seas Cruises (sister company); Blount Small Ship Adventures (on U.S. East Coast and at a lower cost); American Queen Steamboat Company on the Mississippi River system and the Columbia/Snake rivers.

American Cruise Lines Contact Info

American Cruise Lines, 741 Boston Post Road, Suite 200, Guilford, CT 06437; Americancruiselines.com; 800-814-6880.

TWS

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American Queen Steamboat

American Queen Steamboat Company

COVID-19 UPDATE

American Queen Steamboat Company resumed cruising in October 2020.  Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

The steamboat era was an exciting period of American history and happily modern-day travelers can experience the old-time thrill, watching their sternwheeler ease up to the landing to then take them on a river adventure along the Mississippi and its tributaries, the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Illinois Rivers or in the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Many stretches are notably scenic; there are locks to navigate and life in small-town America to discover, where the locals come down to the landing to welcome you. Embarkation and disembarkation cities provide an opportunity to linger a day or two. The company began with two boats and now has four.

The American Queen is simply the best replica steamboat that money can buy, and while she carries over our limit of 300 passengers, we consider her an exceptional exception so she deserves to join her smaller capacity fleet mates in our review here. The American Duchess and American Countess join American Queen on the Mississippi, while American Empress cruises the Columbia and Snake.

American Queen Steamboat Co. owns Victory Cruise Lines, which operates the identical 202-passenger coastal ships Victory I and Victory II with itineraries along the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes, the New England and American Southeast and Mexico. An interesting aside, it also owns Hornblower Cruises & Events, operating dinner cruises, chartered private events and sightseeing tours from major American cities and destinations, including Niagara Falls, Liberty Island and Alcatraz.

RELATED: AQSC Acquires Victory Cruise Lines.  by Anne Kalosh

American Queen * Photo Credit: Ted Scull

FLEET 
  • American Queen (built 1996 & 414 passengers) – Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee & Cumberland Rivers
  • American Duchess (b. 1995 & 166 p) – Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee & Cumberland Rivers
  • American Empress (b. 2003 & 223 p) – Columbia & Snake Rivers
  • American Countess (b. 2020 & 245 p) – Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee & Cumberland Rivers
Passenger Profile

Expect mostly Americans 60 and up who set out to discover their own country in a thoroughly relaxed setting, to enjoy the camaraderie of others, and discover American music, history, food and local attractions. Some passengers collect as many new navigable stretches of river as are offered. Most children will find the pace too slow, and with no activities designed for them, there will be few, if any, aboard.

Price

$$ to $$$  Expensive to Super Pricey

Included Features

While the price is high, there are a significant number of complimentary features to soften the blow.

  • Select shore excursions in every port
  • One-night pre-cruise hotel stay
  • Transfer to the steamboat
  • Beer and wine at dinner; coffees, teas, soft drinks and bottled water throughout the day
  • Bicycles and helmets
Locals come down to the river to watch the steamboat activity. * Photo: Ted Scull

Locals come down to the river to watch the steamboat activity. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries

American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen, American Duchess and American Countess steam along three distinct stretches of Midwestern rivers.

Some cruises have themes such as Big Band, American Music Festival and the Music of the 50s and 60s.

The Lower Mississippi cruises, between New Orleans and Memphis, feature the Old South and Memphis-St. Louis; New Orleans and its great music, restaurants, Creole and Cajun culture; Antebellum plantations; Civil War history; Memphis and its music traditions and National Civil Rights Museum; plus watching considerable waterway commerce on the move. Most are 8 nights with shorter 5-night round trips operating from New Orleans.

The Upper Mississippi cruises, between Alton (23 miles north of St. Louis) and Red Wing (45 miles southeast of St. Paul), visit areas characterized by rolling hills and high bluffs; locking operations to navigate Ole Man River; riverside towns that blossomed during the steamboat era; dynamism of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis; and the brilliant autumn color. Itineraries range from 7 to 8 nights.

Cruises that run the full-length of the Mississippi operate between New Orleans and Red Wing, Minnesota (located just below Minneapolis/St. Paul) with 15-night itineraries.

The Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers reveal stretches of wilderness; Civil War battlefields; small town and big city America; Nashville’s country music and the Grand Ole Opry. With a wide selection of 8-night itineraries, embarkations and disembarkations may be in Chattanooga, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville (50 miles southeast of Clarksville), Pittsburgh and St. Louis (Alton).

The American Duchess is nimble enough to cruise the Illinois River from Ottawa, located 90 miles southwest of Chicago to St. Louis and Red Wing (near Minneapolis). Collectors of rivers will go for this 8-night trip.

American Empress operates 6- to 8-night itineraries between Vancouver, Washington (near Portland, Oregon) and Clarkston, Washington, a town along the Columbia and Snake Rivers near the border with Idaho.

The 450 river miles between the Pacific Ocean breakers at the mouth of the Columbia and the Snake’s white-water rapids in Hells Canyon pack in more varied landscapes, natural and man-made wonders and destination choices than any water journey in the Americas. Explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark came this way, setting out in 1803 and arriving here in 1805, with 2016 marking the 211 the anniversary of a young America’s pioneering expedition arrival in these parts. During their trek, they recorded plant, bird and animal life and established relations with Native Americans, one of whom became their all-important guide — Sacagawea. — Ted Scull

Sample Itineraries

A typical Mississippi River itinerary, the 8-night “Southern Sampler” cruise, sails roundtrip from New Orleans, plying the southern Mississippi to St. Francisville, Louisiana; Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi; back to Baton Rouge and Nottoway in Louisiana; and finally arriving once again in New Orleans.

Lincoln’s Illinois is a unique itinerary of the American heartland. The 8-night cruise begins with an overnight in Memphis, river cruising first to Columbus, Kentucky before heading north into Illinois with calls at Chester, Grafton, Havana and Peoria before ending in Chicago (disembark at Ottawa, IL and transfer 90 miles by road).

Red paddlewheel provides propulsion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Red paddlewheel provides propulsion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

To celebrate Americana: its history, glorious and varied scenery, river lore, music, food, small town and big cities, all in a thoroughly relaxed fashion aboard a steamboat. The glue that binds are the amazing river routes and the welcome one receives when people stop to watch the boat paddle by or view it passing through one of the lock chambers.

Locals are on hand to greet the boat when she arrives at a town landing and wave farewell with the festive departure accompanied by the steam calliope playing a jolly river lore tune or two.

When to Go?

Visit the Lower Mississippi from mid-February to New Year’s; Upper Mississippi (including Illinois River in summer) from summer into fall; Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers from summer into fall. Theme cruises may draw some to specific theme sailings and holidays aboard coinciding with Independence Day, Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year.

With the climate varying widely from maritime weather along the Pacific Coast to thick forests leading to the Columbia Gorge and semi-arid landscapes upriver, the temperatures and humidity will vary during the course of the cruise and in different seasons. Summer, however, can be searingly hot along the Snake River and in Hells Canyon.

Activities & Entertainment

Expect fantastic live entertainment, from a swing orchestra to Elvis tribute acts, dancing sessions with the chairs removed, and daily enrichment talks on river history and famous personalities delivered by the ship’s “riverlorian,” an expert in river lore and history. A small theater shows full-length films twice a day.

Puzzles, board games and cards are stored in the Mark Twain Gallery. Kite flying, an old tradition on steamboats, takes place on the Sun Deck when there are no low bridges ahead. Pilothouse tours take place when the boat is tied up, and the engine room is nearly always open for viewing the paddle wheel mechanisms and to have a chat with one of the engineers.

American Queen Steamboat Company’s itineraries include a river port every day, sometimes tying up for the morning or afternoon and occasionally all day. An included shore excursion program provides convenient hop on, hop off company-owned “steamcoaches” decorated to resemble a steamboat and plying a fixed route with numbered stops.

Many river ports are compact towns, and in most cases, one can return to the steamboat on foot. In addition, a program of premium choice tours are available for an extra charge that go further afield to the front lines of the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, a Kentucky Derby tour to the museum at Churchill Downs, and General Ulysses S. Grant’s home and town tour of Galena, Illinois.

Columbia and Snake River cruises offer lectures on board about the formation of the Columbia Gorge, history of the early 19th-century Lewis & Clark expedition, Native American culture, and the wine industry. Steamcoaches follow the boat and provide circular sightseeing routes to the fish ladders that allow the salmon to get past the dams, the cascading Multnomah Falls, and Fort Clatsop.

AMERICAN QUEEN

The best spot to be is in a rocking chair on the Texas Deck. Located all the way forward, it’s known as the Front Porch of America. — Ted Scull

The largest steamboat ever built, American Queen is the flagship paddlewheeler of the company. Built to carry 414 passengers (we’ve bended our 300-passenger limit to include her), she comprises six decks served by two elevators that reach all but the Sun Deck.

The rich interior design is High Victorian, evoking opulence with lavish details that include fine antiques, high-quality replica furnishings and decorative features.

The overall effect is a “Wow” as you step aboard and climb the forward staircase to enter the Cabin Deck public rooms.

The principal lounges and bars are located on the two lowest decks with additional spaces found higher up both fore and aft. The Grand Saloon traces its origins to Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. and features several boxes on the mezzanine level.

American Queen's theater

The American Queen’s theater is modeled on a small-town opera house. * Photo: Ted Scull

Promenades encircle three decks and ample outdoor lounge areas, both covered and open to the sky, allowing relaxed river viewing. The Sun Deck has a small pool and a gym.

The J.M. White Dining Room is modeled after the dramatic space found on an 1878-built vessel of the same name. Three meals are served here; the dinner menu can include regional specialties such as Shrimp Creole, Smothered Crawfish and Grits and Mississippi Mud Pie. Alternative continental breakfast and a light lunch with salads, a carvery, poboys, and grilled hot dogs are served in the Front Porch Café, an indoor setting, with additional outside and under cover tables positioned to look forward over the bow. An Alfresco dinner is also served here, a lovely place to dine outside yet under cover, on a warm evening. Cabin service is also available.

Steamboat American Queen

J.M. White dining room. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins are attractively decorated with polished wood floors and colorful Victorian patterns on the furniture, fabrics and wallpaper; beds can be arranged as twins or a queen.

A stateroom aboard the AMERICAN QUEEN with a reminder of her predecessor DELTA QUEEN seen in the painting above the bed. * Photo: Ted Scull

A stateroom aboard the American Queen with a reminder of her predecessor Delta Queen seen in the painting above the bed. * Photo: Ted Scull

Suites can be as large as 500 sq. ft., however most cabins measure from 130 sq. ft. to 190 sq. ft. – small by oceangoing cruise standards. While many have verandahs, some are simply a shared promenade with your neighbor similar to the style of old steamboats, while others have private verandahs.

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers.

RELATED: Ted interviews traveler Bill Forsstrom about his many American Queen cruises,

AMERICAN DUCHESS

The 166-passenger American Duchess entered service in late summer 2017 on the Mississippi River system, inaugurating cruises along the Illinois River approaching Chicago. This smaller boutique sternwheeler has three decks, all connected by an elevator.

American Duchess is a consort to the American Queen. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Company

Dining is at the Grand Dining Room with The Grill Room, an 80-seat alternative one deck above and facing aft. The lobby, bar and the auditorium share the high-ceiling Main Deck with the main dining area. There is a small fitness center. Deck space appears to be at a premium.

Cabins range from 180 sq. ft. to 550 sq. ft., and all except interior rooms, have verandas. Unique two-level loft suites include loft space with a bedroom and private facilities.

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers.

AMERICAN EMPRESS

The largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi, the 223-passenger American Empress has four decks and two elevators serving all.

AMERICAN EMPRESS at rest on the Columbia-Snake. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

American Empress at rest on the Columbia-Snake. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Passengers can dine at two locations — the Astoria Dining Room on the Explorer Deck or more informally at the River Grill on Vista View Deck. The food is very good, and many ingredients are locally-sourced such as Pacific Northwest shellfish, fish, and fresh produce and the Columbia River Valley is major wine country.

The Show Lounge is forward with moveable chairs clustered around tables and a stage. A second, more intimate room is located one deck above and all the way aft looking out at the thrashing sternwheel, a bit of mesmerizing sight. Light musical entertainment takes place here.

Show Lounge - AMERICAN EMPRESS. * Photo: AQSB Co

Show Lounge – American Empress. * Photo: AQSB Co

All cabins are outside and arranged over four decks, with most measuring from 150 to 310 sq. ft. Apart from the windowed cabins on the lowest Explorer Deck, all offer verandas furnished with a couple of chairs and a table. Vista View Deck’s semi-private verandas open onto the side promenade creating a neighborly atmosphere with those living next door and others passing by. 

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, coffeemaker, hair dryers.

AMERICAN COUNTESS

The fourth of the line’s sternwheelers, American Countess is built for 245 passengers and offers four decks, all but the topmost accessed via elevator.

American Queen Steamboat Company

AMERICAN COUNTESS. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Two dining venues, the Grand Dining Room and casual River Grill, serve menus that highlight Southern heritage cuisine, while a pantry has self-service snacking.

The 120-foot-long portside bar has floor-to-ceiling glass for panoramic river views. There’s also a library, chart room, card room, theater and a gym with windows out to the scenery.

Not all cabins are outside, a number of inside cabins measure 170 sq. ft. Most cabins, however, are outside, measuring between 180 sq. ft. for single occupancy to 255 sq. ft. Many have either private balcony or open verandah, a shared outside space similar to old-style steamboats.

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers.

RELATED: Small-ship Cruise Updates Sept 25, 2020.  by Anne Kalosh.

Special Notes

All four vessels are sternwheelers and their layouts vary widely. Some of the hotels used are classics: Peabody in Memphis; Brown in Louisville; Roosevelt in New Orleans; and Union Station in St. Louis.

Along the Same Lines

American Cruise Lines also operate sternwheelers (mostly for show rather than propulsion) and European-style riverboats on the Mississippi and sternwheelers along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Contact Info

American Queen Steamboat Company; www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com; info@aqsc.com; +1 (833) 598-0119

222 Pearl Street, New Albany, IN 47150

— TWS

 

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Pearl Seas Cruises

Pearl Seas Cruises

Pearl Seas Cruises is a newish (2014) subsidiary of the firm that owns American Cruise Lines with its large and ever-growing fleet of coastal and river ships. Its one ship, the 210-passenger PEARL MIST, shares many of the characteristics of the U.S. flag fleet yet it is an ocean-going vessel, registered in the Marshall Islands and operates with a largely non-American crew.

With this new ship, the firm’s cruise itineraries have expanded to New England, Eastern Seaboard, Eastern Canada, and the Great Lakes. Circumnavigations of Cuba were cancelled due to US government orders. Costa Rica and Panama, including canal transit, now cover the winter months. The ship is stabilized.

Pearl Mist in the St. Lawrence River. * Photo: Pearl Seas Cruises

Pearl Mist in the St. Lawrence River. * Photo: Pearl Seas Cruises

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

PEARL MIST (built 2014 & 210 passengers)

Passenger Profile

Mostly Americans and some Canadians, largely 50+ and many will be loyal American Cruise Lines’ passengers. Unlike the US-flag ACL, this ship is registered in the Marshall Islands and operates with a largely foreign national crew.

Passenger Decks

6; an elevator connects all cabin decks.

Price

$$$  Very Pricey

Included Features

Internet/WiFi; a daily cocktail hour before dinner, wine with lunch and dinner, open bar with hors d’oeuvres in the evening. Suggested tipping is high at $125 for a seven-day cruise or $18 a day.

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries

➢For spring 2020, the PEARL MIST will makes its way up the Eastern Seaboard on a 10-day itinerary embarking at Charleston, then calling at Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newport, Portland, Bar Harbor and Halifax.

➢After that the ship heads to the St. Lawrence River and Seaway with port calls such as in the Saguenay Fjord, Quebec Montreal and Toronto and into the Great Lakes.

➢May and September, 11 and 15-day cruises sees the ship operating between Portland, Maine and Toronto calling at Canadian Maritimes ports, plying the St. Lawrence River (Quebec City & Montreal), St. Lawrence Seaway and into Lake Ontario for Toronto. Additional 7-day spring and fall cruises from Portland visit three ports in Maine and three ports in New Brunswick.

➢11-day cruises, June to September, sail between Toronto and Chicago passing through four Great Lakes and Georgian Bay and stopping at Mackinac Island and Sault Ste. Marie, and shorter 7-day itineraries operate in August between Toronto and Chicago.

Pearl Seas Cruises

The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

➢Leaving the Great Lakes in September, the ship takes advantage of the fall foliage season in Canadian Maritimes and New England with 10- and 14-day trips between Quebec City and Boston.

➢ In October, at the end of the Canada season, the ship heads south along the Eastern Seaboard (a reverse of the northbound itinerary; see  above).

Note: The PEARL MIST will then make its way to a series of weekly 7-night cruises operating between December 1, 2020 and February 2, 2021 that feature the Panama Canal. Alternate cruises will begin in Cartagena, a port in Colombia and once the capital of the Spanish Empire in America, then proceed to visit the Kuna people in the San Blas Islands and pause at Colon at the entrance to the Panama Canal. The passage includes several sets of locks, often filled with impressive container ships. a crossing of Gatun Lake and lovely tropical landscape either side. Once in the Pacific Ocean, there is a day call in at the beautiful Las Perlas Archipelago before returning to Balboa for a final visit to nearby Panama City, a modern metropolis peppered with French and Spanish colonial architecture. The cruise ends here, and the next one embarks for the itinerary in reverse.

 

Pearl Seas Cruises adds Panama Canal

Panama Canal. * Photo: Pearl Seas Cruises

Why Go?

PEARL MIST is a small ship with just 210 passengers, roomy within, and one of the few lines that covers the Great Lakes, plus the St. Lawrence River, Canadian Maritime Provinces, New England and the East Coast. New for the winter months, Costa Rica and Panama with a canal transit, a pioneering possibility.

When to Go?

As the ship moves around according to the seasons, the when to go is already obvious. One point to keep in mind is that fall foliage in Canada occurs about a month ahead of New England.

Cabins

All are outside with sliding glass doors leading to a balcony with table and two chairs, and some additionally also have large picture windows. They are arranged over four decks and divided into five categories. 12 are set aside as singles. Oddly, cabin 302 is alone in having no balcony. Amenities include flat-screen TV, DVD player, and complimentary WiFi. Connection speed will vary widely by location. Be patient and remember it’s free.

Public Rooms

Two lounges are located forward. The Pacific Lounge has good views over the bow and to either side while the Atlantic Lounge, two decks below, has views to port and starboard. Additional small lounges are located on the next to lowest (2nd) deck and the Library Lounge on the 4th deck. The highest (6th deck) offers both covered and open seating.

Dining

The dining room, located aft on the main (lowest) deck, seats all at one open seating. Meals receive high marks and cater to North American tastes. Wine is included at lunch and dinner.

Activities & Entertainment

Exercise equipment resides outside on the 5th or Sun Deck. One or two lecturers travel with the ship to prepare passengers for what’s ashore. Mostly musical entertainment comes aboard in some ports.

Special Notes

While the ship has much in common with some of the larger vessels in the American Cruise Lines fleet, a sister company, the crew here is international. Many passengers will come over from ACL, hence a largely North American passenger list.

Along the Same Lines

Victory Cruise Lines operates similar itineraries on the Great Lakes, along the St. Lawrence River, and in the Canadian maritime provinces.

Contact

Pearl Seas Cruises, 741 Boston Post Road, Suite 250, Guilford, CT 06437. 1-888-882-1595. PearlSeasCruises.com

 

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New England Islands Cruising

By Ted Scull.

(Note: updated from an original December 2015 post.)

To visit New England’s enchanting islands, a small ship cruise is by far the best way to sample them as trying to do the rounds independently involves making individual round-trip ferry reservations to each one, a costly proposition and in the height of the season often very difficult to get. Yes, you could leave the car behind in paid parking lots and then when you arrive, you are on your own to get around, while a small ship cruise will offer half-day and full-day trips to the best of the island’s attractions and advice how to do some of your visits independently. When you return to the car on the mainland, you have to drive to the next ferry landing and park the car again.

Two U.S.-flag lines, American Cruise Lines (ACL) and Blount Small Ship Adventures make the rounds, and I have sampled both on roughly similar itineraries. The price difference between the two is staggering. ACL is very expensive (starting at $3,970 per person), and many who could afford the higher fares would be happy right down to the less expensive cabins. Aboard the 84-passenger Blount pair, the Grande Mariner and Grande Caribe, the difference between higher end cabins and the least expensive is quite pronounced, and the lower end are very small and some are inside with no natural light. However, with the lead in per person rate at $2,259,  they allow some people to travel who cannot afford more, and all share the same ship facilities — dining, lounge, deck space and the itinerary. The highest rate on Blount is still less than the minimum rate on ACL.

Note: Blount’s cruise is six nights and ACL’s is seven. However, on many departures, Blount offers a $150 supplement for early boarding that includes dinner, the night and breakfast, a day in advance of sailing and make the cruise seven nights.

Blount’s New England itinerary is to embark in New York then call at Block Island, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and ending in Boston, or in reverse by starting in Boston. Go to blountsmallshipadventures.com for a description of the two identical vessels, their layout and accommodations.

To get the full flavor of what the New England Islands’ cruise is all about, I will use an American Cruise Lines cruise I’ve sampled, as the example.

American Cruise Lines

Approaching the Independence, the ship shows off a rakish, four-deck profile with a sharp bow, two backward-leaning masts, sloping red, white and blue funnel, prominent sun visors above the pilot house, and square picture-windows punctuating the length of the superstructure. Not a porthole in sight. A wonderful conveyance for New England Islands cruising.

The cruise line’s American Star is similar and together they operate seven-night cruises May to September from Providence, Rhode Island to New Bedford, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, Newport and Bristol/Fall River, then returning to Providence.

Read Ted’s “12 Irresistible Reasons to Visit New England on a Small-ship Cruise.”

For the passenger seeking roominess on a small ship, the Independence offers space in spades. All double cabins measure 265 square feet, and those with balconies add an additional 48 square feet. They come furnished with two chairs and a table, and the four single cabins on these decks also have balconies.

Unlike most other U.S.-flag coastal vessels, the Independence and the rest of the ACL fleet have multiple lounges, allowing passengers to seek a quiet or social place to read, play games, talk or work on the computer. Two rooms have seating for about eight and often double as entrance foyers in port. The forward Chesapeake Lounge, with good views ahead and to both sides, is arranged like a plush extra-large living room with very comfortable upholstered chairs and couches and occasional chairs.

Forward corner of the main lounge. * Photo: Ted Scull

Forward corner of the main lounge. * Photo: Ted Scull

The dining room is aft on the lowest passenger deck. Breakfast begins at 7:30 a.m. and runs for 90 minutes. All meals are open seating at tables of four, six and eight. The buffet offers a small selection of fruit, cereals and freshly baked muffins. Orders are taken for main courses such as blueberry pancakes, Belgian waffles, and eggs Benedict, or eggs any style, served along with bacon, sausages, toast and bagels.

Dining & Lecturers

At breakfast, passengers check off their choices for lunch and dinner, a preparation guide for the chef rather than fixed-in-stone selections. Typical lunch (12:30 p.m.) items on a New England itinerary are Rhode Island clam chowder, oysters Rockefeller and a mixed green salad as appetizers, plus Maine lobster ravioli, shrimp salad sandwich and corned beef Reuben as the main courses.

Dinner (6:30 p.m.) might be soup of the day and shrimp cocktail as appetizers and then grilled swordfish, beef tenderloin or a whole steamed lobster; a vegetarian selection is always available.

The quality of the ingredients is high and preparation ranges from good to excellent. Complimentary red and white wines are on the dinner table, and if the selection does not please, there are other choices. Wine is also available at lunch for the asking.

Conversation flows along with the wine at dinner. * Photo: Ted Scull

Conversation flows along with the wine at dinner. * Photo: Ted Scull

A lecturer with skills in photography traveled with our cruise, and local guides added regional knowledge. Occasionally, musicians come aboard. Shore excursions by bus and on foot are fairly priced while some are complimentary walks into town or along the waterfront.

Usually the ship is docked by dinnertime and sails to the next port in the early morning or late afternoon. This allows an after dinner walk, often still light enough to enjoy the evening light and possibly a gorgeous sunset with the sun dropping the sea.

Underway

Over a Memorial Day Weekend, my wife and I took a six-night New England Islands cruise from Providence, Rhode Island. The embarkation dock, located at the head of Narragansett Bay, is just 10 minutes by taxi from the Providence railroad station, the city’s airport and several downtown hotels. Passenger boarding started at 9 a.m., and we simply showed a ticket at the gangway and walked aboard with our luggage trailing right behind.

Once all had embarked, the Independence sailed south through Narragansett Bay’s sheltered waters, out into the Atlantic for about an hour, then finally slipping through the flood gates into New Bedford, Massachusetts late in the day, to tie up at State Pier amidst a vast fleet fishing vessels. On a 90-minute harbor tour, we learned that, in terms of value of the catch, New Bedford ranks number one with deep-sea scallops the main source followed by fish, clams, and crabs.

Fishing, especially for scallops, is a lucrative New Bedford tradition. * Photo: Ted Scull

Fishing, especially for scallops, is a lucrative New Bedford tradition. * Photo: Ted Scull

The city rivaled Nantucket during the whaling days and shows off outstanding examples of substantial 19th-century houses built by sea captains and local industrialists. With a street map from the tourist office, we took in the rich architectural variety in the space of a delightful hour. In fact, everything of interest is within walking distance or via a rubber-tire-type trolley, including the outstanding whaling museum (allow an hour or more) and the nearby Seamen’s Bethel (Chapel) that featured in the novel “Moby Dick.” In the evening, a semi-retired fisherman boarded and regaled about it is like to make a living at sea. It’s a tough life but the monetary rewards are there for those who hustle.

Large houses are a legacy of New Bedford's whaling days. * Photo: Ted Scull

Large houses are a legacy of New Bedford’s whaling days. * Photo: Ted Scull

Nantucket

Leaving New Bedford well before dawn, we crossed Nantucket Sound and slipped between the jetties leading to Nantucket Island’s harbor as a regatta of several dozen sailing yachts headed out. The ship dropped anchor just beyond the huge anchored flotilla of visiting yachts, and a launch took us ashore.

The town is a National Historic District and an absolute treasure trove of New England architecture, from simple grey shingle-style salt boxes, some topped with widow’s walks, to large Federal-Style brick mansions. The most prominent are the elegant “Three Bricks” on cobbled Upper Main Street, built in 1836-38 by whaling merchant Joseph Starbuck for his three sons.

Unlike Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket has very few buildings from the wooden High Victorian period. When the whaling industry collapsed, the island became quite poor; hence there was little new building in the last half of the century. Recovery did not start until the summer resort role took hold in the early 20th century.

The Jared Coffin House, built in 1845, offers oeriod rooms and lounges, a tap room and restaurant. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Jared Coffin House, built in 1845, offers period rooms and lounges, a tap room and restaurant. * Photo: Ted Scull

My wife and I planned an all-day trek that would take us to the dozen houses that my family had rented or owned since my grandparents and great aunt and uncle started summering on the island in the 1920s. Situated in town, on high bluffs and close to the beach, most were happily little changed, while two have been enlarged and one torn down to be replaced by something much larger.

One of a string of houses we rented for the month of August, now many years ago. * Photo: Ted Scull

One of a string of houses we rented for the month of August, now many years ago. * Photo: Ted Scull

Meanwhile the other passengers took a three-hour island tour or used the inexpensive local bus system to reach the tiny village of ‘Sconset, eight miles distant on the island’s east side or south to the Atlantic Ocean at Surfside for a beach walk and to watch the breakers.

Some spent their time in the enchanting town center, walking the cobble-stoned Main Street and following a suggested residential district loop. Turn left off Main and follow Orange Street as far as York, then right and right again on Pleasant. The street returns to the upper end of Main Street opposite the Starbuck’s handsome Three Bricks.

The Vineyard & Block Island

During the evening social hour, we sailed around Brant Point Light and across the Sound to Martha’s Vineyard, docking just after dinner at Vineyard Haven. Here we remained for two nights.

Some opted for the island tours to the Victorian village of Oak Bluffs, upscale Edgartown and the dramatic headlands at Aquinnah, while the more independent-minded used the island’s subsidized bus network to visit many of the same places.

We joined friends who own a tiny gingerbread Victorian in Oak Bluffs, one of over 200 built as part of the Methodist Camp Meeting Association in the 19th century and now a National Historic Landmark.

A lovely row of gingerbread Victorian at Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard. * Photo: Ted Scull

A lovely row of gingerbread Victorian at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: Ted Scull

In the middle of the night, we pushed off for a seven-hour sail to Block Island, a small dot in the Atlantic that a good walker can navigate on foot in a day. The island rose to utterly charming prominence in the second half of the 19th century when several wooden New England-style hotels were built facing the Old Harbor or on high ground just inland. The prominent ones that remain are the National Hotel fronting directly on the harbor and the Spring House set high on a hill overlooking the sea.

The National Hotel facing Old Harbor, Block Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

The National Hotel facing Old Harbor, Block Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Vans tours set out from New Harbor to explore the hilly island with its lovely freshwater ponds, steep cliffs, bird sightings, and the main attraction — the impressive Southeast Lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic.

As we are walkers, my wife and I followed roughly the same route on foot then found the lighthouse enshrouded in thick fog and doing its thing, sending out a powerful warning that can be heard miles out to sea.

Newport on Many Levels

The short sail to Newport had us tie up at Fort Adams, a military defense built following the War of 1812. We used the launch service to downtown Newport and explored the city’s original 19th-century town center and its narrow lanes, just two blocks inland from Thames Street’s tourist shops.

Scheduled rubber-tire trolleys and a ship’s bus tour operated to the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum and the Breakers, one of the dozen extravagant mansions along Bellevue Avenue that are open to the public.

A former Newport summer cottage, now Salve Regina University, seen from the Cliff Walk. * Photo: Ted Scull

A former Newport summer cottage, now Salve Regina University, seen from the Cliff Walk. * Photo: Ted Scull

After our tour of Touro Synagogue, built in 1763 and the oldest remaining synagogue building in the United States, we walked past the Catholic Church where John and Jacky Kennedy were married. Continuing on, we followed Memorial Boulevard to the start of the dramatic Cliff Walk that I frequented during my boarding school years; it offers front-yard views of many estates. The first section is easily walkable passing the Breakers, Rosecliff, the Marble House and its charming Chinese Tea House to Doris Duke’s Rough Point. The path thereafter, badly damaged more than once by hurricanes, is best left to those who can spring from rock to rock. A section may be even closed but there is plenty to see along the initial two-mile route.

Our final stop at Bristol, Rhode Island, a charming waterfront setting facing Narragansett Bay, put us right across the street from the Herreshoff Marine Museum, the site of the former shipyard that once produced eight America’s Cup defenders, sleek private steam and sailing yachts, fast torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy, and waterline models.

Don't miss the lovely residential district near Brown University in Providence, RI. * Photo: Ted Scull

Don’t miss the lovely residential district near Brown University in Providence, RI. * Photo: Ted Scull

Later in the afternoon, we sailed north to the head of the bay, returning to Providence for disembarkation the next morning after breakfast.

For most passengers, New England was a first-time experience, and with three off-shore islands involved, an itinerary such as this would be awkward and hugely expensive to drive due to the considerable cost of taking a car on the ferries. For us, this is a region we have known over a lifetime, and one that we cannot get enough of.  And the weeklong New England island-hopping cruises offered by ACL and Blount are a great way to travel!

Click here for booking information on American Cruise Lines.  And here for Blount. 

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