By Jodi Ornstein.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with nature since I was 10 years old. I loved it enough to play in the woods all day as a kid, building forts and swinging on tires that hung from sturdy trees, but hated it when I came down with a horrendous case of head-to-toe poison ivy. I loved it enough to travel across the United States when I was 14, pitching tents at more than 30 campsites along the way and exploring national parks, historic sites, and wonderful waterways, but hated it after that one time I stepped directly on a fallen beehive along a nature trail.
So when this assignment came up to cover an 8-day Pacific Northwest cruise aboard American Cruise Lines’ 175-passenger American Constellation, which, according to the line’s website promised “natural beauty, beautiful sunsets, and magnificent views of the passing landscape,” I figured it was time to reconnect with nature. To finally forget those childhood moments of mayhem and rediscover tranquility. To put away my smartphone and … ok, who am I kidding? How else would I share the experience with those back home as well as curious cruisers who are wondering what all the fuss is about and who want to know more about small ships and their unique, often remote, itineraries.
This journey would take us roundtrip from Seattle to sail Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, visiting the ports of Anacortes, Friday Harbor, Port Angeles, Port Townsend, and Poulsbo, Washington, along the way. Each one, we’d find, would be brimming with small town cuteness, fishing heritage, and friendly locals.
Miraculously, my sister, Wendie, was able to join me on the 7-night sailing, something we’ve never had a chance to do together. For two busy moms, this weeklong getaway was unheard of, so we pretty much sought out one thing: relaxation, quality time together, and fun (ok, three things) as we’d soon discover the quaint, small-ship difference aboard American Cruise Lines.
Who’s on Board?
As we boarded the ship in Seattle’s picturesque Shilshole Bay Marina, it was clear that:
A) Two 40-somethings maaaaaaaay stand out in this crowd and
B) This small-ship experience was going to be waaaaaaayyyy different than those on big ships. This we knew quite clearly before we even walked up the gangway.
Check-in entailed our names being ticked off a list as we were handed a lanyard and badge with our names and where we’re from. In all of one minute we were on our way to the Cascade Lounge to await our suite. We grabbed some refreshments and a seat on a comfy, cushiony couch and started to get to know our fellow cruise mates. The panoramic views of a sailboat marina on one side and snow-capped mountain on the other was also a taste of the scenery that would make up the coming week.
On our sailing, it was a mostly 70+ crowd, with some passengers in their 40s (such as daughters traveling with their parents and other couples in their 50s to 60s). There were also a handful of single travelers in the mix, including a spunky 94-year-old woman who’s my new travel idol. It also took no time for us to meet Rachel Livingston from Corvallis, Oregon, our newfound BFF and the self-proclaimed “third sister,” who was traveling with her parents from Easton, Pennsylvania. Every passenger was from the United States — from the West Coast to the East Coast and many different states in between. Many were repeat passengers (or Eagle Society members) as indicated on their name badges (one star for every past cruise), so it was easy to strike up conversations and learn what it is about American Cruise Lines (and small ships in general) that they love.
Likewise, many repeat passengers also appreciate the consistency they experience aboard American Cruise Lines, from the routine daily schedules to familiar faces of crewmembers they may see from one cruise to the next.
On their fifth American Cruise Lines cruise, David and Lea Mills, a retired professor and college administrator from Henderson, Nevada, pointed to the cruise’s learning opportunities as one thing that they enjoy on board. In fact, there’s a guest lecture, expert, or historian on every sailing who speaks about the local history, wildlife, and culture of the region you’re sailing.
On our cruise, for example, guest speaker Katie Phillips, an expert in forestry and wildlife, was always nearby to answer questions or strike up conversations about the region. During the week, she presented scheduled talks on topics from salmon populations to Washington’s rainforest. But what was even better were the unscheduled talks, like the one on the very first day of the cruise when Katie came on the PA system to announce, “There are whales off the port side!” as passengers made their way to the Cascade Lounge for an impromptu whale spotting lesson on these magnificent creatures.
The Mills’, who’ve also sailed on big cruise ships, say they also love the intimacy of small ships and prefer smaller groups.
“On big ships, if you meet someone at dinner, you may never see them again,” said David. Impossible on a ship this size.
Karen Freeborn and Jeff Gaudio, who split their time between Ohio and California, were on their third ACL cruise and said they enjoy the small-ship experience because the line is so accommodating, especially when it comes to Jeff’s dietary requirements, which are gluten-free, dairy-free, and soy-free. In fact, on day one of the cruise, any passenger with dietary restrictions or allergies meets with the head chef to go over their food options. Jeff told us there’s even a photo of him hanging in the galley, which indicates his allergies, and that the chef will sometimes even go shopping in port to obtain certain requests, and even whipped up a bottle of specially-made salad dressing.
Small Ship Bonus: The Crew
Since American Constellation is a U.S.-flagged ship, it’s required that it has an all-American crew. And with small, friendly crews come teamwork that often includes numerous staff performing additional roles in ways you don’t often (if ever!) see on big ships: the captain at the end of the gangway helping to on-load the evening’s provisions or pointing to his favorite spot in town, or the cruise director, hotel manager, and tour director behind the bar during cocktail hour.
“Kimberly, the housekeeping manager, makes the best margaritas,” Rachel pointed out one night. And indeed she did.
Picturesque Ports & Stunning Scenery
Along the way, there was no shortage of wildlife spottings, scenic marinas, lush landscapes, and mountain views including of the Cascade, Olympic and Baker mountains.
We were off to a great start in Anacortes, where we elected for an open-air boat tour of Deception Pass, Washington’s scenic strait that offers panoramic mountain views. We easily spotted bald eagles and other native birds, harbor seals, and porpoises, as we traversed the calm water while hearing the area’s history and passing under the Deception Pass Bridge, a National Historic Landmark that connects Fidalgo and Whidbey islands.
We hopped on the San Juan Island Adventure tour in Friday Harbor, which included stops at the historical resort area of Roche Harbor, Krystal Acres alpaca farm (they are THE CUTEST!), and a stop at Lime Kiln State Park for great photo opps of the 1919-built lighthouse with views of Vancouver Island across the Haro Strait. Other passengers opted for a whale-watching cruise, a kayaking tour, or a visit to the town’s Whale Museum.
Sister-sister bonding time continued in Port Townsend, where we didn’t even fight about whose fault it was that we were late for our tender launch and missed our shore excursion to Finnriver Cidery Tour and Tasting (heavy sigh). Instead, we perused the town’s boutiques and art galleries in search of local souvenirs. Luckily for our tastebuds, what they missed in hard apple cider, was made up for in delicious, oversized donuts from Sluys’ Bakery in Poulsbo, another charming town known for its Scandinavian influence.
Butchart Gardens in Victoria
Another sensory highlight was the day we took the 90-minute ferry ride from Port Angeles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, British Columbia for a visit to the famous and ridiculously beautiful Butchart Gardens. It covers more than 55 acres of a 130-acre estate that began when Jennie Butchart had a vision to beautify a worked-out limestone quarry that supplied her husband Robert’s nearby cement plant. The gardens began with a collection the Butchart’s had gathered during their world travels, and today the National Historic Site of Canada boasts a Sunken Garden, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden, and an Italian Garden — one even more beautiful than the next.
With so many beautiful places to see, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but in other states that ACL visits, I asked Katie, who’ve sailed various itineraries, about her favorites.
“I like this one [the Pacific Northwest] for its abundance of wildlife and active excursions, and also the line’s Maine Coast itinerary for its stunning scenery, local villages and communities, and interesting history.”
(American Cruise Lines also sails the Mississippi River, Hudson River, New England, Alaska, and the Southeast United States.)
Small Ship Bonus: Plenty of Seats & Space on Deck
There are so many spots with great views, that you’ll have plenty of choices when you want to just sit back and take in the passing scenery. The best part? You’ll never have a problem finding a comfortable seat to call your own. Unlike on the biggies, there are no deck-chair hogs on this ship!
Onboard Ambience & Memorable Moments
Indeed, places to relax were plentiful, including both indoor and outdoor lounges and observation areas that feature lots of cushy chairs, chaise loungers, sofas, and tables, which are all great spots to read a book, chat with fellow travelers, or simply stare at the views, which changed from snow-capped mountains to pretty lake houses dotting the shoreline to picturesque sailboat marinas. The rooms are another welcoming respite — they range from 226-square-foot cabins for singles (there are a total of six cabins for singles, with and without balconies) to eight 450-square-foot Owners Suites with balconies; the majority of cabins are 350- to 368-square-foot balcony cabins.
The favorite hour of the day — every day — was cocktail hour. Complete with an open bar, passed hors d’oeuvres, tables of cheese plates, local fish, vegetables, and dips, it was the best time of day to connect with other passengers and chat about how you spent your day and what was on the horizon for tomorrow.
And I have to point out that during every cocktail hour, I looked around and noticed something truly astounding: Not one person was on their phone. Ever.
When it came time for meals, we’d head for the one-time open seating for lunch and dinner, where we’d just pick a table, park it, and chat about the day with other passengers. Breakfast has open hours for an à la carte menu and small buffet table; and room service is available for breakfast only.
We really enjoyed the regional cuisine (as indicated on my scale when I got home). Dishes included lots of local seafood like salmon and halibut (shout out to the Dungeness Crab Cake with Lemon Couscous, Sautéed Green Beans, and Roasted Red Pepper Tartar for being one of the best, most memorable crab cake dishes I’ve had); other locally sourced ingredients (think Oregon Bleu Cheese Wedge Salad); as well as wines from Washington, Oregon, and California (wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner — cheers!). There are always vegetarian options on the menu for each meal.
The repertoire included local performers such as barbershop music presented by the all-male An-o-Chords singing group; gypsy jazz-inspired tunes by Fidalgo Swing; a zydeco, gypsy jazz, and swing musical mash-up by Delta Rays; and solo singer Sarah Shae. Held in the Cascade Lounge, the shows are also accompanied by popcorn, root beer floats, and ice cream sundaes — in case you’re still hungry! (Tip: If your biscuits are burning from the day’s walking tour, you can watch the entertainment from your room on the TV.) And I don’t care who you are, who doesn’t love a good game of bingo (with prizes!) — cheesy puns about “be-fore” included.
“You know it’s a good vacation when you don’t know what day it is,” Rachel said one night during dinner when we were trying to remember what was coming up tomorrow.
And I promise this lost-in-time thinking had nothing to do with the free-flowing wine and everything to do with the remote, tranquil escape that is the Pacific Northwest.
Small Ship Bonus: Bridge Tours
You’re not going to be walking the decks of Royal Caribbean International’s Symphony of the Seas — the largest ship in the world — and suddenly hear, “If anyone wants to do a bridge tour, come on up in 10 minutes.” But it is something you’ll hear on American Constellation, where Captain Bryan Hobcroft provides several tours per cruise of where he and first mate spend their time pulling in and out of small harbors, anchoring off shore, or navigating scenic waterways.
Just the Facts
Ship: American Constellation
Year Built: 2017
Passenger Decks: 6
Guest Capacity: 175
Length: 280 feet
Onboard Amenities: Putting green, fitness room, guest laundry. Among the cabins, there are six for singles and two handicap cabins (both types with and without balconies).
What’s Included in the Fares: Shipboard WiFi, beer and wine at lunch and dinner, open bar at each evening’s cocktail hour, all-day snacks and drinks in the ship’s two main lounges, and select shore excursions. And, according to the line, guests are not expected to leave a gratuity.
Itineraries & Ships: Following the series of Puget Sound & San Juan Islands, American Constellation will sail various Alaska itineraries for the summer season. American Cruise Lines’ fleet of 11 river ships, small coastal ships, and paddlewheelers sail more than 35 itineraries to 25 states in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New England, the Southeast, and the Mississippi River regions. Two upcoming ships in a new class of modern riverboats, American Song and American Harmony, will debut in October 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for twice-monthly updates!
© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.