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Heading up the Forth

Nova Spero Cruises the Scottish East Coast

By Robin McKelvie.

Tell a Scot you plan to cruise the Scottish coast and they will presume you mean the west coast; a littoral served by an ever-growing flotilla of small ships. Nova Spero steers away from the herd though and not just because she also ventures to the east to take on the North Sea.

This former fishing vessel also likes to go alongside rather than anchor, and she still looks like a proper fishing boat. And she is definitely the only ship currently cruising Scotland’s waters that sports a wood-burning stove in her cozy saloon.

Scottish East Coast cruising

The Nova Spero. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Why Scotland’s east coast?

Ironically the man driving force behind the Nova Spero, John MacInnes, is Hebridean born and bred, earning his sailing stripes amongst the sheltered bays and numerous anchorages of Scotland’s west coast, then moving on to tankers. His first tanker trip took on the big seas across the Atlantic from Marseille to New York. In winter.

Standing proudly on the compact, working wheelhouse, MacInnes explains the thinking behind the Nova Spero:

We do offer west coast options, but I also wanted to try something a little different. No one else cruises the Scottish east coast, but I think it is seriously underrated with its big skies, wildlife and characterful harbors.

Swirl in the fact that the Nova Spero was built on the east coast and was designed here, and it all starts to make sense.

Scottish East Coast cruising on Nova Spero

Nova Spero home in Arbroath. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

A luxurious fishing boat

The rugged Nova Spero dates back to 1972, when she was fashioned as a sturdy fishing vessel built to take on the often-tumultuous North Sea. Arriving at Seaport Marina in Inverness I see immediately that she has retained that rugged feel. She startles in turquoise. Her wheelhouse sits low to the water, almost hidden into the foredeck, as if anticipating bad weather at any moment.

MacInnes has worked hard to retain her working boat spirit, and it has paid off as she turns heads everywhere we go. Being aboard again is like sailing in a different era. At her heart is a swarthy Caterpillar engine that makes short work of the seas.

Robin in the saloon.

The interior passenger space is entirely a different kettle of fish. The large wood-paneled saloon is bathed in light not just from the windows, but from the skylight where the fish hatch used to be. Two comfy benches with tables beckon at meal times, while further cushioned seats sit closer to that wood-burning stove.

MacInnes wants to sail when other vessels are shored up for winter so that wood-burning stove is inspired, coming into its own during the chilly, short days of the Scottish winter.

Canals and dolphins

The Caledonian Canal is a fitting start point for a vessel that celebrates great Scottish engineering. Thomas Telford’s 19th-century marvel was built to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the North Sea — 60 miles, three lochs and numerous locks away. We just have to descend a brace of locks to take us into the North Sea’s Beauly Firth.

I say just, but that involves rotating a swing bridge that brings all mainland train traffic from Inverness to points north to a halt. A crowd gathers as we descend like a submarine in the shadow of the bridge as a collie dog stares on in disbelief.

We gun due east now, soon swapping the Beauly Firth for the Moray Firth, the latter famous for its dolphins. It doesn’t disappoint as there they are in the narrows off Chanonry Point, one of the best places in the UK for shore-based dolphin spotting. They are a decent size too; in fact, the largest and most northerly pod of bottlenose dolphins in the world.

It’s not the only wildlife we encounter as we are accompanied by a never-ending array of seabirds, the odd pod of porpoises and — the highlight — a minke whale. We don’t see the sunfish — just days before we set sail a sunfish was spotted off Chanonry, a highly unusual sighting in these chill waters, but the east coast proves full of surprises.

Nova Spero on a North Sea cruise

Robin aboard the Nova Spero.

Built to take the big seas

As we enter the harbor at Buckie on the second night a northerly wind is gathering strength, never a good sign in this part of the world. As we motor out the next morning the big seas are soon upon us with 3-4m swells and breaking waves.

North Sea surf

The North Sea surf. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

“She’s built to take this weather,” smiles John in the wheelhouse as he stares out at cresting waves he greets like old friends.

Some of Scotland’s small ships tend to be a bit timid; a trip on the Nova Spero gives you the opportunity to sample some real weather. In safety. And staying dry too as they provide full wet weather gear.

scottish east coast cruising

Robin all geared up.

Kitted out from toe to tip I bash around on the stern feeling like one of the fishermen you see in those TV documentaries. I feel secure in John’s hands and doubly safe as there is never actually any time in the five-night voyage when we cannot see land. That said, it definitely helps to have your sea legs cruising in these parts.

waves on a North Sea cruise

Bashing through the North Sea. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Savoring seafood en route

The Nova Spero remains conscious of passenger comfort too, so we choose to take a break from the weather in Peterhead, a huge harbor that protects the largest white fish fleet in the UK. Just on the quayside sits the Dolphin Café — it seems a shame not to try the local seafood. You can get haddock and chips all over Scotland, but it’s boat fresh delicious here. They also offer sole and even queen scallops ‘suppers’ (with chips).

Our passage from Peterhead south to Arbroath is much smoother and even allows for a quick swing around the Bell Rock, where a famous lighthouse has stood tall since 1810. It’s a sturdy brute that not only stands firm against the North Sea, but also repelled repeated attacks from the Luftwaffe during World War Two.

Bell Rock on a Scottish cruise

The famous Bell Rock. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make good time into Arbroath, where more superb seafood awaits. This time it’s the famous Arbroath Smokies, which are caught locally then smoked in the traditional wooden houses I visit by the quayside.

Arbroath Smokies on a Scottish east coast cruise

Arbroath Smokies for breakfast. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

They are delicious fresh off the smoker and also when chef Jim serves them with butter for breakfast the next day. He proves a whiz with seafood, conjuring up a heaving platter on the last night of our cruise too.

Seafood on Nova Spero

Seafood platter on board. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The homecoming queen

It’s unusual as a journalist to be the story, but I am, or rather we are, in Arbroath. This is the first time MacInnes has sailed the Nova Spero back to the port where she was built. The wee shipbuilders, Mackays, is still open right by the harbor. The local newspaper is here to shoot photos and cover the return maiden arrival.

I speak to Harry Simpson who was just an apprentice when he worked on the Nova Spero in the early 1970s — he later went on to own the yard. Simpson admits to ‘having a wee tear in my eye’ when her steady bow appeared around harbor walls little changed since those days.

Nova Spero 'home' in Arbroath

Nova Spero ‘home’ in Arbroath. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Simpson explains to me that the Nova Spero was actually designed a little further south down the east coast at JW Miller in St Monans in the Kingdom of Fife. He is delighted to find her back in Arbroath rather than being cut up for scrap: “It’s interesting to see how she looks nowadays. A lot of the old fishing boats were decommissioned and cut up. It’s nice to see a traditional-style boat coming back into Arbroath harbor and actually be used for something else.”

Southwards in search of the Three Bridges

Under brilliant blue skies — and hardly a puff of wind — we set sail south again across calm seas in search of the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the last of the trio of firths we have to negotiate. It’s my home firth too, as I live in South Queensferry (just west of Edinburgh). The sail up the Forth alone is worth coming on this trip.

Heading up the Forth

Heading up the Forth. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

First up are its necklace of islands — the east coast may not have as many islands as the west, but it offers some gorgeous ones. Bass Rock stars with thousands of pairs of gannets, while Fidra blinks back, a wee isle said to have been the inspiration for author Robert Louis Stevenson when he penned his novel Treasure Island. Then it is on to the Scottish capital. Edinburgh looks every bit the ‘Athens of the North’ as she strides in the sunshine across a volley of hills, topped off by its vaulting medieval castle atop a hulking volcano.

Journey’s end comes in spectacular fashion cruising right under the trio of Forth Bridges.

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

The Queensferry Crossing is a twenty-first century wonder, the largest triple cable stayed bridge in the world and the tallest bridge in the British Isles. The Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside North America when it opened in 1964, and its span echoes the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Last, but certainly not least, is the epic UNESCO World Heritage listed Forth Bridge. This striking red iron cantilever confection dates back to 1889, when the car had just been invented and before the advent of the airplane.

Forth Bridges Scotland

The Forth Bridges. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

This engineering drama is a fitting end to my cruise on the Nova Spero. She herself is a fine example of sturdy Scottish engineering, built to last and steadfast against anything the North Sea can throw at her. For now, she is the only small ship cruising Scotland’s beguiling east coast and if you’re looking for a life affirming cruise off the beaten charts John MacInnes and his steady steed await.

North Sea Sunrise

Gorgeous North Sea sunrise. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

map of Scotland

Robin’s route between Iverness and South Queensferry, just west of Edinburgh. * Goggle maps

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Skarv Lines are offering public cruises, plus private charters for single families, for the rest of 2020, with a full schedule of cruising for 2021 now available to book online. The full 10-night return Forth Bridges cruise from and to Inverness starts at around US$4,000 per person including all meals (lots of seafood!) and wine with dinner. (Robin only cruised from north to south one way.)

lobster on a Scottish cruise

Lobster served on the Nova Spero. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Getting There

The Nova Spero will primarily cruise out of Corpach or Inverness and on occasion Kyle of Lochalsh.

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Edinburgh and Glasgow direct to Inverness.

Tips

For those concerned about COVID-19 the Nova Spero is currently running at limited capacity (normally 11 passengers), with passenger temperatures checked daily, hand sanitizer available and face masks worn by the staff at all times. Guests have to wear them in public areas inside when not eating or drinking, plus when going ashore.

Robin with a mask

Robin all masked up.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season usually runs from spring in April through to autumn in October, but Skarv Lines are breaking the mold with some winter cruising. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more information on cruising on Skarv Lines check out www.skarvlines.com.

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Coral Adventurer and Xplorer

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QuirkyCruise Coral Expeditions Review

COVID-19 UPDATE

Coral Expeditions resumed cruises for Australian passengers in October 2020.  Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

Coral Expeditions, based in Cairns, Queensland, Australia, got its start in 1984 as Coral Princess Cruises by refitting a WWII submarine chaser into a small passenger-carrying ship for Great Barrier Reef cruises. With this initial success, Coral Princess, a catamaran was added in 1988; Coral Princess II a second catamaran, in 1996; Oceanic Discoverer, a small oceangoing ship in 2005; and the expedition ship Coral  Adventurer in 2019. Another expedition ship, Coral Geographer, will debut in 2021.

Each new member of the fleet allowed itineraries to reach beyond the Australian coast to Indonesia, the South Pacific Islands, Tasmania, New Zealand and the Indian Ocean. In 2015, the line renamed itself Coral Expeditions and Coral Princess and Coral Princess II became Coral Expeditions I and Coral Expeditions II, while Oceanic Discoverer was renamed Coral Discoverer.

The barrier reef cruises mainly frequent what are known as the ribbon reefs where the bleaching we hear about has had little impact. The line’s website has an information section composed by the line’s marine biologist about what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change. While there is considerable damage, some sections have experienced recent recovery.

Fleet

Coral Expedition I (built 1988 & 46 passengers) — Coral Sea (Great Barrier Reef)

Coral Expeditions II (b. 1985 & 42 p) — Coral Sea (Great Barrier Reef)

Coral Discoverer (b. 2005 & 72 p) — Indian Ocean (The Kimberley, Australian north coast & Tasmania) & Coral Sea (Great Barrier Reef)

Coral Adventure (b. 2019 & 120 p) — Indian Ocean & Coral Sea (The Kimberley, Australia circumnavigation & Indonesian islands)

Coral Geographer (b. 2021 & 120 p) ­— Indian Ocean (Australia, Southeast Asia, South Asia & Eastern Africa) & South Pacific Ocean (Polynesia, French Polynesia & New Zealand)

Passenger Profile

The line draws locally from Australia and New Zealand, also Britain, Europe, Canada and the U.S.

Coral Expeditions

CORAL GEOGRAPHER. * Rendering: Coral Expeditions

Price

$$ to $$$ — Expensive/Very pricey.

Included Features
  • All presentations & briefings
  • Snorkeling & introductory scuba lesson
  • All meals
  • Select beer, wine, juices & soft drinks
  • 24-hour coffee & tea
  • Post-cruise transfer
  • All fees & gratuities
Itineraries

With the addition of Coral Geographer, Coral Expeditions will add sailings across the Indian Ocean to ports in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Eastern Africa to its docket of mainly Australian and South Pacific destinations.

Great Barrier Reef cruises, roundtrip from Cairns, can last for 7 or 10 nights. Tazmania trips include 10-night coastal cruises, including an Australian Geographic voyage, and a 16-night Tazmania circumnavigation cruise.

Australian coastal cruises include 10- to 19-night itineraries in The Kimberley and the northern coast and a 59-night Australian circumnavigation journey.

Coral Expeditions Review

Glass bottom boat and snorkeling at The Great Barrier Reef. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

South Pacific cruises from 5 to 20 nights visit Pitcairn Islands, French Polynesia, Cook Islands and New Zealand.

Venturing into spice trade routes, there’s a 29-night cruise from Freemantle to Singapore, a 25-night cruise from Singapore to Seychelles,15-night cruisefrom Seychelles to Mauritius, 13-night cruise exploring Madagascar and the Seychelles, 12-night cruise from Seychelles to Zanzibar and a 20-night itinerary from Zanzibar to Durban. 

“Much of the Kimberley coast is inaccessible except on foot or by boat. On my Kimberley cruise, I hooked an 80-pound shark, wrestling with it for over an hour before it broke the line. Darwin is worth a stopover for its WWII and devastating cyclone history, plus a natural history museum showcasing scary and truly weird Australian wildlife. Broome, a former pearl-diving center, has developed into a popular international resort town.” — Ted Scull

Coral Expeditions Review

Cruising past waterfalls along the Kimberley Coast. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Sample Itineraries

The 10-night Coastal Wilds of Tazmania cruise begins at Hobart, sailing for Woodbridge and the Huon River, Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour, Bruny Islands and Adventure Bay, Maria Islands National Park, Freycinet National Park and Schouten Islands and finally Port Arthur Historic Site before returning to Hobart.

"Coastal Wilds of Tasmania" map

The 10-night “Coastal Wilds of Tasmania” round-trip from Hobart. * Photo: Coral Expeditons

Along the eastern coast of Africa, the Seychelles to Zanzibar cruise visits ports and sights in four countries, departing from Mahé in the Seychelles and sailing to Seychelle’s Desroches and S. Joseph Atoll, Alphonse Island and the Farquhar Group; Madagascar’s Antisirinana (Diego Suarez), Nosy Be, Hell-ville and Mahajanga; Mozambique’s Mozambique Island and Ibo Island; and Tanzania’s Kilwa Kisiwani; and finally Zanzibar.

Why Go?

Australia’s 1,400-mile Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1,500 fish species and 30 different mammals, while much of the remote coastal Outback is virtually devoid of human habitation and full of the freaks of nature. Exploring by small ship is the only practical way to access the region.

South Pacific island-hopping takes you to culturally distinct people and pristine atolls where nature abounds in the sea, air and on land. Most of New Zealand’s wildlife and man-made attractions are on or very near the coast.

New itineraries explore Eastern Africa, visiting areas not typically visited via cruise. Coral Expeditions’ three small ships carry only 44 to 72 passengers providing truly intimate shared experiences.

When to Go?

The height of the tourist season along the Great Barrier Reef is June to August after which the humidity begins to build and then the rains arrive in the peak of the summer between December and March. However, the heat is less uncomfortable when at sea and enjoying activities on and in the water. The other expeditions are geared to the best weather seasons. 

Coral Expeditions Review

Going ashore along the Great Barrier Reef. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Sustainability Initiatives

Accredited by Eco-Tourism Australia, Coral Expeditions has been found to meet the highest international standards on sustainability. The company works with a number of organizations involved in wildlife and environmental conservation, and is dedicated to teaching passengers about their work.

They have removed all polycarbonate plastics, reduced food packaging and offer a selection of eco-friendly, organic and fair-trade beverages. They also provide marine friendly sunscreen to all passengers.

Activities & Entertainment

As a policy, Coral Expeditions doesn’t book onboard entertainment, instead opting for nightly presentations that could include talks, films or documentaries on related themes.

All ships have an open bridge policy and Coral Adventurer conducts engine room tours.

Meals are always casual, with no formal nights or assigned seating. The company also doesn’t provide minibars, with the goal to have passengers socialize at one of the many conducive public spaces around the ship.

None of the ships have pools, but passengers who want to swim can do so from the ship’s marine launch. There’s also kayaking and snorkel gear available.

Coral Adventurer marine launch

The Coral Adventurer’s marine launch. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

The Xplorer tender vessels (Discoverer has one while Adventurer/Geographer have two) seat all passengers and is hydraulically lifted and lowered for easy access to the main deck.

Onboard Zodiacs provide close-up encounters with nature. As nature and wildlife feature prominently in shore excursions, it’s not usual to make stops at conservation organizations to observe and learn more about their work.

“Be sure to read the report on the current condition of the Great Barrier Reef written by Coral Expeditions’ marine biologist.” — Ted Scull

SHIPS

Coral Expedition I

This 46-passenger twin-hulled catamaran was built for coastal Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Four decks house a dining room with open seating, forward lounge with a reference library and plasma screens, sun deck with shaded area and outdoor bar, two cocktail bars, gift shops and an open bridge. Cabins have en suite and Wi-Fi. Upper deck cabins measure from 151 sq. ft. to 185 sq. ft. with picture windows, while those on the lower deck are 108 sq. ft. with twin circle portholes.

Coral Expedition II

A catamaran with three decks, Coral Expedition II accommodates 42 passengers.

Coral Discoverer

A 72-passenger expedition ship, Coral Discoverer has four decks, accessed via stairwell only, with over 1,000sq. m. of open deck space including a wrap-around promenade deck.

Dining

A dining room serves up three meals; the cuisine on all Coral Expeditions cruises is simple and generous — Australian-influenced recipes with regional variations using local fresh and sustainable ingredients. Lunches feature soups and salads using local seafood and fruits. The first dinner onboard is a seafood-sharing feast, while other nights there’s a three-course table d’hôte menu accompanied by a selection of wines, beers and ciders from Australia and New Zealand.

Public Rooms

Coral Discoverer has three fully-stocked bars, indoor and outdoor and on different decks, plus a large forward lounge for multi-media presentations with a reference library. The Sun Deck as plenty of seating and a shaded lounge. The ship also has a gift shop. Discoverer has two Zodiacs, plus kayaks and scuba equipment onboard. Wi-Fi is only available in public areas.

Cabins

Cabins on the lowest deck measure 195 sq. ft. and have just two portholes for views, while on the higher decks, cabins measure between 160 to 195 sq. ft. and have picture windows. A balcony category is 215 sq. ft.

 In cabin: en suite, phone.

  • Coral Adventurer
  • Coral Geographer (2021)

An exploration ship made for the tropics, the 120-passenger Coral Adventurer has four decks accessed by elevator, with over 1,000sq. m. of open deck space including a wrap-around promenade deck. 

Coral Adventurer and Xplorer

Coral Adventurer and Xplorer. * Photo: Coral Expeditions

Dining

A dining room serves up three meals; the cuisine on all Coral Expeditions cruises is simple and generous — Australian-influenced recipes with regional variations using local fresh and sustainable ingredients. Lunches feature soups and salads using local seafood and fruits.

The first dinner onboard is a seafood-sharing feast, while other nights there’s a three-course table d’hôte menu accompanied by a selection of wines, beers and ciders from Australia and New Zealand. The galley has a viewing window.

Public Rooms

There are three fully-stocked indoor and outdoor bars on various decks. There’s a large forward lounge for multi-media presentations with a reference library, a Navigator lounge where passengers can observe ship operations and the Barralong Room for hosting scientific research and exhibitions. The Sun Deck as plenty of seating and a shaded lounge. The ship also has a gym and gift shop. Dicoverer has six Zodiacs. Wi-Fi is available in public areas.

Cabins

Most cabins have balconies, measuring 230 sq. ft. Smaller cabins, measuring 182 sq. ft., have porthole windows. Suite category cabins are 600 sq. ft. with balconies.

In cabin: en suite, phone, Wi-Fi.

Coral Expeditions

CORAL GEOGRAPHER’s bridge deck balcony suites. * Rendering: Coral Expeditions

Special Note: Be sure to read the report on the current condition of the Great Barrier Reef written by Coral Expeditions’ marine biologist.

Along the Same Lines

No other line offers such a comprehensive coverage of Australia, including Tasmania and Papua New Guinea.

Contact

Coral Expeditions; Cairns, Qld, Australia

In Australia — 1-800 079 545; Outside Australia — +61 7 4040 9999

explore@coralexpeditions.com; www.coralexpeditions.com

TWS

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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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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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Expedition Lines Act to Reduce Air Pollution

Special Note: As only three of the 12 ships in the Hurtigruten daily service coastal fleet fall below our limit of 300 cabin passengers, a brief addendum at the end will describe the remaining ships that handle from 451 to 640 berthed passengers. Also, the expedition ship FRAM (276 passengers) will then follow with a full review and varied itineraries that include northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland, partial NW Passage, Canadian Maritimes and the U.S. East Coast en route to and from the Antarctic season. Others to follow and mentioned below under itineraries.

Hurtigruten

Norwegian ships (like the ones Hurtigruten operates) traveling north from Bergen, the country’s principal west coast port, have tied the south with the north beyond the North Cape since 1893 carrying passengers, all manner of cargo and until relatively recently, the mail. This venerable service has gradually evolved from serving as a much needed transport link to one that increasingly thrives on overseas visitors who come to ogle and partake in the delights of one beautiful country. During the course of a 12-day, 2,500-mile round-trip voyage, the ships put in at 35 different ports each way, and as the northbound schedule varies from the southbound, many served at night on the way north will become daylight stops in the other direction.

Tip: If limited in time, the northbound routing calls at the more interesting ports during convenient daytime hours.

Sailing deep into the Geirangerfjord. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing deep into the Geirangerfjord. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

LOFOTEN (built 1964 & 153 beds), VESTERALEN (b. 1983 and enlarged 1989 & 301 beds), SPITSBERGEN (b. 2009 & 243 beds). Deck passengers are not counted. The LOFOTEN will be withdrawn from the coastal service with a final departure from Bergen in December 2020 and a return to Bergen on January 2, 2021.

When another operator is hopefully announced, we will share the good news here!

Note: If you live in North America and book through the Hurtigruten agency for this region, you can no longer book either the classic LOFOTEN or VESTERALEN. You have to book through an office in Europe —  https://www.hurtigruten.co.uk and email: uk.sales@hurtigruten.com. These older ships are ignored (worse: banned from booking) in North America while their heritage is touted and extolled in Europe.

Passenger Profile

International passengers (from principal countries: Norway, Germany, Britain, US), mostly over age 40 occupy the cabins, plus Norwegians and European backpackers of all ages traveling locally (a few stops) in cabins and on deck.

Passenger Decks

LOFOTEN (5) no elevator; VESTERALEN (7) elevator between all decks. SPITSBERGEN has an elevator between 5 of 6 decks, but not highest Sun Deck.

Price

$ – $$  Moderate to Expensive

Itineraries

As Hurtigruten operates a daily scheduled passenger and freight service, the itinerary remains fixed throughout the year, with the sole exception of a diversion into the gorgeous Geirangerfjord that begins in the spring and lasts into the fall. When in 2016 the SPITSBERGEN joined the fleet more as an expedition ship, including a staff to give talks and lead trips ashore. However, the ship calls only at daytime ports (as listed in the regular schedules), therefore, dwelling longer and skipping ports presently listed with nighttime arrivals and departures. Five detours into fjords are also included.

Several other Hurtigruten  ships will also join the more cruise-like itinerary with daylight calls – FINNMARKEN, MIDNATSOL and TROLLFJORD (550 to 570 passengers) will also follow this pattern as well as operate expeditions in Antarctica in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. In addition, purpose-built new expedition ships will join the fleet with ROALD AMUNDSEN in summer 2019 and FRIDTJOF NANSEN IN 2020, both taking 530 passengers, thus certainly worth mentioning but well beyond our 300 passenger limit to engage in a full review.

Hurtigruten

Ted at bow of Lofoten. * Photo: Greg Fitzgerald

Included Features

Tips are not expected though many passengers do give to the wait staff.

Why Go?

The number one reason people think of booking a cruise to Norway is for the fjord, coastal and island scenery. Another is Hurtigruten’s variety of port calls, from tiny towns where the ships provide an essential service, to the country’s most beautiful mid-size cities of Bergen, Alesund, Trondheim and Tromso. Cargo handling is another attraction with something being loaded or off-loaded at every port, and lastly to meet Norwegians who are traveling in their own country for a whole host of reasons.

Should you choose the Lofoten, you will be sailing on a much loved time machine, a passenger and cargo-carrying vessel from more than a half-century ago, a type that has all but disappeared from the seas.

Lofoten is a working ship with all cargo crane-loaded in and out of the hold. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lofoten is a working ship with all cargo crane-loaded in and out of the hold or placed on the open deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

That’s a complex question as Norway’s maritime weather is fickle in almost any season.

Spring and fall will show off the change of seasons as you travel over 1,000 miles from south to north or vice versa. Long daylight hours are part of late spring through midsummer sailings.

School holidays will see the most passengers aboard, including backpackers making short coastal trips and heading out to the well offshore Lofoten Islands.

Winter brings on vibrant displays of the Northern Lights, with the downside being long hours of darkness. My preference, after a half-dozen coastal voyages, is from April through the end of May when there are fewer tourists, lots of light and a noticeable change of seasons during the course of the voyage.

Cabins

LOFOTEN’s tiny cabin accommodations will be the biggest hurdle to face as the best cabins sell out early. Very few cabins have twin lower beds, and most are designed like an enlarged railway sleeping compartment with upper and lower berths. On the deck plans, categories N (3 cabins), J (3), A (20) and I (7) have private shower and toilet. The Ds have showers and toilets along the passageways. Total cabin berths number 154.

Note:  See https://www.hurtigruten.com/our-ships/ms-lofoten/ for useful cabin photos to help make your decision.

VESTERALEN’s cabins come with private shower and toilet, and range from two beds, with one converting from a sofa, to others with upper and lowers; the majority are outside, plus insides and a block of cabins having restricted views. SPITSBERGEN’s cabins all have private facilities with a mixture of configurations. With two berth cabins, one converts to a sofa, and some will have an extra upper berth. All cabins have private facilities, with some having limited or no outside views. Upper grades have TVs.

Dining

Tables are assigned for dinner which is a set, served meal, though special dietary requests are accommodated with advance notice. The cooking is straight forward continental fare that appeals to a wide mostly European market. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, and the choices should satisfy most tastes.

If you like marinated herring served a half-dozen ways, as I do, you will be in heaven. Interport passengers who are on just for a day or two have to pay for meals so most head to the LOFOTEN’S and VESTERALEN’s cafeterias located behind the main restaurant. SPITSBERGEN has an aft dining room and a Bistro for light meals and refreshments.

Vesteralen leaving port to continue the southbound voyage to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

Vesteralen leaving port to continue the southbound voyage to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

Public Rooms

LOFOTEN is one-of-a-kind and exudes the retro atmosphere of a small country hotel, comfy, beautifully wood-paneled and largely unchanged from the 1960s. Two lounges look forward, the top one affording the best views, while the lower lounge is quieter and better suited to reading and playing board games but with the view forward along the cargo deck. A third lounge, located aft and an extension of the cafeteria, is used for conversation and/or having a drink.

VESTERALEN is plainer inside and boasts a 360-degree top deck, glass-topped lounge for viewing the scenery, a second forward facing lounge, restaurant in the forward section of the deck below, café aft of that, small playroom, two conference rooms and a secluded lounge at the stern. SPITSBERGEN has two forward lounges, one with 270-degree views.

Dining room aboard the Lofoten. * Photo: Fellow Passenger.

Dining room aboard the Lofoten. * Photo: Fellow Passenger (Empty Chair).

Activities & Entertainment

Shore excursions abound from the active such as kayaking, snowmobiling and dog sledding (in season) to bird watching, sightseeing a town’s historic past, visiting a Sami camp in Lapland and a drive to the North Cape. The Northern Lights are at their brightest in winter. Nearly every call allows at least a quick look ashore before the ship’s whistle beckons you back, while Trondheim, a cathedral city, and Alesund, an Art Nouveau treasure, encourage several hours of exploring. On some summertime voyages, musicians will be aboard. SPITSBERGEN will have an expedition-style shore program.

Special Notes: Tax on alcohol is sky high in Norway, so beer and wine prices are amongst the most expensive in the world. Some bring aboard what they like to drink and enjoy it in their cabin before dinner — while private supplies are taboo in the public rooms.

Addendum

A description of the nine other ships follows including years delivered and berth capacities. Deck passengers are additional.

Kong Harald 1993 and 474 pass; Richard With 1993 and 464 pass; Nordlys 1994 and 469 pass; Polarlys 1996 and 473 pass; Nordkapp 1996 and 458 pass; Nordnorge 1997 and 451 pass; Finnmarken 2002 and 628 pass; Trollfjord 2002 and 640 pass; Midnatsol 2003 and 638 pass. Newly added, Spitsbergen 2009, rebuilt 2015 and 243 passengers, will replace Midnastol on the coastal route in winter when the latter goes off to Antarctica.

These 6- and 7-deck ships offer high up forward-facing panoramic lounges, additional public rooms and bars, conference rooms, children’s playroom, large restaurant aft with wraparound windows and cafeteria. At dinner, passengers will choose between the regular set 3-course meal and a 2- to 5-course a la carte menu with a supplemental charge starting at $19. Most cabins are outside with two beds, one a folding sofa bed, and private bathroom facilities with showers. Suites additionally come with TVs, sitting areas, minibar and some private balconies. All ships feature attractive Norwegian paintings, murals and sculptures. Cargo and vehicles roll-on, roll-off.

These larger ships have started a new thrust where an expedition team provides an enrichment program aboard and leads passengers ashore on hikes to look for wildlife and unusual geographical points of interest. Other new offerings on selected trips bring personnel aboard to provide a cultural emphasis with Norwegian art, music, history, music, legends & myths; voyages dedicated to astronomy during winter period when the Aurora Borealis is a dazzling sight; Norway’s conflicts through history from the Vikings to WWII and German occupation; and the all-important fishing industry. These are in addition to the classic style with 45 traditional shore excursions, some seasonal, offered over the course of a year.

The Nordlys passing southbound to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Nordlys passing southbound to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

FRAM: Expedition Ship

Hurtigruten began operating summer cruises to Spitsbergen (Svalbard), located north of Norway many years ago, and then in 2007, the firm built a dedicated expedition ship, Fram, at Italy’s Fincantieri yard, to offer a year-round program of expedition cruises to a new wide range of itineraries, not just the Polar Regions only. Before and after the Antarctic season, the ship makes positioning trips from and back to Europe. Itineraries include Iceland, Greenland, Canada’s Maritime Provinces, New England, U.S. East Coast, and the West Coast of South America via Costa Rica and the Panama Canal.

The ship’s name refers to the original Fram, an early 20th-century exploratory vessel that made pioneering voyages above the Arctic Circle on surveys and carried Roald Amundsen to Antarctica to become the first person to reach the South Pole. Midnatsol, taken off the Norwegian coastal route in winter carries 500 passengers in Antarctica. Additional expedition ships have been ordered to expand the variety of itineraries in North Europe, the Arctic, Antarctica and South America but they exceed our 300-passenger limit. For example, Roald Amundsen (530p), was to enter service in May 2019 and will now begin carrying passengers on July 2, 2019, more than a year late due to shipyard delays. Fridtjof Nansen, a similar vessel will follow.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

FRAM: built 2007 & 276 passengers; 200 pass in Antarctica.

Passenger Profile

An older international passenger list is drawn from Europe, North America and Australia with the main languages aboard being Norwegian and English.

Passenger Decks

7 decks, and two elevators serve every level except top Observation Deck.

Price

$$$  Very Pricey

Included Features

Many itineraries include local flights (not from the U.S.) and perhaps an overnight hotel stay; all shore activities with an English-speaking expedition team; water-resistant winter jackets; tea and coffee. Suite passengers receive complimentary drinks with meals.

Steaming Iceland. * Photo: Shutterstock Hurtigruten

Itineraries
  • Iceland’s diverse landscapes, glaciers, volcanoes, hot and cold springs, birdlife, and historic settlements; Greenland’s glaciers, icebergs, fjords, Viking settlements and hiking and partial transits of the Northwest Passage; Spitsbergen (Svalbard)’s wildlife such as musk oxen, Arctic fox and wolf, and polar bear and whaling stations; and northern Norway and its islands and fjords.
  • En route to and from South America and Antarctica, voyages call in a small Canadian maritime ports and cruise along the U.S, East Coast from New England to Florida.
  • Central America (mostly the Gulf of Mexico side); varied Caribbean islands and south to the Panama Canal and a transit.
  • Some voyages head south from the Panama Canal along South America’s west coast calling in Ecuador, Peru (incas), Chile’s fjords and the southerly Patagonia region with its spectacular scenery. Other sail via the reast coast calling at Brazilian ports.
  • Antarctic expeditions leave mostly from from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula while longer trips include the Falklands and South Georgia to see polar landscapes, icebergs of varying colors, glaciers, wildlife and birdlife, and a former whaling station on South Georgia. Activities are via Polarcirkel boat and, kayaks, and on foot.

Penguins galore, Antarctica. * Photo: Hurtigruten

Why Go?

The FRAM is a highly professional operation, organized by Norwegians who have had a lot of experience operating expeditions that began in the early 20th century. The ship is purpose-built and not a conversion from some other use nor operated on standard cruises. As one of the larger such ships, she handles rough seas about as well as any of her ilk.

When to Go?

Itineraries are arranged to operate in the warmer seasons for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguins having a noisy discussion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguins having a noisy discussion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins

127 compact outside and inside cabins, with six cabins having shared balconies facing aft; one suite and standard cabins with one bed and one fold-up sofa bed or two sofa beds. Cabins are similar to the newer Hurtigruten coastal ships. Amenities are showers, TVs and mini-fridges. No dedicated singles.

Public Rooms

The décor reflects the culture of Norway and Greenland. Layout is also much like the newer Hurtigruten coastal ships with a large Deck 6 observation lounge, lobby lounge and arcade, two lecture rooms, fitness room, two Jacuzzis, and two saunas. There’s an open promenade deck, open Sun Deck and Observation Deck, plus an Internet Café and shop for clothing and souvenirs.

Dining

Restaurant is aft with both buffet breakfasts and lunches and served dinners. Local dishes will include fish and bison. Food is average to good. A Bistro serves food informally at an extra charge. Because of high taxes, alcohol is very expensive.

Activities & Entertainment

Landings are via Polarcirkel landing craft equipped with “step-bow and grab railings” for easier and safer disembarkations on land. Organized special interest talks take place during the days at sea and in the evenings.

Special Note: Smoking is allowed out on deck only.

*NORDSTJERNEN: Expedition Ship

While no longer in Hurtigruten’s coastal program, the entry remains as she undertakes summer cruises to the North of Norway and Spitsbergen.

Nordstjernen, built 1956, taken in an earlier guise in Hurtigruten service. * Photo: Ted Scull

Nordstjernen, built 1956, taken in an earlier guise in Hurtigruten service. * Photo: Ted Scull

Spitsbergen expedition cruises operated by the 1956-built NORDSTJERNEN operate separately from Hurtigruten’s programs and not always for the English-speaking market. See the website for details then contact the link below*. She is a gem of the classic mailship design that even predated the much-loved LOFOTEN. Within her classic lines are a forward observation lounge, bar, restaurant and small cabins, with and without private facilities, totaling 150 berths.

Her Spitsbergen  cruises  last six days and leave from Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen to look for wildlife – polar bears, walrus and varieties of birds, and with calls in a Barentsberg, a Russian mining community, Ny-Alesund, a former coal mining town and now a High Arctic Research Facility, and Magdalenfjord for the remains of a whaling community. The northern Norway itineraries leave from Tromso for the Lofoten Islands, the historically important port of Narvik, Vesteralen Region and several additional islands. It’s the rugged and wild landscapes that are the main attractions. On the Hurtigruten website, see Ships, then chose NORDSTJERNEN and have a look at The Handbook. *Then if interested go to usbooking@hurtigruten.com.

Along the Same Lines

The classic coastal ships are unique, while the expedition ships are equivalent to other high-end expedition lines.

Contact

Hurtigruten (Norwegian Coastal Voyages), 1505 Westlake Ave. N #125, Seattle WA 98109;  www.hurtigruten.com.us; 866-552-0371.

— TWS

 

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Hebridean Island Cruises

Hebridean Island Cruises

Based in Great Britain, the independently-owned British cruise line operates a single ship, HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, a lovely floating country house hotel that has had no equal for three decades in atmosphere or price.

She is based largely in Scotland, with the most frequent base port being Oban, for the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles, occasional cruises that calls at Northern Ireland’s ports, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and in 2021, several summertime cruises to the Norwegian Fjords.

This line should not be confused with the pair of 10-passenger yachts operated by Hebrides Cruises.

Note: The rest 2020 season has been cancelled, and the 2021 and 2022 seasons’ itineraries have been announced.  See the website for details, and we will update the review soon.

Hebridean Island Cruises

The Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Addendum: Hebridean River Cruises charters the intimate 70-passenger ROYAL CROWN to ply the Belgian and Dutch waterways in the spring and later in the season cruise the Danube between on two cruise between Passau, Germany and Bucharest, Romania. Fares include transfers between Britain and the riverboat, shore excursions, wines and spirits, internet and WiFi, and gratuities. See the website for additional details.

Note: The shortened 2020 season is expected to resume on 7th October.

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS (Built 1964 as COLUMBA and rebuilt into a cruise ship in 1989 & 50 passengers)

Passenger Profile

Mainly British aged 50+ with many repeat passengers and occasionally Americans and other Europeans, Australians.

Passenger Decks

5, no elevator

Price

$$$  Very pricey, yet lots of included features.

Itineraries

Cruises operate from March to November to include lots of itineraries amongst Scotland’s Inner and Outer Hebrides, and depending on the year to Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Ireland, South of England, the Channel Islands, French coastal ports, and via the Shetlands and Orkney thence across the North Sea to Norway’s coast and fjords. In any one season, no cruise is repeated. Here are samplings of  itineraries and be sure to check the line’s website for all the wonderful options.

Scotland, Hebridean Island Princess

Eilean Donan, Scotland * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

  • Secret Gardens of the Western Seaboard (7 nights) round trip from Oban, Scotland visiting Plockton, Loch Ewe, Ullapool, Skye, Mull, and Ft. William.
  • St. Kilda and Islands on the Edge (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Colonsay, Tiree,  St. Kilda (the most western isle), Lewis (Callanish Stones), Shiant Islands, Eigg,  and return to Oban.
  • Pearls of the Irish Sea  (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Islay, Bangor, Isle of Man, Cockermouth, Larne, Jura, and return to Oban.
  • Sea Lochs of the Lower Clyde (6 nights) from Greenock ( near the mouth of the Clyde) to Rothesay, Troon, Port Ryan, Holy Isle, Holy Loch and a return to Greenock.
  • Two cruises, marked as Spring Surprise and Autumn Surprise, are seven-night Hebridean itineraries decided upon by the captain. They leave from and arrive back at Oban and are popular with repeat passengers who like the ship so much that they don’t mind where she goes. Footloose indicates a focus on walking and hiking outings.
  • 2021 will see a return to Norway, a North Sea crossing to and from little and will known fjords and inlets and island between Bergen and Stavanger and a pair of cruises based at Bergen.

 

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far Western Isles.

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far out Western Isles.* Photo: Ted Scull.

Special interest cruises include: hiking (marked Footloose), golf, gardens, wildlife and nature, world and highland heritage, architecture, art, classical music, Scottish food and drink; bicycles available. Look for designations.

Generally, the vessel either docks or anchors at night and travels during breakfast or lunch to the next location. Occasional overnight sails take place when the itinerary stretches south to and from English Channel ports.

Included Features

All drinks; tips; shore excursions; bicycles; speed boat rides; fishing trips; Internet; transfers between airports and railway stations; free parking.

Why Go?

If you crave an authentic upscale Scottish country hotel atmosphere and would like it to move about seeking the most wondrous and obscure locales in the northern British Isles, this is your conveyance, and it is limited to 50 like-minded souls. Additional cruises, depending on the year, head south to Ireland, Wales, Channel Islands, South of England, Channel Islands and French coastal ports and coastal Norway.

Most amazingly, the HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS was created from a hard-working, well-engineered ferry that plied the Western Isles for a quarter century before being transformed into something quite different, yet retaining much of its traditional profile. Ted slept aboard her in one of the tiny below deck cabins as a ferry and returned for two wonderful cruise voyages in island-studded Scotland and coastal Ireland.

Scotland. Hebridean Island Cruises

Some cruises specialize in hiking. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

When to Go?

The weather in the British Isles is notoriously fickle, so you take your chances. You won’t find a cozier ship to retreat into on a foul day.

Cabins

All accommodations are individually decorated in beautiful colors and fabrics and are named after Scottish isles, castles, lochs and sounds, with wildly varying layouts. Many are roomy for a small ship, and those without windows have portholes, while six are inside without natural light. Beds may be king-size or twins, double or single. Two cabins have private balconies and ten are singles. Cabins along with the bathrooms were refitted for the 2019 season.

Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Above: Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

Renovated cabin - Isle of bute

Renovated cabin – Isle of Bute – use of Scottish plaids and Harris tweed

Amenities include a dressing table, ample storage space, fridge stocked with soft drinks, milk, coffee/tea making facilities, TV, personal safe, hairdryer, trouser press, iron and ironing board, bathrobes and slippers.

Public Rooms

In the forward-facing Tiree Lounge, the ship excels in that special small country hotel feeling with a brick and timber fireplace, comfy sofas and chairs and a cozy bar in one corner. The snug library draws readers to its tartan upholstered and leather seating, and two sides lounges — the Look-Out and wicker-furnished Conservatory are venues for morning coffee and afternoon tea.

In fine weather, passengers gather on the open afterdeck for pre-dinner cocktail receptions with hot hors d’oeuvres. On the topmost Boat Deck, windbreaks protect partitioned sections furnished with sun loungers and chairs.

Hebbridean Island Cruises

A cozy light-filled lounge. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Dining

The restaurant, refurbished for the 2019 season, operates like a hotel dining room with tables for two or up to eight for those traveling together. Single passengers sit at an officer’s table. Presentation and service from a European staff are tops with the menu thoroughly British such as a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and sliced duckling , while Scottish specialties may be highland game, sautéed and smoked salmon, and fresh oysters. You might wish to, or not, sample haggis, a concoction of calf or lamb hearts, lungs and liver with onion, suet and seasonings and kedgeree made from rice and smoked fish. Dinner sees men in jackets and ties with women in equivalent attire; some are formal nights.

Hebridean Island Cruises

Restaurant. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Activities & Entertainment

Shore trips (included) visit near and remote islands, castles, stately homes, and gardens, fishing villages and for walks of varying difficulty on rugged islands. The ship is also equipped bicycles for touring and fishing tackle, so you can try your luck.  In Scotland and Ireland, be prepared for Scottish mists and uncertain weather. Entertainment aboard is geared toward individual musicians.

Activities: How about enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Staying aboard and enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

Children under the age of nine not accepted. With a high rate of British repeaters, Anglophilia helps.

Along the Same Lines

Equally small and less pricey ships of Hebridean Cruises, Magna Carta Steamship Company, and The Majestic Line.

Contact

Hebridean Island Cruises, Kintail House, Carleton New Road, Skipton, Yorkshire BD23 2DE, www.hebridean.co.uk; from the US 011 44 (0)756 704 704, UK 01756 704 704; Also, contact a US rep. at 877-600-2648. Be sure to mention promo code HEB2020.

— TWS

 

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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.

RELATED: August 202o Update — Blount Bows Out.  By Ted Scull

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.

RELATED:  12 Irresistible Reasons to Visit New England on a Small-ship Cruise.  by Ted Scull

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  are a great way to travel!

Click here for booking information on American Cruise Lines.

 

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Victory I of Victory Cruise Lines

Victory Cruise Lines

Victory Cruise Lines began operating with a short first season in 2016 along the St. Lawrence River and in the Great Lakes, using the American-built coastal ship Cape May Light (built in 2001), which had operated for Delta Queen Coastal Cruises until that company went bankrupt. After a lay-up period and work for other firms, she joined the new line in 2016 as Victory I.

A second unit, built as the US-flag Cape Cod Light, most recently sailed as the Sea Discoverer until chartered by this line in 2017. Following a refit in Europe, it appeared in summer 2018 as Victory II and focused on New England, Eastern Canada, St. Lawrence Valley, and the Great Lakes.

In 2019, both ships were purchased by American Queen Steamboat Company, and the pair will continue to operate as a brand, retaining the name Victory Cruise Lines. They expanded their horizons to include the American Southeast and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The line also includes the charter of a small 200-passenger ship called Ocean Victory, which was built for Miami-based SunStone Ships, offering Alaska and Pacific Coast cruises. Another operator, Albatros Expeditions, will charter the vessel for the rest of the year.

An interesting aside, sister-company Hornblower Cruises & Events operates 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

Victory Cruise Lines

OCEAN VICTORY will cruise Alaska in summer 2021. Here is a rendering of the splendid library. * SunStone Ships

COVID-19 UPDATE

Victory Cruise Lines will resume cruising in April 2021.

Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

FLEET
  • Victory I (built 2001 & 202 passengers) – Great Lakes & St. Lawrence River
  • Victory II (b. 2004 & 202 p) – Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, New England, American Southeast & Mexico
  • Ocean Victory (b. 2020 & 200 p) – Alaska & Pacific Northwest
Victory Cruise Lines

The Victory I . * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

RELATED: Writer Peter Knego reports on his Great Lakes cruise aboard Victory I.

RELATED: Judi Cohen shares details about her Victory II cruise.

Passenger Profile

Americans, Canadians, and a few Europeans mainly 50 and up. Many passengers will be veterans of American Queen Steamboat Company who will have broader horizons to pursue.

Price

$$ to $$$ – Pricey

Included Features
  • Pre-voyage hotel stay
  • On-board meals, afternoon tea service & evening cocktails
  • Wine, spirits, beer, coffee, tea & soft drinks
  • Wi-Fi in public areas
  • One shore excursion in each port

Tips are not included; the recommended amounts are $15 per person per day for the ship’s crew, and ashore, $5 per person for guides and $2 for the bus driver.

Itineraries

Victory Cruise Lines is known for Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River cruises, which run from between 8 to 16 nights, and Canada and New England cruises, which run from between 8 to 13 nights.

victory-cruise-lines

Toronto’s skyline seen from Center Island, reached by passenger ferry from downtown. * Photo: Ted Scull

Public Gardens, Halifax

Public Gardens, Halifax, Nova Scotia. * Photo: Ted Scull

After the autumn foliage changes, the ships sail south for 12- to 13-night cruises of the historic American Southeast and the Bahamas (they cruise this region in the spring months as well, when the ships are repositioning back north).

Over the winter, the ships cruise Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula with 10-night itineraries. The line also offers an Alaskan and Pacific Northwest cruise, ranging from 11 to 16 nights, during the summer months.

Sample Itinerary

Yucatán’s Mayan Cruise Tour begins with an overnight in Cancun, Mexico before embarking in Cozumel/Tulum for 9 nights of sailing on the scenic Gulf of Mexico with calls at Costa Maya, Progresso, Campeche and Valladolid before returning to Cancun.

Why Go?

The key is the ease of cruising on a small ship to attractive ports, large and small, in the US and Canada. Few ships cruise the Great Lakes, though the numbers are growing. So it’s less charted territory for the many aficionados of exploring inland waters — lakes, rivers and canals.

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, lives up to its name. *Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

The Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Alaska cruises operate from May to October, the best months for touring the region.

Mexico is visited in the winter, with the U.S. Southeast in the shoulder months.

Sustainability Initiatives

On Ocean Victory, passengers are given personal water bottles that can be refilled at various on-board water stations.

RELATED: Ocean Victory Heading to Alaska.  By Anne Kalosh.

Activities & Entertainment

Victory I and Victory II host on-board lectures and have games in the lounge. Each night there’s live entertainment from the in-house band. Each port has a free excursion or optional premium experience led by local guides.

SHIPS 

Victory I

Victory II

These 202-passenger sister ships each have 5 decks accessed by elevator.

There are two dining rooms, the main Coastal Dining Room serves regional and seasonal fare and there’s a contemporary and casual Grill.

A cozy tavern serves up cocktails, while the Compass Lounge handles lectures and larger gatherings in a bright and airy space.

Victory I tavern

The cozy Seascape Tavern aboard Victory I * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

The sun deck provides an aft-facing observation lounge, and a wraparound promenade has a narrow path for constitutional walkers. Victory I & II also have a fitness center, spa, salon and medical clinic.

All cabins are doubles with twin or queen-size beds, picture windows and measurements of 146 to 185 sq. ft., and a single owner’s suite at 335 sq. ft.

Single travelers normally pay 160% for single occupancy of a double cabin.

In cabin: en suite, individual climate control, TV, minifridge, safe.

Victory Cruise Lines

An AA Category cabin aboard VICTORY I * Photo: Victory Cruise Lines

Ocean Victory

A contemporary expedition ship, the 200-passenger Ocean Victory packs a lot on its six spacious passenger decks (all of which have elevator service).

Meals are served in the Main Restaurant, the Panorama Specialty Restaurant, at an outdoor bistro and barbeque deck. Enjoy coffee, tea and cocktails at the Explorer Bar and an observation lounge that wraps around the front of the ship for optimal views.

Passengers can attend programs in the Expedition Lecture Room and learn on their own at the Voyager Library.

For relaxation, there’s a showpiece pool that has glass infinity-style walls, two Jacuzzis, a fitness center, spa and boutique. Ocean Victory has Zodiacs and kayaks, a mudroom and medical clinic.

Cabins have queen and twin beds and desks, many have private balconies, a few have French balconies, still others have porthole views.

In cabin: en suite, TV, minifridge, safe, hair dryer.

Alaska Expedition Cruises with Victory

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

Special Notes

A doctor is carried on all cruises, operating out of an infirmary.

Along the Same Lines

Pearl Seas Cruises operates some similar itineraries, while Croisieres Saint Jacques and St. Lawrence Cruise Lines exclusively cruise the St. Lawrence River.

Contact

Victory Cruise Lines, US-based; www.victorycruiselines.com; +1 (833) 548 0187.

— TWS

 

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Blount Ship Adventures

Blount Small Ship Adventures

NOTE: This company is defunct and QuirkyCruise.com is preserving the review for archival purposes.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out.  by Ted Scull.

The following archived review was last updated in 2019.

Blount Small Ship Adventures (BSSA) was founded in 1966 by Yankee entrepreneur Luther Blount as the American Canadian Line headquartered in Warren, Rhode Island. He is largely responsible for the rebirth of US-flag coastal and inland voyages. His three daughters now run the cruise line and shipyard that builds small cruise vessels and excursion  boats.

Since the beginning Blount has operated small American-flagged ships taking less than 100 passengers on an appealing set of creative coastal and inland waters itineraries from New England and its historic islands, via the Hudson River and Erie Canal to the St. Lawrence River and French Canada, through the Great Lakes to Chicago, and south along the East Coast’s Intracoastal Waterway to the Carolinas and Florida. Belize for its islands and barrier reef and Guatemala for its Mayan ruins are a December and January destinations.

The crew is mostly all-American, and captains are Blount veterans and know their waters. Cabins are tiny and the social life amongst mostly senior Americans and Canadians is relaxed and upbeat. It’s destination cruising with few of the frills that characterize the mainstream ships. Most passengers like it that way, that is once they get used to the small quarters. 2016 was Blount’s 50th anniversary for operating small-ship cruises. Blount is the only overnight cruise line that can negotiate Erie and Oswego canals, and New York State’s canal system is now a National Historic Landmark.

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Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

GRANDE CARIBE (built 1997 & 84 passengers) and GRANDE MARINER (b. 1998 & 84 p).

Grande Mariner tied up at Rondout Creek, mid-Hudson River landing. * Photo: Ted Scull

Grande Mariner tied up at Rondout Creek, a mid-Hudson River landing. * Photo: Ted Scull

Passenger Profile

Mostly American seniors who enjoy a casual social setting with like-minded cruisers, while a few Brits and Australians are now finding their way here. Camaraderie develops quite quickly for those open to it.

Passenger Decks

4, electric stair climber between cabins, lounge and dining room on Main and Sun decks.

Cabins

44 doubles, with a few set aside for single occupancy. most cabins are very small even by small ship standards, so if you can afford an outside cabin with a window or one that opens to a side promenade, then go for it. Also, stay away for cabins that are susceptible to engine room noise.

Price

$ to $$ Moderate

Included Features

Beer and wine at lunch and dinner*; soft drinks and setups for passengers own supplies; occasional walking tours. *(No free wine/beer on 4-day New England island breaks.)

Itineraries

Cruises last 6 to 15 nights.

  • American & Canadian waterways between Warren, RI and Chicago using no less than 3 canals, 3 rivers and 6 lakes (4 of 5 Great Lakes). Inland waterway trip par excellence.
  • Lake Michigan-exclusively, from Chicago with three spots in Wisconsin and three in Michigan and as far north as Mackinac Island. In 2019, one new trip embarks in Chicago, and after traversing four Great Lakes, sails down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal.
  • The Intracoastal Waterway, 10 ports in 6 states between Warren, RI, Blount’s headquarters and  Charleston, SC. Share the bays, rivers and sounds  waterways with small yacht traffic and tie up at towns where you just walk ashore. In 2019, two new trips embark in Philadelphia or Baltimore and your the many historic towns of the Chesapeake Bay and end up in the Baltimore and Philadelphia respectively.
  • New England offers lots of choices: Islands of New England (Block Island, Cuttyhunk, Martha’s Vineyard, & Nantucket) plus inland and coastal Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Activities ashore include sailing in an America’s Cup yacht in Newport, kayaking in Great Salt Pond and communing with birds on Block Island, and learning about oyster farming and fishing at Westport, near the New Bedford port call. Quickie 4-day trips from Warren are available, and, longer 10-day summer cruises depart Boston for the Maine coast and New Brunswick visiting Bath, “City of Ships,” kayaking amidst lobster boats, whales at play near St. Andrews, NB with world-class golf course ashore, and Portland for its waterfront, art museum, and stunningly-sited Portland Head Light. Also, shorter 8-day trips leave Boston and call exclusively at Massachusetts ports: Salem, Newburyport, Provincetown, Plymouth and Martha’s Vineyard. N.B. For the 7-day New England Islands cruise, the five departures scheduled for June into August 2020 will embark in Boston and disembark in New York and or just the reverse.
Navigating New York State's Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Navigating New York State’s Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

  • New York and Montreal via 3 rivers, 3 canals, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence Seaway, and including Quebec City and some cruises extended to the Saguenay River. This is Blount’s bread & butter route. In fall 2019, one round trip leaves Warren, the line’s home port and sails via Long Island Sound, calling at New York, then sailing 50 miles up the Hudson (superb fall foliage) as far as a Troy, then turns back making different calls emote to Warren.
  • In early 2019, four 12-day departures will explore Belize and Roatan for barrier reef activates, Mayan ruins, birding (500 species in Belize), visiting small towns, paddling the rivers, and jungle hike
  • February and March 2019, 12-day cruises will feature Panama, after a hiatus of several years, to include a complete 48-mile transit, visits on the Pacific Ocean side the Panama City, Pearl Isles and Darien Jungle, and on the Atlantic (Caribbean) side, the San Blas Islands. Meet the local people, take naturalist hike, swim and snorkel.
  • For the foreseeable future, U.S. government regulations disallow Cuba cruises..
A lovely promenade in Old Montreal. * Photo: Ted Scull

A lovely promenade in Old Montreal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

See the U.S. and Canada close up by traveling along North American rivers, canals and sounds where other cruises do not and cannot go, plus a full program exploring the Great Lakes. Social interaction amongst like minded souls. Plus many ship buffs appreciate the ships’ innovations designed by line founder, the late Luther Blount, including retractable pilot houses, bow ramps, and  shallow draft that enables the pair to sail in less than seven feet of water. These unique Blount innovations allow the Mariner and Caribe to go where other ships cannot.

The Blount-designed blow stairs for easy beach landings. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures

When to Go?

Itineraries are geared to preferred seasons.

Cabins

Teeny weeny, ranging from 74 to 96 sq. ft. with a dozen different configurations, so study carefully the detailed cabin plans. Beds may be double-size; parallel twins and at right angles; some upper and lower berths. Cabins may have slide-open windows (fresh air and sounds of the sea), tiny potholes or may be inside with neither. Some open to an outside promenade (fun for quick access to the deck) rather than into an inside corridor. Showers may be hand-held within the toilet and wash basin space or in a separate compartment. Storage space is limited to a closet, a few drawers and under the bed. Dress is casual at all times. Tip: ask about engine room noise before booking a Main Deck cabin.

Sun Deck Cabin 55B aboard the Grande Mariner. * Photo; Ted Scull

Sun Deck Cabin 55B aboard the Grande Mariner. * Photo; Ted Scull

Public Rooms

Pure and simple, there is one forward-facing lounge that seats all passengers, with an open bar for soft drinks and set ups, plus games and a large flat-screen TV. Plenty of covered and open seating is available on the top deck.

Dining

Meals are served in the big-windowed dining room located one deck below the lounge, and all passengers are accommodated in one sitting at four- to eight-seat tables. There are no tables for two — definitely not the scene here. Lunch and dinner are at set times depending on the program, and breakfast entertains a one-hour span of arrival.

Dinnertime aboard the Grande Mariner. * Photo: fellow passenger

Dinnertime, shades drawn, aboard the Grande Mariner. * Photo: fellow passenger

Breakfast is both buffet-style for cereals, breads, pastries, fruit and juices as well a served  special-of the-day such as blueberry pancakes, omelets or Eggs Benedict. Lunch may start with a communal soup bowl on the table, then perhaps a quiche or make your own sandwich with ingredients set out before you. Dinner is served with an appetizer or salad, choice of entrée and dessert. The food is well prepared with high quality ingredients and reflects what the mostly North American passengers like to eat at home or at a good local restaurant.

Deck barbecue on the Hudson River aboard Grande Mariner. * Photo: Ted Scull

Deck barbecue while cruising the Hudson River aboard Grande Mariner. * Photo: Ted Scull

Activities & Entertainment

A lecturer accompanies most cruises with additional specialist speakers in some ports. Optional shore excursions are available in most ports as well as independent touring. Some evenings may see a musician or local historian come aboard. Bedtime comes early for many, few stay up past 10 p.m.

Special Notes

Line offers a popular BYOB policy and supplies storage and setups; singles have the option of a “willing to share” policy. There is no laundry aboard. The cruise director will know the most convenient “bottle shops” and self-service laundries on longer voyages. Early arrival rates for some dates include an extra dinner and overnight aboard allowing for local independent touring. It’s a nice feature and avoids a one-night hotel stay and another transfer. Sign up for bulletins and keep a keen eye out for special rates.

Along the Same Lines

American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company though plusher cabins; Ontario Waterway Cruises; St. Lawrence Cruise Lines; UnCruise Adventures (some f the fleet).

Contact

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, PO Box 368, Warren, RI 02885-3900;  blountsmallshipadventures.com; 800-556-7450.

— TWS

 

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The Majestic Line

COVID-19 UPDATE 

The Majestic Line resumed cruising in September 2020. Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

The Majestic Line specializes in small-boat cruises in Argyll, Western Scotland and the Hebridean Isles, using two converted fishing boats and two custom-designed steel-hulled gentleman’s motor yachts. The latter have stabilizers so are used for longer trips to more remote places.

While there is an outlined itinerary for every departure, the exact coastal and island calls and their sequence are dependent on the fickle Scottish weather. As the boats carry 11 and 12 passengers only, a cruise is very much a shared experience in close quarters. Every cruise has two single cabins offered and the booking chart on Majestic’s website shows availability.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coastline and the highly varied Hebridean Islands without fussing over ferry schedules for your rented car or resorting to a confining bus tour with too many others, here’s your answer, a local firm with a quartet of wee ships.

All four vessels are available for charter, with rates discounted by 10%.

Fleet

Glen Massan (built 1975 & 11 passengers) – Hebridean Islands, Caledonian Canal & Loch Ness

Glen Tarsan (b. 1975 & 11 p) – Hebridean Islands, Argyll, Caledonian Canal & Loch Ness

Glen Etive (b. 2016 & 12 p) – Hebridean Islands, Outer Hebridean Islands, Argyll, Skye & Northwest Coast

Glen Shiel (b. 2019 & 12 p) – Hebridean Islands; Skye; Orkney; the Outer Hebridean Islands & St. Kilda; Northwest Coast

The Majestic Line

Three of Majestic Line’s vessels at the dock. * Photo: Majestic Line

Passenger Profile

Primarily from Great Britain, ages 50 and up. Children under 12 not accepted unless part of a charter.

Price

$$$ Very pricey

Included Features
  • On board meals
  • Good selected wines at dinner
  • Tender excursions for exploring

RELATED: Cruising Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel.  by Robin McKelvie.

Itineraries

All four boats offer short-break 3-night and longer 6-night cruises, while Glen Etive and Glen Shiel also do 10-night cruises from Western Scotland to lochs and town landings in Argyll and trips out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In all, 19 different itineraries are offered with departures from April to October.

Nearly all embark and disembark in Oban, a port with ScotRail connections to the rest of Britain. Exceptions are one-way trips between Oban and Inverness and the first cruise of the season leaving from Holy Loch, Dunoon, Majestic Line’s base of operations.

The vessels usually anchor by dinnertime in a secluded setting, and get underway after breakfast. If the next stop is a bit further on, then the boat may depart before breakfast.

puffins on lunga

Puffins on Lunga. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Sample Itinerary

The 6-night “Isles of the Clyde and the Southern Hebrides” embarks at Oban, sailing through the Firth of Clyde to the Arran Islands, Kyles of Bute and Campbeltown, rounding the Mull of Kintyre to the southern Hebridean Islands, the Firth of Lorn in North Argyll, past the isles of Gigha, Islay and Jura, and ending at Holy Loch on the Firth of Clyde.

Why Go?

Scotland is beautiful when the weather cooperates and is noted for its dramatic seascape scenery in many different lighting conditions, deep lochs to explore (similar to Norway’s fjords), a multitude of varied islands, castles and proud Scottish clans.

Wildlife is seen in the air, on the sea and on land during walks. Circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, cross Scotland via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness, and cruise out into the Atlantic to see the world’s largest gannetry hosting 60,000 pairs living and breading on isolated island of St. Kilda.

Iona. * Photo: Majestic Line

Iona. * Photo: The Majestic Line

When to Go?

With Scotland’s reputation for unpredictable and constantly varying weather, there is no best time. Be prepared for chilly and windy conditions at any time of the year as well as long days of sunlight in May and into August.

Sustainability Initiatives

At every chance, The Majestic Line sources ingredients for meals from local sources, working closely with local communities with respect to culture and wilderness.

Activities & Entertainment

On board, activities are board games, puzzles, and videos or relaxing and reading from the library selections. Traditional shore excursions do not exist. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

The tender takes passengers ashore to land on a beach or to a dock with sightseeing aids for creating short walks or longer hikes of one to two hours. Occasionally a one-way hike starts with a drop-off at the start and a pickup in an altogether different spot. Passengers may also fish, mostly for mackerel, or help lower and raise the lobster pots, and most likely the catch will be crabs.

At times, the wheelhouse is open to visitors, and the crew is happy to share knowledge of navigation and geography. You might even have a hand at the wheel. — Ted Scull

Dining

Communal table seats all. Typical meal times are: breakfast 8-9am; lunch 1pm; afternoon tea at 4pm; and dinner 7:30pm. Wine is included with dinner.

Main courses feature local fish and shellfish (crabs and sometime lobsters), beef, lamb and venison all sourced locally. With so few to cook for, meals are a craft and a treat. An outside table may also be available when the weather is conducive.

The West coast of Scotland is famed for its shellfish, so it’s little surprise that each cruise features a delicious seafood buffet including mussels, langoustines, scallops and oysters. Venison and beef also appear on menus, locally sourced from the hills of Argyll. And the nightly cheese board is always a highlight with its local Scottish cheeses and preserves.

Glen Tarsan dining saloon

Dining saloon on GLEN TARSAN. * Photo: Majestic Line

SHIPS

Glen Massan
Glen Tarsan

The original Majestic Line boats, these two wooden-hulled, former fishing vessels were converted by the line into bespoke cruise ships. Each has three decks (no elevator).

The deck saloon is the main gathering place for meals, relaxing moments with views and sometimes programs on the large-screen TV.

Drinks, including a wide choice of malt whiskies, are served al fresco on the sheltered aft deck, which is accessed by French doors. If weather allows, meals can be served here, too.

A library stocks books on local attractions and games. Passengers are welcome to chat with the skipper and crew in the wheelhouse. The top deck is ideal for warming in the sun and watching wildlife.

Cabins

The vessels are small hence the cabins are compact with either twin or double-bed configurations. Two singles are available on every cruise with no supplement. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Glen Etive
Glen Shiel

Majestic Line’s first purpose-built, steel-hulled cruise ships, Glen Etive and Glen Shiel each have three decks (with no elevator).

The Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

The Glen Shiel just joined the Majestic Line fleet! * Photo: The Majestic Line

There’s a dining saloon where all meals are served in informal style, and a warm and inviting forward saloon with great views and socializing with crew and other guests. Drinks and canapés are sometimes served on the outdoor aft deck. There’s a bar in the forward deck with a good selection of malt whiskies available at all times.

The library stocks books and games, while in the lounge/bar they will screen the occasional local documentary or film. The wheelhouse is often open to passengers and there’s also a sun deck with sun loungers.

Cabins

Glen Etive and Glen Shiel have larger cabins than Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Cabin on Glen Etive. * Photo: Majestic Line

Cabin on GLEN ETIVE. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Special Notes

Glen Etive and Glen Shiel(2019) have stabilizers and are used for longer trips that might encounter some choppy seas such as to the Outer Hebrides and to remote St. Kilda truly out in the Atlantic.

Along the Same Lines

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger Hebridean Princess also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles, as does Lord of  the Glen, recently purchased by Hebridean Island Cruises from the Magna Carta Steamship Company.

Also check out the small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; as well as Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of wonderful companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

Contact

The Majestic Line, UK-based

www.themajesticline.co.uk

info@themajesticline.co.uk; +44 (0) 1369 707 951

— TWS

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Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway (AMH) is the only long-distance ferry service in the United States that offers sleeping cabins and multiple day journeys. There are a variety of routes and, therefore, different itineraries to develop. Unlike a straight cruise, you can stop over for a day or two or longer, and the main routes operate year-round, though the frequency will decrease in the off-season.

Why the 24/7 over 365 days? Well, the capital city Juneau has no highway connections to the outside world nor does Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg or Sitka plus a whole bunch of small towns. It’s ferry or fly.

Alaska Marine Highway’s flagship Columbia. * Photo: John Rain

The Alaska Marine Highway is in a category by itself in more ways than one.

11 August 2020 Update

Here is an update to the planned off-season service currently under review, given that the State of Alaska’s Marine Highway funding has been substantially reduced. As most Panhandle communities have no road access to their neighbors, nor to the rest of the state, some level of service continues for the fall and winter and into spring 2021, but with drastic cutbacks.

The most profitable service (and most popular with visitors) is between Bellingham, Washington and Southeast Alaska. This service will keep operating first with the Kennicott sailing every two weeks as the traditional route is extended to South Central Alaskan ports. Ports are Bellingham, Washington, (bypassing Prince Rupert due to Canadian government closure), Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, (not Skagway), then across the Gulf of Alaska to Whittier, Cordova, Homer and Kodiak. Service operates October 2020 through January 6, 2021 then is suspended to March 18, 2021 when it resumes.

Matanuska’s weekly Inside Passage service begins February 10, 2021 from Bellingham (bypassing Prince Rupert). Port calls are Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Kake and return.

Tustumena begins operating April 15, 2021 from Homer, Kodiak Island to the remote Aleutian Island chain.

For those interested in the status of two other ships with cabins, the Columbia is laid up though in operating condition, while the Malaspina needs $18 million for repairs.

Historical Background

When Alaska became a state in 1959, transport by land or sea to most of the Panhandle cities did not exist as the former Alaska Steamship Line had recently ceased operations. One short-sea route did operate, a small day ferry between Skagway and Haines to Juneau. Then in 1963, the state inaugurated regular ferry services with three brand-new vessels — Malaspina, Matanuska, and Taku — that offered cabins, a restaurant, cafeteria, bar lounge, heated solarium and lots of deck space.

Road and rail access from the Lower 48 connected to a weekly ferry from Seattle (now Bellingham, Washington) to the Panhandle; by road and rail from Prince Rupert, B.C. located just south of the Alaska state border; by road from Haines if coming from Anchorage or Fairbanks; and eventually from Skagway when a road opened to/from Whitehorse.

The Yukon Territory capital straddles the 1,523-mile Alaska Highway providing road connections through Canada to and from the U.S. Lower 48. Two of the three original ships are still running (not Taku) along with others, and some relatively for short interport trips. All the state ferries are named after Alaska glaciers and the state flag — the Big Dipper pointing to the North Star on a deep blue background — provides the ship’s funnel marking.

RELATED: For a first-hand account of cruising on the AMH, have a gander at Ted’s wonderful article, “Finding My Route to Alaska.”

Petersburg is a thriving fishing and yachting port. * Wild Iris Photography

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers
  • Columbia (built 1973 & 298 cabin berths)
  • Kennicott (b. 1998 & 306 berths)
  • Malaspina (b. 1963 & 233 berths)
  • Matanuska (b. 1963 & 222 berths)
  • Tustumena (b. 1964 & 59 berths)

Deck passengers are not included in these figures. The outstanding longevity of this fleet is a testimony to good initial engineering and maintenance over the decades.

Passenger Decks

Columbia & Kennicott have four passenger decks and the others three. All vessels with cabin accommodations have an elevator.

Passenger Profile

Alaskans traveling to and from the Lower 48, Americans, Canadians and foreign tourists, especially in the summer months. All ages in all categories.

Taking that constitutional. * Photo: Ted Scull

Price

$ to $$ – The lower end of the fare schedule would include transportation as a deck passenger, then extras such as cabin berths, meals, vehicle, bicycle, kayak, and a pet add to the total cost.

Itineraries

Note: Because of the budget cutbacks, many services will be drastically cut back from October 1, 2019 or eliminated entirely for the foreseeable future. Go to the Marine Highway website (see below) for specific information.

The length of the ferry routes stretch from Bellingham, Washington and go north through the Inside Passage, then arc west into the Gulf of Alaska and southwest along the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor, adding up to some 3,500 miles. Basically, the individual routes are the Inside Passage (Washington State via Panhandle cities to Skagway); Southcentral Alaska; and Southwest, Kenai Peninsula and Aleutian Islands.

The most popular trip is from Washington State (a port north of Seattle) to the Panhandle and return (7 nights). Others involve stopping over. For instance, use the weekly service in either or both directions between Bellingham and Ketchikan, the latter located at the south end of the panhandle region.

Note: Cutbacks have curtailed the frequency of services.

From there to Skagway in the north, you now have less frequent services between all the main towns making stopovers more difficult to arrange. Many interport passages are a short few hours in the daytime and do not require a cabin.

The route from Washington north to the Alaska Panhandle & Skagway. * Photo: Alaska Marine Highway

  • The mainline route begins at Bellingham, Washington, some 90 miles (150 km) north of Seattle, with the first stop in Alaska at Ketchikan (38 hours), then Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Kake and return via Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Bellingham, WA.
  • Note: This service has been suspended for the foreseeable future as the port of Prince Rupert has been closed by the Canadian authorities the more frequent service has its terminal at Prince Rupert, B.C. and calls at Panhandle ports in both directions.
  • Day ferries service other small Panhandle towns, also all isolated from the highway system.
  • A regular route operates (every two weeks) from  Bellingham, WA via Juneau and Panhandle ports then crossing the Gulf of Alaska to several ports including Whittier (42 hours).
  • Southcentral ferries serve towns such as Cordova, Valdez, Whittier, Homer;  a Southwest ferry operates from Kodiak on Kodiak Archipelago to ports along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor. This last route, using the well-strengthened Tustumena encounters some of the roughest weather in the world; some adventurers actually sail the route hoping to experience extreme weather conditions.
Included Features

Everything is a la carte except the basic fare. Senior fares are available. Cabins, food and drinks extra. Tipping is minimal or non-existent.

Why Go?

Majestic mountains, deep fjords, glaciers, seascapes, forests, wildlife (birds, animals, whales), history (Russian occupation especially at Sitka and the gold rush), Native Alaskan culture, kayaking, hiking, fishing, totems, and Juneau (Alaska’s capital with an excellent state museum).

When to Go?

Mainline routes operate year-round, and every season has its positives. Ferries are most crowded and packed in the summer months between certain city pairs. Spring and fall will be chilly especially around water, and in winter months the Panhandle will be as cold as the coast of Maine and much colder in the interior areas, such Anchorage and Fairbanks. Winter will also see very little daylight, more in the Panhandle than in the interior parts of the state.

Anan Creek, Wrangell. * Photo: Wrangell C&V Bureau

Cabins

If traveling in the main season, book as far ahead as possible (months ahead) as cabins sell out fast (some cabins have windows and some do not). Vessels with cabins are Columbia (45 4-berth, 56 2-berth, 3 wheelchair accessible), Kennicott (48 4-berth, 58 2-berth*, 3 wheelchair accessible), Malaspina 45 4-berth, 26 2-berth, 1 wheelchair accessible), Matanuska (21 3-berth, 79 2-berth, 1 wheelchair accessible), and Tustumena (6 4-berth, 17 2-berth, 1 wheelchair accessible). *Kennecott has some 2-berth cabins without wash basin or linens supplied.

Public Rooms

The Columbia has two forward observation lounges. All ships (except Tustumena) have a cafeteria for all meals, observation lounge, solarium, a movie lounge and a children’s playroom.

Dining

The Columbia has both a table-service restaurant as well as a cafeteria and Tustumena has a dining room only. The rest of the fleet operates with a cafeteria. The food preparation uses high quality ingredients, and the selection is varied.

Activities & Entertainment

The staff may present some wildlife information and on-deck talks in the manner that the National Parks guides used to in the summer time. Budget cuts eliminated the latter, along with separate bar service, and souvenir shop.

Skagway, the most northerly stop on the Inside Passage and a place full of activities. * Photo: Skagway C&V Bureau

Special Notes

If traveling between late May and early September, be sure to book cabins and vehicle space as far in advance as you are able. The main services from Washington State and throughout the Panhandle are protected from Pacific Ocean wave action, the exception being two short stretches along the B.C. coast, the first of two hours and then just 30 minutes.

Along the Same Lines

While there is nothing else like the AMH in North or South America, the Hurtigruten along the Norwegian Coast serves much the same basic functions — port to port passengers, vehicles and cargo. However, the Norwegian ships are nearly all larger, newer and also geared heavily to cruise-type passengers and they offer more cruise type amenities than on AMH.

Contact

Alaska Marine Highway, P.O. Box 112505, 6858 Glacier Highway, Juneau, Alaska 99811-2505; 800-642-0066; www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/.

— TWS

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Emma Jane at Staffa

Hebrides Cruises

Hebrides Cruises is a small family-operated line that currently operates two vessels taking just 8 to 10 passengers on cruises to Scotland’s Western Isles, lochs and the Caledonian Canal that stretches 60 miles across Scotland.

The emphasis is on Scotland’s varied wildlife, in the sea, air and on land, particularly in the Western Isles; island hopping; visiting small isolated communities; and enjoying the rugged island and mountain scenery, plus Scottish lochs and the Caledonian Canal on certain itineraries.

Both vessels are ideal for chartering to extended families and groups of friends.

Note: This line should not be confused with Hebridean Island Cruises.

Cruise vessels don’t get much smaller than these two, and their rugged construction makes them ideal for cruising Scotland’s beautiful and wildlife-filled Western Isles.

Hebrides Cruises the Shiant Isles

Cruising the Shiant Isles in the Hebrides. * Photo: James Fairbairns for Hebrides Cruises

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

ELIZABETH G was rebuilt in 1995 from a Norwegian rescue vessel and takes 8 passengers; 10 on a charter.

EMMA JANE was purchased in 2016 and began sailing on May 13, 2017 as PROUD SEAHORSE, and then renamed in 2018. She is a mini-cruise vessel and takes 10 passengers.

Both vessels are stabilized.

Hebrides Cruises

The Elizabeth G. * Photo: Ted Scull

Passenger Decks

ELIZABETH G has 3 decks, and EMMA JANE 4 decks, and neither has elevators.

This pair is not suitable for wheelchair passengers. Passengers with mobility issues are helped on and off the ships.

Elizabeth G & the Emma Jane together

The Elizabeth G & the Emma Jane. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Passenger Profile

Outdoorsy types who love nature and the sea. Children under 12 are not accepted unless it is a full ship charter; same for pets. Crew numbers 4 — captain (“skipper”), bosun, chef and wildlife guide.

Price

$$ to $$$

Expensive to pricey. Full charter offers a 10% discount.

Included Features

All meals, morning coffee, afternoon tea, snacks, bottled water and house wine with dinner; guided shore trips by wildlife experts.

drinks on deck in the Hebrides

Drinks are included in the fares. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Itineraries

4-, 6-, 8- and 10-night cruises operate between the end of April through to mid-October covering variously the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Caledonian Canal across Scotland and several lochs.

The shortest, 4 nights, visits Lochs Linnhe and Etive and the Isle of Lismore; 6 nights either the Caledonian Canal between Oban and Inverness or the Isles of Skye, Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna; while the 8-nighter adds the more remote Shiant Isles.

The longest, 10 nights, includes Mingulay, Barra, South and North Uist, Harris and the most remote and dramatic of the Outer Hebrides: St. Kilda and its raucous bird colonies. The website has a space available chart. Dates that list “0” are available for charters.

Emma Jane at Staffa

Emma Jane at Staffa in the Inner Hebrides. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Why Go?

Scotland is a gorgeous sea, sky, and mountain country with lovely isles and lochs to visit that are home to hugely varied wildlife — birds, animals and sea creatures. The locals are friendly too.

Cliffs of Canna in the Hebrides

The breathtaking Cliffs of Canna. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

common dolphins

Emma Jane with common dolphin from boat tender. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises Wildlife Guide Lynsey Bland

When to Go?

Scotland is a fickle weather sort of country, with sudden changes in very short periods of time, so you take your chances at any time of the April to October cruising season. June tends to sell out first.

Cabins

ELIZABETH G has four small double cabins for 8 passengers (two with double beds and two with stacked twin beds); and up to 10 passengers for a private charter.

Elizabeth G twin cabin

An Elizabeth G twin cabin. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

EMMA JANE has 4 doubles or twin ensuite cabins and one cabin suite (separate bedroom and lounge) for a maximum of 10 passengers. The fittings and finishes show great attention to detail.

Single passengers may ask to share a double cabin on a per person basis, or if the ship is not full, have the cabin to themselves. Otherwise singles pay the full cabin rate.

Emma Jane cabin

An Emma Jane cabin. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Public Rooms

The lounge is adjacent to the dining section, while the wheelhouse and outer decks are additional public spaces with lounge seating.

Lounge, PROUD SEA HORSE, Hebridean Cruises

Lounge EMMA JANE. * Photo:  Hebridean Cruises

Elizabeth G lounge

The lounge of Elizabeth G. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Dining

Everyone dines at the same time. Sample menus:

Breakfast — Scottish porridge with fruit compote, smoked Scottish salmon or haddock, scrambled eggs, and whole meal toast, and fresh biscuits and muffins. Also dig into Argyll free-range sausages, locally smoked bacon, herb slow roasted tomatoes, and Stornoway black pudding.

Lunch — two courses with soup, salad or sandwiches on freshly baked bread. For example, enjoy a local Scottish salmon and asparagus tart, freshly made Focaccia bread, roasted butternut squash, and a tomato and avocado salad.

Dinner is a set meal by candlelight — locally caught langoustines and scallops or chicken breasts stuffed with haggis or pistachio and mint-crusted rack of Argyll lamb, served with minted new potatoes and seasonal steamed greens. Dessert may be Sicilian lemon tart with mint and Scottish strawberry sorbet, followed by Scottish cheeses with oatcakes and a local chutney, plus  coffee. Vegetarians can enjoy options like aubergine and feta ‘cannelloni’ with a rich basil and tomato ragu, served with seasonal greens.

Hebrides Cruises dinner

Delicious fare, like this crab cake with prawns meal. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

If aboard, there’s a service of morning coffee, afternoon tea and homemade cakes or biscuits. Special diets catered to with advance notice.

Activities & Entertainment

Organized trips ashore are led by a qualified wildlife guide for spotting at sea and when ashore. Trips might involve two hours to visit local villages and their attractions or longer hikes.

Also, some hikes may be self-guided for those who prefer independent activities.

Eigg on a Hebrides cruise

Walking on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Wildlife often seen comprise whales, sharks, dolphins, many types of sea birds, white-tailed and golden eagles, and otters and red deer. On islands such as Hirta and far out St.Kilda, birding trips may last six hours and include a packed lunch.

If feeling lazy, enjoy the ship and its observation deck and let the others mess about.

Special Notes

Scotland’s weather is highly fickle and temperatures may be cool even in summer. It is best to wear breathable waterproof jacket and trousers, and think layers rather than a heavy coat.

Walking boots are the best footwear, and a walking stick is a good steadying tool in rough and slippery terrain. Insect repellent should be taken for trips ashore or applied before.

Along the Same Lines

The Majestic Line, Magna Carta Steamship Company, Hebridean Island Cruises.

Contact: Hebrides Cruises, Craigard, Connel PA37 1 PT Scotland; +44 (0)1631 711 986; www.hebridescruises.co.uk

TWS

 

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