One of the specially
designed Blount ships
An amazing All-American cruise line with a variety of excellent itineraries and hosts
I just returned from an amazing cruise aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures, sailing from Rhode Island to St. Andrews on the most southerly tip of New Brunswick, Canada. Along the way we stopped in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Eastport, Rockland and Portland, Maine; and Salem, Plymouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Having grown up on the West Coast, I believe most Americans have no idea how much a New England cruise can offer. But beyond the beautiful scenery and amazing seafood is an abundant American history where every port has a unique story. We all know the American Revolution started in Boston, but I had no idea how much of the politics that preceded the Revolution involved parts of Maine and eastern Canada known as Acadia. The very name "Canada" is derived from this region, which at the time was mostly settled by the French. But more on this later…
Blount Small Ship Cruises
To help me discover America I spent 12 nights aboard one of the two small cruise ships (88 passengers) belonging to Blount Small Ship Adventures - the line's actual name - but I will just say Blount from now on. We were on the "Classical Maine and Northeast" cruise - just one of the line's many unique itineraries.
Based in Rhode Island, Blount is the oldest U.S.-registry cruise line in continuous operation, running its ships with all-American crewmembers. The company entered the ship building business in 1947 and the cruise business in 1964. Along the way it has built ships for "Grand Circle Travel," vessels for other small ship cruise lines like "Un-Cruise Adventures" and many of the former Cruise West ships.
Today the "all-women executives" running the cruise line are the three daughters of founder Luther Blount. According the Nancy Blount, CEO and president, it all started when she was just a child with family boats to go sword fishing along the Grand Banks. They used to invite friends to come along, and after a few years the Rhode Island Blount family boat trips became so popular dad decided he needed a true cruise ship so he could take everyone who wanted to go. (Read the Blount history here).
Luther built a vessel uniquely capable of taking the 88 passengers through Erie Canal - and today Chicago to Rhode Island remains one of the line's most popular itineraries (it typically sells out). From Chicago it traverses four of the Great Lakes (Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario - using the connecting canals), stops in Michigan, Cleveland Ohio, Erie Pennsylvania, Buffalo New York (you can visit Niagara Falls), cruises the canals up to visit Rochester on Lake Ontario and then enters the Erie Canal starting in Oswego, New York.
From there you touch on Cooperstown, Troy, and Schenectady and eventually enter the Hudson River near Troy, New York. Sail down the Hudson River and enter New York City the hard way - under the George Washington Bridge. I have been in the cruise business for 30 years and I didn't even know such a cruise was possible.
How does Blount do it? Their vessels have a mere six-foot draft (the amount of boat under water) and are made so every element on the upper open deck; the pilot house, awnings and rails, can all be lowered to deck level. This must be done to pass under several of the bridges along the way. There are also over 30 locks.
Many Diverse Itineraries
There are other cruises, as well. You can see the only Great Lake we skipped above, Lake Superior, on a 12-night cruise from Chicago to Duluth. Or just spend eight nights on Lake Michigan with stops in Sault Ste Marie and Mackinac, Island. There are also Southern Coastal cruises down to Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee River cruises, or take the Tenn-Tom Waterway from Nashville through Alabama to New Orleans, a canal I didn't even know existed. Only Blount can offer most of these itineraries due to the unique design of its ships.
Uniquely, even though they are all American, they are also SOLAS compatible (an international maritime safety standard), so in the winter they go to Belize for cruises along the second largest barrier reef in the world. There are several different itineraries down there of 12 to 15 days. These are great cruises for snorkelers and even divers with long stays in port every day of the cruise.
How They Manage It
Blount owes these unique vessels to the ingenuity of Nancy, Julie and Marcia's dad, Luther, who didn't just build small ships, he holds a number of patents that are crucial to even the biggest mainstream cruise lines today. This includes three patents on Controllable Pitch Propellers. But he was also a philanthropist, donating one of his three $6.5-million cruise boats to New England schools. Read the Wikipedia page about Luther Blount.
The Onboard Experience
Getting back to my cruise, I have to give credit to the amazing onboard lecturer, Sam Ladley. His knowledge of our entire itinerary between Rhode Island and upper Maine put everything into perspective - our tour guides seemed redundant by the time we arrived in port.
All of Sam's lectures were given in the main public observation room on the top deck, which features a large screen with a constant GPS display of our exact location. The only other public room is the dining room, one deck down.
Meals are served open seating at tables for four to eight. With such a small coterie of guests everyone becomes friendly right away. The meals are delicious even if a bit short on variety. Lunch is usually served family style with platters of salad and sandwiches for everyone. Dinner offered a choice between two entrees; meat or fish each night. Your choice of beer or wine is complimentary with every lunch and dinner. Otherwise the rest of the cruise is something I had never seen before - BYOB (bring your own bottle) where they set out mixers every day at 5:00 - no charge.
The highlight of my cruise was a culinary feast on freshly steamed live lobsters - as much as we could eat. The ship purchased enough lobster in Rockland to feed more than everyone and created a hot "beach-like" fire pit on the top deck with hot coals covered by several inches of fresh seaweed. On top of that was placed potatoes, corn on the cob, clams and mussels. I have now had the ultimate lobster experience and I doubt that I will ever match it.
There was also a place where fruit, cookies and muffins were kept in the dining room which one could raid any time of the day or night. Coffee, tea and soft drinks were always complimentary.
Other Public Rooms
Most of the guests were retired and some had mobility problems, so it should be mentioned that the small ship only has one "stair lift" chair with a weight limit - no elevator, which some people needed to reach the lower dining room or the top deck.
The staterooms are tiny, ranging from 80 to 100 square feet, but surprisingly we had no problems finding places to unpack for two people. The bath and shower are separate, but both are small. The hot water is limited to about 10 minutes per person before it has to reboot. There are no televisions in the cabins but there is a PA system into each room so the captain can announce the sightings of sea life.
Along the way we saw many whales and dolphins. There were lobster traps everywhere and fresh seafood restaurants in every port of call. Port stays tended to start in the mornings with sailaway not scheduled until the next day to arrive at a new port the following morning. This schedule gave us maximum time in port yet still enough time to hear Sam's lectures. Nights in port they brought in local entertainers or speakers, nights on the water they showed us movies.
Back to Our Cruise
The 3000 coastal islands of Maine were among the first places settled in America, and learning that there were settlements here in the 1620s only made our later visits to Plymouth Rock and Salem, Massachusetts more meaningful.
When the American Revolution broke out many patriots of the crown fled to live with the French in Acadia, today known as Maine. As the war wore on they were forcefully relocated to St. Andrews, barely over the border in New Brunswick, Canada. Today it is considered one of the New World's first "planned communities." St. Andrews is also the site of the famous Algonquin Hotel, built by Cornelius Van Horne, the man who completed the coast to coast Canada Pacific Railroad Line. He also built a home here which has not been renovated, but it happened to be open to the public the day we arrived. It was interesting but the location was beautiful.
Our cruise actually started with the "cottages" of Newport, Rhode Island, with a tour of "The Breakers," the summer "cottage" of the Vanderbilt family in the late 1800s. It rivaled Versailles for opulence in my opinion. Later in the cruise we saw the Mt. Desert Island of Maine where the very same American "royal families" (J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Astor and Roosevelt) built rustic "cabins" of 16 bedrooms near Bar Harbor. There we also mounted the tallest mountain on the eastern Atlantic Seaboard north of Rio D' Janeiro, Brazil; the 1530-foot Cadillac Mountain. Today the island is home to Martha Stewart, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and David Rockefeller.
For the people who think cruising is just one thing - a resort at sea, I have long argued that it is possible to "travel" by cruise ship. Blount is proof of this, and I learned more in 12 days than I can recall from all my years of "American History" in school. I could go on about this topic alone for much longer - but this is a cruise you should try on your own.
"It's a good thing" - as Martha Stewart would say.