Cruise ships don't come much less populated than 49-passengers, a full-ship figure the American Eagle boarded at a Connecticut River dock for a week's summer cruise amongst New England's isles. She is brand-new, entering service in late April 2000, and a product of the owner's own Chesapeake shipyard in Salisbury, Maryland.
For the eagle-eyed, some of the company ads and brochure photos seemed just a bit familiar, and indeed they should be. American Cruise Lines first surfaced in 1974 with a ship called the American Eagle, and after operating six ships for 15 years, the company went quietly bust.
Now ACL is back to compete head on with other U.S. coastal lines such as Clipper Cruise Line and Cruise West. The owner, Charles Robertson, may have a small vessel, but he has big plans albeit on a very small scale. Big here means ambitious, and some have been delivered and some are still lagging behind but show promise.
There are five cabin categories,
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Aboard the 165-foot American Eagle, the cabin's cane-style couches are comfortable for an afternoon's read, and the windows slide open to allow salt air to gain supremacy over processed air.
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The three-sided glass-enclosed dining room operates on an open seating plan at large round tables. The ship does not have a liquor license, and instead there is a complimentary bar at the very popular cocktail hour, and carafes of Almaden chardonnay and burgundy on the table at dinner. Sumptuous pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres may be jumbo shrimp, beef sate in peanut sauce or melted brie on French bread.
The two chefs hail from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson Wales, and their expertise shows in the delicious and often creative meals. Set dinner menus, with a choice of two entrees, included delicious grilled artichoke hearts, hearts of palm in balsamic vinegar, Cornish game hen with all wild rice, grilled catfish, sliced breast of duck, boiled live lobster, and desserts such as pecan peanut butter pie and whipped chocolate mousse in a pastry shell. Lunch was much lighter fare such as crab cakes and chicken Caesar salad with garlic croutons, The food was uniformly excellent throughout the cruise.
The Fourth or Sports deck is open to the sky with deck chairs for everyone plus tables and chairs and a putting green. Additional covered deck space faces aft, and the open deck forward of the lounge is excellent for viewing ahead.
The passengers are mostly an amiable retired lot who like booking into a small club setting, but there may also be mothers of grandmother age and (adult) daughters and sons too.
The all-American crew included an ex-Navy man captain, college-age men serving as deck hands, while the women, a couple just out of high school, cleaned the cabins and waited tables. The level of service was pretty primitive, and the lot we had did not get the three days of training before balancing their first full tray or dealing with passengers that needed a morning caffeine fix pronto. Most passengers took the inexperience in stride most of the time. Hey, it can only get better.
That's the ship, plain and simple, and delightfully sans casino, health spa, shops, staff pitching expensive drinks, fake friendly celebratory dining room events and the like. Cruising can be different, and this was a most pleasant vacation from the milling throngs and multiple entertainment choices aboard the big hulls.
Our trip began with a peaceful Amtrak train ride up Connecticut shore to Old Saybrook, then taxi for the last 15 miles to the upriver dock at Haddam, directly across from the Victorian-era Goodspeed Opera House.
When the last couple boarded about 2 p.m., the bow thrusters aimed us downriver passing beneath Gillette Castle (a stone fantasy built by actor William Gillette), across the path of the sweet little Chester-Hadlyme ferry, parallel to the tracks of the steam-powered Valley Railroad, close to the very pretty town of Essex, then under I-95, through the raised Amtrak lift bridge and out into Long Island Sound.
Drawing only six feet, the American Eagle can roll in a swell but there was none, so we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon sail easterly to New Harbor, Block Island where we arrived at dinner time. The protected anchorage could and was handling several hundred private yachts, and the little docking patch of the end of the wharf allowed us to tie up and walk off.
Compared to the rest of the visiting fleet, we might have been the Queen Mary arriving. People peered and pointed and when we slid open a window, they inquired who we were and where we were bound for. At sunset the adjoining towboat set off a couple of cannon shots announcing the end of the day and giving an excuse for a rousing cheer and raised beer bottles.
The ship stayed docked overnight, and in the morning mini-vans gave us an hour's island tour for $9 apiece that included a much-too-quick look at Victorian Old Harbor and the majestic Southeast Lighthouse and 100-foot cliffs that take the brunt of the Atlantic storms. By 11 o'clock we put to sea and headed out past Martha's Vineyard to Nantucket Island.
Having spent many summers there from age six, I offered to give a talk on the island's history and what to see during the 24-hour stay. Again the ship offered a quick overview tour, 90 minutes for $13, but happily, as on the Vineyard, the island selectmen have funded an outstanding local bus service that is cheap and frequent for independent island touring.
We walked the Town of Nantucket and then hopped a one dollar ride (free to seniors or most of the Eagle's passengers) to 'Sconset for lunch and a stroll and came back via the winding Polpis Road for an entirely different view. On the Vineyard, we bought a $5 all day pass and rode to upscale Edgartown harbor and back via Oak Bluffs with its pretty village green and gingerbread Victorian Methodist summer campground.
In New Bedford, one could opt for a trolley tour with stops at the outstanding whaling museum, an historic whaling captain's house and Seamen's Bethel (Chapel) or do it on foot without much strain. Newport included a bus tour along Ocean Drive and a visit either to the Vanderbilt's Breakers or the equally impressive Marble House., and the final call at New London gave access to nearby Mystic Seaport.
The American Eagle is a low-key social and cruising experience with itineraries that celebrate Americana from New England through the Chesapeake Bay to the Deep South and Florida via the Intracoastal Waterway.
In late July, the keel was laid for a second ship to take up to 56 passengers.
Published rates per person for this or any seven-day cruise run from $2,380 to $4,865. American Cruise Lines. www.americancruiselines.com