American Cruise Lines
The Line in a Nutshell
Part cruise, part historical tour, part Rotary Club meeting, Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines operates five U.S.-flagged vessels that offer a congenial ambience, an emphasis on American history and culture, and (a rarity for small ships) some cabins with balconies. Life on board is comfortable, reserved, and so hassle-free that many passengers don't even lock their cabin doors. If you want to bring a guest on board for dinner one night when in port, simply tell the cruise director. If you decide not to go on a shore excursion you signed up for, don't worry: If you don't show up, you don't get billed. Sails to: eastern U.S. coastal cruises from Maine to Florida, Pacific Northwest.
Take some great East Coast destinations, throw in some very comfortable small ships, add a few enrichment lectures and complimentary cocktails and a boatload of uniformly older passengers, and you end up with American Cruise Lines. Operating along the Eastern seaboard and in the Pacific Northwest, the company's five ships are designed to poke into the smallest and most scenic ports, docking among sailboats at marinas or within a few blocks of museums, shops, and historic districts. Itineraries are port-intensive, with the ship underway for only a few hours in the morning or afternoon, usually arriving at the evening's port before dinnertime and spending the night at dock.
While the company is neither a luxury cruise line nor an adventure cruise line, it falls into a pleasant niche that succeeds in large part because of its ships. The line's four East Coast vessels are far younger and roomier than the competition's, boasting the largest cabins in the small-ship market (save for those aboard Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus), many of which have balconies. This appeals to passengers who want the comforts of a shrunken cruise ship and will gladly pay for the extra space. The line's West Coast ship, Queen of the West, is an old-fashioned paddle-wheeler. On all vessels, east and west, guest lecturers provide some enrichment, helping passengers learn about their destination, and chefs from the Culinary Institute of America prepare good regional selections.
Make no mistake about it: American Cruise Line passengers are older, and then some. The company's cozy, low-impact, American style of cruising suits them perfectly, and the fact that each ACL ship has an elevator linking all the decks (a rarity in the small-ship world) is a big draw. Hailing from all over the country, passengers generally appreciate changing for cocktail hour, with about half the men wearing a jacket and/or tie. They are also the types who readily wear the provided name tags for the entire week and don't mind visiting four historic homes in one cruise.
In port, slightly less than half of them tend to explore the towns independently, combing antiques shops or just strolling along Main Street. Well educated and usually comfortably heeled, they are eager to learn about the region and enthusiastically attend the nightly lecture. With diverse cruising backgrounds (from luxe Seabourn to mainstream Princess), they do not necessarily expect five-star service, but they do want comfy, spacious cabins along with the conveniences and camaraderie of a small ship. A very high percentage consists of repeaters, who collect the line's various itineraries like game pieces.
If only every company got a second chance. Originally formed in the late 1970s, American Cruise Lines operated more or less successfully until new ownership drove it into the ground in the late 1980s. Jump forward to 2000, and the original owner decides to jump back into the business. Rather than reinventing the wheel, he uses the same name, the same basic ship design, similar itineraries, and even the same logo. This time around, the formula seems to be working well and the company has grown quickly. Since its reincarnation, it's launched four ships built right in its own shipyard on the Chesapeake Bay. In 2009, it added a fifth vessel to its fleet by purchasing the paddle-wheeler Queen of the West from defunct Majestic America Line, and at press time was preparing to sail her on nearly year-round cruises on the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake rivers.
For several years, ACL has also been in the process of launching a sister company called Pearl Seas Cruises, dedicated to oceangoing itineraries in the Caribbean, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. However, long delays in construction of its first ship, the 210-passenger Pearl Mist, have repeatedly pushed back the line's debut. At this point, we're unwilling to speculate as to when (or whether) the line will begin operations.
On the line's four East Coast ships, a pleasant but uninspiring dining room is situated on the lowest deck all the way at the stern, surrounded on three sides by windows that afford a good view of the passing scenery. On Queen of the West, the single dining room is on the lowest passenger deck, near the waterline.
The usually straightforward, unfancy meals can be surprisingly good. Seafood frequently appears on the menu, including local specialties like Maryland crab cakes on Chesapeake Bay cruises or lobster in Maine, along with seasonal flavors such as butternut squash or apple pie. In order to minimize waste, waiters tell you at breakfast what's for lunch and dinner, and you choose what you're going to eat for the rest of the day -- although at the last minute, plenty of passengers change their minds. A choice of two entrees is available nightly, along with three appetizers.
Lunch options might include a ham sandwich on a baguette with apples and melted brie or pork loin with goat cheese and onion. While there is no official vegetarian choice, tasty salads often appear on the menu, and special requests can always be accommodated if you let the line know in advance.
Snacks & Extras Fresh-baked cookies appear at 10am, and everyone gathers in the main lounge at 5:30pm for complimentary drinks at the daily cocktail hour. By 9pm, just as the lecture is finishing, trays of root beer floats and ice-cream sundaes appear, no matter that it's only 2 hours after dinner.
Aboard Queen of the West, continental breakfast, casual lunch fare, and snacks are available in the Calliope Bar & Grill, a bright, indoor/outdoor space that resembles an old-time ice-cream parlor.
The ships do not provide room service.
Because of the Passenger Vessel Services Act (which requires ships to be U.S.-flagged and U.S.-staffed if they want to sail all-U.S. itineraries), ACL's crews are all fresh-faced, college-age American kids who've decided to try an unusual summer job. Mostly enthusiastic and genuine, they try hard and are eager to please, even if the finer points of service don't come naturally: Being addressed by your waiter as "Sweetie" every once in awhile only adds to the charm. A maitre d' keeps a watchful eye over the restaurant operations to make sure his staff is on the right track.
Tipping can be charged to your onboard account, with a relatively steep recommended amount of $17.85 per person, per day.
Forget art auctions or poolside games; you won't even find low-impact activities such as dance lessons aboard these sedate ships. In the main lounge, passengers might read or play a quiet board game, and you're almost sure to find at least one game of bridge in the two smaller lounges. Most passengers seem content to just sit on deck and chat. Guest lecturers speak most evenings, and spend days pointing out passing sights. On one night, a local musician might be brought on board for a concert, or bingo could be slotted in place of the nightly lecture. Besides an occasional documentary film shown in the lounge, a tour of the ship's bridge, or a once-per-week teatime, there really aren't any other organized activities, though some summer itineraries may feature kite flying from the stern on one afternoon. In port, about half the passengers choose the reasonably priced shore excursions, which are usually bus tours to museums, areas of natural beauty, or historic homes. Active excursions simply aren't offered, which is just fine for this crowd.
Entertainment is limited to nightly lectures, the occasional entertainer brought aboard for an evening to sing regional songs, and a satellite TV set up in the corner of the main lounge, tuned to football. This is a line for self-starters.
This is a cruise line for older adults, so children are extremely rare. A few families may sail on the summer New England itineraries, but the ships have no kids' programs or activities.