Heidi Sarna is the cofounder of QuirkyCruise.com, a guide to small-ship cruising.
From popular Pacific Northwest routes along the Columbia and Snake rivers to sailings on the Mississippi and its tributaries, American Cruise Lines (ACL) offers an impressive array of river and coastal cruises in the United States.
In addition to the marquee voyages above, the line navigates the rivers of Florida, plies the Chesapeake Bay all the way up the Potomac to Washington, D.C., and does coastal New England with sailings focused on Maine.
I recently spent a week cruising in lobster country, traveling round-trip from Portland, Maine, tucking into islet-sprinkled bays along a coast longer than California’s. (ACL's Maine itineraries are available from June through October.)
As with all American Cruise Lines sailings, a pre-cruise hotel night in the city of embarkation is included. This allows everyone to arrive the day before and explore a bit. We sampled Portland’s delicious food scene, lunching on lobster rolls at the Highroller and fresh halibut at Scales.
The next day, we took a city tour aboard one of the two ACL excursion buses that would follow us the entire week. Then everybody boarded the ship.
(American Cruise Lines' American Eagle ship | Credit: American Cruise Lines)
Our home for the week was the 100-passenger American Eagle, launched earlier this year.
The first in a series of 12 new “Coastal Cats” in the pipeline, the hybrid catamaran-hulled vessels were designed to offer a fuel-efficient and smooth ride. Oddly, the American Eagle is the only one without stabilizers—all future “Cats” will have them, Captain Andrew Gillilan told me. That will include the Maine routes starting next season.
In the meantime, crossing a stretch of swelly open ocean on the first day from Portland toward Bangor resulted in some uncomfortable “bouncing,” as onboard lecturer Mark Wisner put it. I was fine, but my motion-sickness-prone husband was bed-bound for several hours until we hit sheltered water. Fortunately there was only one other choppy patch during the week.
We occupied a bright and spacious 310-square-foot Vista cabin, similar to many on board, with a large bathroom and private balcony.
(Vista cabin aboard American Cruise Lines' American Eagle ship | Credit: American Cruise Lines)
Each day we docked or anchored offshore at a charming Maine stop, enjoying excursions highlighting the state’s vital role in the shipbuilding, lumber, and fur industries of the 19th century.
At least one tour per port was included in the fare. Others, such as a tour inspired by Stephen King’s fictional Derry, cost extra.
(Early morning in Camden, Maine | Credit: EB Adventure Photography / Shutterstock)
Local guides for excursions were excellent. Historian Sam Ladley walked us around the waterfront of charming Camden, referred to by some as the Newport, Rhode Island, of Maine, thanks to the affluent summer residents and pretty harbor full of schooners and yachts.
In Bangor, our cheeky guide was dressed in period garb and led the tour in character as Fanny Jones, keeper of a long-running brothel in the days when Bangor was the lumber capital of the world.
The itinerary in Bar Harbor began with a stroll through the lovely La Rochelle mansion, a 120-year-old seaside “cottage” built by the wealthy Bowdoin family (of Bowdoin College) as a summer residence. In the afternoon, we joined the Acadia National Park bus tour up to Cadillac Mountain (pictured at the top of this page) for some hiking and scenic views of the jagged coastline.
Another day, a lobster bake in Rockland had us bibbed up and seated at picnic tables. As a folk band played in the background, we tore into fresh steaming whole lobsters along with mussels and corn on the cob.
Onboard Meals, Service, and Amenities
Back on the ship, I was delighted by the food. Lunch ranged from lobster rolls to delicious salads like a cobb with ahi tuna. For dinner there was broiled salmon, fried chicken, and prime rib, followed by tasty desserts, most notably the pies (I recommend the blueberry and also the peanut butter.)
The ship’s pleasant, windowed, open-seating dining room has tables for two, four, six, and eight. To dine, passengers wore everything from Harley-Davidson sweatshirts to blazers and silk scarves.
(L–R: lobster bake picnic in Rockland, Maine; deck of the American Eagle ship | Credit: Heidi Sarna)
Overall, crew members were agreeable and mostly efficient, though service could be slow and sometimes dismissive, especially at dinner. Having a server in charge of handling only the water and wine might be a good idea.
American Cruise Lines’ 7-night Maine Coast & Harbors Cruise (plus a 1-night pre-cruise hotel stay) starts at $5,145 per person, including excursions and wine, beer, and cocktails at happy hour, during meals, and after dinner during the evening entertainment, which ranges from live music to comedy.
Other amenities include a small gym, a café serving breakfast and lunch on deck, and a large sun deck.