Slowly approaching the dock in Tarrytown, New York, I am amused to see us coming alongside a small wooden pier that seems better suited for a kayak than a cruise ship. Even more surprising, as the crew sends mooring lines ashore, they secure one not to an iron bollard but rather to a tree. Big-ship cruising this was not, and during my week in October on the Hudson River onboard American Cruise Lines' American Spirit, I came to revel in many of the differences between small ships and Caribbean mega-ships.
The contrasts were evident right from embarkation when it took some searching to find the ship. Docked at the Chelsea Piers complex in Manhattan, the diminutive 210-ft. vessel was tucked away and cowering behind the piers in exactly the way a towering mega-ship can't. Our schedule was also remarkably flexible. Instead of a set departure time, we simply waited until all passengers boarded before picking up the gangway and setting a northerly course up the Hudson.
With 98 other passengers in addition to my girlfriend Tina and me, the American Spirit is the company's largest ship. Large is definitely a relative term, however; at only 97 tons, the American Spirit could easily fit in the dining rooms of many seagoing monstrosities. Our one-week itinerary would take us approximately 180 miles upstate as far north as Troy, New York, before turning back toward Manhattan. Along the way, we hoped to not only witness the changing fall foliage but also learn about the Hudson Valley and its connections to New York City.
When choosing American Cruise Lines, I was eager to see firsthand why the company has grown so quickly since its inception in 2000. Actually that was something of a reincarnation. The company existed in the 1980's with the same owner, the same name, and very similar ships and itineraries until going bankrupt under different management.
Today, little has changed from the original formula and the ships are still American built, American flagged and American crewed in order to comply with the Passenger Vessel Services Act that restricts coastal shipping to U.S. vessels. Itineraries span from Maine to Florida, with an emphasis on sheltered waters and ample time in historic and scenic ports.
While a few other cruise lines offer similar itineraries on American ships, their vessels tend to be older hand-me-downs with small, even tiny, cabins. By contrast, American Cruise Lines' oldest ship was built in 2000. The fleet is pleasing and spacious, and in a first for this segment of the market, many of the roomy cabins feature balconies. Not quite as adventurous as an expedition company and not quite luxurious enough to be considered five-star, the company falls into a pleasing niche offering a comfortable and relaxing, if a bit sedentary, way to see the Eastern Seaboard.
On such a small ship with limited facilities and hardly any organized activities, meals and fellow passengers play a central role in one's schedule. All tables in the dining room seat six but seating is not fixed. As such, passengers are encouraged to mingle and dine wherever they like. By the end of the week, you've eaten with nearly everyone onboard, and the ship feels more like a social club than the disparate group of anonymous faces found on larger ships.
Looking around at my fellow passengers, I am reminded that both river cruising and American Cruise Lines attract a significantly older clientele. Nametags help to make introductions easier, and while I have come from my Manhattan apartment on the subway, there is a broad geographical cross section of the country with people hailing from areas such as California, Montana, Iowa, Maine and Texas, among others.
New York City to Poughkeepsie, New York
With gorgeous fall weather, the open decks are popular for a few hours as we watch the first flicks of color in the leaves, introduce ourselves or quietly read. Fortuitously, the wind picks up and the clouds grow gray just as a short presentation is being offered in the main lounge on this week's shore excursions.
By the late afternoon, the river has become more dramatic, varying from wide to curving and narrow, and occasional bounded by high hills or mini mountains. In the distance, the Catskill Mountains loom. Sitting in the lounge, surrounded on three sides by tall windows, I watch as we cut through the colorful peaks and feel more like I am in a fjord than a river. Our guest lecturer for the week, Michael Minor, is the former director of the Hudson River Maritime Museum, and gamely offers informal commentary on historical sites and local lore to anyone who is interested.
By 5:30 p.m., however, everyone is interested in and smartly attired for cocktail hour with complimentary drinks served nightly by the Cruise Director and Assistant Hotel Manager. As the social highlight of the day, attendance always approaches the 100 percent mark. It reminded me of my grandparents who had cocktails every day around this time. I wonder if this nightly shipboard event represents a generational difference. One drink in, however, I'm convinced I can adjust to this schedule and happily head down to dinner at 6:30 p.m.
In the middle of dinner, only seven hours after leaving Manhattan, we have traveled almost half the length of the navigable Hudson and find ourselves tying up for the night in Poughkeepsie. Tina and I take a quick jaunt ashore, but see nothing more in town than a deserted Main Street with an open bar and pizza parlor, before quickly returning to the ship in for the first of the nightly lectures at 8:15 p.m.
Tonight's talk is entitled "The Grid and the Ditch," and Mr. Minor introduces the Hudson Valley and its interdependence on New York. He explains how the creation of the Erie Canal (The Ditch) in 1825 provided for regular, scheduled trade with the center of the country while also allowing for expansion of New York City. There, the grid system of the city's streets was able to support this rapid growth.
It is only 9 p.m. on the first day, and I've already met half the passengers, traveled up half the Hudson and quickly explored our first port of call. Who says small-ship cruising has to be idle?
Poughkeepsie to Troy, New York
Barely awake but eagerly eating my Grand Marnier French toast breakfast, I'm already confronted with a choice of what to have for lunch ... and dinner. A slip of paper left on the table offers today's lunch choices of tomato soup or duck terrine as an appetizer; and a salad with apples, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette or beef stroganoff as an entree. While I am never beholden to my bleary-eyed choices, it helps the chef estimate how many dishes to prepare.
Shortly thereafter, we head off on our first shore excursion to President Franklin Roosevelt's home and Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. FDR's story is compelling, and we hear how polio crippled him literally overnight and about his failed run for the Vice Presidency. I am particularly interested in seeing the section covering his prep school career at Groton School, my alma mater. On display is a birthday card sent to FDR by the headmaster each year, a tradition that happily continues today for graduates.
Two and a half hours is too short and we are soon back onboard the American Spirit and casting off just as lunch starts. As on all American Cruise Lines itineraries, our ports are close together and we are underway for no more than half a day at a time. Nights are always spent tied up alongside a pier and the seas are usually sheltered and calm.
Rarely being out of sight of land means that scenery is a vital component to coastal cruising, and this afternoon I spend on deck with the Appalachian Mountains and occasional bursts of sun illuminating brilliant swatches of color. Except for an occasional oil barge or ocean-going ship, there is little traffic, and with the river narrowing considerably, it feels peaceful and solitary on deck. By the late afternoon, the sun casts a warm glow over the shoreline while a few stoic brick ruins still stand over the riverbanks.
Watching the twists and turns on the river feels so different from traversing an endless ocean, where the restless sea blurs indistinctly. There is a tangible sense of distance gained as you venture further inland while watching towns go by. That distance gained is realized when, during the evening's lecture on the Hudson's role in the Revolutionary War, we have gone as far as we can on the Hudson and tie up at Troy for the night.
Troy to Catskill, New York
Situated at the end of the navigable portion of the Hudson, Troy is only a few miles downstream of the New York Canal System and eventually the Erie Canal. With the sun shining on a crisp, clear day, Tina and I abandon our plans to take the shore excursion to the state capital building in Albany and find something alluring about exploring this less polished town on foot.
Much like our early morning lunch and dinner choices, we are not obligated to take the excursions we signed up for at the start of the week. Shore outings are part of the fare -- you can opt to take advantage or march the beat of your own drummer. And, as such, there's never a cancellation charge, and never a line to sign up which all translates to -- no hassles! Passing by the loading tour bus, we simply tell the Cruise Director we won't be going after all and then venture off on our own.
Our last minute decision pays off and it feels good to get some exercise. In a pattern we would see again in the Hudson Valley, abandoned 19th-century industrial architecture mixes with promising signs of renewal. The attractive robust buildings, the changing leaves on a beautiful fall day, and a pleasant mix of urban hip and rural tranquility make Troy surprisingly appealing. Walking back to the ship, I pass a statue proudly depicting Uncle Sam, a true historical figure that has easily become Troy's most famous resident. The story goes that Sam Wilson, a prominent Troy citizen, supplied meat to the U.S. Army in the War of 1812. His food packages destined for soldiers were all stamped with "U.S." -- which his workers jokingly said referred to "Uncle Sam." Soon, with Sam Wilson continuing to supply so much to the Army, Uncle Sam would soon be associated with the government.
The afternoon is spent underway heading downriver to Manhattan while playing board games in the main lounge as the leaves and scenery parade before me. By 4:15 p.m. we reach Catskill, and Mr. Minor leads us ashore for a quick walking tour. Tina and I get some further exercise with an hour long walk around town, and are pleased to see several other passengers doing the same. In most ports, approximately half the passengers take the organized shore excursion while the rest explore independently, usually strolling the small Main Streets and poking in antique stores.
Tonight, my aunt, who lives in the area, comes aboard for dinner and the evening lecture. This friendly, open house policy is in welcome contrast to the strict but necessary no visitor's policy found on larger ships. It is also indicative of the company's desire to keep the experience as simple and friendly as possible.
Mr. Minor talks this evening on the rise and fall of the river towns and their dependence on New York City, and ties together several themes we've already seen. As a weekend getaway for rich New Yorkers and an economic base, the Hudson Valley has at times been caught in an underlying tension between developing the riverfront and a desire to stay rural. This struggle continues today, and while Mr. Minor won't guess as to the future, he concludes with some simple, and probably sound, advice: Buy land in the area if you can.
Castkill to Kingston, New York
If it were not for Chancellor Robert Livingston, I'm not sure we would be cruising the Hudson today onboard the American Spirit. Sure, Livingston was on the committee of five responsible for drafting the Constitution, and yes, he swore in George Washington as the first president; while he negotiated on the Louisiana Purchase, his most important contribution may have come from his drive and money in creating the first practical commercial steamboat.
But here's the thing: He partnered with Robert Fulton to build the steamboat Clermont in 1807. Its success would change not only the Hudson Valley but also commerce around the country. No longer dependent on becalmed sailing vessels, trade became consistent and scheduled. As the Hudson is the only sea level passage through the Appalachian Mountains, the river and city played a vital role in the westward development of the States. Well before train tracks were laid along the river, it was descendants of the Fulton-Livingston steamboat that carried and continues to carry goods, commerce and people.
After a short four-hour passage downriver, we are tied up at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, New York. While a modest collection, it helps to connect the Fulton-Livingston steamboat with the growth of the Valley. We also learn the Hudson is really a tidal estuary whose Indian name means "The River That Flows Both Ways," and that ice harvesting was a major industry up until the 20th century and supplied much of New York's refrigeration.
Our refrigeration onboard is decidedly more advanced and throughout the week I've been generally impressed with the quality of food onboard. Tonight's crab cakes are surprisingly tasty (I'm a Maryland native and trust me, we know crab). American Cruise Lines aims to provide memorable meals a step above its competition, hiring chefs almost exclusively from the much-acclaimed Culinary Institute of America; one of its two national campuses is located in Hyde Park, where we made our first tour stop. While usually successful, I am surprised, however, to see that just two appetizers and entrees are offered on any menu. However, special requests can be accommodated if nothing suits you.
Tonight, our lecturer is given a night off, and a local folk singer plays to a full house in the lounge instead. The crowd gives him an enthusiastic response that draws even me out of my cabin to listen. Toward the end of his singing, however, enough people are distracted by the arrival of the nightly tray of root beer floats to cause him to say, "I think this is the first time I've ever been upstaged by a sundae."
Kingston to West Point and Tarrytown, New York
Lying in bed at 8 a.m. as we set sail from Kingston, I delight in having a picture window that actually slides open. Sticking my head outside, fresh fall air fills the cabin and I snap picture after picture of the foliage over a misty river. This morning, not even eggs Benedict can keep me in the dining room long as the warm sunshine draws me to the open deck.
Having traveled on the Northwest's Columbia River just last spring, I inevitably draw comparisons between the two. With the river widening as we head south, I see the Hudson grow more majestic and serene. While much of the northern Hudson's topography is relatively flat and unvaried, it is intermingled with spectacular stretches cutting through strong mountain ranges. The Columbia, by contrast, seemed wild, rugged and further inland, very remote. While the Columbia has tremendous natural, raw beauty, the Hudson's appeal is more stately and grand.
Nonetheless, today we sail through a dramatic and stunning section, where large swaths of exposed rock can be seen on towering hills otherwise carpeted with dense foliage. Passengers pop up to the deck like flowers to watch as we approach the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A brilliant sunshine sweeps and cuts across the hills and trees while a steward hands out bloody Marys on deck beneath the imposing Academy firmly fortified above.
West Point's prominence comes in part from the natural "S" shape in the river, where changing winds and currents prevented British ships in the Revolutionary War from passing quickly by unharmed. As long as the colonies could hold onto the Hudson, there were still vital supply routes linking them. Lose the Hudson, and the British could cut off half the colonies.
Despite the best efforts of Benedict Arnold, who sold the plans of West Point to the British, the fort, and hence the river, never fell into enemy hands. Even without the artillery from the fort, the sailing ships at the time struggled enough, battling the winds, currents and twists in the river to get past West Point. As an extra precaution, a massive chain was stretched across the river to further prevent British ships from passing unharmed. No ship ever reached it, however, and links from the chain are prominently displayed on campus.
A graduate's mother conducts the tour of the Academy's immaculate grounds and entertains us with stories of General Macarthur and President Eisenhower as cadets. The daily routines and rigors of today's cadet are also explained, and I listen with perhaps a bit more sympathy than the others. As a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, the tales of restriction, marching, parades, cleaning your room Saturday night and stenciling your clothes are all too familiar!
With a beautiful setting sun and perfect weather for departure, Tina and I take our cocktails outside to the stern as a prelude to our last evening. We have the deck to ourselves and as if watching a nature flick, we observe smooth motion of river, highlighted by the vibrant colors of the leaves illuminated by the setting sun. Just after dinner, we reach Tarrytown with the glow of Manhattan visible on the horizon. Having learned about the interrelation of the city and the Hudson, we find ourselves viewing the city lights as not only an intrusion but also the inevitable outflow of the resources and commerce we've seen this week.
Tarrytown to New York City
For many passengers, visiting four historic homes in one day of our one-week itinerary might be overkill. For my fellow passengers, however, this doesn't seem to bother them, and I find myself very interested in this morning's visit to Washington Irving's home. Known of course for Rip Van Winkle and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving also subtly struggled with the inevitable buildup of the Hudson Valley. Almost provocatively, train tracks were laid right by the house while he lived there, and today purposeful Amtrak and MTA Metro-North trains rumble by with an alarming frequency.
As we return to American Spirit for our last jaunt down the Hudson, there is growing anticipation of our arrival in New York. Leaving Tarrytown, we watch the development on the shore steadily increase, and despite some poor scheduling that has Mr. Minor lecturing on "Hudson River Pirates" as we enter the harbor, I spend the afternoon on the bow enjoying the view.
No matter how many times I sail in and out of Manhattan, I never grow tired of it. There is the fleeting joy of being even with a crosstown street and being able to see through the canyon of buildings straight to the East Side. There is the fascinating separation between calm on the water and the frenzied pace of the city with its bleating, honking taxicabs. The contrast between the city's towers and our diminutive boat is refreshing.
Sailing the length of Manhattan, we pause off the Statue of Liberty and take in the spectacle of this grand harbor and city best seen from the water. Thirty minutes later, we have docked again at the Chelsea Piers, where a nice balance exists between being in the city while still having the peace and quiet of the ship. We overnight here.
Following dinner onboard, I'm off to bed with the lights, but not the sounds, of Manhattan outside my window.
New York City
I've always felt that as much as I love New York, the city is decidedly less pleasant in the rain; taxis are hard to find and walking to the subway is uncomfortable. Waking up, I am sorry to see a hard, steady rain for our full day call in the city.
About half of the passengers sign up for a bus tour, hitting the major sites including Central Park, Times Square and the Empire State Building. Just over three hours long, the tour is merely a mad dash with only enough time to get off the bus for an occasional photograph.
Others, however, have their own plans, and if it had been a dryer day, I would have encouraged anyone who would listen to take a long, wandering walk through Central Park. Alternatively, a trip to the newly opened "Top of the Rock" at Rockefeller Center provides a vantage that rivals or even beats that of the Empire State Building. For those that have spent time in the city before, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and exploring the historic neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights offers a good opportunity to see part of another borough.
In the evening, several passengers ate at restaurants in the city and got Broadway tickets through the Cruise Director. Mike Minor lingers in the lounge after dinner for any last-minute questions, but no formal lecture is held. The Captain invites passengers up to see the Bridge, but mostly, it's a low-key night.
The usual exchange of goodbyes occurs, and in the morning, we are off the ship very early. A new group of passengers starts boarding at 9:30 a.m., and by then, I'll already be headed home.
In the end, why choose a small ship, and give up the casinos, the show lounges, the Internet cafes, the rock-climbing wall and, if you can bear it, even the ice skating rink? I've always found smaller ships offer an ambience and familiarity the larger ships can't, and that it is rewarding to use ships as a means to unobtrusively explore a destination.
And why choose such a low-key itinerary, not known (for the most part) for its urban sophistication, white sand beaches or history changing monuments?
Sailing on the American Spirit allows you to be surrounded by the destination, both physically with the river or land always in sight, but also mentally with the lecture program and shore excursions designed to introduce you to the region. And it's a region that, as I've noted, plays a unique role in America's founding history. It's also a beautiful place to explore.
Art auctions? Who needs 'em? Instead, if you are happy with a good book, a unique itinerary and a friendly group of passengers, you, too, may become a small-ship convert.
--by Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic contributor
Image of Tarrytown appears courtesy of tarrytowngov.com. Images of New York skyline, fall foliage on Bear Mountain and American Spirit appear courtesy of American Cruise Lines.