Grande Caribe Cruise Review by rafinmd: Gulf Intracostal Waterway
Gulf Intracostal Waterway
Background: Blount Small Ship Adventures truly marches to a different drummer in the cruise industry. A family owned company, the term family will come up often, and I typically use the term in the way real families actually work, not some stylized version of the term. Founder Luther Blount was the company's guiding influence for 40 years, leaving his mark right up to his death in 2006. His daughter Nancy is now President and has added some woman's touches but the family tradition still continues. Despite the company's minuscule size (it's 2 ships have a TOTAL capacity of 190 passengers), there are almost 2 distinct companies, and most passengers are fiercely loyal to one or the other with little intermixing. The Caribbean side centers on water activities, primarily swimming and snorkeling, while the North American itineraries center on scenic cruising and history. For those who have sailed with Blount (formerly ACCL) in the past, changes from recent years are that wine is included More
with lunch and dinner and there are now choices for both dinner entrees and deserts.
Embarkation: The ship was docked at the North end of the Port of New Orleans beyond the bridges and near the Port Administration Building and Mardi Gras World. As I approached the gangway a deck hand took my bags and headed for my cabin. Check-in is handled in the lounge where I gave a crew member my ticket and my choices for dinner and picked up a name tag. Normally one of the stewardesses will escort a passenger to the cabin and point out the features; Im pretty much a Blount regular and that wasnt deemed necessary.
Ship info: All of Blount's ships are designed to cruise New York's Erie Canal, which has several bridges with about 17 foot vertical clearance. They have a retractable pilot house which normally sits on the topmost deck but can be lowered to the deck below. One unfortunate consequence of the design for low bridges is that the ceilings are low (approximately 6'3") which would be a consideration for people over that height. The Grande Caribe, and near twin Grande Mariner, have 2 ½ inside decks, with 6 cabins and crew areas on the lowest deck, and cabins and dining room on the middle deck, and cabins and lounge on the upper deck. There is a walk around the outside of the upper deck, about 15 laps per mile, although walking is really better done ashore. An open upper deck is on top, except when transiting the Erie Canal.
Staterooms: The cabins are tiny, basic, and functional. Most are approximately 80 square feet, and have a small sink and toilet. The space between the sink and toilet serves as the shower, with the shower head mounted on the wall, and a curtain which comes into place on the other 3 sides containing the spray in the shower space. It's very nontraditional but quite functional. A few cabins now have separate showers. There are generally 2 beds sitting at right angles, cabinet space and a writing desk. One thing that may surprise newcomers is that the cabin doors do not lock from the outside. With the small, family atmosphere I've never heard of this causing a problem, but it is certainly unusual. Most of the Niagara Prince cabin doors face interior hallways and are sliding fabric, much like sliding room dividers. Each cabin has an individual heat-ac unit, much like a room air conditioner. Rooms are not equipped with television or phones.
Crew: Since these are US flag ships, the crew is all American, and generally young. We had a crew of 16: Captain, First officer, Engineer, Cruise Director, Hotel Director, Chef and assistant, 5 Stewardess and 4 deck hands. The entire crew from Captain on down is closely engaged with the passengers and will all typically address the passengers by name. We are much more on our own than on a typical cruise ship (for example, if we want a mid-afternoon cup of coffee we pretty much need to pour it ourselves), but the service is very personal and professional.
Dining: All meals are served in the dining room. In the tradition of real family dining, there are set meal times, generally 8am, noon, and 6pm. Also, as with real families, the chef sets the menu of the day, with a choice usually of a meat or seafood and 2 deserts for dinner. The menu is posted the night before in the dining room. People who see something on the menu they don't like will speak to the chef a meal in advance and a substitution will be offered. The tables are for 6 or 8, and at the appointed time we pick a vacant seat. In the course of the cruise I shared a table at least once with nearly every other passenger. Breakfast starts with a buffet line for fruit, milk, juice, and hot and cold cereal. Cooked entrees are served family style (large platters are passed around the tables). Lunch is also served family style, while dinner is served traditionally. Between meals there are snacks available in the lounge and dining room, self service soft drinks in the lounge and a coffee station in the dining room. Blount serves drinks on the Captains welcome aboard and farewell nights and wine with dinner. At other times the policy is BYOB. There is storage space, including a refrigerator, for passenger liquor in the lounge and drink setups are always furnished.
Activities and entertainment: Formal entertainment is fairly limited. The Cruise Director organizes a couple of games each day but the emphasis is on either ports or scenic cruising. An onboard naturalist gave presentations on environmental topics, and was out on deck pointing out wildlife. In the evening there is either a movie in the lounge or a local entertainer when in port. There is no casino and very little shopping. The ship's store with Blount items is opened once each cruise. Other shopping needs will have to be met on shore, and the cruise director will help find the right places at each port.
Children: Children are generally not encouraged. The policy is a minimum age of 14 years although I have seen younger mature children on a case-by-case basis.
Disembarkation: A breeze. Since there are few onboard expenses, we settled our bills the day before arrival in St. Petersburg, and the cruise director collected our departure information and arranged taxis/shuttles as appropriate. Luggage went outside our doors the morning we disembarked. After breakfast it was arranged in the lounge sorted by departure time. When we were ready we simply walked off the ship. I had a taxi to meet my Amtrak departure. It arrived a few minutes ahead of the reservation. I was paged, walked off the ship, and found the crew had already loaded my luggage in the taxi.
Summary: Blount is not for everybody. People who want a big menu of activities, those who want to be pampered in luxury and those who have a preset idea of what a cruise should be are likely to be disappointed. Those who are open to a new and intimate experience can have a wonderful time. Prices tend to be on the high side reflecting the lack of economy of scale and the fact that the crew is earning American wages.
Ports: Shore tours are not included in the fare, but are moderately priced. On this cruise they ranged from $29 to $85 with an average of about $60.
New Orleans: Blount sometimes allows embarkation a day early, and I was able to board a day ahead of time with dinner and breakfast included. There were no ship activities on the general embarkation day and I went for a cruise on the Natchez, a steam paddlewheel riverboat. It was very enjoyable with views of the waterfront, French Quarter, Algiers, and sites from the War of 1812 and Civil War. I did not partake but a lunch was available which looked quite nice.
The next day the ship offered 2 shore excursions. The morning tour was a city and Katrina tour where we visited cemeteries, various styles of architecture and toured the canal system and areas where the system failed. We had a refreshment stop at the Art Museum park. The afternoon tour was an airboat tour on the bayous where we saw lots of wildlife including closeup views of alligators and bayou cabins. It was excellent. A local R&B group entertained in the evening.
We were supposed to leave New Orleans at 7 the next morning but our departure was delayed until 8:45, probably because we had to pass through a flood control gate that would be closed until noon. I had time for a morning walk where I found excellent internet at a Starbucks near the most downstream cruise terminal.
Biloxi: We docked with yachts at a marina which may have been attached to a casino. We had a train tour which visited the main sites and stopped at the final home of Jefferson Davis. A highlight was the Katrina Sculpture Park where a chainsaw artist used some trees destroyed by Katrina to create beautiful sculptures of birds and sea life. The evening we docked a local historian told Stories of Biloxi.
Mobile: Our visit here was just a morning. The ships tour went to Bellingrath Gardens and Home, although I skipped it in favor of a visit to a local Laundromat. We docked behind the Convention center, right in the midst of the downtown area. A free shuttle hits the major downtown sites about every 15 minutes. Most Blount stops in Mobile spend the day there and a great option is the USS Arizona Battleship. That visit requires a taxi.
Pensacola: We docked at the Plaza de Luna, staying from about 9PM for a full day and overnight, leaving early the 2nd morning. We were greeted by a welcoming party of drummers in period costumes. The location was convenient to the center of town and museums. There were again morning and afternoon tours. I skipped the morning tour which toured the sites and museum complex. The afternoon tour visited the National Naval Aviation Museum, an astounding collection of historic military aircraft spread over 2 huge hangers. We also visited Fort Barrancas, one of several forts which protected the harbor entrance, and the Pensacola light house, where 177 steps provided a superb view of the area. A local music group performed that evening and we left early the next morning. Pensacola was a real gem. There are not facilities for large cruise ships but I think it would be a great alternative to Key West for ships like Silversea, Seabourn, or Azamara.
Panama City: This was essentially a rest stop for the officers as the crew size does not work well with multiple overnight cruises. We docked at the local marina around dinner time. Panama City appeared to be a nice, quaint small town, but it was pretty much closed up on a Sunday evening. A local blues singer came aboard to perform.
Carabelle: A first call for Blount, Carabelle was a bit of a disappointment. A tour was planned for a nature experience at Tates Hell State Forest, but the tour operator ended up with a capacity of only 4. A local historian gave an evening presentation, and offered his van for the afternoon to escort people to th local museums and shopping places.
Tampa: We docked at the Westin Harbor Island. I passed on the morning tour to the H.B. Plant Museum. In the afternoon there was a shuttle to local attractions on the waterfront, Tampa History Center, Florida Aquarium, or the American Victory. I visited the American Victory. Victory ships are a WWII upgrade of the Liberty Ship and was a very interesting ship. These attractions are all very close to the Tampa Cruise Port. We had an evening performance by violinist Leah Rothe who played mostly classical music but sampled several styles.
St. Petersburg: Our disembarkation stop was just a stones throw from Tampa. We docked at the port of Tampa and were all given day passes for the looper trolley. Points of interest there were the Dali Museum, the city pier (about to be demolished), Fine Arts Museum, Holocaust Museum, and a unique open air post office. Less
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Cabin review: 14c
14c is the only solo cabin on the Grande Caribe. It is directly over the engine room and the sound of the engine comes through SLIGHTLY when the ship is speeding up or slowing down. The bed is parallel to the length of the ship, there's a dresser with 3 drawers and a decent hanging space. There are 6 electrical outlets, a mirror above the dresser, and a reading light. It's snug but sufficient for one.
Port and Shore Excursions
Our visit here was just a morning. The ships tour went to Bellingrath Gardens and Home, although I skipped it in favor of a visit to a local L\laundromat. We docked behind the Convention center, right in the midst of the downtown area. A free shuttle hits the major downtown sites about every 15 minutes. Most Blount stops in Mobile spend the day there and a great option is the USS Arizona Battleship. That visit requires a taxi.
We visited cemeteries, various styles of architecture and toured the canal system and areas where the system failed. We had a refreshment stop at the Art Museum park.
Swamp & Bayou Tour
We drove about 15 miles across the Mississippi to the back country where we took about an hour air boat ride through narrow tree-lined bayous. We saw lots of wildlife including closeup views of alligators and bayou cabins.
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