I've had the privilege of cruising 39 times on various cruise lines, mainly on the west and east coast of the USA, the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Canada/NewEngland, and Bermuda.
Amtrak delivered me to the embarkation port of Fernandina Beach, Florida for my cruise. The train ride was fun, and with the comfort of a private bedroom, it was actually luxury as far as today's train service goes. It took a few days, but who cares when one is on vacation! The train stop for Fernandina Beach is Jacksonville, FL, and I had a limo take me from there to Fernandina Beach.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites Amelia Island - Historic Harbor Front, which was extremely comfortable, clean and quiet. The front desk staff there were wonderful in every aspect.
I walked through this historic seaport town the day before the cruise, and enjoyed the lovely architecture and friendly people. Walking through the marina was also a delight, as friendly pelicans and other sea birds approach, hoping for a snack from visitors, and the boats moored in the marina are gorgeous. It definitely put me in the mood for a cruise! Great seafood available in town and the marina area.
I could walk to the Independence the next morning at my leisure - with wheeled luggage, it's very easy and took me 10 minutes. You can see the cruise boat easily from the hotel. Embarkation was wonderful and fast compared to megaliners. Just appear, and the deck crew at the gangway checks your name off and takes your bag on board, and you walk onto the ship.
The Independence looks like a yacht, and being quite new to American Cruise Lines, it was still fresh and very attractive with its white paint. It has three passenger decks and the top of the ship is a flat sun deck. There are several main lounges and a dining room. There is an elevator. Not much in the way of fitness equipment. The lounges have soft, comfortable seating and there are books and DVDs and computer terminals available. The Independence has stabilizers. The decor is very peaceful and calm, with muted natural colors and soft fabrics.
My cabin originally was to be a single - American Cruise Lines does offer single-occupancy cabins at a slight lower price than the bigger doubles. I had requested a double bed in mine, which the cruise line has provided on earlier trips, but when I got to the cabin, it had what appeared to be a twin bed. I asked the hotel manager, who was very young, if they could put a double bed in the room, and he was not able to do this. I can't sleep in a twin bed, despite being small - this size bed is just too small for me. Fortunately the ship was not full, and I was given a big double cabin with a private balcony and a king-size bed. So far, so good. There are single cabins available with balconies, and most of the cabins offer the nice private balconies. Again, muted colors and soft fabrics and neutral wood colors in the cabins, which are spacious and have a small closet, plenty of dresser and night stand drawer storage, nice new flat screen TV, chairs, sofa. The windows actually open in these cabins, but don't have screens - beware of the bugs flying in depending on your itinerary. There is AC, but it was heavenly when I could keep the window open at night and have the fresh air and smell the water. The bathroom had a full-size shower stall with curtain, and there were very nice high-end toiletries provided. Towels were OK, but some were a bit ragged. The faucets were polished brass and the sink top appeared to be faux granite but very elegant. There was the usual printed information in the cabin, but nothing in the way of bottled water, flowers, fruit, or anything else. For what the fare rates are, the ship could have done more. No phone in the cabin, and internet access was spotty and slow, except in the lounges most of the time, and then right next to the router.
Activities are limited on this ship, basically Bingo on one night, port lectures, and socialization. The average age appears to be above 70. This is an ideal cruise line for those who are "mature" in age and who don't need a lot of physical activity or entertainment. Many passengers know others from prior cruises, and enjoy just sitting and visiting. There is a "free" bar included in the fare, and this social hour was very lively with drinks, snacks, and conversation every night before dinner. Some of the passengers fell asleep after dinner, or slept through the minimal evening entertainment, obviously contented and comfortable enough to do this. This is not a cruise line for people who want a lot of action and late evening entertainment.
Dining hours were a bit late for me personally, and were open seating within a set framework three times per day. The menus are handed out the day before, and you chose what you want and portion size. The food was some odd "gourmet" combinations at times, and seemed to focus on a lot of red pepper, odd salads, meat, and poultry. The fish I did have was very good. Deserts are again a bit "gourmet", and ice cream is always available. Again, for the very high fare charged, they could have done better with the food. It wasn't bad food, just a bit peculiar in the way ingredients were combined, and the results were not always good. For those not eating meat or poultry, it is a challenge to get what you need. The chef is very accommodating when it comes to making something special, however, but I mainly had a chef salad two times per day and an awful lot of ice cream. This probably kept me from gaining weight on this cruise, but a lot of people loved it all, ate it all, and were even bigger when they disembarked than is healthy. Good wine available free at lunch and dinner, and other usual beverages. Some of the breakfast buffet items were not hot or cold as they should have been, and there was almost no danish or pastry available. Big round tables in the dining room encourage socialization. Service was pleasant, but could be slow.
This is definitely not a child-friendly cruise line, as there is nothing to entertain kids, and they would be bored very quickly.
This is not cashless cruising, but things are signed up for and charged to the room - no actual money is handed out. Tips can be charged to the room account and/or credit card.
Entertainment was minimal in the evenings. There was an on-board port expert who gave some lengthy but good lectures after dinner, but a lot of people fell asleep during his talks. He also spoke during the daytime if there was an opportunity, and was available for questions. In a few ports, local entertainers came aboard with local music and folk type entertainment, and they were very good. There was a Bingo night, which I overheard somebody comment that this cruise was a floating nursing home. At least the Bingo kept us all awake. People enjoyed reading and talking, and that was about it for entertainment, as well as using personal or onboard computers. Ice cream floats were served about 45 minutes after dinner ended, during the evening entertainment, which most people consumed on top of their dinners.
The ports visited on this cruise were Brunswick, GA, Sapelo Island, GA, Savannah, GA, Hilton Head, SC, Beaufort, SC, Charleston, SC. There were good shore excursions offered for each port - sign-up sheet is posted on the ship bulletin board near the dining room for tours. Cost is about what any cruise ship would charge. I really enjoyed a tour on a working shrimp boat on a quiet waterway, and the crew taught about the sea life in the southern waterways as well as letting people get their hands on what came up in each net - also available were fresh-cooked shrimp, right on board, and they were delicious. I also enjoyed a tour of the Gullah region in South Carolina, with a wonderful guide who really got into the spirit of the area. I took the tour of the alligator and wild life preserve on Hilton Head Island, SC - the quiet electric small boat takes visitors within feet of the alligators, turtles, and other wildlife there. I had walking maps of Savannah, Beaufort, and Charleston, and enjoyed going at my own pace and seeing what interested me on foot. Well worth it for the gorgeous historical Southern architecture, but be prepared for heat and humidity. Walking through Brunswick, GA on Easter morning was very nice, with local people in their holiday outfits. All the churches were open, and had welcome committees out front - I really felt welcome and it was a great way to start the cruise with the warm Southern hospitality. I'm not a big fan of organized long bus tours on cruises, and enjoyed walking on my own the most.
Service on the ship was mixed. The young American crew are from all over the country, and enjoy visiting with passengers when their time and duties permit. There is always somebody on watch at the gangway 24/7. I remember the captain and first mate from previous trips, and they are very professional and pleasant. Be aware that some of the crew does double duty, both as cabin stewards and dining room stewards. They are busy all the time, and the service suffers a bit from this. Most of the dining room service I had was very good, but it could be slow at times. The cabin was not always done properly, and some things had to be cleaned again. I wondered if the bed linens were changed more than once, as well, but the towels and bath supplies were kept stocked properly. Things were satisfactory in the cabin, but the young lady cleaning it appeared very rushed, as indeed she was - she had to do cabin service and then rush to change to work in the dining room.
I wasn't impressed at all with either the cruise director or the hotel manager. Both seem to go through the motions of their jobs, but they were too young to really understand the much older passenger majority. This has been the case with other crews I've had on prior ACL cruises. There is one lady who takes care of the dining service, and she is a real pro, very glad to see her aboard after sailing with her before. There is no doctor or medical center on this small boat but as it is close to shore and the Coast Guard or other emergency services, help can be summoned in an emergency. Someone on board is reputedly first-aid trained.
Disembarkation is as easy as embarkation. Breakfast is served, and people need to be off the ship by a decent hour in the morning. Transportation can be arranged, either to airports, train stations, or by taxi, as needed. It was quick and simple.
The cruise line sends a survey by email, but to date I've never received a reply to my very detailed and often letter-supplemented comments, suggestions, or issues. On my cruise, I took care of several injured elderly passengers and never got a word of thanks from the cruise line. The fares charged for the cruises are grossly too expensive for the quality of the food and the lack of on-board amenities. The itineraries are excellent, however, as many of the ports visited can only be reached by small boat for maximum accessibility and enjoyment. The Independence is one of the few boats equipped with stabilizers, but on the one occasion we should have used them, we were told they were "broken". These small boats appear to be miniature cruise ships, but for those with motion sickness problems, be prepared - out in the open ocean, or in moderate sea conditions, they can pitch and roll very impressively and make you miserable very quickly, especially without stabilization. On the inland waterways and rivers, however, the boat glides along and is extremely comfortable and stable.
I would not take this cruise line again unless they sharply reduced their fares - they are really over-priced for what they deliver. Their itineraries, however, are excellent. Passengers tend to be in their 70s on average, and appear very well-to-do financially. Some take back to back cruises on this line, and stay on the small boats for months.