All content was accurate when this story was published in October 2007.
There are as many different types of cruises as a leopard has spots. Feeling really ambitious? What about a three-month world circumnavigation of the globe or a complete sail around South America? Or a Western Mediterranean cruise, where you can visit three or four countries in the space of a week? If it's Thursday, it's Tunisia; Friday, it's France; and Saturday, it's Spain. They all involve long-distance flying, a dizzying kaleidoscope of cultures and many hundreds, if not a few thousand, fellow cruisers.
So how about this complete change of pace: a one-week cruise solely within one beautiful region of Maine, a quintessentially American Yankee state?
I love the seaside, and Maine has 3,400 miles of rugged coastline if you count all the nips and tucks (the bays and coves) between the borders with New Hampshire and New Brunswick. The state has hundreds of islands, big and small, many of which the cruise passes before landing on Mt. Desert Island, the largest.
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My first visit to Mt. Desert Island occurred when I was 12, and I was enchanted by the forests coming right down to the sea and the Atlantic breakers crashing on the rocky shores. There seemed to be a lighthouse on nearly every promontory, and they were fun to visit especially when the fog rolled in to cause that mournful sound of warning.
Since then, I have been back to Maine but never for long enough, so the cruise my wife and I chose was perfect -- it would allow us to poke around a very small region, Penobscot Bay, with the ship covering just a few hundred miles in the course of the week. We looked forward to getting to know what life was like in a world so different from ours.
The Home Port of Bangor
Every summer American Cruise Lines, based in Guilford, Connecticut, sends two of its coastal cruisers to the State of Maine to explore beautiful island-studded Penobscot Bay with a side trip over to Bar Harbor on Mt. Desert Island. The embarkation port is Bangor, and the city's airport is a delightful throwback to a human scale while Bangor's cruise landing is set alongside a riverside park, not a ten-minute drive along Union Street.
Our guide aboard ship would soon be telling us that we might think we were up north but in fact, due to an old sailing term, we would be Down East. The folks here, Down Easters, would welcome us as “flatlanders” or “away people,” that is, not from here.
Many Maine coastal towns are charmingly New England clapboard with varying architectural styles, or if ravaged by one of those 19th century fires, they are red brick and a bit more imposing. Some have had hugely important histories, such as Bangor, once the lumber capital of the world with over 300 working saw mills and Bar Harbor, by far the fanciest summer resort north of Newport, Rhode Island. Others towns thrived on building wooden ships because of the proximity of thousands of square miles of forests, established factory mills powered by harnessing the fast-flowing Penobscot River and of course, depended on the good fishing nearby and at the Grand Banks.
Time moved on, and ships were no longer made of wood; the mills went south; and the fish were swept up into huge seining nets by sophisticated foreign factory ships. A good portion of Bar Harbor's opulent summer cottages went up in flames during one hot, dry summer in 1947, and the town became more egalitarian.
Summer people, not interested in a Coney Island atmosphere, milling crowds of day trippers and McMansions, have long since discovered the serene coast of Maine with its rugged beauty, hundreds of islands, gentle towns, local artists, windjammer cruises, small boat sailing, sport fishing and lobsters just hauled in from the sea. The region is very different from the rest of America, the lure for us and our fellow passengers.
When my wife and I arrived in Bangor by car, we saw two small white cruise vessels – the American Star (100 passengers) and American Glory (49 passengers) – both topped with red, white and blue funnels, docked alongside an attractive park and set against the city's modest skyline. Boarding began at 9 a.m., and we dropped off our bags at the gangway, then parked the car nearby at a fee-per-day that was less than what someone would pay for the first hour in Manhattan.
The American Star was completed in May 2007 at the owner's own yard on the Chesapeake Bay. He has been building small cruise ships, excursion vessels and dinner boats there since the 1970's. I visited his shipyard once, located on the banks of the Wicomico River near Salisbury, Maryland, and it's amazing to think a construction site that looked so unsophisticated could produce such fine craftsmanship.
We walked across the gangway where the assistant hotel manager greeted us and checked off our names. In the embarkation foyer, the bulletin board posted the passenger list, the schedule for the week, the day's menu for lunch and dinner and a street map of Bangor. The assistant hotel manager then directed us up two decks. The first level had cabins and a comfortable-looking midship lounge, and the next had the library lounge. Our cabin, ready at 11 a.m., was located just aft of the bridge on the port side overlooking the park.
Our cabin seemed roomy for a small coastal ship and, according to the deck plan, measured just over 220 square feet. We had a desk and a chair positioned up against windows that slid open, as well as a two-seat sofa, single chair and coffee table with more space between the furniture and the foot of the queen-size bed than most standard big-ship cabins. We had adequate drawer and closet space and a decently sized bathroom with a nice long counter and shower. The satellite TV brought in more than a dozen channels.
The door next to the desk opened to a narrow balcony (a feature with half the cabins) furnished with a small round table and two chairs. We said hello to our neighbors next door and looked down as more passengers crossed the gangway two decks below.
The dining room, located aft, was surrounded on three sides by large windows. Lunch, as with all meals, is open seating at round tables of six to eight with extra places so single passengers could easily join couples traveling together. We like this arrangement because we meet a lot of different people. Service is by friendly college-age women, all Americans, some of whom are taking a semester off to earn some money and see a bit of their own country.
The first meal featured lobster bisque, a chicken wrap and pie freshly baked with Maine blueberries. We enjoyed our meal as we slid past what, in the 19th century, had been a heavily industrial landscape. Once beyond the city limits, it was back to nature with a scant few houses showing through the trees.
Our First Port
As an example of how short our distances in between docks would be, just three hours later Captain Henry Thorpe gently maneuvered the American Star alongside a pontoon dock not 30 feet long. Within a few minutes, we were ready to disembark. Bucksport, once a shipbuilding city, is now a sleepy village with a single main street that sits parallel to the river and is lined with an art deco movie theater, town hall, library, a few stores and restaurants, and clapboard houses ranging up the hill.
The reason for the stop was to visit an imposing fort up on a bluff across the Penobscot River. The shore excursions were optional extras, ranging in price from $10 to $38. The tour operators asked us to sign up for the ones we wanted to take so the tour operators would have some idea of the number of people interested. But we would not be charged if we changed our minds, only if we actually joined the tour. That's one of the joys of small-ship cruising.
Fort Knox is the fort's name and just like Fort Knox, Tennessee, it was named after Henry Knox, the first American Secretary of War. We reached it by driving over two bridges, one crossing high above the Penobscot Narrows, to reach the entrance where a National Park guide took us on a walking tour. Lavishly built in a French design using granite blocks to protect the narrows and the region's important industries, the cannon were designed to hit a target up to two miles away, so enemy ships would have little chance of advancing this far. But the guns were never fired in anger as by the Civil War; the British were no longer an invading threat; and warships had converted to much more solid iron or steel hulls. We walked the walls and the dark interior passages and saw the relatively comfortable living quarters for the officers and the dank, dormitory-style for the enlisted. I was interested to learn that some of the forts guarding New York harbor, Forts Schuyler, Totten and Wadsworth, were of similar design and also never fired a shot in anger.
The view over the river to Bucksport and down to the narrows was lovely, and soon we were back aboard the American Star. Changing into some nicer clothes (a skirt for my wife and trousers for me), we put on our name tags that included our home city and state and ventured one deck below to the forward observation lounge, furnished like a big comfy living room. Many others had already gathered, and we found the tags great ice breakers. Ours read “New York, New York,” so we got a lot of attention straightaway, especially from those who used to live in the city or nearby. We found that the passengers, mostly near retirement or retired, hailed from all parts of the U.S. with a few from Canada.
Nightly Cocktails & Dinner
At 5:30 p.m, the line hosts a nightly one-hour complimentary pre-dinner cocktail hour with passed hot hors d'oeuvres while the hotel manager and cruise director attend bar. I liked to eyeball the room while getting a glass of wine and then decide who to join. It's all very convivial, and with name tags as reminders, previous conversations fall into place, especially for those who cannot remember names after being introduced. One evening we met a couple who had lived in the apartment below ours 45 years ago, and we had one neighbor in common who had moved into the building in 1926!
Most people begin to meander down one deck to dinner just after 6:30. At breakfast, we choose the appetizers and entrees (choice of three each) for lunch and dinner, so the chef has an approximation of the demand. However, it makes not one iota of difference if you change your mind.
Dinner on the first night was ever-so-tender prime rib accompanied by complimentary wines. The table is set with a California merlot and a chilled bottle of Italian white wine, and if more is desired, just ask. Wine is available at lunch too, but it's not put on the tables unless requested, as most didn't drink in the middle of the day.
Unlike the big ships where everyone chooses where to go after dinner - one of the shows, the movies, a bar, a night club, the casino or the shopping area – no discussions occurs on this cruise. On the American Star, we would take a brief walk after dinner into town, some more lively than others, and then return for the evening entertainment in the lounge. Bucksport had a nice river walk with the bridges and Fort Knox all lighted up across the water.
On this first night, the Bucksport town historian showed his carefully preserved archival footage of Maine's early fishing industry, the dangerous task of logging and locally shot silent films with funny story lines. Popcorn and sundaes were served, and I was amazed at the number of takers.
After the show, we went to the top open deck to sit under cover and pick out the names of the islands on the map, discussing which one we might like to buy for our retirement. I kind of liked the sound of Isle au Haut, and it did rise higher than the others. The American Star remained tied up until 4 a.m. when we pushed off for a six-hour run to Bar Harbor, passing between off-shore islands and the Maine coast.
During most times, free internet access was available in a computer niche on our deck, and laptops with wireless capabilities could tap into the system at no charge. We connected in our cabin, and with the captain's advice, propped the door open to improve reception.
The port is a busy place in summer, and a Holland America ship was at anchor, shuttling its hundreds of passengers ashore by tender. Captain Thorpe gingerly threaded his way amongst anchored fishing boats, as well as sailing and motor yachts, to deftly tie up, with just a few feet to spare, between a lobster boat and an impressive motor yacht registered in the Cayman Islands. We would remain berthed at the Town Dock for 24 hours giving us an afternoon, evening, and the next morning for exploring.
The sole excursion, by bus and narrated by a local guide, lead us to the headlands and a blow hole for us to watch the surf explode into the air. The bus then climbed up Cadillac Mountain, the centerpiece of Acadia National Park. From the peak, we had sweeping views over Mt. Desert Island, Frenchman Bay and distant inland mountain ranges. We could just make out the speck of our ship on the Bar Harbor waterfront. The weather cooperated here and for most of the week, with mild daytime temperatures in the 70s and spotty showers on just two occasions.
Bar Harbor's center seemed very touristy, so we gathered the pamphlets the ship provided and did our own thing by following a printed walking tour guide. I read the text out loud as we stopped in front of a long street of lovely Queen Anne, Victorian, colonial revival and shingle-style summer houses. The great fire of 1947 destroyed many of the opulent estates dotted in the woods beyond the town but not these.
After a quiet night tied up at the deck, we noted the next morning that the tide was out, so we walked ten minutes to reach the sand bar that makes the land link to Bar Island. This thickly wooded section of Acadian National Park has a hiking trail through the center to the far shore facing the mainland. Most others we encountered did not venture far so we had the place to ourselves. However, we knew we didn't have much time, and by the time we returned a half hour later, the sand bar had already begun to disappear under the rising tide.
At noon, we pushed off en route to Rockland, our next port. Captain Thorpe had to slow to steering speed while carefully picking his way amongst hundreds of colored buoys marking lobster pots, each one belonging to a particular lobsterman. The pots must be raised every day or two as lobsters are cannibals.
When we docked at 5 p.m., Rockland presented a busy commercial port scene with the Maine state ferries fanning out to nearby islands, ships loading limestone rock for exporting, a fishing fleet for clamming, scalloping and lobstering, and a half dozen Maine windjammers that make summer cruises not unlike what we are doing. The cruise director booked some American Star passengers on a two-hour late afternoon sail, and they came back happy.
Rockland's Multiple Attractions
The evening speaker, a former fisherman who had grown up on the remote island of Matinicus recalled earlier times when most people engaged in fishing, farming, and lumbering and lived on the islands while much of the coast was relatively uninhabited. Today with the decline of fishing and the desire for services such as stores, schools and medical care, most have left the islands to the “away people” or summer residents. The speaker also surprised us with the news that Maine's borders with Canada were once in constant dispute between the British, French and Americans.
We joined the morning tour by rubber-tired trolley that provided a commentary while driving through Rockland with a stop at the Farnsworth Art Museum. The family house, a former congregational church and a museum building held the artwork of three generations of Wyeths, Maine's most prominent artists – N.C. Wyeth, the illustrator, Andrew Wyeth, a 20th century realist, and Jamie Wyeth, famed for his portraits of Maine's people and islands. In a special exhibit, we saw paintings, drawings and photographs by long-time friends Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth, with the subject matter being mostly how they wanted to present each other.
In the afternoon, we drove out to the Owls Head Transportation Museum, a working collection of antique World War I bi-planes (many still operable) and automobiles, motorcycles and service vehicles from 1900 through the 1970's. An auction had just taken place and the new owners were collecting the keys so they could drive off with their purchases – a snappy 1956 red Ford Thunderbird Roadster and a classic 1941 blue Packard 160 with a bakelite dashboard and steering wheel.
Dinner was the ultimate treat for us, two-pound steamed lobsters that were as sweet as any I have ever tasted. One could order them cracked open, as most did, or as I prefer, do it yourself the hard way and make one holy mess. Most seemed rather timid and dainty about it all, and I hated to see all the waste the others left. Some people may have thought we were a bit peculiar, as I made sure to suck the legs and lungs and eat the roe..
Camden & Castine
Just up the bay, we anchored off Camden, one of the coast's most attractive large towns, the center mostly constructed of handsome brick following a fire in 1892. It was the first time we had seen traffic backed up since U.S. Route 1 passes through town at a snail's pace. But it made no difference as we checked out the art, craft and clothing shops along Main Street. The quality was good, and the prices seemed high.
The excursion by bus went to the top of Mt. Battie for a superb view down to the town and across to nearby islands, Vinalhaven, Islesboro, Isle au Haut, as well as to distant Matinicus, the most remote of them all. In a field, Scottish Belted Galloway cattle grazed, and they are locally described as Oreo cows because with black fronts and rears and a white middle, they look like the cookie.
As a town, Castine was the most enchanting with its quiet, non-commercial setting of beautiful historic summer homes in traditional New England styles -- federal, colonial, Queen Anne, Victorian and combination thereof with the additions of a porch or a turret or a row of dormer windows.
On a walking tour with a local architectural historian, we were jolted out of our feeling of serenity when we learned that for 200 years, Castine was the most fought over place in the world. Furtheremore, prior to the Civil War, it was the second wealthiest community in the U.S. (after New Bedford) based on the infamous triangle trade, whale oil and cheap salt for preserving fish. The occupying national flag changed no fewer than 14 times.
Belfast & Back up the Penobscot
Belfast is built on a sloping hill at the mouth of the Passagassawakeag, a name that rolls easily off my tongue just because I once dated a girl from there: Pah–sag-gah–sah–wah- keg. Nearby in Searsport, the Penobscot Marine Museum housed furniture and treasures brought back to Maine by captains engaged in the China trade. As they were away for a year or more, they often took their families, and from early photographs, we saw enchanting scenes of mothers teaching their children, as well as children dancing and playing games with ropes on deck. Not so serene was dramatic film footage shot from up the mast of a clipper ship rounding Cape Horn in a storm with seas sweeping across the decks. A more recent color video showed divers filming lobsters' cannibalistic tendencies when trapped in an underwater lobster pot and a wolf fish chasing a lobster then swallowing it whole before cracking its shell.
Early on Friday morning, we returned up the swift flowing Penobscot River and docked at Bangor by lunchtime. The peaceful waterfront park had been taken over by the annual folk festival, and fortuitously we were berthed right alongside. While some passengers watched from their balconies, we joined the crowd sitting on the grass to listen to a terrific Irish band play before an audience of several thousand. Sleepy old Bangor certainly came alive on this one night.
While we had leisurely driven the Maine coastal road and I had previously cruised to Bar Harbor on a 100,000-ton cruise ship, I liked approaching the towns by water since they had been designed to face the sea. Seeing a half dozen of them allowed me to compare what made them grow -- fishing, mining, lumbering, farming, exporting -- and when their fortunes declined, how the locals coped and how the “away people,” attracted by the beauty of the Maine Coast came to aid the economies. All of this adds up to what we see today, an unhurried region with tidy towns dotted along a beautiful coastline.