Our 44th cruise was with a river boat company, American Cruise Lines, but it was not on a river. We sailed around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, aboard the American Constellation for 10 nights and 11 days. It is a very nice boat, quite new and offering a good range of river boat amenities, a hardworking and a very pleasant crew. But we felt it was overpriced, and had some weak points.
We boarded shortly before noon at a marina in Seattle, and the check-in was very fast. We were handed names tags on a ribbon and encouraged to wear them all the time. We were given the usual room key, but were not asked to provide a credit card imprint – a first in our experience. The Captain was there to greet us; and helped with the luggage. We had a snack in the main “Cascade” Lounge on deck three and then went to our cabin.
This is a quite new ship, and the stateroom was in excellent condition. It was quite roomy for a river boat with plenty of drawer space and a small but adequate closet. The bathroom was about the same size as on most cruise ships. The verandah has a sliding glass door, two chairs and a small table. The walls were painted a nice beige shade. There were two armchairs as well as a desk with its chair. Almost all the staterooms were the same, the price differential was according to location. We were on Deck 2, but since it is a small vessel, it was not inconvenient. We were just a few steps from the center of the boat.
If you are on a cruise ship, you are told to call the river vessels “boats”. But American Constellation really looks like a small cruise ship with six decks and a sharp prow. It was built for sailing on open waters, and, as we saw on our visit to the bridge, is controlled by a navigation system that matches the oceangoing vessels we have been on. The top deck is open, with a small putting green. Deck 5 has the “Owners Suites”, a fitness room and a rear sun deck. Deck 4 has staterooms with a library/computer room and the Sky Lounge aft with an open deck. Deck 3 has the main Cascade Lounge forward and staterooms as well as a lounge. Deck 2 is all staterooms except for a lounge. The Main Deck has the Office and Dining Room, as well as some rooms without verandahs. All the decks except the top deck were connected by two roomy elevators in addition to a stairway.
The crew, with one exception, was entirely American. Captain Brown had served in the Coast Guard for many years. He was most pleasant and helpful for the entire cruise. The Cruise Director, Annie was also outgoing and helpful, and most of her comments on the ports were accurate. The wait staff in the main dining room was cheerful and tried their best, but still lacked the skill of those found on the major cruise line. The only non-American on the whole ship was the pianist, from England, appropriately named Jon England.
As noted, all our fellow passengers were from the United States. We were actually provided with a list of everyone’s names and staterooms. Those who had sailed with American Cruise Lines had their names marked with a star. While the ship would carry up to 175 passengers, we only had 112 on board. Of these 73 had sailed with the cruise line before. Since the company has only been around for a few years, this shows a high degree of loyalty. Since it is easy to forget the names of one’s fellow passengers, the list was quite helpful. As usual, virtually all our fellow passengers were of “a certain age”. The meals were all with open seating, but after a day or two we found a small group with whom we usually ate. The name tags and passenger list did help with recalling people. By and large we were a cheerful lot, and happy to share our differing port experiences and past cruising histories.
This was the first cruise in which all meals were served by the wait staff. Each diner was provided with an individual menu, and the back side asked for our choices for lunch and dinner. There was a partial buffet for breakfast, but the hot items were obtained only by ordering them. Actually the breakfast had the widest selection of “main” servings. The lunches were somewhat inadequate in term of choices offered; but it was possible to order items not on the menu. One of our table regulars always had chicken tacos for lunch. I tried them, but this Arizonan with a wide experience in Mexican food, found the Constellation version to be lacking in true south of the border flavor.
The dinners were generally pretty good, although no boat this size can match the cuisine on a cruise ship; even smaller ships like the Oceania Regatta or the Crystal Serenity and Symphony. In fact, these smaller cruise ships, including Marina and Riviera as well as the Viking ocean going vessels, set the mark for cruise dining. But the efforts on our trip were commendable, with three main dinner entrée choices plus a vegetarian option for my wife. Desserts were limited, but the baker did an excellent job, and treats were available almost all the time all over the boat. One nice feature was the ability to order half-size portions. As we noted in the “Crew” section, the inexperience of the wait staff led to some mixed-up orders, and on one occasion, a delay of half an hour in getting the lunch main meal served after the appetizers.
This facet of the trip was not bad for a riverboat. We had three pretty good female singers and a five piece band in addition to Jon England and his piano offerings. There was supposed to be a Dixieland band the final night but they did not make it.
Ports and their excursions are normally the highlight of “river” cruises. However the options offered in the Puget Sound area were somewhat limited for first time passengers and the complimentary excursions very restricted, unless you were a prior passenger. We received a one page “Captain’s Sailing Instructions” sheet which detailed all our various arrivals and departures. As on all river cruises, there was a session in the main lounge each night with Annie going over all the shore options for the following day. We had already received a printed sheet of these choices in our cabins after dinner in the daily “Ship to Shore” sheet. We had also been provided on arrival with three pages of all the off-ship offerings and another document showing the prices. Many of these options were too strenuous for me, but the ones we took we did enjoy. Our highlights included a visit to an alpaca farm in Friday Harbor, and a “game farm” near Port Angeles where we fed a variety of large animals such a bears, llamas, bison and deer from the bus.
Anacortes, north of Seattle, was our first stop with an interesting history and some tours. We arrived at 8:00 P.M. the first day after a 1:30 P.M. sail-away, stayed all the next day and sailed the following morning west for a two hour trip to Friday Harbor. Whale watching was offered there twice a day, in addition to the alpaca farm, but only the afternoon group saw more than one kind of whale. Friday Harbor is on San Juan Island, one of the San Juan group of islands which are actually northeast of Vancouver Island and Victoria, B.C. The islands became part of the United States after a long running dispute with Canada. It was here we did a tour of the island which included a delightful visit to Krystal and her alpaca farm, where we got to feed and pet the alpacas. We also had a visit to a lighthouse and the town of Roche Harbor. We stayed overnight at a small harbor nearby and then sailed south the next day to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula arriving in the afternoon. There we enjoyed a view of the snow covered Olympic Range. The following day was spent in Port Angeles, because this was the spot from which people could take a boat to Victoria and visit Butchart Gardens, a somewhat pricey trip requiring a passport. Since we had seen the gardens a few years prior to this cruise, we skipped this adventure and instead enjoyed the visit to the game farm in nearby Sequim [which should always be pronounced “Skwim”]. We left Port Angeles early the next morning and sailed east to Port Townsend, which is at the northeast corner of the peninsula, arriving at 10:00 A.M. and again spending the night there. Not too much was offered there by way of excursions except a complimentary walking tour. We sailed early the next morning to Paulsbo, just off Puget Sound, where we tendered ashore on a small ship’s launch and visited the Squamish Museum and Chief Seattle’s grave site. This is a small but very well done museum containing a great deal of history concerning the Native American tribes which inhabited this area. We left Paulsbo in the afternoon and sailed south, arriving in Tacoma at 6:00, spending the night and the next day there. This is a good sized city, but the ship offered only a complimentary excursion and two museum tours. The excursion was by bus and was enjoyable. We left the next morning, sailing north to Bremerton on the west side of Puget Sound. We arrived at noon and left at noon the next day. The only item of any interest in Bremerton is the Puget Sound Navy Museum (free), and that is a somewhat limited venue. Annie had said there was a nice shopping area, but one of our table companions who visited the area said most of the shops were closed. We had a small rain shower here, the only bad weather we encountered on the cruise until our return to Seattle the next day. Back there in the afternoon we took a complimentary bus ride (with a very inexperienced bus driver) to the Pike Place Market area, which was of some interest. We returned to the boat for the final evening and packing. The next day we simply got aboard a complimentary bus (with a much better driver) to the airport and home. We had received our statement the night before with three excursions, and no other charges on it. They have just today appeared on my computer credit card listing.
As we noted at the beginning of this review, we felt this cruise was very expensive for what was offered. We have been on some higher end cruise ships; but felt that we got our money’s worth on them. Not so on this cruise. The simple fact is that the food selection was not up to that of an ocean going ship, and it never can be on a riverboat. The entertainment was also far short of what one gets at sea. A friendly crew is nice, but this is true on ships in which the skill and experience of the crew is far better than what we experienced on this cruise. The fact that we were at small ports limited our on shore options. It is also true that most American ports offer fewer tours that can be booked on linethan overseas venues. We noted on our European river boat trips that the vast majority of shore excursions were complimentary, with only a few trips carrying small extra charges.
All this being noted, did we enjoy this cruise. Yes, we did. American Constellation is a very nice boat with lovely staterooms, a delightful crew and very attractive small towns on its itinerary. The food was quite good, and the entertainment not bad. We are glad we took this cruise and would recommend it.
Excellent cabin. very roomy for a "river boat" with plenty of drawer space, and a small but adequate closet. Adequate bathroom like most cruise ships. Good sized verandah with sliding glass door. Two arm chairs and a desk with its chair. Almost all the cabins on this boat are the same.