Whoever said, "Everything old is new again," might very well have been talking about American Cruise Lines. Part of the boom in small, American flagged coastal cruising that started in the late 1970's and early 1980's, the company operated simple but comfortable ships on US coastal itineraries from Maine to Florida and the Mississippi River system, until it went out of business in 1989.
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Unlike the competition, ACL offered much larger cabins (averaging 220 square feet), the first and only balcony cabins in the U.S.-flagged coastal industry, and multiple public rooms instead of the industry standard of just one forward observation lounge. Sailing exclusively along the Eastern seaboard of the United States and a handful of American rivers, American Cruise Line's ships are American built and American crewed. The emphasis is on comfortable exploration along sheltered, inland waterways and in the smaller ports and inaccessible to larger ships. Itineraries are scheduled to be in port every day and alongside the dock at night. An onboard lecturer helps to provide a focus on the historical significance and natural beauty of reach region.
One of the delights of sailing with American Cruise Lines is the lack of hassle. There is no need for ID cards -- passengers just walk on and off, with the crew member at the gangway recognizing everyone by face. If you have a friend in one of the ports you are visiting, just let the hotel manager know and it won't be a problem to have your guest join you onboard for dinner and the nightly lecture. Decide at the last minute you don't want to do a shore excursion you signed up for? No problem -- if you don't show up, you won't be charged (at least one daily excursion is offered free on the river sailings).
With such a small, cozy ship, getting around couldn't be easier. If you forget your glasses, you are only a few feet from your cabin, and some passengers don't even bother locking their door when onboard. Repeat passengers feel at home the moment they step on the gangway, as all ships are basically interchangeable, with not only the same layout but also the same carpets, furniture and decor! As well, complimentary drinks during Happy Hour create a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere that is a step above its competition.
Sailing mostly in protected and inland waters, the ships rarely move and make a popular choice for anyone worried about becoming seasick. When they do get into any sort of exposed passages, however, their small size, basic design and lack of stabilizers mean there will be some uncomfortable motion. These passages do not last long, but they can be unpleasant for those not used to cruising. Independence, however, was built with stabilizers.
Top American Cruise Lines Ships
Life onboard an American Cruise Lines ship really revolves around two things: going ashore in port every day, and the friendly ambience highlighted by the 5:30 p.m. cocktail hour with dinner and a lecture following. Meeting your fellow passengers is an important part of the cruise, and the open seating in the dining room encourages everyone to mix.
When not ashore, passengers usually read, watch the shoreline go by or chat with others. Organized activities are minimal, but the nightly talks given by the guest lecturer or river historian are eagerly anticipated and well attended.
With the destination so much a part of each cruise, there is usually only a morning or afternoon sailing each day -- otherwise you are tied up at the dock. Shore excursions are available for an additional fee on the coastal cruises, and at least one excursion is included with the fare on Mississippi and Snake and Columbia River cruises. Tours are scheduled for nearly every port, and they may be as simple as a two-hour town walk with a local historian or a bus tour to a museum or beauty spot. They are fairly priced between $10 and $35.
Docking in the center of town means independent exploring is possible, allowing those who want the opportunity to wander off on their own, shop for antiques, have dinner ashore or simply get some exercise walking.
Food is traditional American cuisine, usually prepared well, with some ambitious and creative offerings on the menu. Regional American fare is the norm with fresh seafood available on the coastal trips, Southern cooking on the Mississippi River cruises and Pacific Northwest-inspired cuisine on the western trips. Breakfast features freshly baked breads and muffins, and lunch and dinner feature freshly pies with, for example, fresh Maine blueberries in the summer season.
Lunch is generally a light meal as preferred by older passengers and runs to soups, salads, sandwiches and wraps. Half portions may be requested. Red and chilled white wines are complimentary at lunch and dinner. The line does not sell alcohol.
Cocktail hour is very well attended, with many passengers dressing up a bit for the evening. About 10 percent of men wear jackets on a given evening.
American Cruise Lines attracts an older, geographically diverse clientele from all regions of the country and Canada with a high number of repeaters on every voyage. Children are rare, although the summer New England and Maine itineraries draw a slightly younger crowd.
Many sail American Cruise Line because they simply dislike larger ships or want sheltered waters. For others, the initial draw is the unusual itinerary or an interest in the historical and cultural sites such as museums or homes of historic figures. The line also does a very good job catering to people with mobility issues, which makes it a popular choice for seniors.
There is also a broad range of cruising experience among the passengers, from those who are cruising for the first time to frequent sailors on the luxury lines that want to try a different type of itinerary. Most enjoy the slower, less active and low-key pace and the chance to meet new people.
American Cruise Lines Fleet
ACL's roomy and modern ships, and the large cabins in particular, are what really differentiate the fleet from competitors with older hand-me-downs within the maritime world. Large enough to offer privacy, they are also small enough to be intimate and allow all the passengers to meet each other over the course of a week.
Attractive without being exciting, the decor relies on muted, simple colors that are pleasing and familiar, but might remind you of a generic lobby in a hotel chain. The main lounge is located forward directly underneath the bridge with tall windows on three sides providing a great vantage from which to watch the passing scenery. As the venue for the popular nightly cocktail hour and the evening lecture, it is the social hub and a convivial spot for board games or chatting during the day.
The dining room is located on the lowest deck all the way at the stern -- again with windows on three sides. Two other lounges the size of a cabin and an open air top deck make up the rest of the ship, while an elevator links all four decks.
An impressive percentage -- some 50 percent -- of the cabins even feature balconies (80 percent on the new Independence), a welcome treat when cruising within sight of scenic coasts. (Even cabins without balconies have large picture windows that open, allowing the cool night air and sounds of the sea to seep in.) Cabins for singles and the disabled are available.
Each American Cruise Line vessel - paddlewheelers aside - are similar in terms of layout, decor and facilities, so passengers choose their specific cruise by date and itinerary rather than an allegiance to any particular ship. There are size differences. Sister ships American Spirit and American Star, as well as the slightly larger Independence, carry between 93 and 100 passengers. The newest coastal cruiser - American Constellation, debuting in 2017 - will have 163 passengers. While this doesn't affect onboard service or cuisine, it might create slightly longer lines at some of the smaller shore side attractions or make a guided walking tour of a town more difficult. Conversely, it also allows greater variety of people to meet.
In August 2012, the 150-passengers sternwheeler Queen of the Mississippi debuted as the first new-build designed to cruise the Mississippi River in some 15 years. That vessel now sails on the Snake and Columbia rivers as American Pride, but the line took one of its older ships, American Eagle, and renamed it Queen of the Mississippi. In 2016, the slightly larger America, with 185 passengers, began sailing the Mississippi.
Itineraries stretch the entire eastern seaboard from Penobscot Bay in Maine all the way to Florida. During the summer, New England Island cruises stop at Block Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, while the Maine Coast and Harbor cruise sails roundtrip from Portland, ME. Seven-night Chesapeake Bay itineraries out of Baltimore are offered from June straight through the fall. Particularly popular are the October trips up the scenic Hudson River, when the fall foliage bursts with color and the crisp air is invigorating. There are also a handful of Philadelphia and Potomac River voyages, and the paddlewheeler Queen of the West offers cruises along the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
Longer trips are also available sailing south through the Inland Passageway from Baltimore to Florida. November, December, February, March and April see the ships sailing Historic Antebellum itineraries between Jacksonville and Charleston, and a Great Rivers of Florida itinerary roundtrip from Jacksonville. An occasional cruise to Okeechobee Swamp is also offered.
In 2012, Queen of the Mississippi will begin plying the entire Mississippi River System. A number of unique seven-night cruises are planned that take passengers as far as St. Paul on the Mississippi River and Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. Also in 2012, American Spirit will operate ACL's first-ever Alaska cruises starting June 2012.