There are all sorts of cruises, from massive resorts-on-the-sea to small expeditionary ships that ply the coasts of far-off lands. For one of the most unusual, affordable and accessible, consider exploring the coast of New England in an authentic, historic Maine windjammer. It is, as they say in that part of the country, "wicked nice."
Windjammers used to be trucks of the sea, hauling fish and other goods from port to port. The name, which simply means a vessel powered by wind, is actually a pejorative, given to the old sailing ships around the turn of the century by owners of newly-developed steamships. It's usually reserved for schooners, a type of sailboat that has two or more masts, the aft ones as tall or taller than the others.
After steam-powered ships and land-based trucks made the old schooners outmoded, a former captain saw his chance to make money from his old vessel by using it for passenger cruises. The idea caught on and today the Maine Windjammer Association consists of 14 schooners, the country's largest fleet of historic passenger-carrying ships.
Each ship—from the forty- passenger Victory Chimes, built in 1900, to the six-passenger Mistress built in 1960—is special in it's own way. What they have in common is the ability to time-travel back to another era, when cellphones weren't even a dream, water was crystalline clear, islands were mostly deserted and lobsters were food for the poor.
We spent six glorious days aboard the American Eagle, learning to read charts, hoist sails and—under the watchful eye of Captain John Foss—steer the ship.
When the wind blew hard, we seemed to fly, skimming over the water with deck tilted and passengers cheering and laughing. But mostly the boat moved slowly, giving a sensation of drifting. We'd find a space
We went in June, at the beginning of the season. Maine weather is always unpredictable, but ours was mostly glorious—blissfully blue skies with white fluffy clouds and enough wind to give us some good rides. The old-timers aboard launched into a discussion of the best month for windjamming. June, they said, can be cold but has the longest days. July and August tend towards foggy mornings and warm afternoons. September is colder but the winds are stronger and therefore the sailing is faster. The discussion ended in a draw.
"They're all good," says Frank Hollis, who's been sailing on the American Eagle for many years. A lot of people agree. The Windjammers Association says 50% of its travelers are repeats.
There were only two murky mornings during our time at sea, and Foss handled those by anchoring near small towns and letting crew members row us ashore. We climbed steep hills, poked through cute shops and bought hot chocolate or coffee at stands by the pier.
Afternoons were generally spent sailing or exploring some 3,000 islands off the coast of Maine, some with summer cottages, others completely deserted. A lobster bake took place on the gravelly beach of one deserted isle. We collected colored stones on the rocky shores of another.
After dinner—sometimes served in the galley but often, weather permitting, on deck—we played cribbage, cards or word games. One night Foss read aloud from a book of maritime tales. It all had a camp-like feel and, perhaps that's the best way to explain windjamming. It's camping at sea.
Accommodations are spartan. Each cabin has a small sink with hot and cold running water, two reading lights, seven pegs for clothing and under-the-bunk space for luggage. The head is shared with the passengers and crew members. (It's not till we visited other schooners that we realized that the American Eagle is really quite classy; some of the ships have heads only on the upper deck which means nighttime climbs for those with weak bladders.) As for the shower, ours was in the mid-section of the boat. The water was nicely warm but maneuvering to wash and dress in a telephone-booth sized room took some doing.
Foss is a master craftsman and, after rescuing the old ship from a junk yard in 1984 he spent two years reconfiguring the boat for passengers, replacing rotten boards, painting, polishing and lovingly perfecting every square inch. The wood is satiny smooth, the interior is well-designed and details like the auxiliary motor (on only three of the 14 ships) add safety and convenience
Food onboard was tasty, hearty and abundant. For some reason the cook on our trip neglected to serve up Maine specialties like fish chowder and blueberry muffins (advertised in the association's literature), but he was a master at hearty pastas and fresh-baked bread. By the time our six days were up we were afraid to get on the scale!
When it was time to leave the ship, we found we'd transitioned from landlubber to sealover. Getting in our rental car and navigating the traffic on U.S. Highway 1 was a rude return to the real world.
But we found a way to soften the reentry. We spent our first night back on land at the Inn at Ocean's Edge, in nearby Camden. Our room (as all others at the Inn) had a four-poster king-sized bed, a fireplace and a Jacuzzi for two. And instead of seeing land from sea we could watch the sea from land.
Suggested Sidetrip: Bar Harbor
When an area is virtually taken over by the likes of Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt and Pulitzer, you figure it has to have a lot going for it. In the mid to late 1800s, Mt. Desert Island (and Bar Harbor, its largest town) became a retreat for those eager to escape the societal airs and summer heat of the big East Coast urban centers.
While they intended to "rusticate" and enjoy the natural wonders of the area, their idea of rusticating was a far cry from tents and campfires. Instead Bar harbor sported "summer cottages" that others might consider mansions and became one of the country's most fashionable areas.
In order to preserve the surroundings, the great industrialists, led by John D. Rockefeller Jr., bought up acreage and donated it to the federal government, creating Acadia National Park, the first national park in the east.
Today, with more than four million visitors annually, Acadia is the second most visited park in the United States. (Great Smoky Mountains National Park—much more centrally located—is first.) There are 38,000 acres of rugged beauty, from towering trees to rocky coasts. The best way to see it all is to travel the twenty-mile Loop Road, either by tour bus or private car. Our preference: park the car and take the bus. We took the bus tour twice, just to hear two different guides give their take on the history and nature of the area.
Make advance reservations for lunch at Jordan Pond, a historic and charming restaurant within the park borders. Their signature dessert—popover ala mode—is definitely worth the money and calories.
As for hotels, Bar Harbor has all sizes, all prices, all styles—and during the summer season, they're all full. Make reservations in advance. Considering the tight parking, lodging within walking distance of town center is a big plus. Ledgelawn Inn, a 1904 summer "cottage" built for a wealthy Boston shoe manufacturer, has a great location, as well as a down-home elegance that's perfect for the area and its history.
Before you Go:
The Maine Windjammer Association [www.sailmainecoast.com, 800/807-WIND] provides a general overview of the windjamming experience and details of each ship. Ask for contact information of previous passengers to get their view of shipboard accommodations, menus and atmosphere.
Windjammer cruises begin and end near Rockland, Maine, which is about a four-hour drive from Boston, two hours from Portland. A faster option: fly Colgan Air, an affiliate of US Airways Express, direct to Rockland.
To check out Inn at Ocean's Edge, go to www.innatoceansedge.com, 207/236-0945.
For more on Legelawn Inn, go to www.ledgelawninn.com, 800/274-5334.
The Maine Office of Tourism [www.visitmaine.com, 888-95-MAINE] and The Rockland-Thomaston Area Chamber of Commerce [www.TheRealMaine.com, 207/596-0376 or 800/562-2529] are both good sources of information if you plan to spend some time on shore as well as sea.
Moon Handbooks is releasing a new edition of it's popular COASTAL MAINE in March 2005. Like it's predecessor, it will be filled with all the nitty-gritty details that keep newbies out of trouble.