American Cruise Lines
Simple but comfortable, these ships were built to nestle into small coves and ports along the East Coast, and their large cabins, numerous balconies, and multiple lounges have really raised the standard for the U.S. coastal fleet.
Typical Per Diems: $615+
Glory sails the Great Rivers of Florida from Jacksonville, FL (winter, spring); the U.S. South & Atlantic Islands from Charleston and Jacksonville, FL (spring); the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore (spring, summer, fall); the New England Islands from Providence, RI (summer); the Grand New England from Providence and Bangor, ME (summer); and the Hudson River from New York (fall).
Independence sails the U.S. South & Atlantic Islands from Charleston and Jacksonville, FL (spring, fall, winter); the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore (spring, fall); the New England Islands from Providence, RI (spring); the Maine Coast from Portland (summer); and the Hudson River from New York (fall).
Spirit sails the U.S. South & Atlantic Islands from Charleston and Jacksonville, FL (winter, spring); Philadelphia & the Potomac from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (spring); the Maine Coast from Portland (summer); and the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore (summer, fall).
Star sails the U.S. South & Atlantic Islands from Charleston and Jacksonville, FL (winter, spring); the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore (summer, fall); the New England Islands from Providence, RI (summer); and the Hudson River from New York (fall).
American Cruise Lines' four East Coast vessels were all built at the line's own shipyard in Salisbury, Maryland. While they're a bit boxy on the outside, they're refreshingly large and comfortable inside, with a decor that's simple and pleasant, if a bit dull. Numerous floor-to-ceiling windows surround the main lounge, and everywhere there are large windows for viewing the passing scenery. Except for their varying sizes (the older Glory is about half the size of the still-small Spirit, Star, and Independence), the ships are virtually identical, right down to the carpet patterns and furniture.
The ships' shallow drafts allow passage up small rivers straight into the heart of town, where port facilities might look like they were designed for a kayak rather than a cruise ship -- in one port, we actually sent the ship's mooring lines to a tree in a park rather than to the usual iron bollards. This attitude of keeping things simple extends on board as well. Forget electronic ID cards to get you on or off the ship; here, the crew just recognizes everyone. Rather than waiting for scheduled sailing times, the ships often just sail when everyone is back aboard. A small boat hung from the stern can be used to tender passengers ashore in the very rare ports where the ship doesn't dock. It's also occasionally used for bird-watching excursions.
Because the itineraries always hug the coast, there are rarely any waves or motion to speak of, so these cruises are popular with those who worry about seasickness. The unstabilized Glory, Spirit, and Star still bounce around when they get hit with any waves, but the newest vessel, Independence, corrects that problem with the addition of Rolls-Royce stabilizers, making the ship able to sail waters the other ships can't, at least comfortably. Since Independence was due to be introduced in summer 2010, after this writing, all details in this review describe Glory, Spirit, and Star unless otherwise noted.
If there is one thing that really differentiates American Cruise Lines from other coastal competitors, it's the cabins. Rather than the closet-size boxes usually found on similar-size American ships, these cabins average 225 square feet -- bigger than most standard megaship cabins, and nearly twice the size of those of the main regional competitor Blount Small Ship Adventures. Cabins are comfortable, clean, and pleasant -- not to mention bright, thanks to large picture windows that actually slide open and to the narrow but serviceable balconies (you get one or the other). As in the public areas, though, their decor isn't exactly stylish. Each cabin comes with a large writing desk, decent storage space, bedside tables, a hair dryer, and a satellite TV that gets about 20 channels. Bathrooms are very roomy, with excellent water pressure. Cabins on the older Glory are a touch smaller than those on Spirit, Star, and Independence, especially on the forward end of the lowest deck, where the curvature of the bow reduces square footage.
Each ship has several cabins for solo passengers (a real rarity these days) as well as at least one that's wheelchair accessible. Each ship also has an elevator, giving wheelchair-using passengers access to the entire ship.
Each ship's single dining room is situated on the lowest deck all the way at the stern, with windows on three sides. Breakfast usually runs from 7:30 to 9am, preceded by early-risers' coffee and muffins set out in the main lounge at 6:30am. Lunch is timed to start shortly after the shore excursion returns, usually around 12:30pm. A 5:30pm cocktail hour precedes the 6:30pm dinner.
Three public lounges and plenty of open deck space give passengers a good amount of elbowroom. The main lounge is located forward, directly underneath the bridge, and has tall windows on three sides, which provide great views. As the spot for the nightly cocktail hour and the evening lecture, it is the ship's social hub and a good place for board games or chatting with shipmates during the day. The two smaller, cabin-size lounges by the central stairwell allow smaller groups the opportunity to mingle before dinner or play bridge at any time without being bothered by others. All three lounges are decorated in the same simple, muted colors and functional, unpretentious furniture, all of it attractive without being exciting. Just forward of the main lounge is a small deck with a few chairs and tables, allowing you to imbibe outdoors while watching the sunset.
The top deck of each ship is covered in an AstroTurf-like material and there are sports awnings, plastic-webbed sun lounges, and tables and chairs. On warm, sunny days, this deck is a great spot for reading and chatting, with the shoreline often within view.
Pool, Fitness & Spa Facilities
Exercise equipment is limited to a single exercise bike and a Stairmaster. Most passengers get their exercise by going ashore independently and walking through the towns.