It’s not for everyone. It’s not for the 3,000-plus that pack the ocean-going behemoths but rather for the 90 or so who eschew the glitz and glam of those floating cities for the more intimate vibe of a vessel that can nose its way right into the center of whatever port she’s calling at.
A small ship adventure is closer to a true sailing experience – something Blount Small Ship Adventures likens to sailing aboard a friend’s yacht. And they would know. Named for the late shipbuilder Luther Blount, whose patented design innovations and inventions continue to distinguish Blount’s Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner vessels, this family-owned cruise line tempts with promises of discoveries not possible on the big ships.
Big adventure/small scale
Blount’s retractable pilot house means the ships can cruise narrow waterways and under low bridges to bring passengers to places like the Erie Canal – where you’ll traverse dozens of locks, going where no other cruise line goes. Rather than being ferried by smaller ships to port, these ships’ uniquely designed bow ramp makes it possible to walk directly from ship to sandy shore, where you can drop your beach towel and avail yourself of the Caribbean sun.
With just 96 voyagers aboard, passengers tend to get to know one another early on in the trip, leaving as good friends. Encouraging this esprit de corps are open-seating meals with everyone breaking bread together. Cocktail hour gets rolling at 5:30 each evening on the deck above – the same place where enrichment lectures take place or movies play as evening downshifts to bedtime.
Many of the passengers aboard are on their fourth, 16th or 25th Blount adventure. Most are seasoned world travelers; the talk over meals is of past trips to Antarctica, Nairobi and other far-flung destinations. All readily offer up Blount’s personalized service as one of the reasons they’ve returned.
“The service is very good, and the crew are people who enjoy life and enjoy travels,” says Barbara Pierce Bird, a retired interior designer from Framingham, Mass., who has sailed four times with Blount.
Come and get it
With such cozy quarters, you usually smell the aromas of brewing coffee, baking cookies or simmering sauces long before the dining room opens. And you’ll know when it’s time to sit down because one of the crew rings a bell – the kind used in the schoolyard to call kids in from recess.
Tender and juicy pork medallions. Melt-in-your-mouth steak tips. Salmon with lemon butter. Chicken Marsala. Sides add color and are plentiful: fresh green beans strewn with roasted red peppers, herbed couscous, freshly baked bread. Dessert is chocolate-coconut bread pudding, lemon cream pie or petite strawberry shortcake. And that’s just dinner. Breakfast and lunch are equally tasty and ambitious, the platters and serving dishes served heaping high and steaming from the kitchen.
At lunch and dinner, carafes of red and white wine bookend the salt and pepper shakers; beer is brought as requested. It’s a new (and complimentary) amenity aboard Blount in 2013.
Serve-yourself savory snacks are stored in the Vista View Lounge to accompany the 180-degree panoramas and whatever “adult” beverage you’ve stashed in the cooler. Yes, this is one cruise line that has a “BYOB” policy – just like a private yacht – and no, you won’t be astonished by an out-of-control tab at trip’s end. Guests are free to stow their personal bottles, labeled with cabin number, in the lounge’s bar area.
Guests pursue their own leisure time fun: lounging, reading, playing cards or games or working puzzles, sunning, sketching or wildlife watching. Pierce Bird indulges her talent for watercolors. She has painted scenes from the bow of the ship from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Rhode Island.
“It’s so peaceful and beautiful,” she says. “It gives you a fresh outlook on life.”
Lecturers come aboard to present topics relating to the itinerary. On the Saguenay River, one of the world’s best locales for whale watching, it may be about Canadian wildlife; in Belize, it might be about UNESCO World Heritage Site Southwater Cay.
Cooking demos teach guests how to make pierogies on a Great Lakes adventure, Creole delectibles on a New Orleans voyage. Wine tastings introduce budding oenophiles to the varietals of the Baltimore region.
A kayak guide who travels with the ship announces the dates and times for this activity and, if you sign up for bicycling, one of the crew will get the bikes ready for you to peddle about in the port of your choosing. Professional photography workshops offer instruction on various camera functions and how to capture excellent images in places that are, gratifyingly, the road less traveled.
Shore tours (optional) are offered in each port: a carriage ride on Mackinac Island; a narrated trolley tour in Sault Ste. Marie; a visit to Montmorency Falls in Quebec. And because this cruise is by nature such a personalized and intimate adventure, it allows for last minute experiences that only a small ship can pull off – such as the mayor of a local town paying an onboard call or everyone on the ship getting an impromptu invitation to a cocktail reception in town that evening.
Go where the big ships can’t
Blount prides itself on personal service, an onboard atmosphere that feels like a family vacation and the ability to take guests to places only a small ship can go. Upcoming adventures include a new 15-day sailing, Feb. 28-March 14, to Belize, the Barrier Reef, Guatemala and the Honduran Bay Islands. Here is the chance to step directly from the deck of the Grande Caribe right into the clear waters of Placencia by way of Blount’s signature bow landing.
The Belize adventure is one among a half dozen new itineraries offered for 2013. Other voyages: Mississippi River: Nashville, Memphis & New Orleans, 13 days departing April 17; Mississippi & Tenn-Tom Waterway: New Orleans roundtrip, 16 days departing May 2; the Gulf Coast: New Orleans to St. Petersburg, 12 days departing May 20; and Lake Michigan & Lake Superior: Chicago to Duluth, 12 days departing July 17 and 30.