Like many of my middle-aged peers, I want to bond with my aging parent while she's still fit. The least stressful way to do this is to go away -- on an educational trip, to a spa, to a resort, or on a cruise. Searching out many options, I decided to take my 81-year-old history-buff mother on American Cruise Lines' Chesapeake Bay cruise, one of the company's most popular excursions. Round-trip from Baltimore, Maryland, the itinerary would take us to Annapolis, Maryland; Yorktown, Virginia; Tangier Island, Virginia; St. Michaels, Maryland; and other small towns on the country's largest estuary during the final days of fall foliage.
The small-ship difference
American Cruise Lines is small-ship cruising in every sense of the word. Boats accommodate 49-150 guests, and the company prides itself on being completely American -- all seven ships in the fleet (with more coming online in the next few years) are built and flagged in the United States, with U.S. employees and itineraries.
Absent showy interiors, frenetic casinos and Las Vegas-style productions, small ships offer a forum for camaraderie, the freshest regional cuisine from sea or heartland, a deep dive into American history and the height of attentive, personalized service. They're not for everyone, but they suited Mom and me just fine, the perfect forum for a mother-daughter bonding experience.
A few months before sailing, we received boarding passes, luggage tags and a 20-page brochure with maps, phone numbers and information about ports of call and shore excursions.
Our ship, the Independence, was docked right at the center of the action in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. We parked in a garage across the street, rolled our luggage one block to within sight of the ship, and handed our bags to ACL crew members, who delivered them to our stateroom within 20 minutes.
Flashing our boarding passes at the gangway, we climbed up and, within a minute, received our stateroom keys and name tags. That was it. No drama, no hoops. Just a friendly welcome aboard.
At first glance, staterooms are on the spare side, though larger than most on small ships at 200-600 square feet, with hotel-sized bathrooms, full showers, large windows and private balconies. Twin beds are outfitted with plump duvets.
The contents of two large suitcases fit perfectly in a sleekly nautical triple-drawer dresser, a writing desk with six smaller drawers, a sizable closet and three bathroom drawers.
The main Chesapeake Lounge and other "reading room" gathering spots -- one on each of the Independence's three levels -- will not win any trendy design awards. Arranged for comfort rather than grandeur, these common areas are perfect places to plop down for lectures or conversations with other passengers.
Food, drink and entertainment
American Cruise Lines specializes in regional cuisine, and overall the food is very good, nicely plated and inventive. Culinary-school-trained head chefs provision at each port and use local ingredients as much as possible. This being a Chesapeake Bay cruise, emphasis was on crab every which way, seafood and fresh oysters.
The most popular time on any ACL cruise is cocktail hour, when the main lounge turns into a convivial party with hors d'oeuvres, wine, beer and mixed drinks, all complimentary.
Conceivably, you can eat all day long. Coffee and fresh-baked treats are set out at 6:30 a.m., breakfast is served between 7:30 and 9 a.m., lunch at 12:30 p.m., and drinks and appetizers from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., at which point you sit down to dinner, which includes complimentary wine. During the evening's entertainment or lecture, the crew passes around root beer floats and baskets of popcorn. I was astounded to see how many guests nodded "yes" to an 8:30 p.m. hot fudge sundae following a full day of gorging.
After dinner every night, there were delightful and educational programs in the main lounge. Because this was a Chesapeake Bay cruise, crab experts, Revolutionary War historians, "fur trappers" and "lighthouse keepers" engrossed guests with stories and artifacts: a veritable show-and-tell for grown-ups.
Ports of call
Small cruise ships can dock where the behemoths can't. And so, in Yorktown we were steps away from the national park and the riverfront shopping and restaurant district. In Crisfield, Maryland -- "The Crab Capital of the World" and gateway to Tangier Island -- we docked a block from the Tangier ferry that transported many of us to a tiny, lost-in-time island. We parked right inside the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum complex in St. Michaels and were given free rein to investigate its many buildings. And while the giant cruise ships sat at terminals a bus ride from Baltimore's Inner Harbor, we were right there with the water taxis, museums and thousands of land-bound tourists.
Though marketed to retired professionals age 62 and up (a good number on the Chesapeake Bay cruise were retired teachers), American Cruise Lines passengers skew older, with a smattering of mother-daughter or grandparents-grandchildren combinations from across the United States.
"American Cruise Lines attracts kindred spirits -- intelligent, curious, friendly," stated California lawyer Nancy Duval, one of four widowed women from across the country who met on an ACL cruise three years ago and have traveled on an ACL cruise together every year since. Duval met retired fifth-grade teacher Laurel Hansen (on her 19th ACL cruise), retired teacher/librarian Sherry Johnson and Sally Cobb -- all solo at the time. Lone travelers don't seem to stay alone for long.
If you go
American Cruise Lines features an assortment of itineraries on waterways all over the United States. Among them: an eight-day New England islands cruise, an eight-day paddle wheel riverboat cruise on the Mississippi and an eight-day Hudson River cruise. They fill up, so reserve early.
Cruise rates for six or seven nights average $3,700-$4,500 per person and include all meals with wine at dinner, daily one-hour open bar, twice-daily stateroom service, nightly lectures and entertainment, unlimited snacks and soft drinks throughout the day. The cost of shore excursions and tips is not included.
There are several ways to save money on an ACL cruise. You'll get a 15 percent discount on your next cruise if you put down a deposit before leaving the ship. Eagle Society members (those who have been on three ACL cruises or more) receive complimentary shore excursions and daily gifts. And for frequent cruisers, every 11th ACL cruise is free.
INFO 800-460-4518, americancruiselines.com