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This year, I was invited to cruise aboard one of American Cruise Line’s newest ships, the American Constitution, from New York City up the Hudson River. Here’s how it unfolded:
For the record, I’m a road-trip travel writer – happy to do my cruising on blacktop and pavement, thank you very much.
But, as a former sailor, I’m as much at home on the water as I am on back-roads and highways, particularly if said “home” is the semi-small and newly built American Cruise Lines 175-passenger, American Constitution.
There’s something transcendent about cruising NY State’s Hudson River for a week: particularly in late autumn when the Palisades and Catskill Mountains are cloaked in the vibrant hues of the season.
On its Hudson River Fall Foliage Cruise itinerary, the American Constitution makes stops in Catskill NY/Hudson NY (homes of renowned artists from the Hudson River School of Art), Albany NY (the futuristic Empire State Plaza and dazzling NY State Capitol), Kingston NY, Hyde Park (Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Birthplace and Library), West Point Military Academy, and the town of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving’s Home).
Coincidently, we docked in Sleepy Hollow, as in “the Legend of…,” on October 31st – Halloween. How cool was that?
Why was I so excited to take this particular cruise? After all, I live nearby and have been to – and written about – each of the six ports of call. But I’d never arrived by boat. And, I’d never seen the justifiably acclaimed fall foliage of the Hudson River Valley from the water. I was eager to do so. And with this cruise line.
Five years ago, I took my then 81 year old Mom along on ACL’s Baltimore-to-Baltimore Chesapeake Bay cruise. We bonded with several other like-aged mother-daughter couples, and over the course of a week, grew to know and really like them as well as others onboard.
This time, I was invited back as a single woman. In my early 60’s, I was on the younger side of the average American Cruise Lines passenger for this particular cruise. (Other ACL cruises, particularly in summer on East Coast and Western itineraries, skew younger, with a growing interest among older GenXer’s for trips on ACL’s newer ships).
From prior experience, though, I knew that I’d never feel lonely. ACL guests seemed to be primed for socializing. Very few solo passengers are alone for long.
The Small Ship Difference
As I wrote in 2014, small ships are vastly different than those large floating cities that advertise Broadway shows, water slides, and zip-lines.
“A few months prior to departure, I’d received boarding passes, luggage tags and a small, 20 page brochure that included maps, phone numbers, information about towns we’d be visiting, and shore excursions.
Emblazoned on almost each page was an 800 number to call with any questions or special requests. It seemed so tidy, to the point, and low-key — almost too easy.”
It was that easy.
Distinctively American Cruise Lines
Said one repeat ACL guest, “this is the best way to see the USA. These days, with the complications of connecting flights and weather cancelations, it makes more sense to take a river cruise from port to port.”
Not only is this brand of small ship cruising effortless, it is intimate and personal. American Cruise Lines prides itself on its “if we don’t have it we’ll get it for you” approach to service.
To whit, the Cruise Director, Chelsea, asserted during orientation, “You are on vacation, you are not allowed to worry. Let me do the worrying for you.”
ACL is champs when it comes to accessibility concerns. During the course of the cruise, I’d never seen such tenderness and patience towards passengers with disabilities as I did on ACL. Not only were staff whizzes at getting wheelchairs and scooters on and off the ship (even on tenders!), they were adept and respectful while doing so.
These cruises are totally low key: there is no need to pack formal apparel. Guests are not obliged to dress up for dinner, as there’s really no dress code except for the sensible kind.
Though it’s not officially stated, I’d imagine that staff would frown on nudity, shorts, flip-flops, or torn-beyond-comprehension clothing. Most men and women wear jeans and walking shoes during the day and comfortable slacks at night. Some do dress up, but you don’t have to.
In that vein, ACL is notable for having one of the best nightly Cocktail Hours in the business – with premium spirits – all on the house.
From 5:30-6:30, the Chesapeake Lounge turns into a true yak-fest and introvert’s worst nightmare. But even wallflowers don’t remain that way for long.
This is a true social hour, and anyone who partakes will find someone to talk to.
The Captain in His/Her Element
At some point when at dock, members of the Eagle Society (those who’ve take at least one ACL cruise) are invited up to the bridge to meet the Captain for an intimate tour of his or her domain.
In our case, it was the highly professional and humble Captain Scheiferstein who explained the highly advanced radar, depth finder, and GPS.
The “wheel” is actually a set of knobs – like a video game console. Although it appears the ship can steer itself, I was relieved to see such a capable human being at the controls.
First Impressions of American Cruise Lines American Constitution
The 175-passenger American Constitution ties up at Pier 36 on the East River, nearly beneath the Manhattan Bridge. At the pier’s entrance, deckhands took my luggage, and pointed to the pedicab that, with a couple of pedal pushes, whisked me right to the ship.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the embarkation process for ACL is so casual and uncomplicated; scoring a table at a hot NY City restaurant is tougher in comparison.
ACL ships typically commence boarding at 10:30, with final boarding at 12:30 for 1:30 departure. Those who arrive early can have lunch and snacks, and get to wander all five decks, accessed by two swift elevators. Since the process is so free-flowing, you won’t find much of a line to get aboard – if any at all.
At the gangplank, staff checked me in, handed me a keycard, and I was up in my room within seconds.
ACL’s New Look
As opposed to some of the older ACL ships, where interiors are slightly “tired” (though many have been refreshed of late), American Constitution’s updated décor befits an upscale clientele.
Carpeting, in a new color palette heavy on salmon, coral, sea blue, turquoise, and mint, and embedded with patriotic and navigational emblems (compass rose, stars, stripes), is distinctly different on each of five floors.
Outside, on the 5th floor deck, the eye-catching combination of blue striped flooring and bold floral-print seating adds beachy flair.
This and the smaller 6th floor deck above (accessed by an outdoor staircase) provide excellent vantage points along the way when the weather is good. For golfers who miss teeing off, there’s also a putting green on the top deck.
Wraparound windows on the 3rd floor Chesapeake Lounge at the front (bow) of the ship provided incredible views of what was coming at us on the river. We didn’t need to go outside to be awestruck by vistas.
The lounge itself is comprised of over a dozen comfy couches and other seating in pleasing pastels and updated prints. Abundant natural light and the soft color palette lit up the expansive space even on rainy days.
A second gathering spot – the Sky Lounge on the 4th floor at the back (stern) of the ship – was even brighter, with white wicker tables and chairs and coral/teal carpeting.
It’s where our art classes were held, and where those who fancied a rear view of the passing landscape, or who wanted to read, or grab a hot dog or hamburger (or ice-cream) from the Back Porch Café right outside, congregated.
Several smaller common rooms throughout the ship offer more chill spots for get-togethers. These, too, were nicely designed.
Guest Rooms and oh-those-balconies on American Constitution are much more chic, and larger, than those on older ships. Cheerful corals and teals are certainly an improvement over the red, white and blue color schemes of yore.
Brightly colored and elegant, they are a modern take on traditional, with dresser drawers and desk large enough to accommodate the contents of two large suitcases.
Each room has a huge flat screen TV and the ultimate-in-comfort beds wrapped in starched white duvets. Large bright bathrooms feature basket-weave mosaic floors and a human-size shower.
As in any luxury hotel worth its stars, there’s turn down service each night. I came back to my room after dinner to the curtains drawn, lights dimmed, sheets folded down just right, and soft music playing.
Dining on ACL American Constitution
As I wrote on my prior review: Conceivably, you can eat all day long. Coffee and fresh-baked treats are set out in the Chesapeake Lounge at 6:30 AM, breakfast is served between 7:30 and 9am, lunch at 12:00, drinks and appetizers from 5:30 – 6:30, at which point you sit down to dinner (which includes complimentary wine).
One new addition; the Back Porch Café serves casual meals – wraps, hot dogs, burgers and the like from 4:30 – 7:30. It’s popular with folks who don’t want to fuss with a big meal in the dining room.
Overall, food onboard is very good, bordering on excellent, surpassing the “Big Ship” cuisine in quality and freshness. Chefs provision at each port and utilize local or regional ingredients as much as possible; showing their work to best effect, as dishes are beautifully plated.
New this time was the option to order half-portions, which made it much easier to “clean my plate” and not feel overstuffed.
Waiters and waitresses are young, but diligent and pleasant, with great memories. By the end of the trip, one young man, Desmond, knew exactly how I liked my eggs: dry scrambled, lots of onions, side of breakfast potatoes and ketchup.
Shoving Off and Ports of Call
At 1:30PM, American Constitution slipped from the dock, and we were silently on our way.
The day was bright and sunny. Though a bit chilly, these were perfect conditions for a spectacular sail down the East River, around the Battery, and up the Hudson River.
There is nothing that compares to seeing New York City from the water: girders under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges; the mirror-like Freedom Tower piercing the sky; new Hudson Yards with funky new art/stairs installation, The Vessel, and more.
We were afforded a preview of the under-construction 30 Hudson Yards, featuring a walkway supported by….air. Protruding 65 feet from the office building, 1,000 feet above ground, this Observation Deck, called “Edge,” will open to the public in 2020.
The Captain takes it slowly – there’s no need to rush. And so, the 120-mile trip from Manhattan to Hudson that would take 2 1/2 hours by car took us twelve. We docked by 1:30am.
According to our on board historian, Dale Blanshan, in Catskill and Hudson NY, we had pulled up to the “little island where Henry Hudson’s Half Moon anchored in 1609.”
Much of the Hudson is wild “without much evidence of habitation,” said Dale. So, it was easy to imagine how Hudson, and 200 years later, Thomas Cole, the “Father of the Hudson River School of Art,” would have marveled at this landscape. Two hundred years on, we’re still in awe.
Though there are several choices for shore excursions in Catskill/Hudson, I chose Olana – home of Frederick Church in Hudson. Others chose the home of Thomas Cole across the river.
It was a dismal, rainy day, and yet even the oldest of the ACL guests were chipper and game. Despite illness, creaky bones, and handicaps, it was rare to hear a complaint (at least about physical challenges) from anyone – another hallmark of the American Cruise Line demographic.
The weather had turned and stayed cold, drizzly and cloudy all week. This made for atmospheric photos, and lots of indoor time.
By afternoon, we shoved off again, stealthily gliding north toward Albany through the mist. Deep fog muted autumn’s colors in a fuzzy, rather spooky, tableau.
This was the perfect afternoon for an art class. As we tried to recreate these landscapes in watercolor, ACL staff handed out M&M cookies (God forbid we’d go hungry for a minute).
In Albany, we docked in an industrial port two miles from downtown. Neighboring a scrap metal heap, it wasn’t the most aesthetically appealing place. Still, vibrant trees that peeked above warehouses, and two looming cargo cranes added color to this cloudy day.
A shuttle into town ran every 30 minutes, but I chose to stay in and read in the morning, venturing into Albany in the afternoon on the Albany Experience city tour.
Other guests were doing laundry, reading in the Chesapeake Lounge and puzzling out puzzles in one of several smaller library rooms on the ship.
Day three, in Kingston, I wandered through Lower Kingston, into the marvelous Hudson River Maritime Museum, and learned about the museum’s new boat – Solaris – the first tour boat powered only by sunlight.
The next day, we docked in Newburgh and were bused to West Point for a great bus tour, adding a Patriotic tint to our otherwise art immersive cruise.
October 31st – Halloween – was the perfect time to be in Sleepy Hollow, home of the Headless Horseman. And author, Washington Irving of course. It was the last day before heading back to Manhattan and home turf.
Lectures, and Entertainment on ACL’s Hudson River Cruise
Dale Blanshan, our historian, provided us with the “Dale-y Update,” a summery of each town, at 5pm, and lectures about Hudson River artists at different points during the cruise. One of the most fascinating was his talk on Mathew Brady, “The Father of Photojournalism” and the first photographer to cover a war – the Civil War.
Artists Crista Shatz and Lisa Fertig were also onboard to help us “make Hudson River Art” our own. Attempting to bring out our inner creative, they held workshops like “Hudson River Multimedia Color Immersions,” Fall Leaves Greeting Cards, and Sunrise on the Water.
I found the challenge of “Jump Into the Hudson” the most interesting. Those brave enough were instructed to duplicate 1/12th of a whole landscape painting, which was assembled into a kind of a cubist whole.
Afterwards, our “masterpieces” were hung throughout the ship, inventively titled by the Cruise Director, Chelsea.
For those who were still awake or interested at 8:15 each night, the Chesapeake Lounge turned into a café/theater/music venue with popcorn, ice-cream sodas, and beer and wine.
The first evening’s entertainment, a musical selection that perfectly exemplified this all-American cruise line, was called “Anthem”- a musical medley of Patriotic songs by Carolyn Bensen.
Subsequent nights featured The Bobby Stillwell Project – two Boomer-music rock and rollers on guitar and electric piano – who were raucous, funny, and talented; comedian Joe Bronzi – with true NY humor; the jazzy Perry Beekman Duo; Kenny Hendricks on piano.
My favorite musical group, however, was featured on the last night of my cruise (I left a day early): The Victory Belles. Their 1940’s songs included, of course, the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, and a tribute to each branch of the US Military.
As the three women belted out themes from the Army, Navy, etc. they asked vets to stand and be recognized. Witnessing more than a dozen older gentlemen rise from their seats was incredibly moving.
Connecting with Fellow Passengers
While looking for a cup of coffee, I first met Earl and Meg, from Albuquerque in the Chesapeake Lounge. We were still at the dock on Pier 36.
I’m terrible with names, but Earl provided me with a great mnemonic, “You can call us Meg and Earl, or Mearl and Egg, whatever.” I never forgot their names.
At lunch, several minutes later, I took my cue from my last cruise, and plunked myself down at a table of several women, who were, as I expected, retired professionals. Mary and Maureen had been attorneys. Caroline worked for her county government.
Later, up on top deck, I met Steve and Susie from my girl-hood town of Greenwich CT who had moved to Nashville TN (my husband’s boyhood town as it turns out). I’d met and conversed with all of these people before the ship’s engines even fired up.
American Cruise Lines seems to draw lots of retired teachers and professionals from California, Midwest, and Texas. Most guests, even in their late 70’s and 80’s, are still avid travelers despite some physical decline.
A couple had recently been in Dubai. Bette, from Long Island, thought nothing of going to Africa two years in a row. These are not rocking-chair retirees.
Vital seniors, and fond of exploration, they loved roaming the world and discovering new things. Rosemary Fournier (3rd cruise with ACL alone – her husband goes on his guy-buddy golf trip) said, “It’s always a good day when I learn something new.”
I had immense admiration for the soft-spoken 80-something Elsa Wood, who, thin as a rail and standing at most 5’, looked as if the next stiff wind would send her flying.
She had signed up for and crushed the “Active” shore excursions, which included hikes across bridges and to waterfalls.
I became very fond of Jay & Karen Waldman from Kentucky and Helene & Lew Gibbs from California – my peeps as fellow Members of the Tribe.
And there were others closer to my age as well: specifically from the half dozen mother-daughter groups. I instantly liked the chatty Cynthia Montgomery Livingston with her Mom, Joanne; and Donna Harbacek and Barbara Kilburn with Mom, Dorothy Homola.
Dawn Wolf was with her Mother-In-Law, a 13th-time ACLer. Octogenarian, Mitzi Burns, daughters, Linda Ellicott and Maureen Burns-Dewland, livened the ship up nightly with their dancing and all around joi de vive.
At the first Cocktail hour, I met George, the only single male onboard. At age 78, this was George’s 4th trip on ACL. He’d been widowed years earlier, and was practically a hermit.
“I come on these cruises to get out of my shell,” he told me. Despite his self-described shyness, he was funny and engaging.
By the end of the cruise, everyone knew George and cared about him. When he got sick one night and didn’t come to cocktail hour, several couples and a bunch of staff when to his room to check up on him. By the next morning, he was fine, and seemed overwhelmed by the attention.
I’ll reiterate: Why was I so excited about another American Cruise Lines cruise? Because of people like George. Because of the caring. Because this company, above all, brings people together, despite geographical, political, and age differences. And in these divisive times, what more can you ask for?
Just the Facts
The 7 night (8 day) Hudson River Cruise on American Constitution cost from $5,400 – $8,900 per person and includes 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. Shore excursions are extra, though for “Eagle Society” Members (those who have been on three ACL cruises or more) shore excursions are free.
Author, Malerie Yolen-Cohen, was hosted by American Cruise Lines, but all opinions and views are entirely her own.