Camden ME: Beyond Schooner Daytrips

WHY GO: There’s a reason Camden ME is one of the most popular tourist towns on the Mid-Maine Coast. With its protected harbor jammed with schooners and recreational ships, it is breathtakingly gorgeous.

At one point, there were 4,000 ships in Penobscot Bay, transporting lime, granite, lumber, fish, ice, and other Maine resources to points south, and visitors can tap into that maritime heritage by taking a cruise on one of the many sailboats available for daytrips or overnight.

But those who wish to dive deeper into Camden history, read on. Highlights include a nouveau outdoor Amphitheater, radical for its day, tales of the early feminist poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who attended High School in Camden, and a young early 20th century philanthropist who was responsible for transforming Camden ME into the jewel it is today. Oh yeah – and we also let you in on the best places to eat and stay. Start here….

Things to Do In Camden ME

DO: Historic Camden Walking Tour. (Co-Sponsored by the 1928 Camden Public Library, tours are led by Dave Jackson, Director of the Camden Harbor Park and Amy Rollins, from the Penobscot Bay Chamber of Commerce). This walking tour – that begins in the Children’s Garden outside the Camden Library – is a fantastic tell-all about the origins of classic Camden. Though tourists swarm to Camden for its stunning land and seascapes, few stop to wonder about the parks and public spaces that attracted visitors here in the first place. Many would be amazed to discover that most were funded by a teen-age woman.

At age 19, heiress Mary Louise Curtis Bok, daughter of Cyrus Curtis – the Philadelphia publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and other magazines – sought to “give back” to her beloved summer home. A few years after the hilltop Ocean View Hotel burned down (in 1917), Bok purchased the property and donated it to the town of Camden with the understanding that it would be the site of a Public Library for all to use. The Camden Library opened its doors in 1928.

In 1931, after purchasing land adjoining the library property, Bok hired the son of Frederick Law Olmstead – Frederick, Jr. – to design a park that would slope down to the harbor, offering vantage points, appropriate plantings, and seating. Bok also chose another landscape architect, Fletcher Steele (who happened to be a student of Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. at Harvard) to shape a natural Amphitheater, still in almost daily use in season. After Harvard, Steele studied landscapes in Europe, and this, his first commission, a French Modernist design, was revolutionary for its time. The amphitheater is so historically significant, in fact, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013. It was the depths of the Depression, and Bok put many people to work, turning Harbor Park and the historic Amphitheater into the spectacular attractions they are today.

Steele was known for his inability to stay within budget. He designed a stone and iron “Compass of Winds” to be embedded within the amphitheater, but it was too expensive to install. As a result, the incomplete compass rose was stored in an old boathouse until just a few years ago, when it was found and completed with an old millstone at its center and granite arrows cut and polished by local stonecutters.

The Compass is now fixed in the lawn just above the terrace steps (closest to the library) used as seating for Shakespeare plays, concerts, weddings and other community events. While most indoor (and even outdoor) theater venues require man-made scenery, this one boasts the bustling harbor as a “living” backdrop.

The Camden Library itself, a community hub, is also architecturally noteworthy for its latest 1996 addition. To maintain the integrity of original building, the expansion was constructed underground, nearly doubling the library’s space. You’ll come in what is now the main entrance, tour the interior of the library – both the new and old sections, and then exit and cross over to Harbor Park.

In addition to the drama in the harbor, there’s more commotion on the path that traverses the Harbor Park waterfall – the terminus of the Megunticook River, which descends 142 ft. over three miles and exits into the sea right here. The tour ends on Main Street at the Camden Opera House. Guided Walking Tours Fridays at 4pm, beginning last Friday in June – Mid-September. Free. PHOTO OP: Statue of Union Soldier with cracked leg. The broken leg of the granite man, placed at the top of the Megunticook River stairs on Main St. has nothing to do with the wounds of war and everything to do with a modern accident. A few years ago, this Civil War Memorial that stood in the middle of busy Route 1 was hit by a car, fell and broke. The statue was repaired and moved to this location to protect it from future mishaps.

WANDER/SHOP: Main St. Though Camden fell victim to several fires since the 1700’s, the last one in 1892 devastated the town. But the following year, the town, in the spirit of hardy Mainer’s, “got to work,” basically rebuilding – in brick this time – all the structures you see today. Some of the most popular shops – Once A Tree, Smiling Cow, and the oldest – The Village Shop.

HIKE: Mt. Battie at Camden Hills State Park. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s favorite hike! From Maine.gov website – “0.5 mile, moderate: Offers a relatively short, but very rewarding hike up the south-facing side of the mountain. Although there are some steep pitches, and a bit of scrambling through rock and ledge areas is required, the view over Camden and the islands dotting Penobscot Bay makes this climb well worth the effort. Ascending the 26 ft. 1921 stone tower on Mount Battie’s 780′ summit further enhances the opportunity to soak in the 360-degree panorama.” For those who don’t have the time, there’s a 1.6 mile auto road to the summit as well. Camden Hills Campsites available May 1-Oct 15, trails year round daylight hours only.

SAIL: Schooner Tour. There are dozens of ways to get out on the water in Camden, including SUP’s and kayaks (Mainesport.com), Lobster Boat, multi-day Windjammer Cruises, and the perennial favorites – 2 hour to daylong Schooner, Sloop, Ketch, and Cutter sails. Most have harbor-side carts (look for the array of umbrellas), though some, like the Olad Schooner and Owl Cutter maintain an office on Main St.

VISIT: Camden Opera House. This Richardson Romanesque style theater was the largest building in the county when it was built in 1894. Today, it still features live performances, but also houses town offices and a small orientation center where you can learn all about its history. The Opera House sits across from the Town Green, a postage-stamp park also saved by Mary Louis Curtis Bok, who, in the late 1920’s, heard rumors that a gas station was going to mar the property. Now, it is a shaded place bounded by a Memorial to all Camden natives who served in all American wars from the 1700’s on.

Best Places to Eat in CamdenEAT: There’s a slew of places to choose from – but standouts include Boynton-McCae for eclectic light meals, Mariner’s, a chowder house that’s a hit with tourists, but locals like it, too, Camden Deli for unique twists on deli food, Fresh & Co., lauded by visitors and residents alike for its devotion to local farmers and fishermen, and Hartstone Inn for great seafood in funky surroundings.

Where to Stay in CamdenSTAY: Again, a huge choice. And most are very good, so it’s difficult to come up with absolutes. Some travelers like traditional Yankee décor, others want contemporary or funky. You can get all here. Standouts include the relatively new 16 Bayview boutique hotel in the Waterfront District, and the funky eclectically designed Whitehall – a far cry from the whitewashed antique farmhouse exterior, just slightly out of town. Camden Main Stay Inn and Grand Harbor Inn also win high marks from travelers. But the most posh spot is the Relais & Chateaux brand Camden Harbor Inn – right on the bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Ways To Know If Small Ship Cruising Is For You

ACL Independence in St. Michaels MD

First published on Huffington Post December 2, 2014

Though they offer fewer onboard activities, small ships, defined as those that carry fifty to 300 passengers, are best for a certain kind of traveler. Here are ten ways to determine if small ship cruising is right for you. If it is, we’ll steer you to the cruise line that suits you best (based on Conde Nast Traveler’s 2014 Reader’s Choice Awards for Top Five Small Ship Cruise Lines).

1. You can’t stand crowds. Large ships are floating cities, and the bigger they are, the more overstuffed with people they get. Small ships carry at most 300 passengers, many half that, so while you’ll dine well and visit different ports, you don’t have to contend with a daunting number of travelers competing to score a seat at the hottest on-ship restaurant or for the coolest shore excursions.

2. You don’t mind swapping onboard variety for a more intimate experience. Small ship cruising is typically very low-key, with plenty of time to unwind. You won’t find thousands of square feet to explore, or feel anxious and overscheduled with a confounding number of activities. Expect comfy common rooms where you can linger, read a book, or get to know fellow passengers, a deck to enjoy ocean or river breezes, and experts and historians who seem like part of the family after just a few days.

CLICK HERE for the rest of the article.

American Cruise Lines Review

The escalating hassles of international travel (not to mention a fearsome fear of flying) turned my attention recently to a type of vacation that has been growing in popularity of late: Small Ship American River Cruising. As a Connecticut-based empty-nest travel writer with an active, fit 81-year-old teacher-naturalist mother, I sought a trip that could satisfy our particular Mother/Daughter bonding requirements: a short drive, good food, unusual small-town ports, American history and lots of local experts. My search led me to American Cruise Line’s Chesapeake Bay Cruise, one of the company’s most popular excursions.

Chesapeake Bay

View from the ship, docked right in Baltimore MD’s inner harbor

Round trip from Baltimore, the Chesapeake Bay itinerary would take us to Annapolis, Yorktown, Tangier Island, and other small towns on America’s largest estuary — during the final days of Fall Foliage, the first week of November.

Though an experienced cruise-ship voyager — on mostly multi-thousand passenger behemoths — this would be my first time on a small (100 passenger) domestic ship and I admit I was a bit apprehensive. I’d read all the reviews, both positive and negative: “friendly,” “lots of camaraderie,” “great ports of call,” “terrific lectures,” “pricey,” “floating nursing home,” “tired décor” — and honestly didn’t think that I fit the demographic.

American Cruise Lines is small-ship cruising in every sense of the word. Boats accommodate from 49-150 people, and the company prides itself on being completely American — all ships in the fleet are built in the USA, flagged in the USA, with US employees and itineraries.

The Small Ship Difference

Even before our embarkation date, I could tell that my experience on the 100-passenger ACL Independence would be vastly different from that of the mega ships I’d sailed on in the past.

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 each page was an 800 number to call with any questions or special requests. That was it. It seemed so tidy, to the point, and low-key — almost too easy.

The Independence was docked right in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — in the very center of the action. We parked in a garage across the street, rolled our luggage one block to within site of the ship, and handed our bags to ACL crewmembers who promised to deliver them to our stateroom pronto. Then we flashed our boarding passes at the gangway, climbed up, received our stateroom keys and nametags (to wear at all times onboard), and, well, that was it. No drama, no hoops. Just a friendly welcome aboard.

Short and Sweet Welcome Aboard

First Impressions of American Cruise Line’s Independence

It was a bit after 11am, and Mom needed coffee, stat. No problem. We were sent right off to the Chesapeake Lounge where coffee, soft drinks, water, and delectable fresh-baked cookies,and other snacks foreshadowed the abundance of food to come. But more on that later.

ACL Reading Room

One of three deck lounges/reading rooms

The Chesapeake Lounge and three other “reading room” gathering spots – one on each of the Independence’s three levels – will not win any high-style design awards. These common areas, furnished as traditional (some would say “vintage”) New England living rooms, are arranged for comfort over grandeur. So, while negative reviewers might gripe about the decor, I found the ensemble of couches and upholstered chairs a perfect place to casually plop down for lectures or conversations with other passengers.

Staterooms

Hotel-sized bathrooms

ACL stateroom bathroom with roomy shower

At first glance, staterooms are on the spare side, though larger than most on small ships (200-600 sq ft), and with hotel-sized bathrooms and full showers. Room 305, like all others on the second and third decks, featured a large window and private balcony.

My appreciation for this cocoon of a room increased over the week, however, beginning with the realization that the contents of two large suitcases fit perfectly in the sleekly nautical triple-drawer dresser, six smaller drawers in the writing desk, the sizeable closet , and three large bathroom drawers.

Balcony Room

Most American Cruise Line staterooms feature a balcony

Mom chose the twin bed “closest to the bathroom,” leaving me with the one nudged up against the wall beneath the window. Bedding was plump, soft and dreamy, almost impossible to emerge from in the dawn hour. But emerge I did to sit up and lift the shade to watch, transfixed, the daily sunrise over a calm or choppy Chesapeake Bay.

Food and Drink

First Meal on board

First Meal on board

Overall, food onboard was very good, bordering on excellent in some cases, and missing the mark in others, but surpassing the “Big Ship” cuisine in quality and freshness. Waiters and waitresses are young, but diligent and pleasant. Chefs provision at each port and utilize local or regional ingredients as much as possible. So, this being a Chesapeake Bay cruise, emphasis was on crab every which way, seafood and fresh oysters.

Local Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Chef shucking local Chesapeake Bay Oysters at Cocktail Party

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 12:30, drinks and appetizers from 5:30 – 6:30, at which point you sit down to dinner (which includes complimentary wine).

Dining Room

ACL Independence Dining Room

During the evening’s entertainment or lecture, the crew passes around baskets of popcorn, ice-cream sundaes and root beer floats. After a full day of gorging, I was astounded to see how many guests nodded “yes” to an 8:30pm hot fudge sundae. Obviously these were repeat ACL cruisers who knew how to pace themselves.

Daily Cocktail Party

The Happiest daily Happy Hour on board each American Cruise Line trip

There are two very distinct benefits to American Cruise Lines when it comes to food and drink: one (and many would say the most important) is the daily 5:30-6:30 complimentary open bar that features most premium brands of hard liquor.

For one whole hour, the Chesapeake Lounge turns into a convivial cocktail party, with passed and tabled hors d’oeuvres, and all the wine, beer, martinis, whisky rocks, Bloody Mary’s or any other drink you can down. “My bar bill on other cruise lines is sometimes almost as much as the cost of the cruise,” one guest, a frequent-floater, told me. “So even though American Cruise Line is pricey, it’s worth it.”

Birthday Celebration

Fun birthday celebrations

The other benefit is one that is only feasible on a small ship: an “if we don’t have it, we’ll fetch it for you” way of thinking. Perhaps you’d like, say, sugar-free chocolate ice-cream and the kitchen has only sugar-free vanilla. The Hotel Manager will go out while in port and purchase whatever you desire (within legal limits, of course). On our trip, this also applied to bottles of preferred Bourbon and Vodka.

On Board Entertainment

Hands On How to Crack Crabs

Learning the art of cracking Chesapeake Bay crabs

It’s not a Carnival. There are no Celebrities. It’s a small ship with intimately sized lectures, talks and music. Just after dinner, at 8:15 every night, we found delightful and insightful programs in the Chesapeake Lounge: crab experts (from both ecological and eating standpoints), Revolutionary War medical practice experts, piano and dulcimer players.

Doug Weeks as Peter Bird

Doug Weeks channeling his gret-great-grandfather, the Lighthouse Keeper, Peter Bird

Storyteller/historian, Doug Weeks, stayed on board to entertain us with his various alter egos. As fur-trapper, Brave Wolf, he spoke of the early Chesapeake Bay settlers including John Smith. Another night, Weeks morphed into Lighthouse Keeper, Peter Bird, injured at Gettysburg, then appointed to keep the fires burning at lighthouses in the Great Lakes and on Chesapeake Bay. Sure, some of it was corny, but as Weeks channeled Peter Bird, passengers became engrossed in his passionate, detailed accounts. We soon learned that Bird was Doug’s Great-Great Grandfather and all these stories had been passed down through generations of his family.

Ports of Call

ACL Independence in St. Michaels MD

ACL Independence docked at Maritime Museum in St. Michaels MD

Small cruise ships can dock where the big boys can’t. And so, in Yorktown, we were steps away from the National Park and the riverfront shopping-restaurant district. In Crisfield, “The Crab Capital of the World” and gateway to Tangier Island, we docked a block from the Tangier Ferry that took many of us to that tiny lost-in-time island. We parked right inside the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, MD and were given free reign 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.

Small-Scale Shore Excursions

Intimately Scaled Shore Excursions

Everywhere we went, getting on and off the ship was just a matter of saying, “bye” and “hi” to crew posted by the gangway. No need to check in or out, no standing on line for buses or slow-moving registration. To me this was liberating, though concerning for a few others who wondered, “how do they know if everyone is onboard or not?”

Connecting

Mother:Daughter Group

Mother/Daughter combos: Doris and Ann Eberlein, Pat and Jeanne McGuire, the author and Jill Yolen, and Grandma/Granddaughter combo, Kathryn Price and Ida Lu Brown

Though marketed to retired professionals “age 62 and up” (a good number on the Chesapeake Bay cruise were retired teachers), American Cruise Line passengers skew older with a spattering of younger whippersnappers. On my cruise, there were two very young, well-behaved boys traveling with their parents, aunt, and grandparents, one couple my age (late 50’s), a gay couple, a 13-strong family reunion, two other Mother/Daughter combos, (Doris and Ann Eberlein, Pat and Jeanne McGuire), one Grandma/Granddaughter combo (Kathryn Price and Ida Lu Brown), and lots of conventional pairs ranging in age from 60’s to late 80’s. Hardly the “floating nursing home” one disgruntled patron mentioned in a review.

What amazed me was not so much the range of ages, but the geographic (though not racial) diversity: there were folks from California, Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan – from many US States.

Republicans were thrown in with Democrats, liberals with conservatives, and through the magic of Cocktail Hour lubrication, open seating and inquisitive minds, everyone spoke to each other, everyone seemed interested in each other’s stories, and, over the course of the week, I witnessed friendships forming before my very eyes.

Forming Friendships

Ida Lu Brown and Doris Eberlein

This, apparently, is not unusual. On this cruise, I watched as Ida Lu Brown, grandma of 17, great-grandma of 25, great-great-grandma to four, warmed up to Doris Eberlein on the 75 minute ferry boat ride to Tangier Island.

Dawn and Jay Ponce

Dawn and Jay Ponce

I became very fond of Dawn and Jay Ponce from Yuma, AZ – a retired school Principal and her business-owner husband. “I can tell if you lived closer together, you’d be close friends,” my Mom observed.

TheGirls

Four women who met on an ACL cruise three years ago and have been traveling together every year since: Nancy Duval, Laurel Hansen, Sherry Johnson, and Sally Cobb

“American Cruise Lines attracts kindred spirits – intelligent, curious, friendly,” stated California lawyer, Nancy Duval, one of four widowed women who met on an ACL cruise three years ago and have been traveling together every year since. Duval met retired 5th grade teacher, Laurel Hansen (this time, on her 19th American Cruise Line cruise), retired teacher/librarian Sherry Johnson, and Sally Cobb – all solo at the time. Lone travelers don’t seem to stay lone for long.

By the end of the week, I was seriously considering signing up for another cruise, perhaps The Mark Twain Tribute Cruise on the Mississippi. There certainly was incentive – a 15% discount if you put down a deposit before leaving the ship. I didn’t – only because I’ve got too many road trips planned. But I was in the minority. As many repeat passengers were settling accounts – paying for shore excursions and tips – they were also booking future cruises.

Bottom Line

Expect a low-key intimate experience, not the bells, whistles, fanfare and free-time choices of larger cruise ships.

Expect to socialize. Though you can get away with sequestering yourself in your room, most ACL passengers are welcoming and primed to meet others. (Think: opposite of Middle School). Large dining room tables invite mixed groups, and the daily cocktail hour is friendly and boisterous.

Seven ships in the fleet are designed for comfort over ultra-luxurious high style, with emphasis on personal service. The paddlewheel Queen of the West (on Columbia and Snake Rivers), updated in 2011, has the nicest rooms at this point. Several more ships are coming on line over the next few years.

American Cruise Line features an assortment of itineraries on waterways all over the USA. “Theme” Cruises, like the Mark Twain Tribute Cruise on the Mississippi, New England Lobster Fest Cruise, Columbia River Wine Cruise and Hudson River Fall Foliage Cruise tend to book up at least a year in advance.

Cruise rates for 6 or 7 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. 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.
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