Thursday, April 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Off the ship on a cruise to New England

Michael Good swooped into the underbrush along a trail in Maine's Acadia National Park and emerged, triumphantly, with a red-legged grasshopper cradled gingerly in the palm of his hand.

Thirty-one passengers from the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship gathered to catch a glimpse of the tiny creature. I was one of them. We had all signed on for "A Walk in the Park," a ship-sponsored excursion, and although we'd been transported from Bar Harbor to Acadia by bus, we were spending more time off the vehicle than on. That's exactly what I wanted.

By combining carefully chosen excursions and independent travel, my whirlwind tour of coastal New England and Nova Scotia provided a good overview of an area I had never visited. It also included a few opportunities to delve deeper despite serious time constraints - a total of about 40 hours in five ports.

My husband and I chose this New York-based cruise for its interesting, intensive itinerary. In a week's cruise, we spent only one full day at sea.

The strategy? Within minutes of boarding the ship in New York, I lined up at the Norwegian Dawn's shore-excursion desk to book excursions in Newport, R.I.; Bar Harbor, Maine; and Halifax, Nova Scotia. At Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and in Boston, we decided to strike out on our own.

Here's how the strategy fared:

Sunday

Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

Martha's Vineyard, seven miles off the Massachusetts coastline, has six towns and is known as an elite vacation playground.

As soon as we saw Budget's lineup of Jeep Wranglers for rent for $99 a day, our plans to bike around the island evaporated. Within 15 minutes, we were cruising along a coastal road to elegant Edgartown, the island's first colonial settlement and home to stately white Greek Revival houses built by whaling captains.

We shopped, admired tidy streets, historical homes and churches, and enjoyed lunch. Later we visited a sparsely populated public beach, marveling at its windswept expanse. Then we spent a pleasant hour searching for an elusive lighthouse - worth the hunt for its scenic splendor.

Results: No regrets. A perfect day.

Monday

Day at sea

I booked a massage in the Dawn's Mandara Spa and sought serenity in the indoor heated lap pool and whirlpools. My husband proceeded to the casino in what proved to be a futile attempt to finance the vacation.

Results: Mixed. He broke even.

Tuesday

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax is the site of the world's second-largest natural harbor (Sydney, Australia, is No. 1). Excursions range from whale-watching and sea kayaking to a tour of the Titanic museum, but we were drawn to nearby Peggy's Cove, one of the most-photographed fishing villages in Canada. We signed up for a six-hour, $89-per-person bus trip - a risky move because I am not enamored of bus tours. But there was ample time for a walk through Halifax's public gardens, a stop at a restaurant for a fresh lobster lunch, and about an hour to wander around Peggy's Cove, population 42, just south of Halifax. Postcards can be mailed from the cove's lighthouse, which serves as a post office.

Along the way, guide Thelma Cochrane entertained us with corny jokes, and driver Floyd Spicer displayed his talent as a singer, treating us to a rendition of Canada's national anthem and folk songs. They made a great team.

Results: I enjoyed the tour, but next time I'd sign up for a sea-kayaking excursion and hope for a repeat of the glorious weather we had that day.

Wednesday

Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor is a quintessential coastal Maine village and the gateway to Acadia National Park. The sun glittered on the expansive harbor as we arrived by tender - a small boat that operates between the ship, anchored just offshore, and the mainland - and began to explore the city on foot.

By 11:30 a.m., we were the first couple seated on the patio at the Harbor Inn's Terrace Grille, savoring the wide-angle view of sailboat-studded Frenchman Bay and a bowl of superb lobster bisque. After lunch, time permitted a brief foray down century-old Shore Path.

At 1 p.m. we boarded the bus at the nearby pier for our $49-per-person excursion to Acadia National Park and Cadillac Mountain. Although many excursion buses take tourists on drive-bys of these sites, we were able to walk a couple of miles along paths and spend 30 minutes atop Cadillac Mountain with Michael Good, a Down East Nature Tours guide. Good toted a telescope and explained Acadia's ecosystems as we looked for birds, grasshoppers and mushrooms. Every few minutes, he called out to an elusive bird. The bird invariably replied.

Results: Again, no regrets.

Thursday

Boston

In Massachusetts' capital city, our ambition got the better of us. Trying to see everything from Fenway Park to Harvard University ensured that we didn't experience much in depth - with the accidental exception of the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, which contains the graves of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and the victims of the Boston Massacre. A stone inscribed "Elizabeth Foster Goose" marks the grave of Mother Goose.

We decided not to book a ship-sponsored excursion since tours were widely available in the city. Instead, we bought tickets from an independent tour company that let passengers hop on and off sightseeing trolleys. But after leaving the route and taking the subway to Harvard, we wound up walking for miles to reconnect with the trolley.

The day ended with a tense cab ride in rush-hour traffic through a Big Dig construction site. Nervously checking our watches as the time edged closer to the all-aboard hour of 5:30 p.m., we quietly implored the driver to hurry. Finally, with the ship in sight, we ran through the pier and up the gangway five minutes late, only to learn that 100 Norwegian Dawn guests were stuck in traffic on a tour. The ship left at least 30 minutes late.

Results: Next time, I would book a walking tour of the Freedom Trail to get a good overview of Boston's historical high and low points. Shoppers should focus on the Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market area, which combines an upscale food court with blocks of local and nationally known outlets. Shuttles are available from the pier.

Friday

Newport, R.I.

Newport is beautiful even through the blur of an incessant, chilly rain. The city was founded in 1639 and prospered as a major seaport. Today, its many diversions include sailing, touring historic mansions, and sampling seafood.

We walked up and down narrow, hilly streets, noticing that every other structure is recognized as a historical treasure. Then came a lunch of chowder, crabcakes and ahi tuna at the Red Parrot along America's Cup Way.

Back on the pier for a pre-booked excursion, we discovered that our $29-per-person Cliff Walk was canceled because of the weather. A two-hour bus tour was offered as a substitute, but as tempting as the warm, dry vehicle looked, our plans for Newport didn't include two immobile hours.

Instead, we opted for a refund and paid $1.50 for a trolley ride from the city's visitors center to the Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II's 1895 Italian Renaissance treasure. The mansion is one of 11 properties owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County; you can buy a ticket to tour one of the mansions for $15 or any five for $31 (www.NewportMansions.org).

Vanderbilt was president and chairman of the New York Central Railroad. His grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, established the family fortune in steamships and later created the New York Central.

Informative guided tours are available at the palatial site. Visiting the Breakers provided an instant history lesson of the period. Lavish Italianate public rooms - for music, dining and books - are open to the public on the first floor, as is the 45-foot-tall Great Hall. Private bedrooms on the second floor, which have more of a French flair, also are viewable.

The tour ended in the spacious kitchen, which was a break with tradition. Many of the kitchens of this period were concealed in the basement. The Breakers' kitchen, on the first floor, is filled with light from rows of windows.

My favorite spots, though, were the lower and upper loggias - stately roofed and arched structures completely open to the air and the view down to the edge of the 13-acre estate's manicured lawn, which drops off to the sea. The lower loggia is decorated with a vaulted mosaic ceiling, the upper painted to look like the sky. Both were used as extensions of the enclosed living areas, separated from the interior by glass walls.

It's hard to believe the 70-room, 130,000-square-foot Breakers was a summer cottage in its glory days.

Results: Perfect, considering the weather.


New England By Cruise Ship

Cruises to New England and Canada's Maritime Provinces have increased in popularity and in the length of the season.

Holland America launched this year's program in May with one-way voyages in each direction between Boston and Montreal aboard the Maasdam. Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Cruise West and American cruise lines began their programs last month.

By September, most major lines will be represented in New England and Canada. Others include Celebrity, Princess, Crystal, Cunard and Seabourn.

During the peak season (September and October), Norwegian Cruise Line will base two ships in New York for sailings throughout the region. The Norwegian Dawn will be joined by the Norwegian Spirit, and itineraries will last from six to 11 nights. The Spirit's six-night voyages will include Halifax, Boston, Bar Harbor, and Martha's Vineyard, Mass. On longer sailings, the Dawn will call at Halifax, Boston, Bar Harbor, Quebec City, and other ports in Canada.

Newport, R.I., is not on NCL's itineraries this year, but several other ships will visit that historic city, including Cunard's Queen Mary 2, which offers a nine-day round trip departing from New York Sept. 28.

More information

American

1-800-814-6880

www.americancruiselines.com

Carnival

1-888-227-6482

www.carnival.com

Celebrity

1-877-202-4345

www.celebritycruises.com

Cruise West

1-888-851-8133

www.cruisewest.com

Crystal

1-888-722.0021

www.crystalcruises.com

Cunard

1-800-728-6273

http://cunard.com

Holland America

1-877-724-5425

www.hollandamerica.com

Norwegian Cruise Line

1-866-234-0292

www.ncl.com

Princess

1-800-774-6237

www.princess.com

Royal Caribbean

1-866-562-7625

www.royalcaribbean.com

Seabourn

1-800-929-9391

www.seabourn.com

- Eileen McClelland

Eileen McClelland HOUSTON CHRONICLE
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