A small-ship cruise explores New England's coast the traditional way-slowly.
Text by Steve Millburg

Cruises don't have to be "mega." They can feature kite-flying from the deck, a Saturday-night fish fry in a church basement, bagpipe music drifting across a fog-shrouded harbor―and Fairly Honest Bob.

The three diminutive ships of American Cruise Lines― American Eagle, American Spirit, and American Glory―carry no more than 100 passengers apiece. They poke along the Atlantic coast, slipping into historic, sleepy ports and letting passengers explore the quirks of these salty towns.

For example, on the first evening of a weeklong "Maine Coast & Harbor" cruise, a visitor wanders along Main Street in the village of Bucksport, where the Penobscot River widens into Penobscot Bay. Concentrating on his ice cream cone, he almost stumbles over a sign in the middle of the sidewalk. It reads "Haddock Fry."

The sign points up the hill. There, the Knights of Columbus are putting on a supper in the basement of St. Vincent dePaul Catholic Church, which smells deliciously of fried fish. Seven dollars buys two fresh pieces of haddock, plus mashed potatoes, slaw, a roll, an orange drink or coffee, and a chocolate cupcake. Neighbors catch up on the week's news. Children scurry among the tables. Somewhere, Norman Rockwell is smiling.

So it goes all week, as American Eagle threads its way among the many islands and lighthouses dotting the mid-Maine coast. The journey starts and ends on the Penobscot River in Bangor, pausing in Bar Harbor, Bucksport, Rockland, Camden, Castine, and Belfast. The comfortable, if not luxurious, ship provides such low-key entertainment as kite-flying and cocktails on the open top deck.

The young crew seems extraordinarily eager to please. Passenger Bob Hollenbeck, a genial jokester who calls himself "Fairly Honest Bob" in honor of his former career as a New Jersey state assemblyman, tells of one dinner early in the trip. The servers offered chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream for dessert. "I said, 'What, no pistachio?'" Bob recalls. "Just kidding around, you know? Well, they went out and bought some pistachio ice cream and had it for me the next night."

Lunch and dinner offer two choices of entrées. Each night, Joe Uricchio, a doctor from the Orlando area, politely asks if he might have something else instead: lobster. Each night, he gets it.

Joe and his wife, Pauli, are celebrating their 26th anniversary along with Pauli's parents, Ivan and Margaret Stilp, who are celebrating their 58th. Pauli gushes over the scenery and the sunsets. "The sky is so beautiful here," she says. "Even the texture of the clouds is different."

The same could be said for the texture of each port. At dusk, wistful bagpipe music floats through thick fog from a boat anchored off the rocky Bar Harbor waterfront. Strolling couples pause to listen.

In quiet Castine, grand houses built by ship captains have eased into comfortable retirement as seldom-used but impeccably maintained vacation homes. The town yields the best treat of the entire week: an overflowing double handful of a lobster roll from Castine Variety.

Belfast enchants photographer Kindra Clineff, who remembers its struggles after the collapse of the local poultry industry a few years ago. Now, fashionable shops occupy the 19th-century brick buildings along Main Street. "It's like a mini-Portland," Kindra says. "It's a Portland that you can walk around." She's right. Just ask Fairly Honest Bob.

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