Kindra Clineff

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

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

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

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

The sign points up the hill. There, the Knights of Columbus areputting on a supper in the basement of St. Vincent dePaul CatholicChurch, which smells deliciously of fried fish. Seven dollars buystwo fresh pieces of haddock, plus mashed potatoes, slaw, a roll, anorange drink or coffee, and a chocolate cupcake. Neighbors catch upon 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 andlighthouses dotting the mid-Maine coast. The journey starts andends 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 askite-flying and cocktails on the open top deck.

The young crew seems extraordinarily eager to please. PassengerBob Hollenbeck, a genial jokester who calls himself "Fairly HonestBob" in honor of his former career as a New Jersey stateassemblyman, tells of one dinner early in the trip. The serversoffered 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 creamand 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 hemight have something else instead: lobster. Each night, he getsit.

Joe and his wife, Pauli, are celebrating their 26th anniversaryalong with Pauli's parents, Ivan and Margaret Stilp, who arecelebrating their 58th. Pauli gushes over the scenery and thesunsets. "The sky is so beautiful here," she says. "Even thetexture 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 anchoredoff the rocky Bar Harbor waterfront. Strolling couples pause tolisten.

In quiet Castine, grand houses built by ship captains have easedinto comfortable retirement as seldom-used but impeccablymaintained vacation homes. The town yields the best treat of theentire week: an overflowing double handful of a lobster roll fromCastine Variety.

Belfast enchants photographer Kindra Clineff, who remembers itsstruggles after the collapse of the local poultry industry a fewyears ago. Now, fashionable shops occupy the 19th-century brickbuildings along Main Street. "It's like a mini-Portland," Kindrasays. "It's a Portland that you can walk around." She's right. Justask Fairly Honest Bob.

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