19th-century charm in 21st-century style for less than $130 a day, all-inclusive
As the windjammer Angelique hurtled its way along the Maine coast at about ten knots (approximately 10 mph) on a particularly breezy September day, we struck up a conversation with John, a passenger who takes this voyage every Labor Day. "What do you like about cruising that brings you back every year?" we asked innocently enough. He shot us a pained look. "Don't call this cruising," he chastised. "People go on a cruise for luxury, live shows, and midnight buffets. This is sailing." His admonishment hints at what makes a Maine windjammer cruise special. He might also have added that Maine windjamming, with fares beginning at $775 for a six-day cruise and no exorbitant shore excursions, pricey cocktails, hidden extras, or opportunities to blow a fortune in a smoke-filled casino, is a bargain compared to most mass-market cruising. No luxury! No shows! No midnight buffets! "We'll die of boredom!" we wailed when we discovered that the amenities we have come to expect on a cruise ship would be lacking. As it turned out, we were happy as quahogs; it was like being transported back 150 years, when sailors "were at the mercy of the gods and goddesses of the sea," as another passenger put it.
Built in 1980 and holding a maximum of 31 passengers, the 95-foot Angelique is patterned after a classic nineteenth-century sailing ship and is one of 13 vessels belonging to the Maine Windjammer Association. Seven of these have been designated National Historic Landmarks, including the Lewis R. French (launched in 1871) and the 22-passenger Stephen Taber (America's oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service). However, the Angelique is one of three fleet members built specifically for passengers, complete with a deckhouse salon featuring such creature comforts as a pot-bellied stove and a piano, making it a good place to duck into on blustery or rainy days.
We arrived the night before the ship sailed and in the misty rain were ushered to our cabin by Chad, one of the three deckhands. We quickly learn that this 24-year-old first sailed on the Angelique with his grandmother when he was 13, and "never found the exit." By way of introduction, he rattles off a list of dos and don'ts: don't leave the light on in an empty cabin (drains the battery); do take a shower only between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.; don't smoke below deck or in the deckhouse salon; do bring any beverage you want onboard (this is a strictly BYOB operation) but don't get wasted and fall overboard; don't take a blanket above deck, because if it blows overboard he'll send us after it; and above all, do enjoy ourselves.
"Cozy" doesn't begin to describe the Angelique's cabins. Ours, some seven by four feet, came with two bunk beds, two reading lights and a wall light, a ventilation hatch in the ceiling (no portholes), and a sink. The other 14 cabins were similarly snug, although two had a double bed and one sported three bunks. Towels, sheets, and blankets are provided, but in keeping with windjamming's hands-on nature, passengers get to make up their own beds. The ship has three "heads" (bathrooms to you landlubbers), and two of them have hot, fresh showers, the hang of which takes some effort. "This is like going to summer camp," somebody quipped.
On our first night (spent dockside), we soon realized how thin the walls were. Nearly everything that went on in the other cabins was audible. Luckily, we'd brought earplugs to drown out the symphony of snores.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, we chugged our way out of the harbor - one of the rare occasions when the engines were used - and met the other passengers over coffee. Unlike the party-hearty windjammers of the Caribbean, the Maine version attracts a more sedate, albeit eclectic, following. There were Marilyn and Bruce, on a six-year driving tour in their RV (covering all 50 states and six Canadian provinces); Ken, a banjo-playing ex-marine with a trove of bad jokes; and Brad and Courtney, a twentysomething bicoastal couple.
Simple but good food is a hallmark of Maine windjamming. Alerted by the clanging of a big brass bell, we trooped into the dining room below deck, where, with a little effort, 31 people managed to fit at three family-style tables laden with eggs, sausages, and pancakes. The meals on the Angelique are the work of the ship's talented cook, Deb, who's been on the job since 1987 (like Chad, she took a trip one summer and forgot to leave), assisted by two cheery "galley slaves," Cheryl and Barbara. This is home cooking at its best, based on the Maine credo of "good food, and plenty of it." In fact, while everyone eats the same thing (though special dietary needs are catered to with advance notice), we found the food better than what the typical luxury cruise ship dishes out. Breakfast might be baked eggs, French toast, or oatmeal. Lunch tends to be a bit lighter - clam chowder, chili, or chicken salad sandwiches. And dinner is hearty fare like baked ham, lasagna, or meat loaf. Somehow we managed to save room for dessert - and a good thing, too; Deb whipped up the best congo bars, brownies, and apple crisp pies we'd ever tasted (past passengers actually write her, begging for FedExed brownies). For those who can't get enough of a good thing, the enterprising Deb sells The Angelique Cookbook: Great Recipes from a Windjammer's Galley, which includes many of the meals served onboard.
Lolling around, pitching in, seeing the scenery
With few organized activities and no set itinerary, passengers are left to do as little or as much as they want, although they're encouraged (but in no way required) to help with the daily running of the ship, such as furling the sails, polishing the brass, preparing meals, or even taking the helm. (Luckily, cleaning the heads is left to the crew.) At one point, Dennis, the first mate, rallied the somnolent passengers into helping the crew hoist the sails with his war-cry, "Team work doesn't seem work!" And help we did - the whole running of the boat was fun and effortless, as if we were playing on a big toy.
Days and nights were spent lounging around on deck getting to know the other passengers, who on our cruise included many "Labor Day Alumni," so called because they'd been sailing over the same holiday weekend with captain/owner Mike McHenry since he took the helm of the Angelique in 1986. One, dubbed "Crazy Pat," has 24 windjammer sailings in her log book. Other alumni on our cruise include Margaret, who's been windjamming since 1979; Richard, who's been a guest ten times; and Nancy (nine sailings). Asked what keeps drawing them back, all agreed it was the great family atmosphere among passengers and crew and the chance to meet interesting new people. In the words of one, "You kinda get hooked."
Although this trip was designed as a "lighthouse tour," lighthouses took a back seat to the peaceful and serene Maine coast. The atmosphere, combined with the sunshine and fresh air, slowed time down to a pleasant crawl. Occasionally a crew member broke the serenity, hollering when we passed a lighthouse, and everyone scrambled to catch a glimpse. Galley helper Barbara, a naturalist who works at a wildlife preserve in North Carolina during the off-season, would occasionally point out seals, porpoises, bald eagles, and other wildlife.
The best time of the year to sail is towards the end of summer, when the winds are stronger; we could cover an average of 35 to 45 miles a day. When we encountered other windjammer ships, the captains raced each other for our entertainment. Needless to say, the winds also caused the temperature to drop several notches, making us glad that we had brought extra layers of warm clothing.
Nights were so quiet it was rather unsettling at first, but we quickly began to appreciate being able to see the Milky Way in all its glory, far from city lights, and we understood why Deb said she "couldn't imagine a more beautiful office." There was no sailing at night, thankfully, or it would have made for some very nauseated passengers trying to sleep below deck.
As it turned out, the gods and goddesses of the seas guided us to three picturesque towns along the Maine coast: Bucks Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Castine. Bucks Harbor--a tiny speck of a place consisting of a convenience store, a church, and a smattering of idyllic summer cottages - also boasts a special treat: a 31-member steel-drum band that plays every other Monday all summer (tunes range from Led Zeppelin to George Gershwin). Postcard-perfect Castine is home to the Maine Maritime Academy, set among rolling hills, where we witnessed students in a training exercise and browsed through one-of-a-kind shops and galleries.
A Maine windjammer cruise wouldn't be complete without an evening lobster bake, and on our last day we descended on a privately owned island for the event. Those who shun lobster (including, surprisingly, Captain Mike) filled up on hot dogs. That night, we were treated to some homespun entertainment, including a passenger/crew talent show, with the male crew in drag. The laugh-filled performance was a perfect end to a high-spirited journey.
By the time we chugged back into Camden, everyone was saying good-byes, some tearily, others planning their next trip. As Caroline, a windjamming virgin, put it, "The greatest part about this type of travel is the friends you make. It's a relaxing and exhilarating adventure that everyone should try at least once." Another windjammaholic born.
Angelique's Labor Day six-day "Lighthouse Cruise," which costs $775 per person, includes accommodations and all the food you can eat. Fares for the Angelique start at $475 for three days and go up to $990 for a six-day "Art and Photography Cruise." The fleet's highest prices are on the Stephen Taber, one of the smaller ships: from $446 for a three-day cruise to $838 for six days. The Mary Day has the lowest prices: $399 for three days to $775 for six. If you're traveling alone, you'll have to share the cabin with another passenger (if there's extra space, though, you get the cabin to yourself). Some ships have single cabins at no extra fee, such as the Lewis R. French, Mary Day, and Stephen Taber, while the Mercantile, Heritage, and Grace Bailey charge extra for single occupancy. For more information, contact the Maine Windjammer Association at 800/807-9463 or sailmainecoast.com.
The Angelique is berthed in Camden, a three-hour drive from Boston. Concord Trailways (800/639-3317) runs a four-hour trip from Boston's Logan Airport for $55 round-trip; the bus drops you off about one mile outside of Camden, where you can take a $6 cab ride to the harbor. Or you can fly into either Portland Jetport (served by most major U.S. airlines) or Rockland Airport on US Airways Express carrier Colgan Air ($188 round-trip, 800/428-4322). From Portland, Mid-Coast Limo (800/937-2424) costs $90 round-trip for the first person and $30 for each additional passenger. A cab ride from Rockland to Camden costs about $24. The 95-foot Angelique, patterned after the classic 18-century tall ships, is one of 13 vessels belonging to the Maine Windjammers Association.