Cruise Control

Ships: With more departures this summer from Baltimore and other nearby ports, travelers have plenty of convenient cruising options.

June 04, 2000|By Ben Lyons | Ben Lyons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Backing out from the Inner Harbor amid paddleboats and water taxis, the 49-passenger American Eagle looks more like a yacht than a cruise ship. But this summer in Baltimore, cruise ships will come in all shapes and sizes.

The new American Eagle, built on the Eastern Shore in Salisbury, is making one of the 21 cruises scheduled out of Baltimore this year. And other ships leaving from Philadelphia and New York will make it easy for area residents to cruise to Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas and other destinations without the hassle of flying to their port of departure.

This year's sailings from Baltimore will be more than double the number last year, and passengers will have choices ranging from the intimate American Eagle to the 800-passenger Crown Dynasty. Here's a look at the cruise season's close-to-home options:

The way they were

If you want a cruise experience that suggests the grand elegance of ocean liners from the past, try the SS Rembrandt, which docks in Baltimore in July.

Didion World Cruises, a Washing- ton-based travel agency, has chartered the Premier Cruise Line ship for two-, three-, six-, seven- and eight-night itineraries to Canada, New England, the Bahamas and weekend cruises to "nowhere."

The Rembrandt was built in 1959 for trans-Atlantic crossings and globe-circling voyages. For the last 40 years, the ship's charming decor has remained largely unchanged.

While you won't find seven-story atria, decks of balcony cabins or numerous restaurants onboard, you will find wood paneling throughout and broad, wrap-around teak promenade decks. You can play shuffleboard beneath the distinctive silhouettes of the Rembrandt's funnels, and enjoy a cocktail in the elegant, two-story Ritz lounge.

The Rembrandt will also be cruising out of New York to Montreal in June, August and September.

The Eagle has landed

For those who want more casual surroundings, the 49-passenger American Eagle may be the ticket.

The ship will be based in Baltimore for a series of seven-night Chesapeake Bay cruises until mid-June before sailing to Haddam, Conn., for New England trips this summer.

The American Eagle's itineraries focus on the history and culture of destinations. There is an on-board lecture program, and, because the ship is small, passengers and crew get to know each other well within days.

American Eagle's size also allows it to slip into harbors normally off-limits to cruise ships, including the Intracoastal Waterway and the Okeechobee Waterway bisecting Florida.

The ship returns to Baltimore in October for more Chesapeake Bay cruises before wintering in Florida and South Carolina.

Docking downtown next to the Constellation in the Inner Harbor is an added convenience, even for out-of-state passengers.

Sidney Monroe, visiting Baltimore from Minneapolis, said, "We just had the bell captain from the hotel ... carry our bags across the street and onto the ship."

Direct to Bermuda

Apple Vacations has chartered the Crown Dynasty to sail directly from Baltimore to Bermuda three times this fall.

With space for 800 passengers, the ship was built to buck the trend toward larger, more impersonal megaships that can carry more than 3,000 passengers. Sailing every Wednesday, the Crown Dynasty maintains an intimate feel by calling at Bermuda over the weekends, when it is the only ship in port.

Until Sept. 13, it will be sailing directly from Philadelphia on the same itinerary.

Bermuda has kept a tight rein on the number and size of ships calling regularly. Many island residents believe the cruise ships take away profits from the hotels and restaurants on shore.

To help appease residents as well as appeal to those wanting more time in Bermuda, Crown Dynasty will set aside 100 berths per week for those wishing to try a "Cruise and Stay" package. This package allows passengers to take the ship one way for three or four days, stay on the island the rest of the week in a hotel, and then fly home.

"[Travel] agents are always looking for new diversions for their clients, and this is both new and unique," says Mark Mullen of Apple Vacations.

Apple has signed a five-year deal for the Crown Dynasty, and it is expected that the ship will make at least three Baltimore sailings in the spring and fall for the next four years.

Harriet Sagel, manager of tourism development for the Maryland Port Administration, is optimistic that even more sailings could be in the future. "The head of Apple Vacations and Bermuda's minister of tourism both said that in 2002 it looks like we might see weekly sailings out of Baltimore from March to November," Sagel said.

Other ports of call

New York remains the hub for East Coast cruises, with more than 10 ships based in the city this summer.

With many cruise lines offering bus packages to and from the ship in addition to convenient $18-a-day pierside parking for those wishing to drive, New York -- and hence the Bahamas, Bermuda and Canada -- are an easy drive away.

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