Complete 1,900 word article


by Pam Hobbs, Pictures by Michael Algar

Normally I know what day it is. Truly I do. It's just that here and now time slips blissfully by, and since I've not heard a telephone ring, or read a newspaper or watched television all week I am more or less out of it. I'm not surprised then when my breakfast companion asks me if it's Monday and I can't be sure - until Joe from Nevada brings out his cute little pill box with the days marked on it, and triumphantly announces it to be the beginning of a new work week - for the rest of the world.

Part of the reason for our muddled state is that we are literally all at sea. Five days ago - or perhaps it was four - we set off from Providenciales on the Caribbean island of Caicos for an eleven days trip around the Bahamas aboard the small cruise ship Grande Mariner. Located off the coast of Florida, this archipelago consists of 700 islands of which approximately 30 are populated. Our itinerary was to take us to the more out-of-the-way islands, including many that are uninhabited and usually accessible only by private yacht. It was to be particularly exciting for the snorkellers among us, but then Mother Nature played her hand, sending three metre waves crashing onto our promised cays and coves. In consequence we've found sheltered anchorage where the air is warm, and the sun is strong and the clear turquoise water rocks us ever so gently.

From time to time our captain, John Hunnewell, keeps us posted as to Mother Nature's foibles. Katelyn, the perky little cruise director, introduces crafts and bingo; resident biologist Norma Diehl tells us about the undersea life we were missing. Some passengers swim off a diving platform at the ship's rear. Me ? I am just plain happy to be here, stretched out on deck beneath a warm March sun, with a 750 page book I haven't had time for until now. I eat too much, snooze a lot, and dream ambitious dreams.

Grande Mariner is an unusual ship, one of three currently in use, designed by Captain Luther Blount of Rhode Island, who in l966 founded the American Canadian Caribbean Cruise Line Inc. Carrying no more than l00 passengers apiece they have several unique features. For one, an extra-shallow draft of 2.5m enables them to get into areas not open to larger vessels. For another, a bow ramp allows passengers to walk directly onto a beach or jetty. There is enough storage space for us to have our own glass-bottomed boat, kayaks, snorkelling gear, and other play things to be used in the warm waters around the islands. We also have a skiff for easy transportation to snorkelling grounds and beaches further away, and a retractable pilot house which permits travel beneath low bridges spanning inland waterways.

No Frills Means Good Value

From the outset Blount aimed at having 'no frills' cruises destined to attract people more interested in the environment, nature, history and cultures than the luxuries usually offered on small cruise boats. As a result there is no lavish entertainment, no commercial photographer snapping our every move, no on-board swimming pool or spa. Nor do we want them, since they would be reflected in the price. Evening entertainment here is pretty well limited to talks and slide shows or a movie in the lounge - and lots of good conversation. We were even asked to bring our own beach towels, and booze. The BYOB policy works well, because instead of paying inflated bar prices we were able to stock up at a local liquor store before boarding. Our purchases (identified by cabin numbers) are stowed in the lounge/bar to be self-served at any time. Complimentary soft drinks, mixes and bar snacks are provided.

Staterooms are small but functional, with individual air-conditioning and bathrooms en-suite. Doors can be locked only on the inside, which means we don't have to hunt for keys every time we return to our cabin.

Two-thirds of the 65 passengers on this trip have travelled with ACCL before. Those I spoke to said they particularly enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, especially in the dining room where dressing for dinner means a fresh pair of jeans or shorts, and table cloths are kept for special occasions. They appreciate the individual attention, and efforts of captain and crew to keep us safe and happy. (On the one day when the ocean was choppy, crew members stood at stairways to offer an arm to passengers who might be unsteady on their feet. On another, when some of us missed seeing a pod of whales, Captain John - as he is affectionately called - turned the boat around to follow them until they disappeared under the water.)

On-board meals may not compare with haute cuisine served on the more luxurious small ships, but they are tasty and nutritional. Menus are posted ahead of time, and anyone wanting something different simply tells one of the two chefs, Andy and Mike. Portions are so large I keep telling myself I must cut back, but there's no resisting Mike's specialty bread and desserts. It doesn't help that his homemade cookies and pastries are left out in case we get peckish between meals.

With so few passengers scattered about the three decks, we make friends quickly. I find it encouraging that even in their mid eighties so many are active, often involved still in lending professional skills to their community. One of my favourite passengers is Carolyn from Seattle, a social worker who was fully employed to age 79. Now six years later she maintains her independent lifestyle, swims three times a week, volunteers her services and recalls her past travels in entertaining detail. Another is fun-loving Nell, who regales us with stories of outings as a member of her area's Red Hat Club. Nell's love of life is obvious. She's blessed, she says, to live in Florida where she can go kayaking with friends every day, and more often than not fishes for her dinner. Solomon, 39 years an Ivy League university professor, has his nose stuck in a book most of the time. So does Virginia who is on her 21st cruise with ACCL. Back home, we Seniors are often told how important it is to keep the brain active. Now, all around me is living proof, for these are people with interesting lives and a keen wit when describing them.

Locals give us a royal welcome

Eventually the weather allows us to move on. Our first docking is in early evening at Long Island's Clarence Town, where residents bring their children to see the big ship - and us. This tiny settlement boasts little more than a scattering of brightly-hued houses and two restaurants, yet it has two churches. Strangely, both were built by the same man: as an Anglican called John Hawes he built St Paul's, then following his conversion to Catholicism he became Father Jerome who built St Peter's.

Nightfall brings a band onto the stone jetty where we're berthed. Now the youngsters sit swinging their legs as their parents join us in dancing to the Caribbean beat. Never did two guitars, bongo drums, an accordian, a saw and a bell sound so good.

With our ability to dock almost anywhere, we're not too upset when a second cold front comes our way to keep us from more scheduled stops. Instead we arrive in George Town, where Katelyn rustles up two small buses to take us to Steventon Beach thirty minutes away. There, joined by several crew members, we frolic in the water, stretch out on the beach, collect shells... A bar serving liquor and soft drinks is opened up, and at mid afternoon a catering service delivers trays piled high with cracked conch and shrimps and chicken wings.

Happy Hour is happier than usual this evening, with complimentary Caribbean cocktails and more jumbo shrimps. By popular request, the after-dinner movie is Casablanca. In my diary I note that it has been an excellent day.


Our snorkellers are ecstatic. Cruising through the Exumas we weave between limestone and coral islands and caves fashioned by the sea. One, more famous than the rest, is Thunderball Grotto, so-called for the James Bond movie of that name in which it was featured. When the sun shines through a hole in the cave's roof, it lights a magical scene for snorkellers. Today ours returned with glowing stories of the yellowtails, blue chromes, striped sergeant majors and other exotic sea-life..

A volunteer from Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park comes aboard to talk about conservation. He tells us how, in l958, a group of locals established the park to save this area's sea-life and pristine beaches. Now fishing, and shell- taking is prohibited in 25 such preserves throughout these islands. We have two beach visits within the park: one is at Hawksbill Cay where we walk ashore from the bow ramp, and the other is at park headquarters reached by skiff. There's a sign on its office door calling for volunteer carpenters, electricians and people to do grunt work. Looking out at a deserted beach and serene beauty of the seascape beyond I have an urge to apply, but know I really can't. So I settle on taking sugar from a bag left on the porch, and immediately attract several tiny grey and yellow birds onto my hand.

Our approach to Nassau, takes us past houses the size of your average strip-mall, some with leisure boats almost as big as Grande Mariner berthed outside. On hotel beaches, glistening vacationers lie upon row upon row of chaises, with barely space to step between them. A frenetic game of beach volleyball is in progress; scooters roar by tearing up the ocean. I am reminded of a Robert Frost quote used on the back of ACCL's brochure. It reads: "Two roads diverged...and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." An appreciable difference, thanks to the little cruise line that cares.

Getting There: American Canadian Caribbean Line's three ships operate the year round. Winter itineraries are in the Caribbean, Central and South America. During the rest of the year they travel American and Canadian waterways. Our ll days Bahama Islands itinerary in March costs U.S. $2.580 - $3,135 per person, double occupancy, plus $200 port charges. This includes everything except air fare and gratuities. For more information contact ACCL, 461 Water Street, PO Box 368, Warren, RI 02885, U.S.A. Tel: toll free 1-800-556-7450. E-mail: Website: