Posted by: cruise2 | 28 August, 2010

Grande Mariner: Small is Suitable

By Gordon Turner

IMG00024-20100824-1340 Recently Grande Mariner spent a few days in Toronto between cruises and an opportunity arose for me to go aboard and spend a couple of hours in this small, friendly ship. While many of the major cruise lines have opted for “bigger is better” in their latest ships, Grande Mariner and her fleetmates Grande Caribe and Niagara Prince have remained in the “small is suitable” category.

Suitable for what? The answer lies in the itineraries. But first a word or two about the origins of the ships and the line that owns them. They were designed by Capt. Luther Blount, built in Capt. Blount’s shipyard at Warren, Rhode Island, and placed in service for the American Canadian Caribbean Line, owned by Capt. Blount and his family. Luther Blount died a few years ago but his cruise line, now renamed Blount Small Ship Adventures, remains in family hands and is run by his three daughters from their headquarters in Warren, Rhode Island. IMG00023-20100824-1339In 2011, Grande Mariner will spend much of the summer on the Great Lakes, with Toronto as a frequent port of embarkation and disembarkation.

As for suitability, it is best expressed in Capt. Blount’s words, “Go where the big ships cannot.” That means their spring to fall itineraries include not only the Great Lakes, but also the Hudson River, the Erie Canal, the Mississippi, the Upper St. Lawrence, coastal New England, Chesapeake Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway, where they are often the only overnight passenger ship you will see from one day to the next. When winter arrives Grande Mariner and Grande Caribe forsake North American waters and operate in the Caribbean and here too they seek out the smaller ports and the more remote islands. Belize and its Barrier Reef continue to attract passengers, as do the many islands that form the Virgin Islands chain.

The 1998-built Grande Mariner carries a maximum 96 passengers. IMG00010-20100824-1317 They are accommodated on three decks in 48 cabins. Although the ship does not have an elevator, there are stair lifts that can take  less mobile passengers from one deck to the next.IMG00011-20100824-1322

The cabins I inspected were quite small and were neatly configured to take advantage of their very limited space. Some cabins have two single beds, a few have double beds, and in some instances there are cabins with an upper berth as well as two lower berths. All cabins have individually controlled air conditioning. Additionally, cabins on the Sun Deck have sliding windows. When the ship was refurbished in 2009, new bathrooms, remarkably compact, and with showers rather than tubs, were installed in each cabin. IMG00015-20100824-1325 On checking the storage space and wardrobe space, my first thought was that it was adequate rather than generous. Then I recalled that Grande Mariner and her fleetmates have a caasual dress code and an extensive wardrobe is unnecessary

What the cabins do not have are television sets or radios. Still, I thought to myself, I could take along a portable radio. After all, Grande Mariner’s itineraries keep her within range of radio stations almost anywhere she goes.  Complimentary wi-fi is available throughout the vessel.

Grande Mariner has two public rooms: one is the forward lounge on the Sun Deck and the other is the dining room on the Main Deck. Like the cabins, they too were refurbished last year. However, on many days the preferred location for passengers may be the topmost deck, open and spacious, furnished with comfortable deck chairs, a great place to enjoy the passing scenery. IMG00008-20100824-1154 If rain threatens or sunshine seems excessive, a protective awning stretches over the aft section.

My visit to Grande Mariner coincided with lunch time and I trooped down from the lounge to the dining room, which can accommodate all 96 passengers at one sitting. On this occasion lunch was buffet style, with a good selection of tasty dishes. Unlike the ships of major cruise lines, Grande Mariner does not provide a wine list, although wine is included with dinner on select evenings. But not to worry for those who enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail. Passengers can bring aboard their favourite tipple. What’s more, mixers are available, and bottles can be stored and, if needed, refrigerated.

I spoke to Captain Kiernan about his ship. Two unusual features, he said, are a retractable wheelhouse that allows her to pass under low bridges and a bow ramp that allows Grande Mariner’s passengers to step ashore at remote locations without getting their feet wet. The ramp is used mostly on the Caribbean cruises.

Back to those itineraries. The key phrase is “port intensive.” While the Blount ships certainly visit major cities, many of their ports of call are small towns, chosen for their distinctive attractions. Before leaving the ship I took a look at the 2011 brochure and turned to the page titled “Discover Ontario: Scenic Georgian Bay,” a nine-night cruise starting in Toronto, with four departures in 2011. IMG00007-20100824-1140 A transit of the 26-mile Welland Canal was followed by a stop at Cleveland. The next port was Detroit. Day 6 would see Grande Mariner at Goderich and on Day 7 she would cruise the blue waters of Georgian Bay. One day later her only scheduled stop would be at Little Current on Manitoulin Island. The cruise would terminate at Midland, where disembarking passengers would return by coach to Toronto. Two of the cruises would follow this itinerary in reverse.

At most ports shore excursions are offered. Here is a sampling for the Georgian Bay cruise. Cleveland: Rock & Roll Museum, Art Museum. Detroit: Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village. Goderich: a trip to Stratford and a matinee performance at the Shakespeare Festival. Little Current: the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation.

And, oh, there’s a pierogi-cooking demonstration on board at Cleveland. An astronomer will come aboard on the evening of Day 7 and will conduct an interactive star-gazing session when the ship is in the North Channel. IMG00025-20100824-1341

I stepped ashore well satisfied with what I had seen and learned. Grande Mariner and her fleetmates have established a solid reputation and have many loyal clients who return year after year.

The Cruise People, Ltd. has brochures now available for these programmes.

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