The Great Lakes may not immediately spring to mind when you think of cruise destinations, but a rare start-up line called Pearl Seas Cruises is hoping to change that.
Launching in June, the U.S.-flagged, small-ship line will debut 10- to 14-day itineraries that include the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, bringing cruisers to such destinations as Quebec City, Chicago, Niagara Falls, and Toronto. Bonus: Most shore excursions are included in the cruise fare.
The Connecticut-based cruise line's flagship will be the brand-new, 210-passenger Pearl Mist. The ship will feature oversized staterooms (all with private balconies and many with sliding glass doors), a spacious dining room, and intimate lounges.
But it's the itineraries that really make the product stand out.
Sometimes the best travel experiences are those that are improvised. Four of us off the river ship Viking Forseti proved that on a sunny day in the city of Bordeaux.
With a map in hand, some advice from a local and, okay, a travel writer leading the pack, we four women, ages 40 to 72, headed off in search of adventure – in this case, with French delicacies as the focus.
Because our ship was docked right near the city center, access was easy. Itinerary changes this week meant extra time in Bordeaux, which was not necessarily a bad thing.
First stop, Cadiot-Badie, an extraordinary chocolate shop founded in 1826. With Easter approaching, the shop's displays were eye-popping – bunnies, chicks, puppies, giant eggs, chocolate fish filled with eggs. One case even held life-sized high-heels made of chocolate. In the back were samples, so you could compare the Mexican chocolate with the Peruvian, and so forth.
The one-week cruise through the Bordeaux region doesn't go very far, because there's not very far to go. From the city of Bordeaux we set off to explore two rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne, as well as the estuary, the Gironde. The longest stretch is only about 42 miles.
But water is not the reason to come to Bordeaux. The rivers and Viking’s modern Longships are vehicles for access to the region of Medoc, including Pauillac and the prestigious Margaux appellation; the medieval town and surrounding vineyards of Saint-Emilion; and Cadillac in the Sauternes region.
Wine lovers are correct to whet their palates. We have indeed been doing plenty of sipping, including of complimentary Bordeaux wines poured with the nicely prepared, French-influenced shipboard meals.
Competition is heating up on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, to places once visited by Lewis and Clark. The American Queen Steamboat Company just christened its American Empress in Portland, for new service on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
At the same time Un-Cruise Adventures announced it would increase its presence on the rivers in 2015.
American Queen Steamboat Company's 223-passenger, U.S.-built American Empress becomes the largest riverboat west of the Mississippi. It's the second ship in the line's fleet – which also includes the Memphis-based American Queen, which cruises on the Mississippi and its tributaries.
Doing godmother duties for American Empress was Claudette Waggoner, wife of chairman and CEO John Waggoner, who broke a bottle of local sparkling wine on the hull.
Oceania is launching a series of top-notch concerts and lectures, beginning with a shipboard program featuring Andrea McArdle, the original Annie on Broadway, that passengers can attend for a fee.
I smell trend: You'll remember Carnival recently announced its' Carnival Live Concerts series, where passengers can see shipboard performances by such superstars as Jennifer Hudson – tickets running $20 to $150.
Oceania's new entertainment program, "Life in the Theater(pdf)," kicks off with McArdle appearing on the 1,250-passenger Riviera, embarking October 29 on a 10-day cruise from Athens to Monte Carlo, with port calls in Greece, Turkey, Italy and France.