Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wrap Up of Our Cruise Experience

We were impressed with American Cruise Lines, and based on our experience, we would recommend it highly, especially to a “mature” clientele.

We have already praised the excellent food and attentive service of the staff. As noted previously, the American Spirit offered the ambiance of a small floating resort, without the noisy distraction of an on-board casino or disco.

Sandy Balla, the guest lecturer, was a real asset. She was extremely knowledgeable about New England history and architecture, and was an excellent communicator. We learned a great deal from her.

Also noteworthy was the good judgment exhibited by the Captain and crew. They had to respond to some severe weather challenges posed by Hurricane Kyle, by putting into Newport Harbor for an extra day for safety, and eliminating Block Island from the itinerary. Kudos also to the American Cruise Lines representative who hailed a taxi when our complimentary shuttle van failed to show. It’s paying attention to small details such as this that make American Cruise Lines special.

Day 8: Providence, RI

Saturday, September 27, 2008: Return to Providence; Afternoon at RISD Gala Opening

Saturday morning was transition day when our cruise ended and the next one began. Normally, the
American Spirit would have brought us back to Providence Piers in early morning, with the next group waiting to embark. However, the captain considered the passage up Narragansett Bay too risky given the stormy conditions, so American Cruise Lines arranged to have us return by bus. They also provided bus transportation to Newport for the next group waiting to board the American Spirit.

Serendipity stuck when Sandy Balla introduced us to Bill and Sue Ewen. Bill is a professional photographer and an expert in Northeastern U.S. history. They live in Providence and are familiar with some of its most picturesque neighborhoods. We had an interesting chat and told them about our blog. They expressed an interest and thought they could help us become more familiar with
Providence. They asked us if we had any plans for Sunday afternoon; they offered us to take us around on a drive, provided the weather was not too extreme. Since that day was open, we took them up on their offer!

We reached Providence Piers about 9:00 a.m. and disembarked under a large tent. American Cruise Lines had called our complimentary hotel shuttle that was to take us and another couple to the Comfort Inn. Here a glitch developed: the van never showed after 45 minutes! The American Cruise Lines representative made a great executive decision: he hailed one of the waiting taxis and prepaid our fare in full! We thanked him profusely and returned to our hotel.

There were still food left from the Comfort Inn's continental breakfast buffet, so we made lunch before taking the RIPTA bus downtown for our major afternoon event: Grand opening of the
Chace Center at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum of Art.

It was not raining, but still looked threatening, so we dressed in full raingear, including galoshes.

We joined the crowds at the gala opening of The Chace Center, a brand new wing of the RISD Museum. Admission was free, but we had to obtain timed passes under a tent shelter across the street, and walk over to the exhibit.

Dale Chihuly is considered one of the premiere contemporary glass sculptors, known for his large-scale installations, such as the ceiling piece seen here. Chihuly graduated from RISD in 1968 with a Masters in Fine Arts degree, and established a glass department at RISD in 1969. He now calls Seattle and Tacoma, WA home.

We wandered among the installations and saw several documentary films about his collaborative approach to glass sculpture. See Biography, for more information.

After visiting this gem of a museum, we walked back to Kennedy Plaza, to catch a bus back to our hotel.

While we waiting, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour engulfed us. We seemed to be the only ones with rain protection! We were fortunate to be able to catch the Route 14 bus, an express run between downtown Providence and T. R. Green Airport without much of a wait. It was only drizzling when we reached the hotel and it stopped raining by dinnertime.

We made Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant our nightly "pub" for its tasty comfort food and beer on tap. This place was convenient, being only five minutes away by foot from the Comfort Inn. Bertucci’s is a family-oriented restaurant chain concentrated in the Northeast. Although we usually seek out an independent eatery in preference to a chain restaurant, we found its comfort food, consisting of pasta and minestrone, tasty and filling. They had Samuel Adams and other New England brews on tap for reasonable prices.

Despite its challenges, we were pleased how the day went, and were looking forward to our farewell tour of Providence with the Ewens!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Day 7: Extra Day in Newport

Friday, September 26, 2008: Hurricane Kyle Barges In; Safe Harbor in Newport

3:00 am: The first spatters of wind-driven rain splashed against our porthole, announcing the arrival of the northeaster that had been threatening for days.

6:30 am: We woke up to the weather news on our TV. The upper-level cutoff low, enhanced by Category 1 Hurricane Kyle, had settled into southern New England. Kyle was forecast to continue north on a path 100 miles east of Nantucket, heading for landfall in Maine tomorrow. It was clear that we were in for a significant wind and rain event that would last well into the weekend.

By breakfast time, heavy squalls rolled in, with little letup. A few brave souls took the American Cruises Lines excursion to Astor’s Beechwood Mansion, and a few others took taxis into town to see some sights. We decided to hunker down for the day, play lots of bridge and read magazines in the Chesapeake Lounge.

It was frustrating that the inclement weather precluded us from enjoying the gift of an extra day in Newport. But everyone agreed the captain made the right decision to stay safely in Newport Harbor given the circumstances. Indeed, we felt little swell in our sheltered safe-harbor, while 10-foot waves were reported out at sea.

At nightfall, Sandy Balla announced that due to the storm, the
American Spirit would remain docked in Newport Saturday, and American Cruise Lines arranged to have buses take us to Providence.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Day 6: Newport, RI

Thursday, September 25, 2008: Day in Newport

It was a “red sky in morning, sailor take warning” sunrise as the Hurricane Kyle-influenced storm edged ever closer. However, the weather forecast for today was for fair and dry skies, and it turned out to be a decent day for sightseeing.
Here is Sandy Balla, our intrepid leader, contemplating before a flock of seagulls lined up along our dock.

The American Spirit docked across Newport Harbor from the central business district, adjacent to Fort Adams State Park. This limited our options when we wanted to access the famed mansions, colloquially known as the “Summer Cottages”, and other attractions in Newport. American Cruise Lines offered two excursions this day: a morning trolley bus tour to see The Breakers, perhaps the best known and most ostentatious of the mansions; and an afternoon hike along Cliff Walk, accessed by private van.

We decided to pass on The Breakers excursion, but participated in the Cliff Walk, since it was only $10 each for transportation.

We tried using public transportation to reach The Breakers. This proved challenging, because post Labor Day, the RIPTA bus system curtails bus service between downtown and Fort Adams. The only cheap, time consuming option available to us was a combined water taxi/bus trip to the Mansions. The water taxi ($5 per person round trip) operated on call; fortunately, we were able to catch a ride to Bannister’s Wharf without too much delay. We walked past the Marriott Hotel to the bus terminal, where we boarded the RIPTA trolley to The Breakers.

The Preservation Society of Newport County manages 11 of the major historic properties in Newport. They offer a variety of packages for visiting one to five mansions, depending on price. Due to time constraints, we bought a day pass that allowed us to see The Breakers plus one other mansion, for $23 apiece.

The Breakers did not disappoint! It was as we remembered it during our last visit in 1975. The views from the terrace were spectacular!

Following The Breakers, we began walking to the Chateau-sur-Mer. We found that we might have been better off with one of the trolley tours, now that we realized how far apart the properties were. Just to compound matters, when we arrived at Chateau-sur-Mer, there was a half-hour wait for the next guided tour! The gatekeeper recommended that we continue on to The Elms, about 15 minutes away on foot. There would be no wait for a guided tour, and digital audio guides would be available.

On the way to The Elms, we passed Vernon Court, home to the National Museum of American Illustration. This French-style chateau, built in 1898, became the home to the Museum in 1998.

We were glad we continued on to The Elms. This was another magnificent mansion and the gardens were gorgeous. Check out this Web site for pictures and more information.

There was a RIPTA bus stop next to The Elms, so after some wait, we caught a trolley to the bus terminal and headed back to Bannister Wharf, to catch the water taxi back to the ship. The water taxi captain did not adhere to a schedule; he decided to leave at 1:15, which got us back to the ship in time for a quick bite of lunch. But it worked out OK; we still made it to the waiting van for the 2:00 departure to Cliff Walk.

Cliff Walk extends 3.5 miles between Memorial Boulevard and Ledge Point. We walked over the segment between Salve Regina University and Vanderbilt’s Tea
House at Marble House. Much of the path was well maintained, but toward the south, we had to traverse rip-rap with care. But the views of the mansions and seacoast were well worth the effort.

As the afternoon wore on, the sky began to darken, winds picked up from the northeast, and waves from Rhode Island Sound crashed into the rocks below.

On the way back, we had a good view of Astor's Beechwood Mansion, an independently owned and operated historic property. (See last photo).

When we returned to the ship, we learned that the captain made some major decisions in view of the approaching storm. First, we had to drop Friday’s visit to Block Island; the seas and wind were going to be too high for safe passage. Second, we were to stay safely ensconced in Newport Harbor Friday and Saturday nights. There was also the possibility that the ship would have to wait out stormy conditions in Newport Saturday when we were scheduled to return to Providence.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Day 5: Bristol, RI

Friday, September 19, 2008: Pre-Cruise Independent Visit to Bristol, Day Trip from Providence

The American Cruise Lines brochure indicated that Day 5 would be in Fall River, MA, with only a quick stop in
Bristol. The Blithewold Mansion and Gardens was not listed as one of the attractions on the schedule, so we decided to use one of our free days in Providence to take a RIPTA bus ride to Bristol. The bus system worked well, and the driver dropped us off right in front of Blithewold, about 11:00 a.m.

Blithewold is an outstanding place to visit and we would recommend it highly. We spent two hours seeing the 45-room mansion and the extensive gardens.

Docents invited us to eat our picnic lunch on the verandah overlooking sparkling Narragansett Bay

We hiked along a well-worn 1.5-mile footpath back to town. It was enjoyable walking among the old storefronts before coming to another museum well worth seeing, Linden Place. This 1810 mansion was featured in the film
The Great Gatsby, and Ethel Barrymore Colt lived there for a time.

Bristol calls itself the most patriotic city in America, and has the most consecutive Independence Day parades, dating to 1785. We had time to stroll some residential streets, accented with fall colors, before catching the bus back to Providence.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008: Morning in Bristol, Cruise to Newport in Afternoon

American Spirit arrived in Bristol on another brilliant morning, perfect for sightseeing. American Cruise Lines had arranged an excursion to the Blithewold Mansion and Gardens. Since we were there just recently, we skipped the excursion. Our earlier visit turned out to be a blessing, because we barely had two hours at Bristol today, and the charming town, with a strong historic preservation ethic, was conducive to a leisurely stroll.

The Herreshoff Marine Museum-America’s Cup Hall of Fame was located right opposite our wharf, so it was an easy matter to walk to it. The Museum is located in a former fine yacht manufactory that operated from 1863-1945. The America’s Cup Hall of Fame chronicles the 150-year history of the America’s Cup regatta held in venues around the world.

After lunch, the American Spirit began the cruise to
Newport along scenic Narragansett Bay.

By arrival time in Newport, the late afternoon sun was casting a golden glow over the shoreline.

Sandy Balla was passing along some weather bulletins: Hurricane Kyle moisture was enhancing a nearby upper level cut-off low-pressure weather system, increasing the chance for heavy rain and wind in southern New England. The captain began to hint
that Block Island may have to be dropped from the itinerary, due to high seas and wind, since the
American Spirit lacks stabilizers. However, the weather was expected to be fine tomorrow and Newport's fabulous "summer cottages" awaited us!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day 4: Martha's Vineyard, MA

Tuesday, September 23, 2008: Day in Martha's Vineyard, MA

This gloriously brilliant day found us docked at the wharf in
Vineyard Haven. Note the view of the American Spirit with a vintage two-masted schooner in the harbor.

Since we were able to access Martha’s Vineyard’s shores without the need for a tender, we had the entire day to explore much of the island. American Cruise Lines arranged excursions to
Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, but Sandy Balla recommended an excellent alternative for individuals to get around the island: the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) bus system. The best deal was a $6 one-day pass ($3 senior/disabled) for unlimited trips from town to town. This turned out to be a fun and efficient way to see the sights.

We walked to the Vineyard Haven Transit Center, located at the Steamship Authority Ferry Terminal, and boarded the No. 1 bus to the Visitors’ Center in Edgartown. We first strolled to the
Edgartown Lighthouse, and the shoreline nearby.

Next, we walked along
Water Street, to see the magnificent whaling captains’ mansions.

Our next stop was the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, 59 Cooke Street. Do navigate the Museum’s excellent Web site for much insight into the Island’s history.

We returned to the Visitors’ Center, to view some of the historical structures located near Church and Main streets.
Vincent House, built in 1672 and the oldest unaltered house on Martha’s Vineyard, was moved to its present site in 1977. Other significant historical buildings nearby include the 1843 Old Whaling Church, the 1858 Dukes County Courthouse and the 1840 Daniel Fisher House.

We took the bus back to Vineyard Haven and had lunch on the ship. That afternoon, Sandy Balla led our group to the public bus stop opposite the dock, to take the VTA bus to quaint
Oak Bluffs. The 10-minute ride took us to Ocean Park, the transit interface with the Woods Hole Ferry.

Oak Bluffs has an interesting history. In brief, the town incorporated as Cottage City in 1880, and was rechristened Oak Bluffs in 1907 as it grew into a year-round resort town. We walked through the Circuit Avenue historic commercial district to
Trinity Park, the locale for the Tabernacle and the “Painted Ladies”, the colorful collection of Carpenter Gothic houses that dates to the late 19th century.

Trinity Park, previously known as Wesleyan Grove, was the centerpiece of the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association, in the forefront of the conservative Methodist movement of the 1830s. The small houses were built to resemble tents. Today, the Association applies strict architectural guidelines to new construction, owing to its status as a National Landmark.

The open-sided Tabernacle , erected in 1879, seats 3000, and is constructed of wrought iron and steel. It is said to have perfect acoustics. This building replaced large tents, which were used for religious revival meetings. It is still in use today, despite extensive renovations that began in 2003.

We were free to walk among the cottages as long as we respected the occupants’ privacy.

Every summer, Trinity Park celebrates "Grand Illumination Night",when residents hang Chinese and Japanese paper lanterns, and light them at sundown. It's quite a celebration, including a band concert, held in the Tabernacle. (The two photos at left: courtesy of Bill and Sue Ewen).

One “painted lady” is open to the public as the Cottage Museum and Shop. Visitors can view the interior of a typical cottage together with furnishings and artifacts typical of the late 1800s.

The walking tour took us back to Ocean Park, where we had the opportunity to see some spectacular Victorian mansions located along Ocean Avenue.

Corbin-Norton House is one of the most flamboyant examples of Queen Anne Victorian architecture fronting Ocean Park. This particular home has quite a history. Peter Norton completed a detailed rebuild and renovation of this 1891 Victorian, only see it burn to the ground in 2001, due to an electrical wiring malfunction. Norton rebuilt the home in 2004, this time with state-of-the-art fire prevention and security systems. See Article for more information, from a building contractor's perspective.

We took the bus back to the
American Spirit for the usual happy hour and excellent dinner. This evening’s entertainment was the movie “Jaws”, much of which was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard.

Sandy Balla informed us of some changes to the itinerary: American Cruise Lines dropped Fall River, apparently due to negative comments from passengers in favor of a half-day stop in Bristol, RI with an early arrival in Newport. There had also been some weather bulletins concerning Hurricane Kyle, which was still well south of New England as of today, but was predicted to head north. Sandy alerted us to the possibility that there may be further changes ahead, due to possible high seas.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Day 3: Nantucket, MA

Monday, September 22, 2008: Day on Nantucket, cruise to Martha's Vineyard

We pulled into Nantucket Harbor overnight, and the first misty view this morning was that of the Brandt Point Lighthouse surrounded by weathered shingled houses characteristic of Nantucket.

The American Spirit was anchored in deep water well offshore, so it was necessary to use a 28-person tender to transport passengers to the dock. The first departure from ship to shore was about 8:30 a.m.; the last return was at 3:30 p.m. In essence, we had a maximum of 6 hours to sightsee Nantucket. American Cruise Lines arranged a 2-hour bus tour that covered Nantucket and the outlying villages of Siasconset and Sankaty Head. We chose to forego the tour, and instead, walked to the many attractions in Nantucket proper.

Our first stop was the Nantucket Whaling Museum-Peter Foulger Gallery, 13-15 Broad Street. The Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) offered a combined pass that included admission to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, and several historical sites that were open seasonally.

The Oldest House and Historic Garden , located on rural Sunset Hill, was built in 1686, and is the oldest building on Nantucket Island.

Note the size of the fireplace in the interior shot of the Oldest House.

In 2006, the NHA restored the Historical Garden as an early 1700s herb and vegetable garden, and added an orchard of “antique” apple varieties.

We headed back to town, through beautiful tree lined neighborhoods to Main Street, home to a wonderful collection of architecturally significant residences.

The Hadwen House, 96 Main Street, is a Greek Revival mansion built in 1845 by William Hadwen, a whaling merchant and silver retailer.

Note the elaborate table setting in the West Parlor of the Hadwen House.

Directly across from the Hadwen House at 93-97 Main Street were three virtually identical brick mansions, built in 1839 by whaling merchant Joseph Starbuck. Known colloquially as The Three Bricks, Joseph Starbuck built these houses for his three sons. (Notes from Brian Pfeiffer’s article, The East Brick, Nantucket, Antiques & Fine Art [Journal], August/September, 2006).

We continued along Main Street amongst more Victorians to the commercial district.

Italianate Queen Anne Victorian on Main Street.

We returned to the Whaling Museum to see a documentary on the sperm whale that beached in 1998.
Our stroll then took us to the wharf area where we window-shopped among the gift shops and art galleries, before heading back to the dock.

Late that afternoon, the American Spirit pulled anchor and began the overnight cruise to Martha's Vineyard. Sandy Balla spoke to us about the sights we would have the opportunity to see tomorrow. Another exciting day awaited us!

Postscript: Since our visit to Nantucket was on a Monday, an important group of attractions was closed to the public. This was the assemblage of museums, including the original observatory, operated by the Maria Mitchell Association. Maria (pronounced Mariah) Mitchell (1818-1889) was the first astronomer to discover a comet by use of a telescope. This occurred on Nantucket in 1847. She was the first woman to be named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. See article for more biographical information.