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by Kristin Harrison

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If your definition of a fantastic cruise includes an informal atmosphere, pristine beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and daily activities of swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking, then I have found a trip for you. American Canadian Caribbean Line, ACCL, runs cruises in the Bahamas and Caribbean that travel through untouched island paradises on a daily basis. I traveled with ACCL on their cruise from Provodenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands north to Nassau in March on the Grande Mariner, a 183 ft. boat with space for 100 passengers in 50 cabins.

This cruise itinerary is designed for the water and beach lover. The Grande Mariner carries a Sunfish sailboat, a glass bottom boat, and two kayaks that passengers can use throughout the trip. We traveled to beautiful, small, and secluded islands on what felt like our own private yacht. Shopping, nightlife, and cultural attractions were not a part of this itinerary.

ACCL is an unusual cruise line, and not for everyone. The atmosphere aboard the Grande Mariner was informal, laid-back, and relaxed. Entertainment options usually were reading, working on puzzles, card games, board games, or watching a movie. Meals were served at 8am, 12pm, and 6pm in the dining room, with a single menu and no assigned seating. On our trip, there were only 32 passengers, so we got to know our fellow passengers quite well. Nearly all of the passengers were repeat ACCL cruisers, some having traveled with the line since its inception in the 1960's. Most were senior citizens, but I see no reason why younger passengers would not enjoy this cruise line greatly, as long as they had realistic expectations of the trip and realized their age bracket would be the minority.

There was no fitness room, swimming pool, or any activity beyond games, books, and a keyboard. If you are looking for entertainment, dancing, and shore excursions, this trip is not for you. However, there were lots of active things to do, particularly water related. I, as an avid swimmer and boat lover, had a great time. I could swim to the boat from the beach, kayak around an island, read a novel on a white sand beach, and go for a run on a deserted island. It was as active or relaxing as I wanted to make it.

The cabins aboard the Grande Mariner are small and simple. Each cabin has twin beds or a double bed, a small set of shelves, closet, and a bathroom that combines the toilet, shower, and sink into one small space. Luxurious they were not! But, they were comfortable, clean, and functional. Our cabin had a large window that overlooked the sea; smaller cabins have portholes.

The staff on the Grande Mariner was friendly, courteous and helpful. We came to know the crew on a first name basis, and they felt like family by the time we left the ship. All but one of the crew were from New England; most were from Warren, Rhode Island and had worked with ACCL for multiple years.

The chef, Mike Martela, was happy to create dishes for passengers with special dietary needs or simply because they didn't like the main dish offered on a given evening. There were a variety of entrees served on our 11-night cruise, from salmon to an Italian night with veal stuffed with sausage, and there were decadent desserts and fresh breads daily. Because the staff was so flexible and accommodating no one complained about the one-menu dining plan; in fact, passengers raved about the meals to me regularly.

ACCL has an unusual BYOB policy (Bring your Own Bottle) -- they do not sell alcohol on board its ships. However, alcohol was served at many events such as two happy hours with an open bar, a "tropical night" with Bahamian rum punch, an ice cream party with coffee and your choice of liquors, a celebration night with champagne, and sangria served on Italian night. We also had green beer on the last day of the cruise, St. Patrick's Day, to accompany a lunch of corned beef sandwiches and sauerkraut.


Friday -- We arrived at Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We met our fellow passengers at the boat and realized we, as mid-20 somethings, would be the youngest passengers on board by at least 40 years. We spent the afternoon exploring Provo's beaches and discovered a beautiful cove with blue-green water lapping gently at the shore, about a 10-minute walk away from the boat. I went for a run in the late afternoon and had an incredible view from a hilltop of the waters surrounding Provo. We had an informal dinner at 6, as eight passengers were not arriving until late evening. There was a movie on the large screen television in the ship's lounge for the evening entertainment.

Saturday -- Grande Mariner left the dock at sunrise. We spent the morning underway to Mayaguana Islands. I have found my favorite place on the boat, the top deck with lounge chairs and an awning for shade. There is a great breeze, wonderful view, and plenty of sun. In the afternoon we snorkeled from the boat's tender on a reef off Mayaguana. The water was warm and clear, and I saw a variety of marine life, including parrotfish. Happy hour was at 5 this evening, and as the welcoming night, there was an open bar, lots of delicious appetizers, and time to get to meet and talk to fellow passengers. Dinner was outstanding: salmon on a bed of risotto and spinach with a dessert of raspberry purses. The crew was introduced, 15, for 32 passengers. After dinner, the evening's activity choices were watching a movie or playing a card game called Turn the Corner.

Sunday -- Today we experienced one of the unique features of the Grande Mariner, its ability to place its bow up on the beach. We bow-landed on Plano Key and walked right out of the ship's bow onto the beach. This island was gorgeous and our footprints were the only ones I saw on the entire island. I went for a run down the beach and did not see a single sign of humanity on the long stretch of open beach. This afternoon we moved to Acklins Island and were tendered to the beach. We snorkeled, swam, and kayaked around the island. At Acklins, I saw "civilization": two small sailboats and one house tucked away on the island. The crew told me the beaches and water get more beautiful as the cruise progresses; I had a hard time believing that after the pristine nature of the beaches today. As a beach lover, I thought I was in heaven.

Monday -- We traveled from Acklins to Clarence Town on Long Island. The morning activities included "walking a mile with a smile" around the Grande Mariner, a 14.5 lap, playing Uno, and making a box out of postcards. I chose to read a book on the top deck and enjoy the sun. We docked at Clarence Town around 1:00pm and explored the town. There are two churches that stand high over the island. We climbed up the bell tower at St. Peter's Church via three narrow ladders, and were rewarded by breathtaking views of the island and its surrounding waters. We could see our ship at dock in the distance. Clarence Town has a population of about 60 and there is a small grocery store, one resort, and a few restaurants and bars. I walked around town for about an hour and then went on a snorkeling/beach trip at 2. We were tendered about a mile away from the boat to an island with yet another gorgeous beach and clear water. I went for a swim, floated on a raft I purchased in Clarence Town, and read a book on the beach. Tonight, after a dinner of chicken with cranberry sauce, a reggae band came to the dock and performed for us. A local man taught me how to dance Bahamian style. It was a lot of fun.

Tuesday -- We left Clarence Town at sunrise and the Captain announced that he would be changing our itinerary because of excellent weather conditions, an additional stop at Conception Island. The island was gorgeous. We anchored next to the cargo ship of the Windjammer fleet, Amazing Grace. Their passengers were the first group of tourists we have seen. For lunch we had a pizza party, then headed to Calabash Bay for more swimming and beach time. This was "Tropical night", and we had rum punch served on the top deck for happy hour. I have taken to writing on the top deck every evening. It was beautiful up there; the breeze blew our American flag flying from the boat's stern, the water silently rocked the boat, and the stars were bright with no city lights to dull their brilliance. It was one of the most peaceful and quiet places I had ever been.

Wednesday -- We left Calabash Bay early this morning and went to Volleyball beach off of the entrance to Georgetown. This beach was my least favorite so far, a small beach that had been trashed by visiting boaters. There are some volleyball nets strung up in the trees, apparently a great attraction and hotspot at some times of the year. I spent the morning on the beach and then went back to the boat sitting at anchor. We had lunch and the boat docked at Georgetown. Georgetown has some tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels. We shopped for a while, then returned to the boat and went on a snorkeling trip, a half hour tender ride to a reef. This snorkeling was the best so far and worth the cool temperatures and rain. Tonight was "Italian night." Chef Mike created a wonderful spread of bruschetta, veal stuffed with sausage surrounded by cheese tortellini, and chocolate parfait for dessert. I need to run and swim everyday just to balance out these decadent meals.

-- We left Georgetown this morning at 8am and headed for Galliott Cay in the Exumas. We arrived there by 12pm and anchored. We were tendered to the beach in a small cove for the afternoon of swimming and snorkeling. Tonight was "Celebration night" and passengers announced what they had to celebrate on this cruise. A celebration cake was served for dessert, a huge fantastic white cake with fruit in the middle.

Friday -- Today was my favorite day on the cruise. We were anchored at Big Major Spot Island, off of Staniel Cay by 8:30am and went on a glass bottom boat trip at 9:30. After the one hour boat ride, I went snorkeling in Thunderball Grotto, where scenes from the James Bond movie Thunderball had been filmed. You swam inside and discovered that the top has an opening to the sun, so it was like swimming in an aquarium. After that, we bow-landed on a beach on Big Major Spot Island, another idyllic beach with aquamarine waters ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Passengers kayaked during this stop as well. We stayed here for the afternoon and then docked at Staniel Cay. I went for a run as soon as we docked and discovered how beautiful and quaint Staniel Cay is. The rest of the passengers went downtown with some of the crew and fed nurse sharks that live just off the dock. We had happy hour at the Happy People Marina with rum punch and conch fritters. We sat on the sea wall, sipped rum punch, and watched the sunset. It was a wonderful day and evening.

Saturday -- We experienced our first day of choppy waters and overcast skies. We headed to Hawkbill Cay where we could snorkel on a reef that had a submerged jeep. Two glass bottom boat trips ran and the passengers saw more marine life than I did snorkeling, including sharks and lobster. After lunch, we went to a national park in the Exumas and spent the day on the beach. This park has miles of hiking trails and numerous snorkeling opportunities. This evening, after dinner, the crew put on an ice cream party on the top deck. Five or six types of ice cream were served with lots of candy, fruit, and liquor options as toppings.

Sunday -- This morning we headed to Normans Cay, an island with a history of Colombian drug dealers and pirates. It is a beautiful island with long white beaches, an airstrip, and one beach bar and restaurant. I spent the afternoon on the beach by our dock and watched a rainbow appear over the sailboats anchored in the cove. The beach was littered with conch shells. We took two for souvenirs. We had a "pirate's party" on the beach for happy hour, and some passengers found creative ways to create costumes, such as using shower rings for earrings and aluminum foil for eye patches. The crew was dressed in slightly more authentic costumes and served painkiller punch and appetizers.

Monday -- Today was our last full day on the boat. We had the roughest crossing of the trip this morning, with wind and seas making walking around the boat something of a challenge. We were supposed to go to Allans Cay, where large iguanas live, but were not able to land on the island because of the seas. We proceeded to Nassau instead, arriving there earlier than planned, seeing the Atlantis casino, hotel, and aquarium as we came into port. We docked between large Carnival and Princess ships. Compared to them, the Grande Mariner looked like a toy boat in a bathtub. After lunch, we hit the streets of Nassau, packed full of tourists and shops. Coming from 10 days of mostly uninhabited islands, Nassau was a shock to my senses. We went to the Straw Market, a huge collection of local vendors selling jewelry, hand-woven baskets, t-shirts, and seashells. It was crowded and packed with people. I went back to the boat and it began to rain. I sat under the awning on the top deck and read. The Captain had a farewell happy hour tonight with appetizers and an open bar. Dinner was with prime rib and Baked Alaska for dessert. After dinner, a live band played music on the top deck.

Tuesday -- Departure Day. We had breakfast and said our goodbyes to our fellow passengers. I walked around Nassau and took a last look at the beach. The sun came back out, making it that much harder to leave the Bahamas and return to central Texas.


The staff of the Grande Mariner did an outstanding job on this trip, and I would recommend this line to anyone looking for relaxation, a family atmosphere, and a beach lover's paradise.

ACCL runs 5 to 15-night cruises to a variety of locations: Central and South America, New England, Canada, the Great Lakes, the US Intracoastal Waterway, and the Caribbean. They operate three ships, the Niagara Prince, the Grande Mariner, and the Grande Caribe. All have shallow drafts, retractable pilothouses, and bow ramps. Prices begin at $980 for a repositioning cruise, with average fares around $2,000 for an 11-night trip, depending on the destination. Beverages and port charges are included in the fare; gratuities are not. There are some discounted cruises to select destinations.

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