All Locked Up on the Waterways of the Erie Canal

Aboard The Grande Mariner

I know there is something different about this cruise when the ship is sinking - and that's OK. Or when I look out my cabin's beautiful picture window and all I can see is concrete, just inches away.

It's all part of sailing 100-odd miles on the Erie Canal. Suddenly, our boat is lowered in one of the many locks that interrupt the waterway, and its chamber's walls loom nearby. These engineering wonders were built nearly 175 years ago, connecting the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean.

Back then, the canal was a lifeline for commerce. Goods-laden barges plied its crowded waters at a sluggish 1-1/2 miles per hours, assisted by work horses or mules on the banks.

Today, joggers and bicyclists frequent the towpaths once worn smooth by mules. The hustle and bustle of water commerce has yielded to the quieter sounds of nature and distant traffic. And pleasure boats - including the cruise ship on which I'm traveling - have supplanted the low, flat ships that extended a young nation's trade.

A cruise ship on the Erie Canal may sound like an oxymoron. But for five days, 66 passengers and I made our way down the arrow-straight passages of the canal, experiencing the gentle beauty of its tree-lined banks while honoring its hard-scrabble history.

The typical cruise ship could never fit down the Erie Canal, with its narrow widths and low bridges (the lowest is a mere 14 feet, 2 inches). But the vessels of the American Canadian Caribbean Line (ACCL) are designed to go where others can't.

The cozy, 100-passenger Grande Mariner, which made its maiden voyage earlier this year, has a special pilothouse that can be lowered from its usual perch on the open top deck to the next deck. In keeping with its modest size, the Grande Mariner steers away from the extravagance for which most liners are famous - no posh recreation rooms here. Instead, the ship features one lounge and one dining room, plus a top deck (closed while on the canals) and 50 passenger cabins.

I'm especially intrigued by my cabin. It sports its own ventilation system, an intercom over which Capt. Michael Snyder draws attention to passing landmarks, and a shower compartment that is created by drawing a protective curtain around the sink and toilet.

But what's most interesting is outside. For many, the canals' main attractions are the locks, timeless marvels that raise or lower boats from one level to another. On this trip, it's hard to miss them, with some 20 along the way - each surrounded by neatly kept buildings, impeccable landscaping, and beautiful gardens.

The locks are also hard to overlook because the ship's sides sometimes bounce against their walls. But despite such jolts, the locks are a well-oiled operation, and passing through one usually lasts only about 20 to 30 minutes.

Sound leisurely? It is. This isn't a cruise for the hyperactive. ("They'd jump ship!" says one passenger.)

This cruise has attracted retired teachers, scientists, and engineers who are eager to learn more about historic spots while thoroughly enjoying themselves. I can't get anything less than a rave out of any of them about the cruise.

They thrill to hear the lilting voice of Isa Snchez, the cruise director from Barcelona, Spain, as she announces the day's four or so activities.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!" Ms. Snchez exclaims. "This morning we will have arts and crafts in the dining room...." Or card-playing. A lecture in the lounge after lunch. Bingo. A movie in the evening, or a performance by a musical group while in port.

Of course, as on many cruises, one of the most anticipated activities is mealtime. Jeff the Chef, as everybody calls him, keeps passengers well fed. Diners feast on a delectable array - everything from strawberry pancakes in the morning to lobster rolls, prime rib, and Baked Alaska as the day progresses.

Jeff Austin's menus underscore the homelike, personal touches this smaller cruise offers. Dessert at lunch one day, for example, is an ice-cream sundae bar, full of tempting flavors and toppings. But one thing Mr. Austin hasn't counted on is several people asking for sugar-free ice cream, which isn't on board.

That evening at dinner, once the ship has stocked up in port, Austin presents each passenger who had asked with a specially prepared bowl of sugarless delights.

Another big hit with the diners is open seating. Cruises typically assign seats. Here, passengers freely move about from table to table with each new meal, allowing everybody to meet one another.

For many passengers, the highlight of the cruise doesn't happen on the Erie Canal, but near the beginning of the 12-day itinerary, which starts much farther north in Quebec. A trip down the Saguenay River, which flows into the St. Lawrence River, yields prized sightings of beluga, minke, and humpback whales.

The wide-ranging cruise, which is one of ACCL's most popular, also includes stops in Montreal, the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, and West Point, N.Y on the Hudson River. The finale is a lap around Manhattan Island, brushing near the Statue of Liberty.

The Grande Mariner makes its final dock at the ACCL headquarters in Warren, R.I., where ACCL founder Capt. Luther Blount has designed and built 300 ships, including the three now operating for ACCL in the Americas.

"I've had fun," says one passenger near the end of the cruise. "It's your own fault it you didn't."

* The American Canadian Caribbean Line can be reached at 800-556-7450.

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