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A 343-mile long ditch may seem like an unlikely tourist attraction. And yet, that was precisely the highlight of our recent 10-day Blount cruise. The ditch was the Erie Canal, which we visited onboard Blount’s Skylines and Islands cruise from Toronto, Canada, to New York City.
Forty-six of us — a happy mixture of Americans, Canadians and one lone Russian — sailed in full comfort onboard the Grande Caribe. Because of its retractable pilot house, a Blount innovation, our ship was able to transit locks and pass beneath low bridges. We entered the Erie Canal at Oswego and exited at Troy, a distance of 186 miles. The full Erie Canal System stretches from Albany to Buffalo, and was a huge move forward in transportation in its time. In Peter Bernstein’s “Wedding of the Waters,” the author describes the touching opening celebration of the canal in 1825 with New York governor DeWitt Clinton pouring a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean.
As we cruised, our captain narrated the canal’s colorful history. Construction begun in 1817, and the canal — known as “Old Erie” — opened in 1825, an amazing feat for that time period. Bonds sold by New York State financed the construction, which had a profound effect upon our country’s development both economically and socially. Within one year, 7,000 boats were operating on the canal, and the debt was repaid in 1837. Old Erie was 40 feet wide at the surface of the water, 28 feet wide at the bottom and four feet deep, with a 12-foot-wide towpath on one side. Two subsequent enlargements, both longer in duration and more costly than the original, brought the canal to its present size. While today the canal is primarily used for recreation and tourism, the original purpose was commercial and for economic advancement. Because of the canal, cities in upstate New York prospered.
Blount’s suggested reading list offers colorful descriptions of early travel on the Erie. Inspired by European canals, the first boats, known as packet boats, were drawn by horses or mules along the towpath. The packet boats were very basic with no amenities. According to author Harriet Beecher Stowe, canal travel was “just a horse, rope and muddy strip of water.”
In sharp contrast to the hardships of early Canal travel, our comfortable cabin on the Grande Caribe’s Sun Deck had two lower berths, a large sliding window and upgraded washroom and shower facilities. We had good storage space and individually controlled air conditioning.
On our itinerary, Skylines and Islands, the skylines referred to New York and Toronto’s tall buildings and the islands visited were the Thousand Islands, found in a 50-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence River as it leaves Lake Ontario. Some islands are large and forested, while others are barren rock. Our captain described an island as “any land above water with at least one rock and one tree.”
Besides the canal, this cruise offered an eclectic mix of scenic beauty, port stops and optional excursions. A full-day excursion out of Hamilton, Ontario, included a Niagara Falls cruise on the historic Maid-of-the-Mist and an elegant luncheon at Niagara-on-the-Lake plus a visit to an award-winning winery. From Kingston, Ontario, we toured historic Fort Henry, accompanied by a student guide dressed in the uniform of a 19th-century British soldier. In Cooperstown, New York, we visited both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Fenimore Art Museum with its fine collection of American Impressionists. There were two guided walking tours on the route: Kingston’s haunted buildings and Troy’s impressive St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, famous for its Tiffany windows.
Meals onboard the Grande Caribe are single seating, hearty, healthy and attractively presented. Two choices are offered on all dinner menus, and the talented kitchen crew makes every effort to accommodate diets and preferences. Blount has a unique bring-your-own-beer policy: Guests are invited to bring their preferred alcoholic beverages and the ship provides mixers, refrigeration and storage.
This was our fourth cruise with Blount; nine other passengers onboard also had previously traveled with the line. One guest said that her parents had sailed with Blount, making her a second-generation Blount traveler. Blount travelers are typically seniors, friendly, well-educated and well-traveled. Some are serious history buffs. For those needing assistance, there is a stair lift.
A family operation since 1966, Luther Blount patented a retractable pilothouse and a bow ramp, which allows passage from ship to beach without a tender. Blount began with a vision to “Go where the big ships cannot.”