ABOARD THE ST. LAURENT — Small-ship cruising is starting to gain traction in North America, and the latest entrant in the category is Haimark Line, which launched this month.
The company's newly named St. Laurent made its initial voyage from Montreal on May 30, taking 122 passengers on a nine-day, eight-port journey to Portland, Maine.
Along the way, the classic coastal cruise ship made stops in four provinces of Canada: Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as well as Bar Harbor, Maine.
Guests sailed within sight of land almost the entire way, including a day of cruising between Quebec City and Gaspe on the St. Lawrence River.
The St. Laurent was built in 2000 as the Cape May Light for American Classic Voyages, but it never got to sail for that company, which went bankrupt following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The Federal Maritime Administration held title to the ship until 2008. After that, it served as housing for earthquake aid workers in Haiti and as dorm space at a Maryland college, among other uses.
The five-deck, 286-foot-long vessel is attractively decorated in blue, gold and eggshell colors. An understated American colonial design carries throughout the ship, with fluted columns in its lounge and main dining room.
Decks 2 and 3 feature mostly oceanview cabins with windows, while cabins on Deck 4 open directly onto an outdoor promenade. The open fifth deck has two areas for lounge chairs, a small gazebo and the bridge area for the 4,980-ton diesel ship.
My 155-square-foot cabin featured two wide windows with expansive views. A queen-size bed left just enough room on either side to squeeze by between the bed and the walls.
The modern and well-lit bathroom featured a tall, narrow shower and came with L'Occitaine bath amenities. Terrycloth robes and a small television are standard in each room, while suites and AA cabins have minibars.
Public areas on the St. Laurent include the aft Shearwater main dining room on Deck 1 and the midship Compass Lounge on Deck 2. Forward of the lounge is a cozy Seaescape Tavern.
But the most appealing area on the ship is the Deck 4 aft bar and restaurant, the Cliff Rock Bar & Grille. The outdoor space offers hot-rock cooking, in which steaks and other items cook at the table on slabs heated to 450 degrees.
The area also offers a cold breakfast and lunch option. Electric heaters built into the ceiling were a welcome feature on a somewhat chilly Canadian evening when we dined there. There is no extra charge for dinner, but reservations are needed; it seats about 40 people.
I missed having a gym or exercise space on the ship, but there is room for massage and other spa treatments. Internet service was intermittent on our shakedown cruise.
Entertainment is limited to a vocal duo and enrichment speakers, which on our cruise included former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
For the most part, the shallow-draft ship handled nicely without much motion in the open ocean, although a rough spell before dinner one night left some of the dining room staff seasick.
Vibration from the ship's engines and props felt stronger than on most vessels, although it didn't seem to bother many guests.
Haimark is still putting final touches on the ships; artwork for the corridors and public rooms, for example, is being purchased from Tilberg Design.
The St. Laurent joins a small fleet of coastal cruisers that includes brands such as Un-Cruise Adventures and Pearl Seas Cruises. Travel agents aboard said clients like a small ship that doesn't require an overseas flight to reach.
In addition to the Canadian Maritime itinerary, the St. Laurent will sail the Great Lakes and Eastern Seaboard this summer and fall before heading to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Panama Canal and deep southern Caribbean itineraries.