Cape May Light heralds new era for American Classic

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Most of the attention surrounding U.S.-flag operator American Classic Voyages (ACV) has centered on its United States Line brand, which in 2003 will introduce the first large-scale, U.S.-flag ships in modern cruising's 30-year history.

But ACV's fleet is expanding in other areas. In fact, the line's newest vessel, Cape May Light, isn't a megaship but a coastal vessel, modeled after the "packet" ships of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cape May Light also is the first vessel for a new ACV brand, Delta Queen Coastal Voyages.

The ship was named at an April ceremony here by Elaine Chao, secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, who lauded the vessel's debut as an important step in reviving the U.S. commercial shipbuilding industry.

A second coastal ship, Cape Cod Light, will follow later this year.

The 224-passenger Cape May Light is "a U.S.-built ship that will sail proudly under the U.S. flag with an American crew," said Chao.

"Sustaining and building a strong American maritime industry is important to our nation's security and economy."

Cape May Light prior to its christening in Alexandria, Va.As Chao pointed out, commercial ships often play a crucial role in times of war, serving as troop transport vessels and provisioning ships.

Thus, the U.S. government has a stake, she said, in the expansion of the ACV fleet, which is today the only major U.S.-flag cruise operator.

The construction of the Cape May Light, along with two 72,000-ton, 1,900-passenger ships ACV is having built, is being funded in part through U.S. government loan guarantees.

"There were some challenges," said Rod McLeod, ACV's president. "This is the first vessel of its size for [Jacksonville, Fla.-based shipbuilder] Atlantic Marine and the first time our development team has worked with the shipyard."

Indeed, McLeod said he expects to make important changes to the next ship, Cape Cod Light, adding slightly larger staterooms, among other measures.

Still, he said such difficulties are a part of shipbuilding.

"The challenges we and Atlantic Marine have faced are not limited to U.S. yards. We do have a lot on our plate. Many of us who are around here today were not here when [Cape May Light] was designed."

Nevertheless, said McLeod, "This ship and Cape Cod Light will be the prototypes for the next ships."

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao with American Classic Voyages executives Rod McLeod, left, and Philip Calian. Cape May Light's completion is a significant step in ACV's evolution. Based in New Orleans, the company operated in the shadow of the leading Florida-based fleets and their feature-rich megaships. For nearly 20 years, ACV operated two transatlantic-era ships in Hawaii and three replica steamboats on U.S. rivers.

ACV will join the circle of big-ship operators in 2003 with the first of its two megaships, under construction at Mississippi's Ingalls shipyard.

The company recently relocated its headquarters to Sun- rise, Fla., forging an agreement to lease a new facility.

Meanwhile, Delta Queen Coastal Voyages will accelerate the diversification of ACV's core audience.

Cape May Light will expand ACV's areas of operation, sailing along the U.S. East Coast; the Great Lakes; the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and the coastlines of Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.

Still, Delta Queen Coastal Voyages is a niche cruise line whose vessels have little in common with contemporary megaships.

"Not all travel agents are going to sell this product or are prepared to sell this," said McLeod. "But there are some cruise-savvy agents that do have that ability."

In its inaugural season, Cape May Light will offer seven-day cruises between Norfolk, Va., and Philadelphia; Philadelphia and Providence, R.I.; Providence and Portland, Maine, and Portland and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The vessel also will offer 14-day sailings between Halifax and Buffalo, N.Y., as well as seven-day itineraries between Quebec City and Buffalo; seven-day, roundtrip cruises departing from Providence and Charleston, S.C., and 14-day cruises between Charleston and Philadelphia.

In the winter, the ship will journey to the warmer waters of Central America and Mexico.

McLeod said Delta Queen Coastal Voyages are attractive to well-traveled vacationers -including frequent cruisers -- in search of destination-oriented travel experiences.

"We are at one end of a funneling process that starts with 7 million passengers," he said.

"Eighty percent of Delta Queen passengers have cruised aboard the major lines. Most of cruising today is ship-oriented; we are destination-oriented," McLeod said. "This vessel is a way to go from one interesting place to another."

Cape May's itineraries will include a selection of shore excursions (included in the cruise tariff) that will highlight contemporary and historical culture in the destinations visited.

The ship also will offer specially created, optional shore excursions at select ports.

A series of eight-day Philadelphia-Providence cruises in June, August and October feature port calls in New York (two-day call); New London, Conn.; Nantucket, Fall River and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and Newport, R.I.

Passengers, for example, will be able to visit the Greek Revival mansions on Whale Oil Row in New London, featured in Melville's "Moby Dick"; climb to the top of Nantucket's First Congregational Church for a 360-degree view of the island, and stroll down Newport's fashionable Bellevue Avenue.

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