Experience Wanderbird Cruises in Maine

by  Amber Nolan | Nov 17, 2010
Portland, Maine
Portland, Maine / Sean Pavone / iStock

While scouring the web, I came across an article about Wanderbird, a tiny fishing vessel in Belfast, Maine that welcomes up to 12 passengers aboard on its adventures to Greenland, the Caribbean, Maine, Newfoundland, and Labrador. The idea of sailing on a smaller expedition ship intrigued me, and the six-day “Fantastic Fall Foliage” cruise along the coast of Maine sounded like the perfect itinerary to see what the Wanderbird was all about.

There’s not much to the ship’s home port of Belfast besides a few restaurants serving up fresh lobster (you can see the fishermen coming in with their catch of the day), a handful of art galleries, and some local stores selling homemade crafts and books. However, the town is charming and welcoming, and makes for a crowd-free stopover en route to busy Bar Harbor. During my visit, the old Dutch trawler waited patiently in the harbor for its newest group of passengers and crew. Several of the veteran sailors were making the fall foliage cruise their final journey aboard the ship after spending more than a year on board.

This 90-foot ship is also the home of Rick and Karen Miles, who have logged more than 100,000 nautical miles and invite guests to join them “wherever they feel like wandering next.” They stand by this credo: we had no clear route in place – a concept that was exciting at first, but proved to be a bit frustrating once we were underway.

To access my cabin, I climbed down a ladder into what was once the fishing cargo hold, but now sported shiny wood flooring, framed sketches of the vessel, and a black-and-white map of Maine and Newfoundland.  My cabin was the size of a walk-in closet; spanning the length of a wooden bunk bed (other rooms have double beds). A few shelves on the wall and below the beds provided storage, and the ship’s “head” was a compost toilet and sink, which doubled as my shower by attaching a hose to the faucet. This was a far cry from the type of cruising I was used to.

With such tight living quarters, passengers usually gathered on the deck of the ship and in the warmth of the coach house which especially drew a crowd during mealtimes. The door to the captain’s wheelhouse (where a resident parrot is perched), is always open. My favorite area quickly became the kitchen, where cheerful Robin – who always had a genuine smile on – made homemade muffins and cookies from scratch that made the room smell heavenly. It was, hands down, the coziest little nook I’ve ever seen, and self-serve coffee and tea were always available (conveniently located just below the cookie jar).

With the exception of a brief safety meeting, the first day at sea set the stage for how the rest of the trip would transpire. A bell rang the morning signaling that breakfast was being served, but chances are you were already awake (most passengers were in bed by 10:30 p.m. giving ample time to rest up). Breakfast was a pleasant surprise each day – from crab and avocado frittatas to homemade blueberry pancakes and spinach crepes stuffed with mushrooms, onions, and apples. For lunch, the sweet potato and rosemary soup was to die for, and the chicken picatta with garlic aïoli nearly put me into a “food coma.” The meals weren’t the only surprise: all that we knew about our itinerary was that we’d be “looking at the trees for a while.”

Light_House_Maine / Amber Nolan

I curled up with a good book in one of the wicker deck chairs and chatted with the crew and passengers as Paulo, the playful pup, rested his paws along the rail to take in the scenery floating by. We also spotted a group of seals catching some rays on a rock and a bald eagle perched in its nest.  As relaxing as this was, by the end of the day I was ready to get off the ship and stretch my legs. While I have to admire Captain Rick’s free-spirited nature that takes him where it may, for travelers on vacation, some tentative itinerary would have been useful. As it turns out, the following day we went ashore in Camden for about an hour and a half – a town I had just visited on my way to Belfast.

The October weather was comfortable during the day, and cold and crisp at night – the perfect combination for stargazing. At night, the ships engines are turned off as it anchors in calm inlets and harbors. One evening, I laid on the deck (cocooned in my down mummy-style sleeping bag), and stared up into the midnight abyss. I heard nothing but a lonely owl and the distant sound of dock bells announcing the water’s arrival to shore. It was an amazing feeling to be away from it all.

The ship only stopped once more at the small community of Swan Island, where “Wanderbirders” were able to comb the beaches for sea glass, visit a lighthouse, and meet some local lobster fishermen. One of the ship’s previous passengers, a resident of Swan Island, joined us for dinner that evening. She and the crew shared their stories of being welcomed with open arms in Newfoundland, as well as nautical traditions they had started in Maine in the some harbor towns they frequently visited.

While the group listened wide-eyed, I felt that we were all yearning for these types of encounters during our own fall foliage, but unfortunately we did not have a chance to do so. A storm was brewing and with safety as the first concern, Captain Rick brought us back to Belfast to avoid the high winds. I was disappointed that the weather had caused us to return to port, but from what I did experience, this particular voyage wasn't the adventure I’d anticipated. I was hoping to really get to know the hidden harbor towns of Maine, but was only able to look from afar and the cruise lacked that extra excitement.

In all fairness, the crew had been sailing nonstop without a break for months, and this was their final trip before the new staff took over (who they were busy training). Karen Miles ? who is normally aboard the ship ? stayed behind in Belfast to catch up on the office work that had piled up while she was at sea. When she joined us for dinner on our final evening, it was clear that her cheerful and friendly demeanor was as much a part of a Wanderbird cruise as the ship itself, and perhaps was the missing link on our trip. Still, for the $1,100 price tag per person (plus gratuities), additional activities such fishing, a knot tying lesson, or more information about the lighthouses we passed would have made all the difference. Some of Wanderbird’s other Maine cruises include kayaking and hiking adventures, and this extra shore time would have been welcomed on our fall foliage journey as well.

Although there are areas for improvement, the peaceful scenery, like-minded company, time away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and mouthwatering cuisine (that may end up in a cookbook soon), was what made the Wanderbird experience a memorable one. Bring a good book or two and a camera and let yourself forget the world for a while.

Here are a few tips when planning a cruise on Wanderbird:

  • Bring a sleeping bag. In the fall, the rooms can be very damp and chilly (some nights I could see my breath), and in the summer you can sleep on the deck under the stars.
  • Pack like you are camping on a boat (think sweatshirts and sweatpants) and bring several smaller bags instead of one larger one. When you think you have enough socks, pack more.
  • Expect no-frills accommodations. You must be comfortable with tight quarters.
  • If you can, bring binoculars, a telescope, an easy-to-read stargazing map, and a flashlight. (Our group spent about an hour trying to pin down where the North Star was on an anchored ship that was floating in circles.)

To learn more about where the Wanderbird is heading next, or to book a cruise, visit www.wanderbirdcruises.com.

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