The unspoiled beauty of Maine, the freedom of sailing on open water and relaxation is what my wife Terri said for years would make for the perfect vacation. The enviable troika are finally checked off the bucket list as she experienced her favorite trip ever when we traveled throughout Maine's Penobscot Bay in August while aboard the venerable schooner the American Eagle, based in Rockland.
It is a thrill for my wife since she is accustomed to vacations typically comprised of chock-full, chaotic itineraries, and the sojourn aboard the grand American Eagle is a hit with both her and our sons, Eddie, 16 and Milo, 13. I am asked while booking if I think my teenage boys will enjoy being disconnected from the world - cell service on the trip from charming Rockland is nearly non-existent as we travel along the coast of Maine, from Rockland to Harborside, then on to Stonington and North Haven and back to Rockland. That turns out to be no problem for my guys, who are outdoor types who prefer adventure to video games.
The night before departing we board the magnificent single-deck, two-masted schooner.
"I wasn't expecting it to look like this," Milo says. "I was expecting something more modern. [This] looks like something out of a history book."
The American Eagle - which is 92 feet on deck 125 feet overall - is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1930 and initially named the Andrew and Rosalie. Its total length is . The frame and planking are oak. The ceiling is fir, and the decking is pine.
After meeting the calm and steely captain John Foss, who purchased The American Eagle in 1984, his three-person crew and the 17 fellow passengers taking the the three-day, four-night adventure, we retire to our bunks in the hold.
Even with 24 occupants, there is no space issue, though the hold, which has been fitted with 14 double-occupancy passenger cabins, is confined. Two single-sized wooden bunks line the wall of our cabin. My wife takes the top bunk, while I read my novel courtesy of the 40-watt bulb by the sink. The space next door is fine for Milo, but Eddie, who is getting used to his 6' foot frame, does have to make some adjustments in order to crash. But the sleeping is good, as the ship rocks us into dreamland each night.
Breakfast is served no later than 8 a.m. But it's an "early to bed, early to rise" existence aboard the American Eagle. I've experienced very good to middling food on similar trips. But thanks to Matt, the ship's culinary artist, each meal is a cut above virtually every platter I've had on a vessel. Eggs in Purgatory, which are poached eggs in a robust tomato sauce with pieces of toast, is satisfyingly spicy. Fruit and oatmeal complement the savory dish, and the coffee is hot.
After breakfast, we help hoist the cream-colored sail and we are off into the Penobscot Bay. It is overcast, but the seven-hour ride to Harborside is smooth, and the relaxation commence as I open my book. Within half an hour, I am out like the dim light in my cabin. It feels like a guilty pleasure. When is there ever time for a midday nap?
The journey isn't exact. Our captain has an idea where to head but part of the fun is traveling where the wind takes the schooner. Not long after we have disembarked we slip past pretty Owls Head. After a lunch of hearty pork stew and homemade baked bread, we pass the time with some casual conversation among about a dozen of us.
I discover that about half of the patrons have sailed the American Eagle before. The appeal is evident. You have the opportunity to chill and tune out. About once a day I receive a text or two reminding me of the aggravation I have left behind, grateful that I can't respond due to the lack of reception. It's just best to turn your cell phone off.
When we dock off the coast of Harborside, the fun begins in earnest. We have the opportunity to dive off of the bow into chilly Penobscot Bay. Few opt for the polar plunge, but both of my boys are game, and after a little coaxing, I jump. The water is jarring initially but stimulating once I acclimate.
After climbing back aboard, it's time for our lobster fest.
"Does anyone want to save a lobster," our captain asks as we observe the lobsters crawling on top of each other.
"I do," Milo says. Captain John picks up a lucky 2-pound crustacean and hands it to Milo, who tosses him overboard after his claws are unencumbered.
"I hope this doesn't mean that I'll just be watching everyone eat lobster," Milo says. "I hope there is some lobster for me." There was plenty of lobster, and Milo has two.
After dinner, the captain tells bedtime stories - always a salty tale - around 8 p.m. each evening. When we ask what island he is from, he replies with a smirk: "I'm from the island of Manhattan."
Foss grew up at the Yankee epicenter but his heart has been in the Maine waters since he was a teenager. "I experience something different every time I go out. It's a good reason to do this trip more than once."
On our trip, the only disappointment in the evenings is not being able to see the myriad of stars after story time is over. I walk on deck each night and stare into the dark, starless sky. But the fresh air, a glass of pinot noir and quiet is a winning combination that makes up for the cloudy skies.
The next morning, Eggs Benedict and fresh fruit are served before we shove off from Harborside for the seven-hour trip to Stonington. Milo, donning a fire hat, hosed off the anchor just before we disembarked. Eddie and Milo learn basic seamanship from the crew - they are taught to tie knots and how to raise a sail.
We dock off the shore of quaint Stonington, and again spend time diving and swimming around the schooner.
The following morning we wake to a thick fog and board rowboats. We have 90-minutes to explore the pretty, quiet town. Milo has been pleading for a haircut so we stop into a townie barbershop. The stylist is a bit curt and cranky but Milo leaves presentable. We stretch our legs by window shopping around the cute, remote village before returning to the American Eagle.
An hour after leaving Stonington for the six-hour cruise to North Haven, the fog burns off and finally we are basking in the warm sun. We all enjoy a comforting nap on deck as the gentle sway of the schooner and the welcome rays of light lull us to sleep. After indulging in a two-hour snooze, we witness a school of seals just off of the bow. When it's time for our last late afternoon dive into the chilly drink, we can't wait because it is considerably warmer. Even my wife joined the boys and myself for a swim around the schooner.
After a delicious salmon dinner, the captain once again renders maritime tales. Before hitting my bunk, I venture up on to the deck. After considerable cloud cover, the skies have finally opened and the payoff is a plethora of stars in this unpolluted paradise.
Anyone looking for a relaxing journey by sea on a steady vessel should consider a run on the American Eagle.
The accommodations are comfortable, the meals are hearty and tasty and the sights are memorable. You never know who will board as guests but everyone was friendly on our trip. More than half of our travel mates had already experienced the American Eagle. We're certain that a return trip is in our future as well.