Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Block Island are classic New England islands.
Framed by white sand beaches, these photogenic locations are dotted with Victorian architecture and Federal-style brick mansions built by sea captains and industrialists who profited from the once-thriving whaling trade.
Lighthouses, dramatic bluffs and windswept dunes complete the alluring picture that keeps tourists coming every spring, summer and fall.
As there are no bridges to these islands, most visitors use the ferry service that runs throughout the day, taking one to two hours each way. Some also fly. And a handful get there by small cruise ships.
Small-ship cruises are a convenient way to sample New England's enchanting islands. It eliminates the hassle of making round-trip ferry or flight reservations, which are often difficult to get in high season.
Serving as both transport and hotel, small-ship cruises — under 200 passengers or so — are nimble enough to slip into picturesque yacht harbors and narrow channels, and dock or moor right in the heart of town.
- Nantucket is ringed by beaches, and its small cobblestone streets and early 19th-century architecture helped make the entire island a National Historic Landmark District.
- Martha's Vineyard is beloved for its frilly, gingerbread-style Victorian cottages in Oak Bluffs as well as the dramatic headlands of Aquinnah.
- Block Island is known for its grand sea-facing Victorian-era hotels, such as The Atlantic Inn.
- New Bedford was once the whaling capital of the world and the inspiration behind Herman Melville's classic American novel, Moby Dick, published in 1841.
- Newport is famous for its extravagant Gilded Age mansions, some of which are open for touring.
- Bristol was the home of the Herreshoff shipyard that produced eight America's Cup yachts; today there's a marine museum that explores the history of boat building in the area.
There are two cruise lines that spend a good part of each year cruising New England and its offshore islands — American Cruise Lines and Blount Small Ship Adventures.
American Cruise Lines is a US-owned, operated and crewed company with a fleet of 13 small, modern ships, including the 100-passenger American Star and 175-passenger American Constitution.
The company's seven-night New England islands cruises start (and end) in Providence, Rhode Island. The itinerary includes stops at New Bedford, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Block Island in Massachusetts; and Newport and Bristol in Rhode Island.
Cabins are spacious at 200 to 450 square feet, and most have balconies. Six roomy cabins are designed for single occupancy, a rarity in the cruise world. There is an onboard historian/naturalist and perks like a putting green and gym equipment on the sun deck. Fares start at $4,140 per person and include most guided excursions and cocktail hour in the evening, plus beer and wine at lunch and dinner.
"There is nothing like island hopping in New England," said Charles B. Robertson, the company's vice president. "Only a smaller ship can truly deliver the experience of coming into Nantucket Harbor, Great Salt Pond or Vineyard Haven."
Meanwhile, Blount Small Ship Adventures has a pair of US-flagged, 84-passenger ships — the Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner — which are homey yet utilitarian. Cabins are compact, a point reflected in the cruises' lower price. The overall vibe is casual, and the ships employ a BYOB policy. Free house beer and wine are available at lunch and dinner.
Many are attracted to Blount for its legacy. Founded in 1966 by entrepreneur and inventor Luther Blount — and still family-owned and operated today — the company thrives on its heritage as an innovative boat builder and pioneer of coastal and inland cruises. The boats navigate waterways and visit places many other boats cannot.
The line's six-night "Islands of New England" itinerary cruises between New York and Boston and starts at $2,259 per person, stopping at Block Island, Newport, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Plymouth.
Ships that aren't registered in the United States and instead fly a foreign flag are subject to cabotage laws that require them to call, or stop, at a foreign port when sailing between two U.S. ports. For New England cruises, this often means a stop in Canada.
As a result, several ships stop on one or two New England islands as part of fall foliage cruises (mostly to and from Boston, New York or Montreal) or when en route to Iceland or Europe. Many are too large to dock and instead anchor offshore and shuttle passengers to town in tenders.
The all-suite, all-inclusive luxury 490-passenger Regent Seven Seas Navigator includes a stop at Martha's Vineyard on a 15-night cruise between New York and Reykjavik in June 2020, starting at $8,599 per person.
Starting late August of this year, Norwegian Cruise Lines' 2,394-passenger Norwegian Gem will run a seven-night New England cruise out of Boston, which includes stops at Martha's Vineyard and Newport. Rates start at $972 per person for an inside cabin.
In 2021, Victory Cruise Lines' 202-passenger Victory I will begin seven-night cruises from St. John (Canada) to Boston, making stops at Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. These cruises start at $4,999 per person, and include a pre-cruise hotel night, daily excursions and alcoholic drinks.
- New England's cruising season is from May to September.
- Occasionally storms and rocky seas can alter itineraries and necessitate skipping a stop.
- Look for whales — humpback, finback, minke and others — when cruising between Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and also near Boston at the Stellwagen Bank.
Co-founder of QuirkyCruise.com, Heidi Sarna, has taken more than 100 cruises and specializes in small-ship cruising.