Coastal Cat: Sailing on American Cruise Lines' American Eagle

Earlier this month, Travel Agent headed out for a “Great Rivers of Florida” sailing on board American Cruise Lines’ 100-passenger American Eagle, first in a new series of 241-foot-long coastal catamarans. Sister ship American Glory is also now sailing, with American Liberty and American Legend debuting this August and November, respectively.

In fact, with 52 years of North American sailing experience, American Cruise Lines (ACL) owns and operates the largest U.S.-flagged, small-ship fleet, currently totaling 17 vessels of various classes. (It’s important to stress that American Cruise Lines is a totally separate company from former competitor American Queen Voyages, which ceased all U.S. operations earlier this month.) Guests can sail the Mississippi, Columbia/Snake and other U.S. rivers, as well as coastal waters off New England, the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Alaska, Florida and many other spots.

Expanding rapidly, ACL has tripled its fleet within the past five years and five more new vessels are now under construction at the line’s affiliated Chesapeake Shipyard in Salisbury, MD. So, what can cruise guests expect if they sail aboard a coastal catamaran? In the first article of our three-part series about the ship and its unique itinerary, we take a firsthand look at American Eagle’s dining, public spaces and accommodations, including our Sky Suite, No. 404. 

The New "Coastal Cats"

Our cruise unfolded on Florida's St. John's and Tolomato rivers but ACL’s 241-foot-long “coastal cats” such as American Eagle are highly flexible. With a shallow draft of six and a half feet, they can maneuver into remote, off-the-beaten-path spots; they also can handle protected offshore ocean waters as they cruise at speeds up to 15 mph. 

So, their itineraries typically encompass spots along the East Coast from the Florida Keys to New England. Our Florida sailing included scheduled port calls at Green Cove Springs, Palatka, St. Augustine and Amelia Island, FL. (We'll discuss this unique itinerary in detail in a separate "Great Rivers of Florida" story, coming soon.) But let's say just a bit about boarding: We simply walked across from our pre-cruise hotel, the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville (not the Port of Jacksonville) to board American Eagle in downtown Jacksonville. Truly, it was easy-peasy with no cruise terminal to transit.

How close is the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville, ACL's pre-cruise hotel, for boarding of American Eagle or another coastal catamaran? This photo without a zoon, was taken from Travel Agent's suite balcony on American Eagle. Boarding was easy-peasy as it's just a short walk across the street.
How close is American Eagle to the ACL pre-cruise Hyatt Regency Jacksonville? This shot was taken from the ship (without any zooming). It's an easy-peasy walk across the street with no cruise terminal transit.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Most notably, though, we immediately were smitten with the design look of American Eagle, which sports a sleek, modern appearance and hefty number of private balconies for a small ship. Soon, we walked aboard with many ACL employees greeting and assisting guests. They voluntarily offered to carry hand luggage and any mobility devices on board for guests.

Getting Settled, Exploring Ship Spaces

Entering on the Main Deck, guests are checked off and are "good to go" beyond to their cabins. On that deck, they'll encounter two entrances to the Restaurant as well as a small reception desk ahead. There's no grand atrium, but that’s certainly understandable given the ship’s intimate size. Across from reception is a table and board with information about each day’s onboard activities and brochures or fact sheets about the port of call.

Other public areas—except for a small guest laundry on this Main Deck—are on the three decks above. American Eagle offers several natural-light-filled public venues on Decks 2 and 3 for relaxation, fitness, enrichment, cocktail hour and entertainment; an outdoor Sky Deck with comfortable seating on Deck 4; and four decks of guest accommodations, which by industry standards are very spacious for any small ship. For instance, even a lead-in balcony cabin has 310 square feet of interior and balcony space.

One of our firsthand takes? In some way, the feel of this coastal catamaran seems a bit larger than its actual size. Another is that the public spaces also work quite well for their intended usage. As for the inclusiveness of the product, pretty much everything is covered in the cruise fare—from gratuities to all beverages (including alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine and cocktails), as well as Wi-Fi, port charges, and fees, plus many shore excursions. The only added charge is for some specialty excursions.

So, now let's look at the onboard food and beverage options. 

Coastal Catamaran Dining

This is one of two singular aisle dining room table areas, located on either side of the galley (not visible to guests). The two aisles lead to a much wider part of the dining room aft.
Guests enter the Restaurant via long aisles on both sides of the galley (not visible to diners), each with a single row of window tables. The two aisles then converge farther aft for more dining space extending fully across the 55-foot beam. (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

On Deck 1, the one-level, U-shaped Restaurant wraps around a center, walled-off galley. Some dining is at window-side tables in a long, singular row on both sides of that galley. Farther aft, those two separate spaces flow into a wider dining room space that extends across the full beam with windows on both sides.

Our take? We dined in both Restaurant areas repeatedly. If guests are socializers and can’t wait to see who comes in for dinner and chat with those folks—and perhaps have them join at any empty place settings at your table—pick a table along those elongated singular rows flowing from each entry door; you’ll see fellow guests walking in and out, socialize and be “in the know.” But if you’d prefer a dinner a bit more to yourself, we'd suggest perhaps heading farther aft in the Restaurant to check out more table options. 

Two, four, six or another configurations all have pleasant scenic views. While it can vary by itinerary and schedule timing, on our cruise, the open-seating meal service was as follows: breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., lunch from noon to 1:30 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

At breakfast, the reverse side of the menu has a form that guests are asked to fill out every day with their name, stateroom number and checked boxes about what dishes they’d prefer for lunch and dinner that day. While we're not a fan of this concept, it's good to know that guests can change their minds later; it simply gives the line some idea of how many of each dish to prepare. 

The aft portion of American Eagle's Restaurant spreads out across the full, 55-foot beam with windows on both sides.
Fully aft on Deck 1 is the widest section of the Restaurant, extending across the full ship's beam with windows on both sides.  (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

At lunch and dinner, the reverse side of that printed menu instead lists specific complimentary beverages for each meal. Guests will have a vast array of choices, including many kinds of domestic and imported beer and many vintages of white, rose and red wine. Plus, travelers can order nonalcoholic beer, unsweetened iced tea, lemonade and sodas. If a particular drink or cocktail is desired at either meal, ACL tells us that guests can ask and servers will try to accommodate if possible.   

Examples of menus? One day’s breakfast options included southern eggs Benedict as the “feature of the day,” plus various omelets and eggs of any style. Also, guests could add on waffles, oatmeal, quiche and sides of bacon, sausage, breakfast potatoes, oatmeal and grits. At lunchtime, generally, the main dining room offered two or three entrees. One day that was a fried green tomato BLT, Napoleon lemon dill crab salad or Brunswick stew, along with dessert such as cherry pie and assorted ice cream. 

Guests definitely will find savory cuisine aboard American Cruise Line's American Eagle. Here's one shrimp dish we ordered -- fresh, cooked just right and tasty.
Guests will find savory, freshly made cuisine aboard American Eagle. A shrimp stew dish is shown above.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

However, if nothing appeals at lunch on a particular day, guests in the main dining room can also inform their server and order a freshly made pizza, burger or wrap from the casual Lookout Café on Deck 3 and have the dish delivered to them at their dining room table. At lunch on two different days, we ordered a small pepperoni pizza, which was so tasty, with a just-right crunchy crust —and, frankly, was among the best pizza we’ve had anywhere on land or sea.

Also during lunchtime, guests who prefer a more casual aura can head for that Lookout Café with its walk-up outside window. Guests can order what they desire and then either dine al fresco on the outside deck or inside at the adjacent Sky Lounge. At lunchtime, that lounge also offers a counter brimming with buffet-style fare, salads, fresh veggies, salmon, breads and so on. That typically runs between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

At dinner, guests only have the Restaurant for dining if they're seeking a public venue. They’ll usually have two appetizer choices, two or three savory entrée choices, and several dessert options. One night on our cruise the dinner menu included corn chowder soup or a wedge salad; a barbecue pork chop, veal schnitzel or crab-crusted salmon; and lemon raspberry cheesecake, apple turnover with apple brandy cream sauce and assorted ice cream. On another night, the choices included lobster bisque or prosciutto caprese salad; surf and turf, beef tenderloin or prosciutto wrapped codfish; and port wine poached pears and blue cheese, amaretto chocolate mouse and toasted almonds or assorted ice cream.

Surf 'n turf is among the dishes Travel Agent ordered during our "Great Rivers of Florida" voyage on American Eagle.
At dinner one night, Travel Agent ordered this delicious surf 'n turf dish of beef tenderloin, shrimp-and-crab-stuffed lobster tail, lemon zest asparagus, a baked potato and drawn butter.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

We usually never eat desserts at home and have them only sporadically on ships, but day after day, American Eagle’s homemade desserts were a cut above—so much so that we mentioned it to the restaurant manager, who brought out the ship’s pastry chef, Nicole, a young, enthusiastic crewmember, to meet us. Yes, even on a small ship of 100 passengers, there is a pasty chef.

Overall, service in the dining room would best be described as stellar. Our favorite server was A’Dreia, a crewmember from Roxton, TX, but all servers seemed friendly and helpful. A few were new servers in training, but were eager to learn and guest-centric. Servers and managers also continually asked, “How was your meal? Did you enjoy it. Is everything okay?” While that was appreciated, we would suggest the line dial back the frequency of that just a tad, tweaking the process so fewer people ask guests the same questions repeatedly at every meal.

Yummy desserts are profilic for those sailing American Eagle. The 100-passenger ship has a pasty chef!
Yummy desserts are prolific on American Eagle, given that this 100-passenger ship has a pastry chef! (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Also worth noting are these food-related points:  

  • A casual "Early Riser" breakfast is available in the Sky Lounge, too, typically starting at 6:30 a.m. and running through 10 a.m.
  • Given the ship's small size, there is no room service with a separate menu as in a hotel or on a larger ship. That said, for dinner, ACL will typically accommodate a guest if they need or request to have a meal delivered to their cabin. It's just not standard room service per se.
  • ACL makes P.A. system announcements daily providing the locale for “Cookie Time,” with freshly baked cookies available at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Also, complimentary snacks—everything from nuts to kettle chips, energy bars, peanut-butter crackers and many others—are free to guests throughout the cruise in the Sky Lounge.
Constellation Lounge on American Cruise Line's American Eagle
Cocktail hour as well as enrichment talks and entertainment programming unfolds in the Chesapeake Lounge. (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

Highly popular is cocktail time (5:30 to 7:30 p.m.) in the Chesapeake Lounge, a large, comfortable space with myriad chairs, a baby grand piano, floor space for entertainment and dancing, a large bar and a large video screen used in enrichment talks. Staff readily serve up sodas, beer, wine and cocktails for guests. 

Don’t miss this option, if for nothing else but the amazing hors d’oeuvres—everything from lamb chops with mint chimichurri to smoked salmon on cucumbers, and cheeses, fruits and nuts. We traveled during Valentine’s Day week, so one nice touch was a cheese plate with nuts, berries and cheeses including heart-shaped pieces.

Cocktail hour on American Eagle includes many hors d'oeuvres including this plate of cheeses -- cut in the shape of hearts for Valentine's Day.
Heart-shaped cheeses greeted guests for cocktail hour on Valentine's Day aboard American Eagle. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Sun Deck, Exercise Room and More

Beyond food, what else is there to do on American Eagle? First, we wished we’d had more time to spend a quiet afternoon relaxing on the enticing Sun Deck. Comfortable, padded furniture groupings provide a lovely spot to read, socialize with friends and soak in the views. Some seating is in the sun, other seating areas are in a shaded area under an awning. The small ship does not have a hot tub or pool, but it does have a humongous outdoor chess board on the deck. 

The Sun Deck has an outdoor sunny spot with tables and chairs, but also comfortable cushioned furniture for lounging in the shade.
Sun worshipers can head to Deck 4's Sun Deck, but comfortable shaded lounge furniture awaits too -- under the awning.  (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

On the first day aboard, our cruise director recommended to all guests to be sure to visit this Sun Deck space. He explained that people tend to forget to visit until the end of the cruise and then say, “Why didn’t I go there earlier.”

For Travel Agent, we could see it from the windows at the elevator area of Deck 4 just down the corridor from our suite. We'd have to agree with his thinking. It looks so inviting, but alas, we were out and about ashore and just busy. So, we only spent a few minutes there one day and rarely saw other guests there.

On Deck 2 is the ship’s well-equipped fitness center. It’s small but actually a good size given the ship’s size. Adjacent to that is The Study, a quiet place to read a book, play a game, and surf the web or send emails via one line-provided computer for guest use.

American Eagle has a nice-sized fitness room for a small ship; it offers weights and the latest exercise machines and equipment.
We liked this small exercise room with state-of-the-art exercise equipment and weights. Check out the window views! (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

And on Deck 1 is a small guest laundry and one unisex public restroom. Plus, outside on that deck is the aft marina area, used for tender transfers and, in certain waters, as a swim/activity platform. While it wasn’t in use on our “Great Rivers of Florida” itinerary—as we were sailing in “gator country”—it’s an option when the ship is sailing in New England waters or the subtropical Florida Keys, for instance.

While not a public space, the Pilot House on Deck 3 opened up for guest tours on one or two days for a brief time. The captain welcomed guests, explained a bit about the bridge operations and answered questions. If you hear the announcement about this, though, get there quickly. It was highly popular with people lined up to get inside the bridge. 

Coastal Cat Accommodations

American Eagle and other coastal cats have six categories of spacious accommodations on four public decks. Solo travelers will be happy to know that the ship has dedicated 280-square-foot single staterooms. These solo cabins have the same amenities as the ship’s double occupancy staterooms, including a floor-to-ceiling glass door leading to a full-size private balcony with a table and chairs.

AAA cabins (which do not have balconies) are the largest standard staterooms on any riverboat with 310 square feet of interior space. The introductory balcony staterooms, category AAM, offer the same 310 square feet of space but a portion of that encompasses the private outside balcony. Vista balcony staterooms offer the same square footage but have the advantage of better views from a higher deck.

Atop the ship, American Eagle’s Deck 4 is a suite deck—home to two 620-square-foot Grand Suites and four 470-square-foot Sky Suites. We stayed in Sky Suite No. 404. Entering this suite, one will discover a spacious living room area with two comfortable chairs, a small coffee table, an elongated cushioned seating bench, a humongous, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, and a bedroom area with a king bed convertible to two twin beds.

The spacious Sky Suite has a king bed, which is convertible to two twinds, along with an upholstered bench and two chairs in the living area. They're moveable, providing great flexibility for watching the wall-mounted flat-screen TV or the outside scenery.
Sky Suites offer a king bed (convertible to two twins), plus a spacious living area with an elongated comfortable bench, two chairs and a wall-mounted entertainment system. It also has a desk area and an entertaining area with a minifridge. (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

Plus, just inside the entry is a large writing desk area with a large, round mirror above and several drawers; on the opposite side of that entry area is an entertainment bar with glassware, an ice bucket, a minifridge, drawers and more. A bottle of red wine and fresh fruit grace the counter, too.

The bathroom of a Sky Suite has two sinks, drawers on both sides of the vanity, a stool to pull out, a toilet and a large, walk-in shower, nicely outfitted with a bench. Guests will discover both a rainforest shower and handheld shower apparatus.

Outside on the suite’s private balcony, guests can lounge in two chairs, a small table and one long chair. We thought that chair took up too much space, but we know some guests want one. Views from this suite-level balcony were fantastic. We loved peering both out and down to see riverbank scenery, homes, eco-areas and wildlife.

Bathroom of a Sky Suite on American Cruise Line's American Eagle coastal catamaran.
The Sky Suite bathroom offers a two-sink vanity and large walk-in rainforest shower with a bench on one end.  (Photo by American Cruise Lines)

One nice touch with this suite? Late each afternoon, ACL would deliver "suite treats" to the Sky Suite—cheese and crackers one day or sweet treats of various types on other days.

Also, check out the counter of our entertainment area below to see what greeted us upon check-in. It was a nice spread of cheeses, plus red wine was atop the counter. In addition, a white wine (a very good Reisling vintage) was in the mini-fridge along with sodas and other beverages.

One could-be-improved: The line always took away dirty glasses upon the next suite service, but often they weren't automatically replaced; we had to ask on multiple occasions. It's a small thing, but a little service touch that suite guests appreciate. We did notify management and are confident this is being addressed. 

This spread of cheese, crackers, red wine and fruit awaits Sky Suit guests upon arrival on American Eagle.
This is the entertainment area "spread" that greeted us upon arrival in our Sky Suite. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Overall, though, we loved this suite. It's also on the same deck as the Sun Deck, so suite guests have really easy access to that space. Beyond the lovely cushioned seating under the shade, there's that huge chess board that's a good social interaction activity. 

More About The Ship and Itinerary 

Look for our next piece, coming soon, on American Eagle’s shipboard entertainment, enrichment talks, onboard activities and a bit about its target clientele and what we discovered aboard for that. A third and final article will then drill down into the unique, day-to-day “Great Rivers of Florida” itinerary. We'll focus on ports of call, shore excursions, embarkation/debarkation and some final thoughts on the ACL small-ship product. Stay tuned!

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