A glamorous voyage on board Ponant’s Le Soléal is the ideal way to discover the elegant coastlines of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, says Deborah Stone
As we sail out of Boston, the city is silhouetted against a blood-orange sunset that I watch from the open-air bar above the ship’s pool. Then, just when the last of the city disappears, the barman is at my side to pour me another glass of champagne. I’m in heaven.
I’m also on one of the most elegant ships I’ve ever cruised on: Ponant’s Le Soléal. Its sleek lines and chic interiors make it more like a private yacht for its lucky 200 or so passengers as we set sail for the playgrounds of America’s rich and famous.
We’re off to see The Great Gatsby mansions of Rhode Island, where the Vanderbilts spent their summers; the holiday “cottages” of Bar Harbor, once owned by the Roosevelts and Astors; and I can’t wait to get to Martha’s Vineyard – a favourite of John and Jackie Kennedy during the US President’s “Camelot” years.
But first stop is Lunenburg in Canada, a pretty old fishing town, now UNESCO-listed, with brightly painted wooden houses and an old fishing warehouse on the waterfront painted red and transformed into a museum featuring an open-air café.
The town has lovely jewellery and crafts shops and is a laid-back introduction to North America’s rugged east coast, full of islands and islets. One of the bigger islands, as we sail south back to the USA, is Mount Desert Island in Maine where we anchor off the popular seaside resort of Bar Harbor. It serves as the gateway to the surrounding Acadia National Park, and its waterfront bars and seafood restaurants are hung with huge lobster pots and fishing floats like a scene from the 1956 MGM musical Carousel.
It’s a blue-sky sunny day and I follow the Shore Path along the coast past hotels that were once holiday homes to the rich and famous.
A series of information posts on the trail – The Museums in the Streets – tell the history of the resort. For instance Briar’s Cottage, a sizable house built by one of the men who founded the American department stores Sears, was rented in the summer of 1908 by oil baron and philanthropist John D Rockefeller, who is said to be the richest American of all time.
You can stroll along the Shore Path then turn inland to walk into Acadia National Park, one of America’s most popular leaf-peeping autumn destinations thanks to the red maples, red oak and aspen among the trees that cover Cadillac Mountain.
The views from the top are stunning, or so I am told back on the ship that night as I eat dinner with some Australians and New Zealanders I meet on board the ship. Ponant is a French company and well over half of the passengers are from France, but increasingly it is attracting Americans, Australasians and Brits.
With drinks included there’s a relaxed and sophisticated atmosphere on board and I quickly fall into a routine of Champagne in the top-deck bar as we sail away from that day’s port, then meeting up with others for dinner later.
Le Soléal has a waiter-served Gastronomic Restaurant on the second deck but the food is so good in the sixth deck Grill Restaurant, with the option to eat by the pool, that we usually meet there for the fabulous buffets.
Sailing out of Bar Harbor down to Massachusetts, we eat lobster bought fresh in Lunenburg and finish the meal with possibly the finest selection of French cheese to be found anywhere in America.
Salem, the next day, is quite a surprise. It’s best known for its witch trials of 1693 and the historic town, with its Georgian buildings and clapboard colonial homes, is full of shops selling witchcraft paraphernalia or offering psychic readings at $30 a go.
But in 1790 Salem was America’s richest city per head, thanks to the port’s position in the middle of a trade triangle between East India and Europe, and in 1799 the Peabody Essex Museum was founded. It’s now the oldest continually operated museum in the country.
It’s no millionaire’s playground, though, unlike Newport in Rhode Island, where we arrive the next day. It was here in St Mary’s Church, just minutes from the waterfront, that John F Kennedy married local girl Jacqueline Bouvier in September 1953.
In July and August there are “Return to Camelot” sessions for tourists on Sundays and Tuesdays, where you can see the pew reserved for the couple during summer visits to Jackie’s mother.
Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie lived as a teenager, was known as the Summer White House when JFK visited as America’s youngest president, but it can only be glimpsed from the road.
Far more accessible are the Newport Mansions of the late 19th-century “Gilded Age”, as writer Mark Twain called it. These include Rosecliff, setting for 1974’s The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; The Breakers – best known of the mansions – built by multi-millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and Marble House – built by his competitive sister-in-law Alva Vanderbilt who ran Votes for Women rallies on her back lawn. The Breakers has a French palatial look to it and inside there’s a huge central hall for parties and a predominantly gold and red interior design. Marble House is equally over the top but both are quite glorious and there are seven others to visit, now all owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
Le Soléal, our own floating French palace, is nowhere near as blingy: the floors and some of the walls have natural wood-style tiles and, in my favourite indoor bar, the Panoramic Lounge, there are white leather armchairs with turquoise and grey accents – a refined colour scheme echoed elsewhere.
The entertainment is understated but there’s a good-size theatre for musical shows, although these are hard work for non-French speakers. There’s also dancing late on in the Main Lounge, which has an outdoor section, and for sea days there’s a small spa with a free steam room and sauna.
The highpoint for many passengers on this trip is sailing past the Statue of Liberty in the early-morning sunshine and docking at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal, which is just a 20-minute walk from Times Square, for two days in New York.
Still lucky with the weather, I abandon any idea of visiting the Guggenheim, or any other museum, and taking the boat out to Liberty Island from Battery Park to see the statue close up. It’s quite breathtaking.
But my magical moment comes on the last day when we visit Martha’s Vineyard, the island where the Kennedy clan owned holiday homes. I head south out of touristy Oak Bluffs straight for Edgartown, with its huge white whalers’ church and pretty clapboard homes with gardens full of roses and hydrangeas.
I wander past the shops down to the waterfront where there are a few seafood bars near the jetty and I walk down to the sandy beach beyond the lighthouse to enjoy a solitary moment of peace in the sunshine looking over the sparkling Nantucket Sound.
Presidents and millionaires pay big bucks to spend time here, most recently the Clintons and Obamas, but it cost me just $2.50 each way on the bus.
The joy of this, and any cruise, along this exceptionally beautiful stretch of coastline is having an experience that you just can’t put a price on.
GETTING THERE: Ponant’s 10-night Discovery of the St Lawrence cruise is priced from £4,220pp, based on two sharing, cruise only. Calls include Bar Harbor and Boston, departing Quebec City on 18 October 2019 (0800 980 4027; ponant.com).