Maine Town Looks to Emerge as New Cruise Port

A new small town in Maine has plans to become a big cruise ship draw even as other local ports are limiting cruise visits.

The town of Searsport, Maine, is looking to grab a share of the state’s cruise business after the local governing board voted to take steps that could eventually allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to call at its deepwater port. The move follows a recent policy that will limit daily cruise guests at Bar Harbor, a popular port nearby.

Searsport to Begin Cruise Ship Security Process

A majority vote by the Searsport, Maine, Select Board on May 16, 2023, paves the way for the small town to apply for required security clearances from the US Coast Guard, a precursor to enabling foreign-flagged cruise ships to call at the destination, the Bangor Daily News has reported.

Searsport, a tiny Midcoast town of roughly 2,600 residents, has a deepwater port in protected Penobscot Bay, about 100 miles north of Portland. It would join Portland and Bar Harbor, along with Rockland and Eastport, as the state’s ports of call for international cruise ships.

According to the local news outlet, Searsport’s plan is to become certified to welcome cruise ships that have cleared customs at another US port. The town operates a wharf for recreational boating and fishing, and a busy cargo port with a rail yard that enables the distribution of goods.

Sea Captain's House in Searsport
Sea Captain’s House (Photo Credit: Roger W / Flickr)

There is no existing infrastructure for docking cruise ships, so lines that choose to call at Searsport would have to tender guests ashore.

Town Manager James Gillway said that one cruise line has inquired about calling at the port in October, but he did not identify the line.

Action Follows Bar Harbor’s Cap on Cruise Guests

Searsport is located just 50 miles southwest of Bar Harbor, a port call prized for its proximity to Acadia National Park and other natural resources. Cruise lines offering New England itineraries are likely beginning to scout for new port calls in the region since Bar Harbor will implement a limit on daily cruise arrivals starting in 2024. Town residents voted last fall to cap daily cruise guests at 1,000.

However, a federal lawsuit filed early this year by business owners in Bar Harbor could derail the town’s plan to limit cruise arrivals.

The businesses involved include stores, restaurants, and companies that operate privately-owned piers and tender boats. Prior to its most recent action, Bar Harbor already had a cap on cruise ship passengers, limiting arrivals to 3,500 per day in the summer and 5,500 during the spring and fall shoulder seasons.

Cruise Ship in Bar Harbor, Maine
Photo Credit: Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock

Searsport’s plan to work toward enabling cruise ships to call at its port does not so far include any cap on daily arrivals, and the town has plenty to recommend it as a cruise port.

Its downtown is a federal Historic District with quaint shopping and dining venues, it is home to historic sea captains’ homes, and has tourist attractions such as the Penobscot Marine Museum, the Fort Point Lighthouse, circa 1836, and the 100-acre Sandy Point Beach, with hiking trails and other activities.

Additionally, its location roughly an hour’s drive from Bar Harbor could lend itself to shore excursions that visit the town and its neighboring Acadia National Park. The park is a major attraction that welcomes more than 3 million visitors each year.

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park (Photo Credit: Domenico Convertini / Flickr)

All of the cruise ports along the Maine coast operating today are summer cruise destinations and are often included on Canada/New England fall foliage cruises. These itineraries typically travel from New York or Boston to Montreal and Quebec City, visiting ports in Nova Scotia and French Canada.

Some of the major lines that offer cruises with port calls in Maine include Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Viking Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises.

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