Every Monday morning, around 200 passengers disembark in Bangor from the American Cruise Line ship that has been docking along the waterfront all summer.
The majority of them have never been to Bangor before — or Maine, for that matter — so when they step off the vessel, they probably don’t know what they are getting into. Luckily, a small army of tour guides, city employees, business owners and residents are there to get them acquainted with the Queen City.
Crew members aboard the ship give them a rundown of a few things to expect, including that there’s extensive construction occurring in Pickering Square as crews build the new transit center, and that they will likely encounter a large number of homeless people as they walk from the waterfront to the business district — something virtually unheard of in other stops on the cruise like Bar Harbor or Boothbay.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge planning excursions, because it’s a Monday and some businesses aren’t open,” said the ship’s excursion director, Anna Gilbert. “It’s a more relaxed day for them.”
Bangor isn’t Bar Harbor, or any of the other tourist destinations the ship will visit over the course of the week-long cruise. It’s a working town, with a unique history, and passengers are more likely to see locals scurrying between work appointments or having a casual catch-up over coffee than they are throngs of fellow tourists.
“I know Stephen King. I know Paul Bunyan. But that’s about it,” said Joyce Wilke, from Crivitz, Wisconsin. “It’s our first time in Maine, so we’re really enjoying seeing all the different sights and getting to know each place. They’re all a little different.”
Others know Bangor and the Penobscot River from other pop culture references.
“I think of ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ where they pilot the submarine up the river, and I just think of the history behind that and if anything like that ever really happened around here,” said Timothy Fowlkes, who lives in Indiana. “The water on the river was so still this morning when we came in, just like in the movie.”
Several local tour operators have partnered with the cruise line to offer their own tours, including SK Tours of Maine, a Stephen King-themed driving tour operated by Jamie Tinker, and Madame History, run by local historian Monique Bouchard, which offers a historic walking tour of downtown led by Bouchard, who is in character as notorious 19th-century madam Fan Jones.
Bouchard regales passengers with tales of the city’s colorful past as the lumber capital of the country, and the rough and tumble ways of 19th-century Bangor.
“We get a lot of really interesting questions from people, because I think the stories we have to tell in Bangor are really different from other places they’ll experience on the cruise,” said Bouchard, who also operates tours for locals for the Bangor Historical Society. “People are generally really curious about the history of Bangor, once we get talking.”
The weather and how much or how little a given business is willing to cater to visitors largely dictate the cruise ships’ economic impact downtown. Betsy Lundy, the director of the Downtown Bangor Partnership, said that some businesses and restaurants have stocked products to appeal to visitors or have offered special meal deals, while others haven’t decided to reach out to that new audience.
“It’s a different way of doing business, because we haven’t always seen that kind of tourism audience in downtown,” Lundy said. “I think it’s really good for folks to try and wear that kind of hat, when it comes to marketing themselves to people.”
Matt Bishop, a manager at Epic Sports, said his business depends largely on the weather, though he does notice an uptick in foot traffic on Mondays, an otherwise relatively sleepy day downtown.
James Gallagher, owner of both bakery Bangin’ Whoopie and the newly opened Salty Brick Market, said that he’s seen an uptick in business — especially because he took out an ad in the pamphlet the Downtown Bangor Partnership printed specifically for cruise guests, offering them a free whoopie pie if they show their pamphlet.
“We’ve gotten a ton of people in for the free whoopies, and we’ve even seen an uptick in locals as well,” Gallagher said. “It’s absolutely working the way it should be.”
The ship sets off from Portland and sails overnight to Bar Harbor, where passengers spend a Sunday. It then cruises up the river to Bangor on Monday, before then making its way down the coast, stopping in Camden, Rockland, Boothbay and Bath before returning to Portland. This is the first year in more than a decade that American Cruise Lines has docked in Bangor, and it will continue its weekly visits through late September.
“I think for the most part they think Bangor is a cute little town with a genuine authenticity,” said Lundy. “Most of the rest of the towns they visit are really tourism-centric, so they aren’t interacting with the locals and with businesses that are open year-round. They get a more genuine idea of what it is like to live in Maine when they come here.”