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New England Coast by cruise ship

New England's islands are sea-surrounded hideaways of natural beauty. They reflect the area's -- and the nation's -- sea-linked founding, formation, and fishing traditions that are a fundamental part of our American heritage.

A thoroughly enjoyable way to see Block Island and Newport (actually, Aquidneck Island), Rhode Island, and Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Massachusetts, is by ship. A reasonably priced opportunity to do so in coastal cruise ship comfort, docking at main piers in the major island villages, is aboard American Cruise Lines' Independence or American Eagle, with 81 and 49 passengers, respectively. Disembarkation for the seven-day cruises is at Haddam , Connecticut, on Saturdays and Sundays from July 4 to October 10. Prices begin at $693 per person, double occupancy, $644 per person for the triple on Independence.

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The ship's course between ports of call is charted along the Connecticut River and Long Island, Vineyard, and Nantucket Sounds. Block Island, a favorite retreat of Henry David Thoreau because of its rustic and relaxing atmosphere, was discovered in 1661 by, and named for, Dutch explorer Adrian Block. The island is still a lovely expanse of sandy moor, wildflowers, and ponds; an island high point -- literally and figuratively -- is Mohegan Bluffs, from which four states are visible.

Nantucket, once the whaling capital of the world, retains along its cobblestone Main Street, lined with elm-shaded white mansions built with whale oil fortunes, the tranquil charm of the 1800s, although many of the well-preserved buildings date back to the Quakers in the 1700s. Martha's Vineyard has four villages, the Victorian town of ginger- bread-trimmed cottages known as Oak Bluffs being the one at which the ship docks. Nearby elegant Edgartown is distinctly Yankee, with a yacht-filled harbor that is one of the most picturesque in New England.

Arrival by ship in Newport gives passengers a unique view of the fabulous summer "cottages" which line the Atlantic coast. The attractive, restored waterfront is a lively area of restaurants, shops, and town treasures such as the 1748 Hunter House, used by the French Navy as headquarters during the American Revolution.

At each port, inexpensive, optional onshore excursions are specially organized for passengers. Further exploration by rented bicycles is popular.

All ship staterooms are outside, above main deck, with private facilities, lower berths only, individual temperature controls, and large, opening picture windows. The menu for the relaxed, single sitting meals is American, and features in-season fruits and vegetables, fresh local seafood and lobster.

Highly popular, these cruises should be booked as far ahead as possible, although spaces are still available for the 1981 season. There is free parking at Haddam, free pickup for passengers arriving at Old Saybrook, Conn., by bus or train, and transporation -- for a modest fee -- from Hartford/Springfield's Bradley Airport. For further information, contact American Cruise Lines, Marine Park, Haddam, Conn., 06438, or call toll-free 1-8 00-243-6755.

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