ROCKLAND, Maine — The sidewalks, shops and restaurants of Rockland and Camden were crammed with tourists from around the globe Sunday as the towns welcomed what local residents hope will be the first of many cruise ships to find a port in the area.
It’s hard to imagine that a nearly 1,000-foot-long ship capable of accommodating 2,500 passengers on its 13 decks could possibly hide in Rockland Harbor.
But for much of Sunday, the Royal Caribbean cruise liner Jewel of the Seas was barely visible through the thick fog and mist that blanketed midcoast Maine.
Luckily for shop and restaurant owners — many of whom extended their Sunday hours and beefed up staffing levels — the dreary weather didn’t seem to squelch the desire of many passengers to shop, eat or just explore a seaside Maine town.
“The line has been out the door all day,” Charla Prescott, a manager at Rockland Cafe, said late Sunday afternoon.
Rockland frequently welcomes smaller cruise ships carrying a few hundred people. But Sunday’s port call by the Jewel of the Seas was unprecedented. And local officials did their best to show their appreciation — even if Mother Nature didn’t cooperate.
Passengers disembarking from ferryboats at Harbor Park were greeted by a band and dozens of volunteers wearing “Ask Me!” aprons ready to guide them toward local sights. Some passengers loaded onto buses headed for Camden, Owls Head or up Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park, while others strolled the downtown.
Not surprisingly, one of the most frequent requests was for directions to the nearest place to find good lobster — even if it was only 10 a.m. Prescott said her cafe served up 15 lobsters by noon.
“The hospitality has been wonderful,” remarked Ann Miller of Columbus, Texas, after posing with her friend Wilma Hickman beside a model lobster the size of an SUV in Harbor Park. “Everybody has been so friendly.”
As Bar Harbor officials can attest, playing host to a ship the size of the Jewel of the Seas is no easy feat.
Preparations for the visit began about a year ago to put the midcoast area and Penobscot Bay on the map of the international cruise ship companies.
Dan Bookham, executive director of the Camden, Rockport and Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, said planners wanted to make sure the ship had an impact beyond just Rockland. That is why excursion buses carried passengers to downtown Camden as well.
“The two communities have really worked hard to support each other, to put their best foot forward for both towns and to share the wealth,” Bookham said.
Earlier Sunday, planners showered the ship’s captain and senior crew with gifts, plaques, mementos and even a live lobster. The Royal Caribbean crew responded with their own plaques commemorating the mammoth ship’s first port call in Rockland and thanked the representatives from local towns and the U.S. Coast Guard for their assistance.
“We hope to have many more fine days both in Rockland and in ports along the Maine Coast,” Howard Newhoff, who handles logistics and security issues for Royal Caribbean, told the group during the welcoming ceremony.
Rockland is scheduled as host for two more megacruise ships, including the Jewel of the Seas, during the 2010 season.
The Jewel of the Seas is scheduled to arrive in Bar Harbor on Monday before continuing on to Nova Scotia as part of its weeklong cruise.
Portland also is on the itinerary for cruise ships this week. The Eurodam, Carnival Triumph, Constellation, AIDAaura and Norwegian Spirit will bring nearly 10,000 passengers to Portland. The visits started Sunday with the Holland American Cruise Line Eurodam’s maiden call.
The Eurodam also will stop in Bar Harbor during its 14-day cruise.
The Constellation, a Celebrity Cruise ship, is scheduled to arrive in Portland on Tuesday from Boston and also has a stop scheduled in Bar Harbor.
The AIDAaura arrives in Portland Wednesday, and on Thursday the Norwegian Spirit will call.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.