Published September 19. 2010 4:00AM Updated September 19. 2010 11:12AM
New London — Been on Bank Street at midnight lately? The place is French Quarter North.
It wasn't exactly dead, though, at 7 a.m. Saturday - even if the late-night local vampires were still deep asleep. Silhouetted against the sun climbing through a cloud bank over the Thames River, a towering cruise ship, the Crown Princess of Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., was anchored in New London Harbor. It had just docked, and the first wave of the ship's 3,000 passengers were disembarking to explore The District.
New London was ready for them.
By 3:30 p.m., when the tourists were due back on the ship to head for the next port of call, the whole experience was done. It was harder to say who was more tired or satisfied, the local merchants or the visitors.
"Boy, it was good. We had a really good day," said Marcie Boyer of the Flavours of Life Free Trade Store on Bank Street. "It was fun but busy. There were so many Europeans, and they're very into free trade. But just the whole thing - so many personalities and cultures here in New London. Wonderful."
On the newly completed Parade Plaza, a bazaar featured a dozen local merchants proffering all manners of goods and souvenirs.
"It was very, very busy. Very steady," said Cindy Jordan from her kiosk as the final visitors headed back to the ship. Jordan runs CJ's Fine Designs, a children's and infant's clothing boutique. "I just talked to all the vendors (on the Parade) and everyone did well. It was what we hoped for."
She participated in the marketplace two years ago, when the last cruise ships docked in New London, and had such a good time she volunteered to organize the Parade Plaza merchants for this fall's cruises.
The Crown Princess started an 11-day Canada/New England sojourn Friday in New York City, and other stops will include Boston, Bar Harbor; St. John, Halifax; Sydney, Charlottetown and Quebec City. A second cruise ship from the line will visit New London on Oct. 9.
Passengers from the Crown Princess were shuttled into the city on a steady rotation of buses. The first passengers began to trickle in shortly after the ship docked.
David and Julie Reade, from Wales, made a slow tour through The Parade shopping tents and said they were among the early birds for a reason.
"We wanted to watch the sun come up as we came up the river," David said. "We studied up a bit on New London when we found out we were stopping here. We'd like to walk the Heritage Trail and then see the currachs at 10 a.m. We have very similar boats in Wales, so it's a bit like home."
The New London Currach Rowers first North American Currach Association Regatta was just one of many events scheduled during the cruise ship's time in New London. The Garde Arts Center screened period films and gave tours of the venue; there were blow-out tag sales along Bank Street; and, coincidentally, the third annual New London Americana Music Festival kicked off its final day in the Hygienic Art Park.
Walking down Bank Street just outside the park, sisters Cheryl and Norma Harbottle of Edmonton, Alberta, were among the first visitors into downtown. Clutching New London tourist maps and wearing Crown Princess sweatshirts, they were already impressed by the city.
"People have been so friendly," Cheryl said. "They explained downtown to us, told us where we could eat or get coffee, and it's just beautiful here." The women said they were interested in exploring New London's architecture and trying a few restaurants.
By 10 a.m., the streets of downtown were sturdily packed with ambulating folks taking in all manner of history and architecture, food and shopping, and the atmosphere in general.
By early afternoon, Paul Marengo was sitting on a park bench outside the Hygienic Art Galleries holding a shopping bag. "New London is an interesting place," he said. "I sort of gather that the main drag is Bank Street and State Street. So we've been strolling and checking it out." When it was learned Marengo lives in the glorious Pacific community of Huntington Beach, Calif., it was suggested quaint New London couldn't possibly be a match.
"I wouldn't say that," he smiled. "It's different, and Huntington Beach is great, but this is nice, too. Very friendly."
Inside the galleries, the Hygienic's Rich Martin was impressed by the strength and steady flow of the tourists. "It's a little early for me," Martin admitted, claiming he hadn't had coffee yet. "But a lot of people are coming in and checking out the art and are very complimentary. Which is great because we're in the middle of an artists-in-residence show and people are getting to see our own artists."
When the Americana Music Festival kicked off its day at 2 p.m. with Chris MacKay and the Toneshifters, many of the Crown Princess cruisers stopped by for a few minutes of music before returning to the ship.
Debbie and Leonard Smith of Humbold, Calif., said New London reminded them a lot of their small town four hours north of San Francisco. "This is a great place. We'd love to come back," Leonard said. "It's a college town on the water. There are great shops and art and music. What's not to like?" He nodded toward the band. "These guys are great, too. I wish we could stay for the whole night."
"People have been so helpful," Debbie Smith added. "And the buildings are just fantastic. You walk in them and smell the history. This town has a lot going for it."