For tourist attractions in this area go by boat

August 21, 1994|By Sharon Nicholas | Sharon Nicholas,Special to The Sun

Nearly 250 years ago, a small ship sailed up the Potomac to a space where the river widened into a circular bay. Its Scottish passengers settled there, on the south shore, in what would grow to be Alexandria, Va. Across the river, a swamp dominated the north shore.

Today, a small ship sails up the Potomac in the fall and docks on the south shore at Alexandria. Cruise passengers board. Across the river, Washington dominates the north shore.

The departure point for the Nantucket Clipper suits the overriding theme of the itinerary. While some passengers envision autumn colors and others anticipate estuarial ecology excursions, most contemplate visits to America's roots -- the birthplaces of the United States. The ship's manifest lists up to 100 passengers, and they will spend 11 days exploring their interests along the shores of the Potomac and Hudson rivers and Chesapeake Bay.

In 1791, George Washington commissioned Pierre L'Enfant to design a city on the Potomac -- a city of grand avenues, dignified buildings, distinguished monuments and the potential for growth. More than 200 years later, Washington remains impressive, as a tour before the cruise attests.

Soon enough, the Nantucket sails down the Potomac toward the Chesapeake Bay. Once there, it heads south toward the mouth of the bay, in Virginia. At Williamsburg, once the capital of a thriving 18th-century British Colony, the streets bustle with costumed re-enactors staffing the world's largest living-history museum. Six miles away in Jamestown Settlement, more living exhibits re-create the first British Colony, formed in 1607, and the lifestyle of its neighbors, the Powhatan tribe of Pocahontas,

The Nantucket sails west into the York River, docking alongside a fishing pier. Up the hill 100 yards or so is Yorktown. Not far away is the site of a haunting battlefield. Here, George Washington's troops and the French under the Marquis de Lafayette, together numbering more than 17,000, defeated the entrenched regiments of Lord Cornwallis, with his 8,000 British soldiers and German mercenaries. It was the decisive battle in the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis surrendered Oct. 18, 1781.

Displays and interpretive materials guide visitors through the field -- from the river, which claimed about 50 British ships, across the earthen forts built to protect strategic positions, past the flags marking the encamped or advancing troops, to the front lines where cannon onslaughts bombarded musket attacks.

On the Nantucket, the intermittent drizzle, the coolness and the mist create spectral settings for the imagination -- especially in this place that secured a new nation.

The Nantucket heads north on the Chesapeake to St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, where many of the swift, two-masted Baltimore clippers of the early 1800s were built. A Native-American word, "Chesapeake" translates roughly as "great shellfish bay." Blue crabs share the waters of North America's largest estuary with oysters, blue herons, ospreys and loggerhead turtles, among other creatures. The bay, together with the nearly 50 major tributaries and many smaller ones feeding it, has 7,000 miles of shoreline and marshes.

Annapolis, a breezy cruise across the bay, draws nautical, military and history buffs.

In the Maryland statehouse, for example, the British finalized their terms of surrender with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Shortly there after, in the Old Senate Chamber, George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

The Nantucket weighs anchor and heads across the bay, through the Chesapeake and Delaware canals, into Delaware Bay, around Cape May, N.J., and north in the Atlantic Ocean along the New Jersey coast. At dawn, passengers wearing sweaters warm their hands around coffee mugs while juggling cameras to capture the first rays of sunlight reflecting off the Statue of Liberty.

The course continues to the north, into the Hudson River. For the next two days, passengers will be treated to autumn in New York: apple orchards, the vivid reds and fiery oranges of the sugar maple, white oak, Virginia creeper and American sycamore. Passengers enjoy warm days, cold nights and misty mornings.

Sailing down river on the final morning, West Point appears atop a hill. This fort, which in 1802 became the U.S. Military Academy, kept the British from advancing upriver during the Revolutionary War.

IF YOU GO . . .

The 11-day Autumn on the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River departs Sept. 28 and Oct. 15. Cost: $2,400-$3,700 per person, double occupancy, plus optional excursions. Cruise rates include cabins. all meals, nightly movies or other entertainment, and speakers as well as regional authorities in some ports.

Other Clipper trips cruise many of the same regions, but with different themes. For information, write Clipper Cruise Line, 7711 Bonhomme Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63105-1995; (800) 325-0010

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