New way to see old city: an amphibious assault Quack attack: Boston's DUCK Tours use old Army vehicles that are at home on land and water.

October 01, 1995|By Steve Silk | Steve Silk,HARTFORD COURANT Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

BOSTON -- Tired of the same old tours? Had enough of sightseeing that's not all it's quacked up to be? Try a Boston DUCK Tour.

These amphibious tours, in old Army vehicles equally at home on land or water, are just the thing for visitors who want to make an all-out assault on the city. The nearly two-hour tours feature drive-by sightings of every historic highlight, from the Old State House to Trinity Church, and a splashy interlude on the Charles River for a brief cruise with water views.

For visitors new to the city, a Boston DUCK Tour provides an easy introduction, and if there are children in tow, this is one tour they might be able to sit still for.

The brightly painted, 32-foot-long DUKWs attract lots of attention at their base in front of the New England Aquarium. (A DUKW is basically a General Motors truck enclosed in a watertight shell. DUKW is a military acronym for a mouthful of the vehicle's design characteristics and has nothing to do with ducks or amphibiousness.)

These old World War II-era clunkers, outfitted with life preservers, seats for 32 and a few modern amenities, still look as if they XTC could shuttle troops and supplies to beachheads from Normandy to Iwo Jima, just as they did in the war. They go slow, and the front wheels go "clunk" in tight turns. But these funny-looking land yachts are rock-solid.

And if the vehicles are a little odd, so are their drivers. There's Capt. A. L. (Amazing Lee) Courageous, in safari clothes and animal claw necklace; Lieutenant Drake, the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Sir Francis Drake (actually, according to the guy's license, he's Philip Morris); Captain Covert, decked out in dead-of-night camouflage -- you get the idea.

Some of them love to wave and make quacking sounds at pedestrians as the lumbering DUKWs trundle through the city's streets, and they encourage their passengers to join in -- especially when the tour hits the swank shopping-and-cafe epicenter of Newbury Street.

But the silliness stops when it comes to the narrative the guides deliver while touring. A little irreverence might help the nonstop, oh-so-serious sightseeing spiel that serves as live soundtrack.

DUCK Tours concentrate on the three F's of Boston: firsts, freedom and fun. You'll hear that the city was host to the first World Series games, see the sights where freedom was born, and have some fun. Quack, quack.

You'll learn that Boston once boasted three hills, and that two of them were used to fill in the waterfront to create the city we know today. Even Beacon Hill, the city's high point, tops out at 70 feet lower today than it did 200 years ago; it, too, provided fill.

And the guides will point out a former jail that held both Capt. Kidd and Elizabeth Pain, a reputed adulteress branded with the letter A and perhaps the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."

There's Trinity Church, the medieval-looking granite and sandstone structure regarded as one of the most beautiful architectural efforts in the United States.

All this is just a prelude to the moment everybody's really waiting for, the DUKWs' dive into the Charles River. The DUKWs take the plunge on a little ramp near the Boston Museum of Science and hit the water with a splash worthy of a Disney ride. Then the DUKWs motor through a lock and putter along the Charles River past sailboats, windsurfers and the occasional powerboat.

The trusting captain invites any and all comers to take their hand at the wheel. There's no need to worry, top speed is about 8 mph -- duck speed.

Quack, quack . . .

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