On Segs tour, walking is history

Maryland Journal

September 17, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,[Sun reporter]

Lean forward to go. Stick your butt out to stop.

Tour operator Tonia Edwards shares these pearls of wisdom just before releasing three wobbling novices on a two-hour tour of Annapolis' historic district. On Segways.

The riders look like living anachronisms, riding the 21st-century, high-tech scooters along 17th- century cobbled streets designed for carriages.

These battery-operated contraptions, made up of two large wheels, handlebars and a small platform for feet, move by shifting weight forward and backward on the foot plate. It's an intuitive motion after a solid 30 minutes, but the first moments are a disconcerting, teetering mess.

"Lean forward" is more lurch than smooth, subtle tilt. And "stick your butt out" becomes a more suggestive pose than it need be. Most first-timers alternate between two gears - lurch and suggestive - for the first half-hour, but Floyd Pinder II has grace.

Pinder, a computer programmer who lives in Columbia, is on the tour with his wife, Candra Flanagan. He is a technophile, and while others reel and rock, he tests the limits of the small throttle-like mechanism that helps Segways turn and float smoothly down hills.

"Living in this area, there are so many great things to do and see, but we spend so much of our time going back and forth to work in D.C.," said Flanagan, who is a museum educator at the Smithsonian Institution. "We just felt like being tourists for a change, and we thought Segways would be a unique way to go."

Segways have become an increasingly popular option for tourists who want an up-close look at historic landmarks without breaking a sweat. Segs in the City offers tours in Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington and Gettysburg, Pa.

Since the machines made their debut in 2001, more than 200 Segway tours have cropped up across the U.S., Europe and Asia, according to SegwayGuidedTours.com, an online directory that tracks the emerging market.

Tour guide David Smith, who calls himself Squire David, leads tours in Colonial dress. He is 18th-century chic in his tricorn hat, crisp white knee breeches and buckled shoes - though the gleaming red Segway detracts a wee bit from the period picture.

The tour begins with a brief tutorial in a small park at Acton's Landing, an exclusive community in downtown Annapolis.

The manicured beds of begonias before the million-dollar homes in this state capital neighborhood are a daunting obstacle for some Segway trainees, who careen dangerously close to the prim posies but avoid disaster on a recent fall-like afternoon. Pinder and Flanagan, on the other hand, are doing just fine, weaving around a circle on a brick path.

"The first few minutes on these things you see people wrestling with the handlebars," Squire David says. "But by the time we're done with this tour, you won't be able to wipe the smile off your face. Wait until we get you guys up to 12 mph."

A few near-crashes later, the group is off on the tour, rounding Church Circle and peering down the Main Street hill at the blue waters of the bay in the distance and the bouncing specks of yachts.

The group zips through narrow alleys of quaint, 18th-century rowhouses, dodging stairs and trash cans, and takes a back way to the city's bustling harbor. It weaves gingerly through groups of tourists at City Dock and past a memorial that commemorates the place of arrival of Kunta Kinte, African ancestor of Roots author Alex Haley. Squire David demonstrates how to increase the speed from 6 mph to 8.

Flanagan speeds down a street near the Naval Academy and exclaims, "You know, bikes are not where it's at. We need to get a Segway."

"They're about $5,000," Squire David says.

The group moves on, ducking beneath low-hanging boughs of poplar and oak, while studying Colonial architecture of mansion after mansion.

It stops at the Chase-Lloyd House, home of Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the Brice House, an impressive Georgian mansion; and the Ogle House, home to two governors.

The group rolls on to the Hammond-Harwood House, where Pinder dutifully takes pictures of the ornately carved door, which Squire David explains is considered the "most photographed doorway in America."

On past the luxuriant campus at St. John's College, a small liberal arts school that dates to 1696. Squire David tells the story about the college's Liberty Tree, where future signers of the Declaration of Independence once met under the old tulip poplar's branches to plot against the British crown. Hurricane Floyd felled the tree eight years ago, and it was replaced this spring with a second Liberty Tree.

In the last five minutes of the tour, Squire David leads back to Acton's Landing, where the newly confident Segway operators speed up to 12 mph and test their dexterity on the nearby hills.

They then navigate back to the Loews Annapolis hotel, where Tonia Edwards is waiting.

Stepping off for the first time in two hours, the tourists complain about sore feet from all the standing. It's a condition familiar to Segway riders, and it's called - what else?- "Segsy legs."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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