Tonight, it's Champlain all around

Moonlight in Vermont: Capt. Stan Walker says, "Lake Champlain has many faces. I love the way it's constantly changing."
Moonlight in Vermont: Capt. Stan Walker says, "Lake Champlain has many faces. I love the way it's constantly changing." (Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post)
By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, September 19, 2010

The crew outnumbered the guests aboard the Moonlight Lady, a 65-foot passenger yacht that plies the waters of Lake Champlain. "Think of it as your own Trump cruise," said Justine Kochajski, one of the crew members, as she showed my mother and me to our stateroom. "We're all here to serve you."

Serve they did during our overnight lake excursion, the only one of its kind operating out of Burlington, Vt. Justine, one of six crew members for four guests on a boat that could take 16, dutifully carried our bags, and Capt. Stan Walker held my mother's arm as she climbed aboard. Snacks were waiting for us in the dining room, and crew members made sure that we would never suffer from thirst.

The Moonlight Lady is a throwback to a bygone era when traveling by water was both functional and glamorous. Overnight passenger ships taking travelers to towns such as St. Albans in Vermont and Westport and Port Kent in New York disappeared from Lake Champlain more than 50 years ago, when the Ticonderoga, a stately steamboat that had also briefly served as a casino, was taken out of commission.

The Moonlight Lady is not quite as regal as the Ticonderoga was. She was once the Bonny Blue, an overnight sailing ship in Virginia's Dismal Swamp Canal. In 2007, Mike Shea, who also offers 90-minute to 21/2-hour cruises on the Ethan Allen out of Burlington, bought, refurbished, expanded and renamed her.

In her new incarnation, the Lady has eight staterooms, plenty of deck space, a large dining room with an open kitchen and an entertainment room with a DVD player and a flat-screen TV. That room, on the lower deck, is stocked with playing cards, board games and just about every Best Picture Oscar winner (including "Titanic," which, weirdly enough, I was tempted to watch).

In our room, named for another old steamer, the General Greene, the two small beds were arranged in an L-shape (good thing that both my mom and I are barely over 5 feet tall). Our bathroom operated as both a shower and a toilet stall, and our mirror concealed a closet. The bath products, which to my surprise even included makeup remover, were Gilcrest & Soames. It was like being in a floating hotel.

Our charted course had us starting in Burlington, then heading south into Otter Creek to Vergennes, Vermont's oldest city, where we would spend the night. But after several dry weeks, the water was too shallow, and Capt. Stan didn't think the Lady could make it safely to Vergennes. We ended up cruising instead to Westport, N.Y., a popular summer destination on the lake that was apparently easier to get to.

I spent some time in the pilothouse, watching the captain steer the boat and listening to him talk about his love of his work. "Lake Champlain has many faces," he said. "I love the way it's constantly changing. Every day it's just as dramatic as the day before. It's just different in the way it presents itself."

The lake, nestled between the Green Mountains of Vermont and New York's Adirondacks, seemed to be smiling at us as we pulled away from Burlington's waterfront. (Perhaps it was trying to make up for keeping us from going to Vergennes.) Never once did the sun stop shining. The wind whispered rather than howled, allowing the Lady to glide elegantly through the water.

Every few minutes there was a new sight to behold, which Justine, a recent college graduate, made sure we didn't miss.

We passed Rock Dunder, a solitary boulder jutting out of the lake. Justine told us that during the Revolution, the British had mistaken it for a ship and attacked, hence the name. "It was just a pile of rocks," said Justine. "What dunderheards." (There were two other theories of how it got its name, but I liked this one best.)

Then we passed Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark established in 1886. It has some of the grandest barns I've ever seen and remains a working farm with a cheesemaking operation, although many of the buildings are now used for educational programs.

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