Impulsive Traveler: Cruising on Lake Champlain

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 - Washington Post)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 1:20 PM

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.

Justine pointed out other landmarks that sailed over the heads of my mother and the other two guests, Esther Morse and her husband, Howard, who were celebrating his 85th birthday. ("Who's Trey Fish?" Esther asked when Justine pointed out the former home of Trey Anastasio, guitarist and singer with the jam band Phish.)

We drifted by several small islands, some of them private. One was Juniper Island, home to one of the oldest lighthouses on the lake. Then there was Diamond Island. It was tiny and had an equally tiny wooden house on it. "That little thing is someone's idea of paradise," said Capt. Stan.

At Basin Harbor, we spotted the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the replica gunboat from Benedict Arnold's Revolutionary War fleet.

When we tired of standing at the railing ogling the islands and estates, my mother and I sat on the deck chairs soaking up the sun. "This is the life," my mom declared.

It took us five hours to get to Westport, a quaint little town with antiques shops, a bookstore and an inn. My mom and I were glad to have the chance to walk and explore. Sadly, it was after Labor Day, and this being a resort town, nothing was open. Dinner and a movie on the boat would have to be our big event of the evening.

Over appetizers, my mom and I chatted with the Morses, from St. Albans, Vt., whose children had treated them to the cruise as a birthday present for Howard. Donna, the chef, walked around filling our plates with scallops.

Instrumental music played softly in the background as we dug into our salads, followed by an entree of surf and turf. For dessert, the staff brought out a cheesecake and a chocolate cake that Donna had baked especially for Howard. We all sang to him. "We're like a mini-family here," Justine had said to me earlier. I was starting to see what she meant.

After dinner, my mom and I watched a bit of "West Side Story" before heading to bed. I fell into a deep sleep around 10:30 p.m. and didn't wake up until 6:30 a.m., when the engines started to roar.

After an elaborate breakfast, Capt. Stan invited all four of us cruisers into the pilothouse to show us some of his favorite highlights of the tour. Among them: a rock formation known as the Old Indian on the Lake because it looks like a Native American chief, and another that he insisted looked like something out of an Edvard Munch painting (I didn't quite see it).

He seemed most excited pointing out the yellow mooring buoys that mark the many shipwrecks deep in the lake. He and his wife regularly dive down to look at them. "It's like a wonderful piece of history," he said.

Capt. Stan has been sailing on Lake Champlain since 1969. "I never get bored out here," he told us.

In 22 hours of cruising on the lake, neither did we.

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