No tie or jacket the entire week, even to the Captain's two cocktail parties? No public address system? No swimming pool? No assigned table for meals? No night life? This is a cruise?
Indeed it is! If you want a change of pace and an opportunity to relax completely for a week, a Chesapeake Bay cruise on the Independence may by just the ticket.
Built in 1976 and owned by American Cruise Lines of Haddam, Conn., this diesel-powered vesselhs itinerary calls for a Sunday noon departure from Annapolis with overnight stops at Cambridge, Md.; Yorktown, Va. (2 nights); Crisfield, Md.; Oxford, Md., and St. Michaels, Md. The two nights at Yorktown allow a full day's visit to Williamsburg, Jamestown or Busch Gardens. A noontime arrival at Crisfield enables one to catch a separate cruise boat either to Tangier Island or Smith Island.
The ship returns to Annapolis on Friday, but passengers may stay aboard until 10 a.m. on Saturday. It carries 77 passengers and a crew of 17.
For those who have taken other cruises (my wife and I have sailed the Caribbean and to the Greek Isles), the contrast on the Independence is marked but pleasant. All announcements are carried on a bulletin board on the main deck. A blackboard on the lounge deck states the next port of call and the time of departure.
Menus for the next day are posted on the bulletin board. Breakfast (served from 7:30-9:30) offers a variety of fruit, cereal, pancakes, and eggs cooked to order. Luncheon and dinner menus are generous but do not offer a variety of choices. The food is tasty but not gourmet. Our dinner entrees included blue fish, crab meat , cornish game hen, sirloin of beef and chicken. Highlight of each meal comes from the pastry chef in the form of homemade rolls, corn bread, muffins or pastry.
The crew of the Independence includes delightful, hard-working, college-age young women (mostly from Connecticut) who serve as waitresses in the dining room and chamber maids in the cabins. They are supplemented by young men who are deck hands and baggage carriers. They are a dedicated group who add much to the pleasure of the cruise.
A large wooden bowl of fruit (apples, oranges, pears, bananas and grapes) is in the dining room for those wanting a healthy snack. For the noncalorie counters, a sheet of freshly baked cookies is passed throughout the ship at mid-morning when the vessel is cruising. Topping off the day is ice cream served in the lounge around 9:15 p.m.
The cabins are comfortable, utilitarian and clean. Ours featured a large picture window, twin beds, a three-drawer dresser, toilet and shower but no chairs. Electric power (110 volts) is available. The ship is air conditioned, although the system functions better in the cabins and in the lounge than in the dining room. The beds are very comfortable. Ample towels are furnished.
Since there are no table assignments in the dining room, we were automatically thrown into contact with most of the other passengers who came from California, Florida, Massasschusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. This was a delightful fringe benefit for we met a wide-ranging assortment of interesting people: four college professors, a retired machinist, a personnel manager, a ski shop proprietor who mountain climbs the scaled the Matterhorn) and hangglides as a hobby.
This cruise is ideal for those folks over 50 who are content to read, relax, play cards, work on a jigsaw puzzle, chat, eat and sleep. It is not for children, nor for "swingers" who thrive on night life. Most passengers head for the cabins by 9:30 p.m. and reappear sometime after 7:30 for breakfast.
Because the tour focuses on the Chesapeake Bay, the two most popular books being read by our fellow passengers were James Michener's "Chesapeake" and William Warner's 1977 Pulitzer prize-winner, "Beautiful Swimmers." It was a thrill to read about the crab fisherman in Warner's book and then lounge by one of the small docks in Crisfield and hear the boatmen barter with a buyer for 5 bushels of their prize crabs -- 4 bushels of "Jimmy's" sold for $25 a bushel and 1 bushel of mixed crabs at $20.
Each port we visited had its particular appeal. Annapolis, of course, is historical and bustling compared with the other four ports. Cambridge offered a lovely docking area with a well-kept city park nearby. Fishermen were having great success off the docks. A trio of them -- well laden with their six packs -- gave us a quick lecture on their technique for catching crabs on trot lines using pickled eels or "bull lips" as bait. Downtown Cambridge is only two blocks away and reached by a beautiful, old street featuring well-kept historical homes. Stores close at 4 on Saturday afternoon, but we found a downtown pharmacy, run by friendly proprietors, that stayed open until 5. Having the Independence dock at the city wharf must be a special news event in Cambridge for there was a continuous parade of cars driving by to see it.
The docking area in Yorktown is beside the York River Bridge, which has a bathing beach nearby. We arrived on a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon and the area was a mass of bathers (mostly young) sporting souped-up cars and motorcycles. We were met by a local guide who took us on a free walking tour up the hill to Yorktown, where the last important battle of the Revolution was fought. The National Park Service manages the beautiful area and has a museum with a 12-minute free movie.
While docked at Yorktown we had the option on Monday to visit the Williamsburg Restoration, Jamestown or Busch Gardens -- all at an additional fee. We chose Williamsburg, paid the $5 round-trip bus fare for each of us, picked up our box lunch and arrived at the Restoration center by 10 a.m., which allowed us six hours of touring before reboarding the bus at 4. We opted for the 10-admission ticket ($9 each), headed for the Restoration, which we had visited before, and used five of our punches. Because the weather was so hot, we then went back to the information center where we ate our lunch in the cafeteria and lounged by the pool at the Motor Inn before catching the return bus (unfortunately, not air conditioned).
Crisfield is a very unique port for its entire economy is build around seafood. Fishing boats glide in and out of the harbor with their baskets of crabs and other fish. We watched an assembly line of women sorting crabs and picking them for shipment. Large and small refirgerated trucks were loaded and on their way. Once again the Independence was an attraction for local citizens to drive by and see.
We docked in Oxford at the Town Dock on the Red Avon River, also serving the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, which had been operating since 1886. Chartered in 1695, Oxford flourished in the first half of the 18th century as a shipbuilding and exporting port city. Today's industries include marinas, shipbuilding, crabbing and oystering. A short block from the dock is the Robert Morris Inn, where we took a luncheon break from our ship's cuisine to enjoy fresh crab cakes and scallops. During a twilight walk after dinner we were fascinated by a mother mallard and her 13 baby ducks.
From Oxford we cruised to St. Michales, the most beautiful port on our cruise. Our dock adjoined the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which covers a 16-acre complex and features an interesting collection of Chesapeake Bay artifacts. Nearby are two outstanding seafood restaurants -- Longfellow's and The Crab Claw. In the harbor, atop a wooden light stanchion, a stately osprey had built its nest.
By returning to Annapolis on Friday we were able to take a two-hour tour of the Maryland State House and Naval Academy, conducted by a knowledgeable costumed guide from the Three Centuries Tour office ($8 a person, including transportation to and from the dock area).
After a delicious roast beef farewell dinner aboard ship, we walked to our car, which had been parked in the Annapolis Yacht Club parking lot ($3 a night) and headed home to Falls Church. Most passengers stayed aboard ship on Friday night and left for home on Saturday morning.
Cruises on the Independence are not cheap. Depending on the cabin size, rates range from $623 to $693 per person, which includes all meals. The cruise line suggests, as a guideline, a gratuity of $90 per couple for the crew at the end of the voyage. We incurred an additional expense of $24 each for special tours, plus $21 for car parking.
The Independence has a smaller sister ship, the Eagle, which accommodates 44 passengers. Both ships make weekly cruises of the Chesapeake Bay from May until July 5. From early July until October they move north and depart from Haddam for weekly cruises of New England waters. In October and November they return to Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay. The Eagle will be replaced by a new vessel after the fall season.
American Cruise Lines also cruises the Carolinas and southern waterways. Additional information is available by calling American (toll free) at 1-800-243-6755. The line suggests reservations be made earlier for the fall Bay cruises.