THERE ARE A number of cruises that offer Washingtonians the opportunity to wile away some time on the waterways around the central Chesapeake Bay area. But none features a more melodious combination of town and river names than the one that sails from Tappahannock on the Rappahannock. Tappahannock, founded in 1680, is one of the oldest towns in the United States. The Rappahannock River cruise that departs its shore will take you about 20 miles upstream for a lazy seven-hour cruise into the Northern Neck countryside of Virginia.

Begun four years ago, the cruise aboard the 70-foot Captain Thomas is designed to show and tell daytrippers about an unspoiled part of the Rappahannock River. It is an eclectic trip that offers views of prehistoric cliffs, sightings of soaring eagles, a tour of a Virginia winery and an inside view of the history of an old steamboat landing.

Bring your binoculars. You'll be able to get a peek at the many lovely modern and historic homes that grace the banks of the waterways. Nature lovers will want a close-up look at a secluded part of the river, where you will pass sandstone-colored cliffs millions of years old. Lured by the lack of humans and the abundance of eel and catfish, bald eagles make these cliffs their home.

The day we took the trip, we saw several eagles and many osprey. Both were once endangered species suffering from the effects of DDT damage to their eggs. But following the banning of the pesticide, both species have made a strong comeback in the river area. Many people take the Rappahannock cruise primarily to see the bald eagles. The record so far has been excellent: Every trip has yielded an eagle sighting.

The cruise captain narrates the facts and fancies of history as the miles pass. The names he mentions are familiar ones. Captain John Smith first explored the area in 1608. George Washington came calling as a young man at the nearby Fauntleroy estate to visit the belle of the area. In 1766, the Washington and Lee families joined other locals to protest the British Stamp Act by signing a resolution at Leedstown.

Leedstown also means lunch time for the cruise. Buses take you to the Ingleside Plantation Winery, where you may partake in a buffet. A tour of the winery will give you an explanation of the process through which Virginia grapes progress from vine to vintage. Passengers of legal age can participate in a wine tasting.

Back on board, the emphasis shifts to the history of the river. At various times, the Rappahannock has been the water highway for pulp boats and show boats and steamboats, all important methods of transportation for an area that had no railroad.

The last stop on the cruise is at Saunders Wharf, said to be the only original steamboat wharf on the Rappahannock. Here you may also tour Wheatland, a Federal farmhouse built around 1810. It is a quiet spot, quite a contrast to the days when steamboats ran three times a week to Baltimore and the wharf resounded with the commotion and congestion from the loading and unloading of cattle, lumber and passengers.

Wheatland also boasts a historic tree in its front yard. A magnificent Osage orange, it is listed on the American Forestry Association's National Register of Big Trees as one of the two largest recorded in the country as of September 1987. How big is big? This one stands 68 feet high, 291 inches in circumference with a 100-foot spread.

The trip back to Tappahannock should get you to the dock around 5 p.m., early enough to stretch your land legs with a walk through the historic area of homes and public buildings that are all a part of the story of this old river town.

RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER CRUISES -- Warsaw, VA 22572. 804/333-4656. Departs 10 a.m. daily except Mondays May through October. $17.50 adults; children ages 4 to 13 $8.75, under 4 free; optional buffet lunch is $8.95 but must be ordered in advance. Tour of Wheatland is $2.50 per person.


Here's a sampling of other cruises offered in the mid-Chesapeake Bay area. Sailing seasons vary, usually May through October; some are dependent on weather and passenger demand. Write or call for specific information and reservations.

TANGIER ISLAND from Reedville, Va. Tangier & Chesapeake Cruises Inc., Warsaw, VA 22572. 804/333-4556. $17.50 adults; children 3 to 13 $8.75; under 3 free. Daily May through October.

TANGIER ISLAND from Crisfield, Md. Steven Thomas, 10th and Main streets, Crisfield, MD 21817. 301/968-2338. $15 adults; children under 12 free. Daily in season.

SMITH ISLAND from Crisfield, Md., or from Point Lookout, Md. Capt. Tyler, Somers Cove Marina, Crisfield, MD 21817. 301/425-2771. From Crisfield, adults $15, children ages 6 to 12 $8, children under 6 free. Daily in season. From Point Lookout, adults $16, children 6 to 12 $8, children under 6 free. Weekends only, starting in September.

SMITH ISLAND from Reedville, Va., and to St. Mary's City from Lewisetta, Va. Island & Bay Cruises, Inc., Route 1, Box 289-R, Reedville, VA 22539. 804/453-3430. From Reedville, adults $17.50, children ages 3 to 12 $8.75, under 3 free. Daily in season. Group trips at discount rate from Ridge, Md., to Smith Island are scheduled upon request. From Lewisetta, adults $17.50, children ages 3 to 12 $8.75, under 3 free. Weekends only.

Katy Parisi has written for Weekend about bluebell walks and Brandywine museums.