Take a step back in time and tour Old Town Alexandria in a horse-drawn carriage or a foot-powered pedicab.
Carriages reminiscent of the late 1800s and early 1900s and pedicabs that bring with them the flavor of the Orient are available for hire or for tours of Alexandria's historic spots.
On a recent hot afternoon, I toured Old Town in a carriage drawn by Dan, a Belgian draft horse who weighs 1,800 pounds and, like others of his breed, is noted for his strength and gentleness. My guide and driver was Celia Kope, a schoolteacher from Leesburg.
The tour began at the bottom of King Street and went first to the newly restored Torpedo Factory, which was built at the end of World War I and is now a complex of art and craft studios along the city's waterfront.
As we rode past several restored homes, Kope pointed to the fire plaques above the doors that were first used in 1794 to indicate who had paid their fire insurance. Each fire company had its own plaque, and in the event of a fire, the companies would have attempted to save homes that had their plaques.
Kope maneuvered Dan down the street toward the Old Town Holiday Inn, originally the site of Marshall House and also where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, according to Kope.
We then passed by Gadsby's Tavern, a famous meeting place for George Washington and his compatriots. Washington performed his last military act in August 1799 when he reviewed the local militia from the front steps of this tavern. Today it is still a working tavern.
At almost every turn, it seems, there is another place of interest. We passed by the home of Dr. James Craik, who was George Washington's personal physician, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop, where citizens, starting in 1792, had their prescriptions filled and could pick up their mail.
Like other restored areas such as Ramsay Alley, Captain's Row, a group of restored sea-captains' homes on Prince Street, boasts cobblestone streets that take one back in time. Just down the block from the Visitors Center is the elegant, restored Carlyle House, orginally the home of John Carlyle, a wealthy Scottish merchant.
As we rolled along Lee Street, Dan the horse caught sight of a bright yellow bulldozer. Apparently deciding that he didn't like its looks, Dan backed up, turned around and took off down the street at a gallop. While I was contemplating the best way I might exit safely from the carriage, Kope got Dan under control, and our tour continued at a more measured pace to its next appointed stop.
The carriage tours are operated by the Potomac Carriage Works, which is owned by a Charleston, S.C., firm and managed locally by David Romein. Romein has two carriages in operation, a refurbished 1916 Studebaker that seats four and a surrey with a fringe on top that seats up to 10 people.
The larger carriage is pulled by Dan, and the four-seater carriage, complete with hood, is pulled by a Percheron draft horse named Lady.
Romein employs four drivers who have been trained in handling the horses and versed in the history of Alexandria by Mike Miller of Lloyd House, Alexandria's archives.
The first scheduled tour of the day originates from the Ramsay House Visitors Center at 10:45 a.m., immediately after a free historical film is shown at the center. Tours for the rest of the day originate at the foot of King Street and depart every 15 to 20 minutes.
The guided carriage tours are approximately a half-hour long. Reservations are not needed, and the owners say they hope to add more carriages at a later date. Currently, tours operate only during daytime and early evening hours.
The cost of the half-hour tour is $6 for adults, $4 for children and children under age 3 ride free.
The pedicabs that tour Alexandria are patterned after the junrikisha, or ricksha, a light, two-wheeled cart pulled by a human runner. Invented in Japan in 1869, the ricksha, once widely used in both Japan and China, was replaced by the pedicab, a large foot-powered tricycle, when authorities began to feel it was undignified to use humans as horses.
John Camp, the owner of First Class Pedicab Inc. in Alexandria, brought pedicabs to Old Town after using them successfully in California. Camp now has 10 bright orange, blue, red and yellow pedicabs in operation on Alexandria streets.
The two-passenger vehicles, made of fiberglass and easily pedaled, are equipped with an AM/FM stereo radio and a tape deck as well as the customary canopy to shelter the passengers.
Camp contracts the pedicabs out to a group of strong-legged people, mostly in their 20s, at $20 for a six-hour shift. The operators are free to set their own prices, but Camp suggests $3.50 for a 15-minute ride and $15 for an hour guided tour of Old Town.
The company offers four different tours, and Camp personally sees to the history lessons of the tour guides. Pedicabs are not limited to tourists--residents often use his service to go out to dinner or to a party in the neighborhood.
Old Town Alexandria, geographically small, with night life, shops and streets suited for the bicycle, is just right for the pedicabs, Camp said. He said he hopes to expand his operation eventually to the Mall in Washington.
Likewise, David Romein is optimistic about growth of his operation and is looking into opening a similar service in Annapolis.
The horse-drawn carriage and the pedicab seem ideally suited to the unique atmosphere of Old Town Alexandria. They provide a service that fits in with its colonial architecture and historical past.