Pratt Street Power Plant
Hirshhorn Museum
George Washington’s historic home
Lighthouse on stilts
Horse-drawn carriage
Naval Museum
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A cruise around historic sites provides a most enjoyable history lesson about America’s founding

A cruise around historic sites provides a most enjoyable history lesson about America’s founding.

Cliff (my husband and photographer) is an Aussie. To prep him for his citizenship exam, we took a trip up the Mississippi River and visited Civil War battle sites like Baton Rouge, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Natchez, where he soaked up historical knowledge (as did I).

Recently we took a small boat cruise to visit cities, towns and historic sites in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC along the Chesapeake Bay. Every stop on the banks of the Bay played a pivotal part in America’s birth, the most momentous events being the American Revolutionary Wars, furiously fought against the British from 1775 until 1783. Although I had visited most of the destinations as a child, that was eons ago. So, returning seemed brand new and it turned out to be a fascinating, most educational, mutually beneficial experience. It’s easy to do this 200-mile trip by car but sailing along on a boat had its appeal. It was restful, the historians traveling with us provided an overview of each stop along the way, and we dined on a diet focused on delicious seafood (greedily, as much as we liked of the incomparable, highly-prized Maryland lump crab cakes). But above all, Cliff was thrilled he didn’t have to drive…and the final plus, no unpacking and packing. In other words, worth every penny. It was winter and anticipating cold and snow, we prepared for the worst, lugging boots, gloves, scarves, long johns and even earmuffs. You can guess what happened – the sun shone brightly every single day.

We boarded the American Constitution in Baltimore, Maryland which was to be the first port of call on our American Revolution cruise. With so much Americana, I could almost hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic in the background. While Baltimore’s streets are lined with beautifully preserved nineteenth century (and earlier) buildings of note, the most awesome was the vast, over 28,000-square-foot, two-story Barnes & Noble, ensconced in a mammoth former power plant in the now trendy Inner Harbour area. In a city known for its numerous privately owned bookstores, to pick Baltimore for the chain’s largest in the nation was a bold move. Happily (for them) the store was packed, and we had a fifteen-minute wait at check-out.

We have a handful of favourite museums in the country, the Visionary Art Museum being high on the list. Every work of art on display was created by a self-taught artist. Yet the variety and talent expressed by mechanics, farmers, sailors, housewives and even the homeless is nothing short of overwhelming.

However, the most thrilling and emotionally charged moment for us was experienced at the historic Fort McHenry, the site of the most crucial battle of the Revolution. It was in the turbulent waters facing the fort, on a dark and stormy night in 1812, that America (with the help of the French) brutally defeated the British fleet. It wasn’t the last, but certainly the most noteworthy battle of the Revolution. In the morning, the British flag came down and the American flag was joyously hoisted. America was independent and free.

Governor Cornwallis, in charge of the British fleet, living luxuriously in nearby Williamsburg, officially surrendered, packed his bags, and with his family returned to England.

It was during the very night of the battle that Francis Scott Key was emotionally moved to write a poem about the momentous event. He titled it “The Star-Spangled Banner”. When put to music, it became the national anthem of the United States. And its lyrics eloquently say it all.

To stand at the very flagpole where the American flag was hoisted in triumph was almost as emotional for Cliff as it was for me.

The next day found us on the Potomac River for a visit to the nation’s Capital and Mount Vernon. We found Washington daunting. The Mall, which is huge, is home to twenty-two museums (from art to flight, to black history) and a dozen major memorials. Impossible to see even a fraction, we selected the new, imposing African American monolith. Unfortunately, so did a queue of over a thousand other interested visitors ahead of us. Luckily, we managed to get into the ultra-modern Hirshhorn and one of the older, always worthwhile Smithsonians.

Cliff wanted to get up close and personal to the Lincoln Memorial to read the Gettysburg Address. However, it was the awesome 250-foot-long polished black granite wall of the Vietnam Memorial, with over 58,000 names of the men and women who gave their lives, that took his breath away. A lot to digest and a helluva lot to walk, but full of indelibly etched images, we ventured forth with renewed energy.

We were thrilled to get tickets to Ford’s Theatre, where we saw an especially elaborate production of A Christmas Carol. It was in the very box just above our heads, where on the evening of April 14, 1865, while watching a performance, that beloved President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The theatre remained dark for over a hundred years, only re-opening in 1968.

Must say we were very touched at Mount Vernon to see the actual bed where George Washington slept and died and the surprisingly simple office where he wrote with scratchy pen and ink by the light of a flickering candle. Realizing there was no indoor plumbing in those days, even the president of the United States had to use the outhouse. As was the sad case, he owned slaves who worked on his plantation…but gave them their freedom in his will.

An overnight smooth sail brought us to Norfolk, Virginia, most famous for being home to the largest naval base in the world. We dropped anchor just steps from the heroic battleship Missouri, which served proudly in WWll and the Vietnam and Gulf wars, now peacefully retired and as a fascinating museum nestled in its permanent berth.

The entire Chesapeake was once dotted with scores of atypically designed lighthouses, perched on metal stilts, and placed offshore in the bay and surf. No longer used to guard the coast, a handful found their way to the land. A great example of these early-warners was standing on the dock alongside our boat and re-imagined as a mini-museum. Norfolk is a surprisingly vibrant, many-faceted, bustling city, chock-a-block with all sorts of museums, entertainment centres, theatres, historic homes, and a myriad of ships of every description, many open to the public.

Our next stop was Yorktown, site of a defining battle, and nearby to the two oldest colonial settlements in the country, one on Jamestown Island (settled by British in 1607) and the other at the sprawling, impeccably preserved, Colonial Williamsburg (1616).

We were absorbed for hours at Yorktown’s Revolutionary War Museum watching Hollywood-calibre films, exploring awesome exhibits, archival photographs and much more…and almost missed our boat. Ready to depart, they saw us running like mad toward them, and lowered the gangplank just in the nick of time.

In five minutes, we were off to explore Williamsburg and the living museum it has become, with everyone decked out in period dress and rows of shops as they were in the 1600s, complete with craftsmen and artisans doing their thing. We took a beautiful horse-drawn carriage (better than an Uber) up and down the streets until we came to the Governor’s Residence (a magnificent mansion where Cornwallis held court until he left defeated and in disgrace after the battle at Fort McHenry in 1873). We wandered around the restored and impeccably maintained village, stopped in at the smithy and watched him hammer out horseshoes, saw the candle maker at work, the saddle maker and others doing what they did nearly four centuries ago.

As for the more basic settlement of nearby Jamestown (no time for both), we heard about it from our boat-mates at dinner… and realized we picked the more interesting of the two settlements.

At first, we thought eleven days on the relatively small Chesapeake Bay was too long. Now we realized it was way too short. After brief stops at Cambridge, St Michaels, and Oxford in Maryland, we were coming to its capital, Annapolis.

The penultimate stop on our agenda was at the most charming, 350-year-old nautical city of Annapolis, historic Capitol of Maryland, and home to the world-famous US Naval Academy. We toured the sprawling campus for two enjoyable hours, but as it was the Christmas holidays, there were none of those attractive ship-shape cadets around. So, no selfies to send home but some very good shots of their beautiful buildings. An amble down the nearby, mostly eighteenth-century main street for some souvenirs and an impossible to resist stopping for a couple of juicy lobster rolls, brought us to the picturesque harbour. And then it was time to board our boat.

After a gala New Year’s Day dinner, our final evening of the cruise, on January 1, 2020, was spent on our balcony sipping champagne, entertained by a nonstop fireworks display in the surrounding waters of the Chesapeake. A perfect ending to a spectacular eleven days of American history, memorably experienced.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran