Even though we have all that spectacular waterfront beauty, those magnificent rivers and ocean, that nation-founding and before history, and our own historic Sandy Hook and Twin Lights lighthouses, there is something equally special about the Chesapeake Bay. And cruising through a good part of it on American Cruise Lines’s Independence, even while Covid is still impacting the world, is a magnificent and unforgettable experience.
A weeklong trip last week meant not only reliving some great parts of history, learning more than I ever need to know about crabs and ‘picking,’ and seeing lighthouses like nowhere else, it also included meeting some great people….with only 56 aboard the 100 passenger Independence, you get the opportunity to enjoy the company of all others on the ship. But this trip was made even more special by meeting…on the first day, no less, a charming couple from Port St. Lucie, Fla, whom I knew, talked about, and yes, wrote about, decades ago when they lived in Tinton Falls, and had many active and successful businesses. Enjoying the cruise with Don and Sue Somers was an added bonus to a wonderful week.
Don, who had more businesses than most people have credit cards, at one time owned the Paradise Trailer Park on the waterfront while at the same time running the very successful limo, cab, and other businesses in Red Bank. He and Sue moved from Tinton Falls, settled in Port St Lucie, found another home there they liked even better there and are now a couple of very happy former Monmouth Countians now Floridians. They flew up from their home at the same time I was Amtrak-ing it down from Metro park, and we all shared the last night before the cruise at the super-luxurious, super expensive Four Seasons Hotel at Baltimore Inner Harbor before boarding the cruise ship. American Cruise Lines had made all the arrangements, at our expense, of course, which included an overnight at the hotel, breakfast in the morning, a fantastic guided tour for a couple of hours of Baltimore, all while ACL crew scooped up our luggage, brought it to the ship and had it neatly placed in our rooms by the time we got there at the end of the tour. Of course there was all manner of liquid and appetizing refreshments in the main room to give us 56 passengers an opportunity meet each other, chat about where we’re from, why we were on this specific cruise, and what we were looking forward to.
But let’s just start with the Baltimore tour. The city, at least parts of it, has changed one heck of a lot from the days when it was downright shabby, dirty, not very appealing and certainly with little regard for the huge history that envelops it. I’m sure those areas still exist, but certainly not on the bus tour. Instead, the magnificent Inner Harbor houses history in such ships as the Sloop Constellation, made in part from pieces of the Frigate Constellation which played an earlier role in American history. The sloop on display, however, is the last of its kind built by the United States Navy. Not far from it is the Sub Torsk, the 1944 submarine that housed 80 sailors in spaces so small they had to walk sideways to get through passageways, and the only one of its kind to serve in World War II. Today, it is both a museum and a memorial. The lighthouse in the harbor is an 1856 light, not very high, and not very bright compared to the Fresnel lens in the Twin Lights, but hearty and strong for the Inner Harbor.
Baltimore is also so proud of so many of its native sons and others who chose to call it home while making headlines. Edgar Allan Poe’s home is on display, and they like him so much there that every October there’s a huge festival in his honor. Frederick Douglas is another personage highly revered and recalled in a museum, as is the famous Carroll family. They’re also proud to be home to the bakery that provides the rolls for all the McDonald’s restaurants along the east coast and the conversion of its many canneries into modern day office and residential buildings.
Churches abound in Baltimore, many of which are pointed out on the tour, but none is as large or magnificent as the Cathedral of the Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a mouthful to say or write, and better known these days as the Baltimore Cathedral. It was built soon after the Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom in America was signed, and Catholics wanted it to be large and beautiful as a way of showing they were finally getting the freedom to practice their religion without fear of penalty. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson’s architect, Benjamin Latrobe, the same brilliant mind who designed the US Capitol, and at the time of its construction, rivaled the Capitol in size and design. Built in the neoclassical style, since the church wanted to accent its acceptance in America, it appears more to be a federal building rather than religious, with its clear pane windows rather than the traditional stained glass of churches. The first Cathedral of any religion built in the United States, it took 15 years to construct, had John Carroll, the cousin of the Declaration-signer, as its bishop and was considered the most advanced building of its era.
There are numerous museums to the many different ethnic groups that call Baltimore home, including Black Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans and many more. Baltimore is a city of museums and ethnic pride, together with a healthy respect for all the beer for which it’s famous, and crab houses for the state treasured shellfish.
Fort McHenry is a story onto itself. Because of Covid restrictions, while the tour bus stopped and offered brief walks around some of the 42 acres of the national historic site, the museum itself is closed. While that huge American flag that flew over Fort McHenry is now housed in temperature and light controlled exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, it’s still stirring to step on the land where the flag flew in all its glory for Francis Scott Key to see from his ship the morning after the British bombed the fort in an unsuccessful attempt to take it over. Inspiring enough for the national anthem words to be written during the War of 1812, it’s still inspiring to be on the site.
The tour bus made a final pass past Baltimore’s Washington Monument, the 178 foot high Doric column designed by Robert Mills who later went on to design the nation’s 555 foot tall Washington Monument. It was built on donated land in the heart of Baltimore and if you’re game for the 227 spiral staircase steps, it offers a spectacular view of the city.
Back at the Harbor, guests were met at the pier by ACL staff who introduced us all to the ship, our home for the next six nights, and a tour of historic and beautiful Chesapeake Bay.
NEXT: The ship, the crew, and Yorktown, Va.