May 4, 2018
(11:57 a.m. EDT) -- There have been no insurrections on our American Revolution-themed cruise aboard the American Constitution. At least not yet.
But given the level of pampering on American Cruise Lines' newest vessel, revolt is highly unlikely.
Still, the message that the USA was born of conflict is apparent within minutes of embarking on a 10-day Chesapeake Bay cruise. Sailing out of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, we pass the oversized American flag waving over Fort McHenry, site of the War of 1812 battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner. A short time later, we sail under Key's namesake bridge on the Patapsco River, where the young poet-lawyer witnessed the rocket's red glare.
About a third of the 151 passengers -- baby boomers and their elders -- are repeat guests of the line, which offers American river and coastal cruisers. For most of them, the Chesapeake Bay and environs present uncharted territory.
The itinerary -- a brand-new theme for the line -- includes long, leisurely port calls, with overnights in Norfolk and Yorktown, Va., in Washington, D.C., and in Cambridge, St. Michaels and Chestertown, Md. Also included are visits to Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate on the Potomac River, and Annapolis, Maryland's historic capital city.
The shore excursions from our first port, Norfolk, aren't included in the cruise fare, so we head off on our own to explore the compact downtown of this delightful city. Lacking a briefing from the cruise staff about options other than the offered excursions (a tour of Naval Station Norfolk and the MacArthur Memorial; a lighthouse/botanical gardens visit or an outing to the Wright Brothers National Memorial two hours away on North Carolina's Outer Banks), we're surprised by just how many attractions – free and otherwise – beckon.
On the Downtown Norfolk Waterfront near where we're docked is Nauticus, a sprawling maritime-themed science center that includes the hulking battleship Wisconsin docked outside. The MacArthur Memorial is a 10-minute walk from our ship. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his wife are buried on the site of the former city hall and courthouse. There's also a museum and movie dedicated to the life and times of the decorated war hero. Admission is free.
Another free attraction is the excellent Chrysler Museum of Art. Across the street there's an affiliated glass studio with free glass-blowing demonstrations at noon. We sit mesmerized for an hour while six artisans work their magic over glowing furnaces, then head to the museum to take in its extensive glass collection and more.
Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down
On our first day in Yorktown, the ship-offered excursion consists of a guided tour of Colonial Williamsburg, 13 miles away. In Yorktown, a free trolley makes the rounds of the small historic district, so we decide to stay and explore. After all, the town claims fame as the site of the Revolutionary War's final land battle, the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
The year-old American Revolution Museum at Yorktown cuts to the heart of the theme of this cruise. The museum's well-curated exhibits, including interactive displays and films, aims to help you re-learn everything you forgot from American history class – and more.
The state-operated facility also boasts a re-created Revolution-era farm and Continental Army encampment occupied by costumed interpreters. By the end of our visit, we're feeling a lot smarter regarding the particulars of the American Revolution, from its foment in 1770 Boston, to outright rebellion throughout the colonies, to full-blown war in 1775 when the first shots were and fired in Lexington and Concorde, Mass., and finally, to victory at Yorktown, a full five years after the Declaration of Independence. If the Yorktown museum whets your appetite for more revolutionary fare, head to the nearby Yorktown Battlefield, operated by the National Park Service.
On Day 4, we board buses for a drive along the dogwood-shrouded Colonial Parkway. The road is only 24 miles long, but traverses 174 years of American history – from the 1607 settlement of Jamestown to the Yorktown battlefield.
We're bound for Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Jamestown Settlement, a state-operated living history park near the original landing site, boasts replicas of the fort, an Indian village and an extensive museum. A peek at the cramped quarters inside replicas of the three ships the 1607 colonists sailed over in make us happy we're returning to our luxe digs aboard the Constitution, which boasts some of the most spacious cabins afloat.
In the Indian village, a costumed interpreter mixes up a noxious-looking soup over a campfire. By contrast, we're living it up on board with crab claws, James River oysters and free-flowing wine.
DC and Beyond
On Day 5, we sail into Washington, D.C., where a treasure-trove of American history awaits. Early-risers convene on the Sun Deck to enjoy the full impact of our approach up the Potomac River as the Washington Monument and Capitol dome come into view on a brilliant spring morning.
We dock at the spanking-new District Wharf, a complex of waterfront entertainment venues, shops, restaurants and condos. Many of the passengers board buses for complimentary transportation to four major monuments – the World War II, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Vietnam memorials. There's also a free shuttle that delivers passengers from the wharf area to the National Mall.
Day 6 brings more Revolution-era history with a stop at Mount Vernon, George Washington's riverfront estate just south of Washington.
The rest of the itinerary to come is a little less overtly Revolution-oriented and more geared toward Chesapeake Bay attractions such as a tour of the Naval Academy in Annapolis and a maritime museum in St. Michaels.
Despite the cruise's American Revolution theme, there's scarcely a mention of the era in onboard lectures from a guest speaker who is more nautically inclined. History buffs -- or those seeking to be re-engaged with the topic after a few listens of the Hamilton soundtrack -- might be disappointed.
Regardless, with port calls at iconic places that figured so prominently in the formation of the nation, history buffs will come away with plenty of food for thought.
--By Jayne Clark, Cruise Critic contributor