- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004

It’s hard to tell whether the sense of excitement aboard the Potomac Spirit Cruise to Mount Vernon is inspired more by the destination or the journey itself. On a day warm enough to lounge on the top of the three-tiered boat, passengers vie for space along the deck’s perimeter. As the vessel makes its way downriver toward the former estate of George Washington, travelers listen intently to a narrative tour of the river and its many landmarks.

Potomac Spirit Cruises is one of two companies that offer cruises between the D.C. area and Mount Vernon. Departing from the waterfront in Southwest Washington, the cruise boat travels 11 miles south along the river and takes roughly 1 hours to reach Mount Vernon. Once there, patrons can tour the estate for 3 hours before boarding for the return trip.

Potomac Spirit Cruise captain Nate Handy, who has worked with the company for seven years, says the tour gives passengers a view of the nation’s capital from the unique perspective of the Potomac River.

“Until I worked here, I didn’t realize how closely this city is tied to the river,” he says. “Passengers learn about this history, all the while relaxing in the sunshine.”

A journey to Mount Vernon via river seems fitting because the river played a vital role in transportation and industry when Washington sailed its waters more than 200 years ago. Several remnants of this time still stand along the shoreline.

Shortly after departing from the District, patrons see Fort McNair, a 200-plus-year-old Army post situated close to where the Anacostia River melds with the Potomac. Generals Row, a strip of Victorian-style buildings that house top-ranking Army officers and their families, is nestled close by.

The Washington Monument also is within eyeshot, standing like a beacon against the cityscape.

The vessel soon drifts pass the Titanic Women’s Memorial, a massive statue of a man with arms outstretched. Erected in 1931, this monument was dedicated to the male passengers of the ill-fated ship who bravely gave up seats on lifeboats so that women and children could live.

On the western side of the Washington Channel, before it opens to the Potomac River, passengers can see Hains Point Park, home to artist J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s gargantuan statue “The Awakening.”

The tour drifts past the waterfront town of Alexandria, which the tour guide notes was established by Scottish and English tobacco merchants during the 17th century.

Many children on the tour seem more fascinated by the boat itself than the monuments and buildings lining the river. Some little ones flock around the stern to watch the fiercely churning water below. Others collect around the ship’s snack bar on the lower level, where they choose among hot dogs, pizza, soda and other snacks.

As the cruise nears Mount Vernon, the shoreline becomes rolling hills. From a distance, the estate appears to be an unassuming home nestled along a tree-covered hillside.

As the ship pulls into Mount Vernon wharf, it is easy to imagine Washington pulling up to this same shoreline, eager to reach the refuge of his beautiful home away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Once on shore, visitors follow a quarter-mile path to Mount Vernon mansion, but not before the path meanders past gardens as well as the tomb of Washington and his wife, Martha.

Washington acquired the estate in 1754 and significantly expanded the structure until his death in 1799. The building maintains its original white wooden facade and red roof, and the 14 rooms of the home open for public viewing display many original Washington family objects.

Washington’s property once encompassed 8,000 acres divided into five working farms. Four of the farms were divided and subdivided after Washington’s death, and the estate has been reduced to about 200 acres.

Visitors also can learn about slave life on Mount Vernon and visit a slave burial ground and memorial on a quiet wooded hillside.

Besides the mansion, the magnolia-tree-dotted grounds also include stables, a smokehouse, wash house, paddock, museum, gardens and a unique 16-sided barn designed by Washington to improve the process for threshing grain.

“As a professional gardener, I was very impressed with the grounds,” says Donna Zelaskowski of Long Island, N.Y. She visited Mount Vernon with her husband and young son.

At the end of the Mount Vernon tour, the three are among the long line of passengers who have lined up early at the Mount Vernon Wharf to claim good seats on the return trip. From the hint of excitement still apparent on many faces, it is clear the end of the estate tour does not mean the end of the day’s fun.

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: Potomac Spirit Cruises is located at Pier 4, Sixth and Water streets SW in the District. The pier is three blocks from the Waterfront-SEU stop on Metro’s Green Line.

Directions: From Interstate 395 north, go over the 14th Street bridge, staying on 395. Take the Maine Avenue exit and cross over Maine Avenue. Turn left onto Water Street and take it to the end.

Cruise schedule: From March 13 through Sept. 5, the cruise runs daily except Mondays. From Sept. 10 through Oct. 24, the cruise runs Friday through Sunday. Special holiday cruises run on Memorial Day and Labor Day. The boat departs at 8:30 a.m. and returns at 3 p.m.

Admission and parking: Adults pay $34, senior citizens $32, children ages 6 to 11 pay $23, and children younger than 6 are admitted free. The price includes the cruise and admission to Mount Vernon. Tickets may be purchased online or via phone at 866/211-3811. Walk-up purchases also are available. The cruise runs rain or shine. Metered parking is available at the pier.

Information: Call 866/211-3811 or visit www.spiritcitycruises.com/mtvernon/

Note: The Potomac Riverboat Co. offers round-trip tours departing from the Old Town Alexandria waterfront aboard the Miss Christin. Tours depart at 11 a.m. and return at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday May through August. Weekend-only tours are given in April, September and October. Tickets, which include admission to Mount Vernon, cost $27 for adults, $26 for seniors and $15 for children ages 6 to 11; they’re free for children younger than 5. Call 703/684-0580 or visit www.potomacriverboatco.com for more information.

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