If you're a snowbird who likes to head south for the winter, you'll adore the itineraries that run from, say, New York down to the Bahamas during two scenic weeks in the fall. No other stretch of coastline in the United States compares with the Eastern Seaboard in terms of well-developed ports of call that are full of unique character and things to do, and it's hard to beat the pleasure of leaving winter in your wake along the way.
Cruise lines probably designed these itineraries with pure business in mind. They have to reposition their ships down to the southern latitudes during the winter, so they might as well get you aboard to help them cover the expenses of the trip. Nevertheless, the ships that run these routes have created a cruising experience that is perfect for people who shun the sun in favor of culture-filled city excursions. You don't need a bikini to eat a Philadelphia cheese steak; no sunscreen is required for a plate of Baltimore crab cakes, you won't get a snorkel full of water on a golf course in Charleston; and you certainly won't get sand in your toes at midnight in Savannah's garden of good and evil.
Philadelphia was actually the largest city in America during the early 1800s, and it remains a major metropolitan hub on the banks of the Delaware River. The man who designed Philadelphia's streets, William Penn, still stands watch over the residents in the form of a statue atop City Hall. If you're like most visitors, you'll take a quick look up at Billy Penn before heading straight to the more famous Liberty Bell for a picture near its famous two-foot-long crack—which occurred on February 26, 1846, as it was rung in honor of George Washington's birthday.
The waterfront in Philadelphia is adjacent to the historic district, a place so packed with important U.S. sites and trivia that it could become its own Smithsonian Institute. You can visit the home of Betsy Ross, who famously sewed the U.S. flag; or Congress Hall, where the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives met in the late 1700s when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States; or Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence after renting not one, but two rooms (hey, it was an important document). And don't forget Benjamin Franklin—you could spend a week in Philadelphia tracing his roots alone, or even flying a kite in the park in his honor.
The bronze statue of William Penn atop Philadelphia's City Hall is said to be the tallest statue on any building in the world. Billy Penn, as the locals call him, is thirty-seven feet tall and weighs twenty-seven tons. A single strand of his hair is four feet long.
If history's not your style, you can listen for the tell-tale heart in the floorboards at the former home of Edgar Allen Poe, or take the kids for a tour of a World War II submarine at the Independence Seaport Museum, or see what food and music has center stage during festivals at nearby Penn's Landing.
The point, of course, is that there is so much to see and do in Philadelphia that you'll have to pace yourself and make a plan of attack in advance. If you don't, you might become exhausted and miss out on all the good stuff just down the coast in Baltimore.
Visiting Baltimore by ship is an experience you should have at least once—that is, if you want to be like everyone else who came to and stayed in this area during the 1700s and 1800s. The city got its start as a major port for handling grain and tobacco, and shipbuilders had more work than they could handle from the Revolutionary War all the way through to World War II. If you lived and worked in Baltimore during the first century of its existence, the odds are good you had something to do with ships.
The famous Inner Harbor has undergone a lovely restoration and now bustles with all kinds of shops and restaurants—even an ESPN Zone with more video games than kids could play in a whole day. You can climb aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, the last floating ship from the Civil War, or take in the rotating exhibits at the towering Maritime Museum, or see who's performing at the outdoor amphitheater right on the waterfront.
If you visit during the warmer months, don't miss a chance to see the boys of summer in action at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The baseball stadium is less than a fifteen-minute walk from the Inner Harbor.
Charleston, South Carolina
Civil War historians mark Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, as one of the most significant sites of the devastating conflict. The state was the first to secede from the union after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860—with five other states joining the Confederacy during the following six weeks—but Fort Sumter, at the entrance of Charleston Harbor, remained under federal command. It would be the place where states rights versus union control became more than a battle of words, with the first shots of the Civil War being fired just off the city's shore.
Today, Fort Sumter is a national monument that you can see as your ship pulls into Charleston Harbor. You can take an excursion to walk on the grounds where the soldiers waged war and visit the museum there to collect books and other memorabilia (as nearly a million people do each year).
Charleston also offers opportunities for you to learn more about what the North and South were fighting over, at places such as the Slave Mart Museum, where slave auctions were held until 1863. Also worth a visit is the Charleston Museum, which has exhibits about the city's history as well as its maritime roots—including the skeleton of a whale.
It's not every day that you get to cruise into the homeport of the first steam-powered ship ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Savannah holds that distinction—with great thanks to the S.S. Savannah, of course—and stands in more ways than one as a testament to what can be achieved through thoughtful planning. The city is actually credited as being the first planned city in the United States, conceived by General James Oglethorpe after he and 120 fellow Britons made landfall from their ship, the Anne, and named the colony of Georgia in honor of their king back home.
Oglethorpe's careful attention to open streets and public squares makes Savannah an easy city to explore today. Heck, you don't even need to be going anywhere special to enjoy this town; the graceful examples of Southern architecture all along its streets are as pretty as any vistas you might find in other parts of the world. If you're someone who needs a bit more structure to your walking, mark your maps for a look at the King-Tisdell Cottage, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, and the Davenport House.
Fall is a great time to cruise to Savannah, Georgia. In the month of October alone, the city usually hosts a Greek festival, a film festival, a Jewish food festival, and—of course—a bratwurst-filled Oktoberfest celebration.
Other things to do in Savannah include golf excursions, museums, and clubs that host blues, jazz, and bluegrass musicians. You can find a little bit of everything at the City Market, including art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques full of handmade souvenirs.