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Destination – Philadelphia, Pa. - Soundings Online

Destination – Philadelphia, Pa.

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Cruisers who skip this port city on the Delaware River are missing out on plenty of history and the decadent local specialty: cheesesteaks

Cruisers who skip this port city on the Delaware River are missing out on plenty of history and the decadent local specialty: cheesesteaks

Philadelphia is not a foreign port. Cruisers transiting between Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay often give the nation’s fifth-largest city about as much thought as, say, a snowbird heading from Maine to Florida might give Bermuda.

They reach the eastern end of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and, dutifully or in ignorance, veer away from the upper reaches of the Delaware River estuary, which leads to the city of Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman (with two suspension bridges so-named), of Betsy Ross and Bill Cosby, and of Calder mobiles, Campbell’s soup cans (across the river in New Jersey), and — with apologies to a host of local hospitals fighting for good health — cheesesteaks.

There should be a big, flashing neon sign at the canal entrance: Turn Here! There is more than enough good stuff in the City of Brotherly Love to justify the 40-plus mile detour to reach it. Just ask Larry Doff of Washington, D.C., who extended his cruise to the Erie Canal last summer by going straight up the Delaware River with Voyager, his 44-foot Trojan.

“We were going to go through the C&DCanal and figured it would be a nice diversion,” says Doff, 70, who with friends has cruised to Florida and Maine and has gunkholed on the Chesapeake. “It’s like Washington, D.C. It’s way out of the way; it’s a go-and-return. But once you’re up there, the people are phenomenal. The weather was great. We were delighted we did it.”

Doff’s voyage, powered by twin diesels and averaging 8 to 10 knots, took six hours between Delaware City — the C&D entrance — and the Philadelphia waterfront. In a slower boat the trip can take a full day, and this raises a major issue. Along that stretch of river, the Coast Guard lists only one anchorage where recreational boaters can lay over. Moreover, while there are numerous transient slips in Philadelphia, one is wise to reserve a spot before committing to the trip upstream. There are only three marinas within striking distance of the city, and none will have vacancies if you wait until the night before July Fourth.

That said, a journey up the Delaware’s winding course can be trouble-free, as cruisers like Doff discover. And for sailors lucky enough to find a decent prevailing southwesterly in the summer or a brisk autumn northwest wind, or both, the whole trip at times can be made with the engine turned off.

The scenery just north of the C&D entrance reflects what you’ll find all the way to Trenton, N.J., where the tide meets the upland river should you choose to go that far beyond Philly. To the east, Salem County, N.J., is flat and agricultural. To the west, plumes of industrial vapors waft skyward from a DelawareCity refinery whose tubing and tanks are lit at night like a cornfield carnival.

Between the river’s banks are wide expanses of water — a mile wide in some reaches — with a well-marked channel that in most places leaves plenty of room for boaters to avoid commercial shipping traffic. The tidal current can be swift, more than 3 knots at times. But if you catch a flood tide at Cape May, N.J., about 45 miles from the C&D entrance, you can — making 6 knots through the water — ride it all the way to Philadelphia.

As with any restricted body of water, the Delaware is best traveled during daylight hours. Many are the boaters who have poked through the dark up the Delaware only to find that those lights they thought were on one of the five high-span bridges across the river below Philadelphia were actually on the bridge of a looming, darkened 600-foot tanker.

So a daytime trip it is, and as you navigate north you can imagine you are one of the early explorers who sailed up these very waters: the Swedes, Dutch and English, who preceded William Penn’s arrival in 1682. The New Jersey shore in many places will look much as it must have back then — low-lying, undeveloped marshland. The higher ground on the west — first in Delaware and then in Pennsylvania, after passing under the twin spans of the Delaware Memorial Bridge and leaving Wilmington behind — is almost continuously developed with heavy industry. There are chemical plants and refineries, an aircraft factory and electrical generating facilities. Then you’ll pass under the third bridge, the Commodore (John) Barry, named for the military hero who is considered the “Father of the American Navy.” Now TinicumIsland, wooded and uninhabited, rises to port. Behind the island is the only suitable anchorage on the river. (There also are several boating clubs nearby that accept transients.)

Beyond the anchorage is the main runway of PhiladelphiaInternationalAirport. From this point on, your trip will be accompanied by the roar of jets taking off or the whine of landing aircraft until you reach the next bridge. Circling around the former Philadelphia Naval Base — to port beyond the airport, at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers — you’ll find the WaltWhitmanBridge looming just ahead. Beyond it is the bustling Philadelphia waterfront — ships anchored midstream or docked east and west, cranes swinging, ferry boats and tour boats and tugboats crisscrossing — with a backdrop of clustered, shiny skyscrapers reflecting the day like a fistful of glass shards.

Upon Doff’s arrival in this setting, he knew exactly where he was headed. The Piers Marina had a slip waiting for him. (He can’t remember how he chose that facility. Maybe they were the first to answer their telephone, he says.) The marina is carved directly out of old shipping terminal piers that line the waterfront for several miles. Two berths from which steamers once loaded and unloaded cargo now are home to floating docks that divide the river water into 110 slips.

“We’re the quiet marina,” says Chuck Pukanecz, the marina’s harbormaster. “We’re protected on three sides from the wind and waves and city noise.”

Doff, whose visit to Philadelphia last year was his second, describes the city as a “really great walking town.” The Piers Marina’s sheltered, locked gate opens onto Columbus Boulevard, a riverfront thoroughfare. Right outside the gate is La Veranda, a fine Italian restaurant. About two blocks south is the Moshulu, a retired square rigger that’s permanently docked as a floating restaurant. Between the two eateries is the IndependenceSeaportMuseum, with its two showpiece warships: the century-old battleship Olympia and the World War II submarine Becuna. In the same complex is housed the Workshop on the Water, where professional shipwrights and volunteers restore old boats, many of local interest.

And these are but a teaser for the attractions that lie west of Columbus Boulevard. From The Piers Marina gate, it is an easy six-minute walk up a set of stairs and across a bridge to the bus stop at the corner of Second and Market streets, the hub of Philadelphia’s Old City section. From here — by foot, bus or subway — it is an effortless trip to scores of fascinating destinations. Just two blocks to the west, for example, is Independence Mall. For fun, let’s time how long it takes to reach the Liberty Bell.

But first, descend the subway stairs diagonally across the intersection from the bus stop. The sign says that subway fare from here to any point in the city and back will be $2.60 per person. On the wall is a fairly simple route map. (Information on the subway system is available by calling the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority at (215) 580-7800, or at www.septa.org ).

Now, walking west along Market Street, we go two blocks and look for the Liberty Bell signs. To actually see the cracked clanger you have to pass through security screening. Reaching the gate has taken six minutes walking, so you are 12 minutes from your boat if you left it at The Piers. It will be a couple more minutes to the other marina on this side of the river — the Philadelphia Marine Center — and about the same to the ferry dock if you left your boat at Wiggins Park Marina, the only facility across the Delaware in Camden, N.J.

While we’re on Independence Mall, we can visit Independence Hall just across Chestnut Street, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was drafted. Or we can walk a block in the other direction and try the NationalConstitutionCenter, which has permanent and changing exhibits devoted to the nation’s history.

While Philadelphia is crammed with many more historical sites, perhaps you are more interested in modern culture. Back at our starting point — Second and Market streets — turn your gaze south. First you’ll see a Snow White restaurant. The signs of eating, drinking and entertainment establishments get more interesting the farther south you walk. Cuba Libre, Nick’s Roast Beef, Tin Angel, Bleu Martini, Café Spice, The Plough and the Stars, Upstairs @ GLAM, Sassafras, The Khuyber and Rotten Ralph’s are all on one block. After walking five minutes south, we are in the brick and trees of the city’s colonial Society Hill section, where the row homes have tall, deep-set windows and marble stoops. Two more minutes walking brings us to Head House Square, with more places to eat and drink and a couple of places to fill prescriptions and buy convenience items. In 10 minutes we have reached South Street, Philadelphia’s hip hangout for the young and artsy. Lots of T-shirts, some piercing studios, a comedy club, pizzas and cheesesteaks, “cheap drinks” and jewelers of various types — all crammed tightly along four or five blocks — vie for your wallet here. After dark, the human parade becomes the entertainment.

You may not have noticed, except inside the various restaurants in this walking tour, many restrooms. Some decent public accommodations are available back at the corner of Independence Mall, just across from Independence Hall. These tiled facilities are clean, adequate and open from about 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. all year, according to National Park Service guards posted nearby.

If you’d like to stray beyond the neighborhoods close to the waterfront, finding your way will be simple. Philadelphia’s streets are arranged in a grid, the heart of which was designed by William Penn. Numbered streets — starting with Second Street — run north and south and are crossed by streets that run east and west, including Market and Chestnut. There are no curves in these streets. Looking down Broad Street (which, according to the scheme, should be 14th Street) from a high point in North Philadelphia, you’ll see four miles straight to City Hall, which occupies the heart of the square at the center of the city. The east-west streets run from the Delaware straight to the Schuylkill River, where it winds along the far side of Center City. One boulevard — the Ben Franklin Parkway — slants northwest across the grid, beginning at City Hall and ending at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose massive steps the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa ran up to greet the sunrise

If the day is rainy or if you arrive in the heat of summer, you might want to seek indoor attractions. So board a bus or descend to the subway. There are plenty of places to go. Certainly the Museum of Art, with its world-class collection, is one. This year the museum will exhibit the works of an “important” local artist, Thomas Chimes, until May, then the ink paintings of an 18th century Japanese artist from May through July and the “inventive” work of African American modernist William H. Johnson from May to August.

You can also cool your heels along the Parkway at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where science is whimsically approached well into May in the exhibit “The Scoop on Poop,” followed the rest of the year by an exhibit titled “Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes & Other Riches.” These are among at least seven art museums, eight science and nature museums (including the Philadelphia Zoo), and eight museums of history and culture, all easily reached from your boat.

Seats are almost always available to watch the Phillies play major league baseball in their new stadium, Citizen Bank Park, in South Philadelphia, which can be conveniently found by boarding a subway train. The same subway line will take you to the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, billed as the “oldest and largest outdoor market in the United States.” A five-block walk east from the subway, the market offers fresh produce, meats, cheeses, spices, fish, flowers and much more. The neighborhood is dotted with small restaurants and large as well, from pizza shops to high-end dining establishments.

In the mix, of course, are cheesesteaks. The first was concocted at an Italian Market hot dog stand during the Great Depression by the stand’s owner, Pat Olivieri, according to his grand-nephew, Frank Olivieri. One day, Pat was tired of eating hot dogs, so he cut open a roll and stuffed it with sliced steak sautéed with onions. A cab driver about to buy a hot dog said he liked the looks of Pat’s sandwich and bought half of it.

“The cab driver said, ‘Forget about hot dogs,’ ” Frank Olivieri says, and the steak sandwich was born. It was 1930, and Olivieri’s business took off. A few years later, an employee, bored with a steak sandwich, put cheese on it and created the cheesesteak, Olivieri says.

“I’m sure there are infinitely many calories in it,” Olivieri says. “I’m eating one now as we speak. I’m 42 and it hasn’t killed me yet.” He compares it to “Grandmom’s apple pie.” You don’t question her when she heaps ice cream on top of it, creating a dish that “could send you into diabetic shock,” Olivieri says.

Pat’s King of Steaks can be found at one end of the Italian Market on Ninth Street, though Larry Doff didn’t travel that far to get his first cheesesteak. On the way back to the boat from one of the nearby historical sites, he and a friend bought sandwiches at a corner shop.

“It was wonderful to sample a very tasty regional dish,” Doff says. He adds, wryly, “It was better than the Philly cheesesteaks that we are served here in the Washington area. I wouldn’t necessarily go to Philadelphia again to eat one.”

But the next time he approaches the eastern end of the C&D Canal, Doff may well find himself turning north. “Yes, I would go back,” he says.