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A Ferry Story From Port Jefferson

Morning on the Water
Passing through the twin narrow rock jetties from Long Island's Port Jefferson Harbor, the early morning mists slowly begin to burn off from the surface of the seemingly endless and serene-looking Long Island Sound. Visibility through the brightening haze is severely limited and the Connecticut shoreline, a mere 15 miles ahead, is invisible throughout much of the hour-long ferry ride to Bridgeport.

We wave goodbye to Port Jefferson, once home to a major ship-building and whaling trade in the 19th Century. It still markets itself as a quaint harbor village, although the past 25 years of dwindling tourism have taken a toll on that once-steady trade. The good news is that Port Jefferson is making a comeback, with antique shops, tea rooms and seafood restaurants lining the 19th Century street layout.

Why Ferry Travel?
Traveling from Long Island to Connecticut for a weekend antique show, we chose to include a "leg" by ferry. At first my husband thought it was out of the way and might simply take longer than necessary. And that might well be part of the draw to include a ferry in your travel plans. Another way to stop the hustle and bustle.

Here are some other reasons to consider including a ferry crossing as part of your travel plans:

1. It is a wonderful break in a trip that is based on car travel, and it gives you time to rest and relax. If your trip is long, give the driver a break! The Port Jefferson - Bridgeport ferry allows the driver time to stretch, nap, read or dine.

2. If you are traveling with children, a short ferry trip gives them a new layer of experience during the trip. Yes, they might jump around on the ferry, but isn't that better than bouncing around in the car? It gives them time to unwind and adapt to different perspective of travel other than as a passenger in an automobile.

3. Many times including a ferry crossing in your itinerary will allow you to cut out a considerable amount travel time and mileage. We drove east on Long Island to Port Jefferson to board the ferry for Connecticut. Our ultimate destination was the Harwinton Antiques and Design Weekend, which is due north (about an hour's drive) from Bridgeport. What we cut out was an hour and a half of the Metropolitan New York morning traffic jams and a bridge!

A Comfortable Ride
We sat in the cocktail lounge at the bow of the Grand Republic, a huge 300-foot ship that can carry 120 vehicles and 1000 passengers after easily boarding with our van full of antiques to sell in Harwinton, Connecticut. Filled with little more than a handful of morning commuters, unstressed and used to the invigorating crossing, it was a place for small groups to chat, sleepyheads to catch a quick nap and the rest of us to have breakfast and enjoy smoothly plowing through the water. In the main cabin, laid out like a jumbo jet, groups of schoolchildren on a fieldtrip noisily buzzed around the windows or listened to music through their headphones.

The Port Jefferson-Bridgeport Steamboat Company employs enough early morning help to get you and your vehicle aboard seamlessly; although once aboard you must find your way into the main part of the ship from the hull garage. All trial and error. Open one door and it's the children's screaming room, another and you've found quiet conversations and a little peace. We crossed the Long Island Sound on the Grand Republic, the largest of the three-ship fleet.

A Short Ferry History
Crossing the Sound for 128 years, the ferries from Port Jefferson to Bridgeport represent a history of travel based on entrepreneurship and industrial growth.

In 1883 Captain Charles E. Tooker, a deep-sea sailor from Port Jefferson and his long-time friend P. T. Barnum (of circus fame) decided that steamships were the travel wave of the future. Barnum lived in Bridgeport and steamships traveled up and down the Sound from New York ports to those all over New England. Originally linking the bountiful Long Island agricultural industry with New England markets, the crossings eventually included vacationers, and daily commuters.

What's To Eat?
There is course a dining room, actually it is a large cafeteria-style corner in the main cabin, the same on all of the ships. There are offerings of time-appropriate meals at each crossing. We were on the 6 a.m. crossing, which meant an array of wheat-based cereals (we don't eat grains), egg sandwiches, boxed juices and perky-looking fresh fruit cups. On board, you are a captive clientele and prices will reflect that. We paid $22 for a small cup of orange juice, small coffee, 2 egg and bacon sandwiches (we ate around the bread) and a fresh fruit cup. There are no postings about genetically modified foods or pesticides, so walk the plank with your eyes wide open.

Debarking
This is as easy as loading in. You are in a different state when you debark and the road signs and landscape reflect subtle differences. Bridgeport, for example, is still a very depressed area full of winding, hilly streets lined with both functioning and defunct manufacturing plants. These are the roads that lead the traveler from the ferry to the rest of the state. Again we waved goodbye to another harbor town, refreshed and ready to continue our journey behind the wheel.

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