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Ferry-hopping America's waterways has an old-fashioned, romantic appeal. Whether you're taking short hops or long, languid trips, it's a leisurely way to travel: You can get out of your car, breathe in fresh air and relax as the ferry cruises the swells. Here's a sampling of America's favorite ferry rides.
1. Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
A slender necklace of barrier islands traces the North Carolina coastline — dots of tawny sand that crook an elbow deep into the blue Atlantic. The state-run ferries that travel the waterways here are often the best and most expedient way to hop from one little dollop of sand to another. Some ferry rides are brief, 20 minutes or less between waterside hamlets. Others unfold in leisurely yet epic fashion, like the 2½-hour ferry from Ocracoke Island to Cedar Island that skims the expanse of the Pamlico Sound with porpoises gliding alongside.
One of the most popular ferry runs links the protected national seashore on Hatteras Island with the quaint island of Ocracoke, home to laid-back inns and wild ponies. Each island has its own distinctive lighthouse: from the towering Cape Hatteras light to the shorter, squatter Ocracoke light, the state's oldest operating light station.
Time: 40 minutes. Cost: Free (but reservations recommended). Contact: North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry System.
2. Tacoma to Vashon Island, Washington
Ferries are so integral to transportation in Washington, they're actually considered part of the state highway system. Ferry-hopping is an essential element of sightseeing the Seattle-Tacoma-Puget Sound area, and, if you're lucky, crossings will include sightings of seals, sea lions, Dahl's porpoises and the occasional pod of orcas. The only way to reach Vashon Island, between Seattle and Tacoma, is by ferry. The ride is short, but to do the excursion justice, plan to spend at least a day there, if not a long, relaxing weekend. Start out with a tour of Tacoma (32 miles south of SeaTac Airport), the state's "museum city." Hop the ferry from Point Defiance to Tahlequah on Vashon, which has shops, galleries and restaurants, a farmers market and endless miles of beach to walk and deserted roads to explore.
Time: 15 minutes. Cost: Car passengers or walk-ons $2.45 to $4.90; cars with drivers $12.20 to $14.65.Contact: Washington State Department of Transportation Ferries.
3. Manhattan to Staten Island, New York
Riding the muscular swells of the New York Harbor can be as exhilarating as exploring the storied streets of the Big Apple. More and more, commuters are passing up highway gridlock for relaxing ferry rides running between Manhattan and Brooklyn or New Jersey on the New York Waterway. But the big daddy of Big Apple ferry rides is likely the historic service that carries 20 million people a year between Manhattan and Staten Island. The large vessels cruise by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and the city and harbor views are breathtaking. Oh, and the Staten Island ferry ride is one of the last, great bargains in the New York metropolitan area — it's absolutely free!
Time: 25 minutes. Cost: Free. Contact: The Staten Island Ferry.
4. Alaska Marine Highways
You can easily and comfortably see Alaska's splendid natural attractions by boat — and you don't have to splurge on an expensive cruise to do it. Sign up for a trip on the Alaska Marine Highway System. You can opt for a day cruise to such scenic spots as Glacier Bay and the Kenai fjords — where the sights might include whales, orcas, brown bears and tidewater glaciers — or hop on and off for multiday mini-vacations along the Alaska coastline. One sample itinerary takes you from Valdez via the Prince William Sound to the picturesque fishing town of Cordova, where fishermen draw big red and king salmon from the Copper River and hiking trails wind through forests of Sitka spruce and hemlock. The fleet of 11 big blue, white and gold ferries serves some 32 state ports.
Time: Times vary. Cost: Rates vary. Contact: Alaska Marine Highway System.
5. Jamestown to Scotland Wharf, Virginia
Sometimes ferry-hopping is as much about what you don't see as what you do see. When you travel the state-run ferry service for cars and buses between the island of Jamestown and Scotland Wharf, you won't thrill to icy glaciers or urban skylines. The inky blue waters of the James River barely give up a ripple. But here, at the site of the first permanent English settlement in the United States, still waters run deep. You can only imagine the clash of cultures as English sailing ships bore down on the mossy banks of the island. In 1607, the island was enveloped in swampy tidewater flats, which were part of the resource-rich territory of the Powhatan tribe, whose chief had a daughter named Pocahontas. Today the banks of the James River are still pocked with marsh reeds and dense vegetation, above which the Old Church Tower — a totem of the victors — proudly rises.
Time: 15 minutes. Cost: Free. Contact: Virginia Department of Transportation.