Wispy strands of wild rice, planted by colonists -- the first to try to harness the Pocomoke River's wild banks -- flutter in the breeze as Tillie the Tug, a pint-sized tugboat, chugs its way down this river.

As the narrow but deep Pocomoke weaves east, then west in a seemingly never-ending series of bends, the river's wild beauty unfolds little by little for the dozen or so passengers on board.

Freshwater lilies, their pretty yellow blossoms turned under out of sight, choke the shallows near the shore. From a day marker in the channel, an osprey lifts its great wings in flight as a bright red canoe, the only other boat in sight, rounds a bend.

But it's the thick groves of bald cypress trees, whose knotty knees rise out of the murky brown waters to nurture a canopy of feathery leaves, that dominate this panoramic view down the Pocomoke and silences the passengers who stare in awe.

Less than a decade ago, the Pocomoke, like all the beautiful rivers of the Eastern Shore, belonged solely to the people who lived along its shores or to those able to afford a cruising boat with which to explore the river. But today many of these scenic waterways can be viewed from the sunny deck of a tour boat -- or, when the weather doesn't cooperate, from the comfort of temperature-controlled enclosures.

Several cruise boats, including Tillie the Tug,operate around the Shore. They carry visitors down waterways lined in saltwater marshes or freshwater lily pads, past acres of corn and wheat, exposing waterfront Colonial mansions and expensive estates seldom seen by the general public.

Some cruise lines carry the visitor to remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay, and the most recent addition to the growing tour boat business -- the Chesapeake Flyer -- goes all the way across the Chesapeake Bay from Rock Hall to Baltimore and Annapolis, the way ferries used to do.

It's the old-time charm of the Shore -- with its rural landscapes, rustic fishing boats and towns filled with historic buildings -- that attracts visitors from all over to board the boats.

"People can't believe the beauty that's down here," said Dave Etzel, owner and captain of the Patriot, a tour boat that cruises the Miles River, an area known for its historic mansions.

Visitors aboard the Patriot get more than just rural countryside, sea birds and an occasional pretty sunset to view. Mr. Etzel and his wife, Norma, who bought the Patriot in 1981, educate their passengers on everything from the ecology of the bay and what they can do to help save it to the history of the Shore, including how the residents of St. Michaels mounted lanterns in the trees during the War of 1812 to fool the British into over-shooting the town.

Passengers also learn a little Eastern Shore folklore, such as where Blackbeard buried his pirate's treasure, which manor houses still are haunted by ghosts and why one man built himself a pink castle with hidden passageways.

If passengers aboard the Patriot are lucky, they may view a race between century-old log canoes, spot a meticulously restored vintage Elco (built to run rum off the coast around 1919) or enjoy the sight of watermen tonging for oysters, crabbing or clamming along the rivers.

But sightseeing is not the only lure of the river cruise. There'ssomething about the constantly changing vista from a boat as it motors down a quiet river that seems to attract people who could just as well be conducting their activities on land.

Tillie the Tug, a reproduction tug built in 1981 and licensed to hold 22 passengers, already has been the platform for two weddings.

The Patriot occasionally strikes up the band as it heads out St. Michaels Harbor. Then by moonlight, as many as 150 passengers dance to the evening's theme -- whether it be the ever-popular "Jimmy Buffett Night" or the brass sounds of a 1930s jazz and blues band. Occasionally a dinner theater production is offered.

The Maryland Lady, a reproduction paddle-wheeler in Salisbury, serves as a floating restaurant. Several days a week, owners Dick and Dot Smith cater lunch and dinner aboard the boat, which has an air-conditioned/heated lower deck. Even sightseeing tours include hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. The couple used to operate a restaurant in Ocean City before having the boat built in 1987.

The Chesapeake Flyer, a high-speed catamaran, was temporarily grounded after striking one submerged object in the Patapsco River in July and another in Baltimore Harbor late last month. It offers sunset dinner cruises on the Chesapeake out of Rock Hall on the upper Eastern Shore, as well as several round-trips a day out of Rock Hall.

Perhaps the most enticing cruises are the daylong adventures to Tangier Island, Va., and Maryland's Smith Island, remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay, inhabited mainly by watermen and their families.

Located eight to 10 miles off the Eastern Shore, the islands can only be reached by boat or plane. Cruises leave Crisfield and Onancock, Va., and take about 90 minutes.

While Onancock is a longer drive for visitors coming across the Chesapeake Bay Bridges from the Baltimore-Annapolis region, this historic town is well worth traveling the extra miles to see.

At Onancock, one's trip into history begins on the mainland, where visitors purchase their tickets at the same ticket window in the historic Hopkins & Bro. store that served ferryboat passengers a century ago. The trip across is on the Capt. Eulice, a historic cruise ship, built of wood in the Chesapeake Bay tradition.

This 17th century town is one of the oldest on the peninsula;

consequently the creek banks are lined with old plantation houses.

On the islands, visitors find the slower pace of a life untainted by 20th century technology. There are only a few cars on Smith Island, which has about 750 residents, and bicycles are the only mode of transportation -- other than one's feet -- on Tangier, with a population of 850.

The islands harbor scores of wooden Chesapeake Bay workboats, which dock beside crab shanties and crab shedding operations on piers that reach out into the water.

As watermen living on these islands have experienced an increasingly harder time hacking a living from the Chesapeake, tourism has flourished to fill in the economic gaps. Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find a restaurant on the islands. Now there are several, and some cruises include lunch on one of the islands.

The estimated 100,000 visitors who cruise each year on the rivers, bays and creeks of the Eastern Shore find that the cruise boats open a front door on a fascinating region, where old-time ways are still the norm.

In many ways, the cruises also carry passengers who come from more populated cities back to a time when their hometown rivers were unpolluted and flowed through rural, sparsely settled land -- like the rivers of the Eastern Shore.

If you go ...

Several river and bay cruises are offered daily or on weekends during the fall on the Delmarva peninsula.

*The Patriot, berthed in St. Michaels near the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. This brand-new 65-foot-long vessel makes 90-minute cruises up the Miles River from May through October. Write Capt. David Etzel Inc., P.O. Box 1206, St. Michaels, Md. 21663, or phone (301) 745-3100.

Daily cruises: 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Rate: $6 adults, $3.50 children under 12. Walk-ons daily through the end of October, bus groups through November. Group rates are available.

*The Maryland Lady, a reproduction paddle-wheeler, runsightseeing tours and lunch and dinner cruises down the Wicomico River from Salisbury. From 90 minutes to 2 hours 30 minutes. Owned and operated by Dick and Dot Smith. Reservations: The Maryland Lady, P.O. Box 316, Salisbury, Md. 21801, or call (301) 543-2466. Rates for adults: dinner cruise $28.95, lunch $16.95, sightseeing $7.95; reduced rates for children. Some sightseeing tours and dinner cruises will be offered in November and December.

*Tillie the Tug, a 22-passenger reproduction tugboat, will cruise the Pocomoke River from Snow Hill or Shad's Landing State Park "as long as the weather stays nice," says a spokeswoman -- probably until at least late October, she adds.

Cruises will be offered at 6 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. other days. Call (301) 632-0680 for reservations; walk-ons are permitted. Rates: $4.50 for adults, $3 for children under 16.

*Tangier Island Cruises, a 75-minute ride from Crisfield to TangieIsland, Va., a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay with a population of 850. The Steven Thomas is a modern, 90-foot cruise boat that leaves the city dock at Crisfield for Tangier Island, Va., daily at 12:30 p.m. through October. Rates: adults $15, children under 12 free. Call (301) 968-2338.

*Tangier Island Cruises, out of Onancock, Va., on the CaptEulice. Leaves the dock at Hopkins & Bro. Store daily except Sundays at 10 a.m., through Sept. 30. Rates: adults $16, ages 6 to 12 $8, age 5 and under free. Call (804) 787-8220.

*Smith Island Cruises from Crisfield to Smith Island, a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay, population 750. Seventy-minute ride across Tangier Sound made daily at 12:30 through October; group tours can be booked in November. Boat leaves Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield at 12:30 p.m. and returns at 5:15 p.m.; cruise includes a small tour of the island. Rates: $15 for adults, children $7.50, under 6 free. For reservations write Capt. Alan Tyler, Rhodes Point, Md. 21858, or call (301) 425-2771.

*The Chesapeake Flyer's schedule through mid-November: Tuesdays to Fridays, departs Baltimore at 10 a.m., arrives in Rock Hall at 11:15 a.m.; departs Rock Hall at 1 p.m., arrives in Annapolis at 2 p.m.; departs Annapolis at 4 p.m., arrives in Baltimore at 5:30 p.m. Cost is $29.25; one way $15.50.

Saturday and Sunday shuttle services are offered between Baltimore and Rock Hall. Departures from Baltimore are at 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 3:15 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.; departures from Rock Hall are at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Cost is $19.25 round trip, one way $15.50. Call (301) 639-7241.

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