CAPE MAY, N.J. -- The transformation is remarkable.
The passenger deck, once cold and Spartan, now resembles a plush upscale theater. Austere chairs have been replaced by cushy airline-style seats. Television monitors are mounted around the room. Green paisley carpeting covers the floor. And a glass-enclosed children's playroom has been added, complete with educational videos and toys.
Even the plodding food service has been replaced by a restaurant, New York-style deli and beer and wine bar rivaling any on land.
What a difference $5 million makes.
The Delaware, one of five Cape May-Lewes ferries to be refurbished, began offering passengers a first-class ride a few .. weeks ago -- the 30th anniversary of the ferry service. Its sister vessel, Twin Capes, will go to the shipyard for modernizing in December, followed by the New Jersey in February. The Cape Henlopen and Cape May will be transformed later next year.
"I think this is . . . a fine effort," said Michael E. Harkins, executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the ferries and Delaware Memorial Bridge. Mr. Harkins and James Salmon, an Authority spokesman, were touring the Delaware as workers completed the final touches.
"The difference between the old ferry and this one is like night and day," added Mr. Salmon.
The work is part of a $37 million program of improvements that will include a new Cape May passenger terminal and an expanded Lewes terminal, with gift shops, restaurants and visitor centers focusing on maritime history and the aquatic and geological nature of the Delaware Bay.
Construction of a new Cape May terminal will begin in the spring on the waterfront. The current terminal, located about 150 feet from the water's edge, will be renovated later for use as an administration building.
The Lewes terminal has already been expanded, with the addition of a Florida-style dining room that increases seating from 98 to 200. The food service area will improve next year, and work has already begun on a new maintenance facility at Cape May.
But the most dramatic change so far -- the newly improved Delaware -- debuts at Cape May tomorrow; it departs for Lewes at 10:40 a.m. And everybody -- especially the crew -- is excited, as if they had traded in an old subcompact for a snazzy new Cadillac.
"She'll be nice," said ferry Capt. Brian McEwing.
In addition to the passenger amenities, the Delaware's upgrade includes a new paint job, new bow thrusters to increase maneuverability and high-tech life rafts that are fired from the vessel like depth charges and inflate in the water. The modernization of all five ferries will cost about $25 million.
"One of the first things I did when I came in here 2 1/2 years ago was sit down with the general managers of the bridge and the ferry and ask what the priorities were," said Mr. Harkins. "I wanted to know what we needed to do and out of that, we developed a five-year capital plan."
Mr. Harkins said he "didn't know anything about ferries" so he started investigating. At the time, the Authority was considering the purchase of a new vessel, for about $40 million.
"I went out to look at other ferries and came back and said, 'Maybe we don't need new boats; maybe we need to figure out whether we ought to upgrade the ones we presently have.'
"As long as the hull and the basic machinery of the boat is kept in good condition, you can run it almost forever. These boats have been well maintained over the years."
The upgrade of the ferries will add at least another 10 to 15 years to their service. The ferries are as much as 20 years old.
Mr. Harkins said the Delaware River and Bay Authority also made another decision. It would find out what the public wanted. Last year, the ferries shuttled 378,821 vehicles and 1.1 million passengers. The Authority hired a firm to survey 3,000 passengers last August and came away with a wealth of information.
"The first thing we found out is that most passengers take this not as a transportation decision but as a recreational or vacation decision," Mr. Harkins said. "The second thing we found out was that a huge overwhelming percentage use food at some time on the trip, either on the boat or somewhere in the terminals."
LTC Those food services on the water and land were inadequate, however. With up to 600 motorists and walk-on passengers at times (each ferry can carry 100 vehicles), the food lines were long. You put in an order and then waited for your number to be called.
"In the old vessel, you could literally spend your whole trip in line before you got your soda, or whatever," said Mr. Salmon. "Here, you pick up your things and pay on your way out."
"We joke about it but it's the truth," added Mr. Harkins. "If you happen to be the last in line for a beer in Cape May, you won't get one by the time you get to Lewes -- 70 minutes later."
That should change now. Mr. Harkins walked across the upper deck of the Delaware and pointed to the Cape Henlopen, then preparing to leave for Lewes. "That's a perfectly adequate transportation vehicle," said Mr. Harkins, former secretary of state in Delaware Gov. Mike Castle's administration.
Then, looking around the Delaware, he added: "This transportation vehicle reacts to the customer."
He said the restaurant will provide more self-service dishes to speed up service, and passengers will be able to order hot foods. Fresh meats, bread and vegetables will be brought aboard every day.
On the level above the passenger deck -- the so-called crow's nest -- passengers can order deli sandwiches or stroll out to a beer and wine bar and relax in an outdoor cafe.
The older ferries don't have a second level open to passengers and only offer beer.
IF YOU GO:
Taking your car on the ferry costs $18. Additional adult passengers cost $4.50 each, the same price for walk-on passengers. Children, ages 6 to 12, cost $2.25. Children under 6 admitted free.