Saturday, June 4, 2016

Touring Pittsburgh by Water - An Immersion Experience without Getting Wet

Duck Returning Home after a Tour Credit: Bill Rockwell
    Splash! After roughly a half hour tour of downtown and Pittsburgh’s North Side, our "ducky" approached the Ohio River near the Carnegie Science Center, then slowly and smoothly glided into the water.
    My instincts told me the metal vehicle holding 32 passengers plus two in the crew would sink, but Archimedes proved right again about buoyancy and displacement, and we floated like a soap bubble wafting in a summer breeze. James ,our captain, fired up the motor, and we navigated along the mighty Ohio seeing the beauty of the North Side Riverfront through new eyes.    .
Passing Another Duck on the Ohio Credit: Bill Rockwell
 Things got even better when we made a 180 and headed toward the Point. Have your cameras ready because the Pittsburgh skyline as seen from downstream (or is it midstream) is a sight to behold - and photograph.
    The Just Ducky Tours, our half terrestrial, half aquatic excursion, start on land at Station Square and are offered several times daily. The fun begins even before you board at the state-of-the-art "Waltzing Waters" of the Be4ssemer Court fountain, just around the corner from the ducks. The spouts climb as high as 40-feet and "dance" to choreographed music. A horticulture fan, I also enjoyed walking by the wonderfully landscaped area in front of the Grand Concourse Restaurant and people watching in the busy area around Station Square.
Heinz Field as Seen from the Ohio Credit: Bill Rockwell

For more than 15 years, Just Ducky has been touring Pittsburgh with amphibious vehicles built by General Motors in World War Two. The ducks are retrofitted with retired school bus seats. Everyone who makes an advance reservation is guaranteed a seat, although once you board, the seating arrangement is first come, first served. And speaking of reservations, they’re strongly advised because the tours are sometimes booked two or three days in advance, especially during the summer.
    Once underway, the hour-long land and water adventures proceed at a leisurely pace, crossing the Smithfield Street Bridge, then head down Grant Street (our narrator, Chris, termed it one of the most beautiful streets in America), through the Fortune 500 business district, the cultural district, then over to the North Side.
    Chris estimated that the duck seats were a good six feet above street level, and I was impressed by the difference it made in perspective. From my seat atop the duck, I saw things I‘d overlooked as a pedestrian on many previous visits to Pittsburgh.
    I was equally impressed with our guide’s informative narrative that taught me things about the city I hadn’t known. Did you know that the Grant Building is Pittsburgh’s tallest brick skyscraper (40 stories) and that the beacon on top signals P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G-H in Morse code flashes of light. I knew that the three sister bridges over the Allegheny are identical, but didn’t know they were the only trio of its kind in the world.

An Outdoor Concert at Pittsburgh's Rivers casino Credit: Bill Rockwell

And speaking of bridges, what Pittsburgher hasn’t heard the story that their town has more bridges than any other city in the world - Venice, Italy included? There is a catch to the record, however. As Chris explained, of the city’s 446 commercially traveled bridges, only 25 cross its rivers.
Later, passing in front of the Honus Warner statue at PNC Park, we learned that the Pirates’ shortstop’s original baseball card is very rare (only four are known to survive) and one recently sold for $2.7 million, making it the most valuable baseball card of all times. (You’ll have to take the tour to learn why it’s so rare).
    As we made our approach to the water segment of the tour, our guide pointed to the many life jackets stored overhead as a safety precaution. "Just Ducky Tours nationwide have served 1.4 million people, and we haven’t had to use a life preserver yet," he said.
    Out on the water heading toward the Point, our attention was drawn to Mt. Washington and the Duquesne Incline.  We learned as part of Chris’ spiel that Mount Washington once had 14 different inclines as well as 40 different sets of stairs, some of which had as many as 1,400 steps.
If you’re wondering, no one on board got the least bit seasick. But if they were anything like me, they learned a lot about the city and got to see it from a very interesting perspective.
    Just Ducky Tours run several times daily, seven days a week. Tickets are $23, $15 for chidden 3 to 12. For reservations, phone 412-402-3825 or visit website

Another Option - The Gateway Clipper Fleet
     A similar yet different experience can be had on one of the six boats in the Gateway Clipper Fleet. All the ships have regal names like Majestic (the largest), The Empress (it holds 600 passengers), and the Countess (the smallest of the lot).
    I decided on a Sunday dinner cruise on board the Princess, a triple decker that carries 400 passengers and plies its way along Pittsburgh’s three rivers, starting on the Monongahela just downriver from Station Square.
The Clipper Fleet Dock Credit: Bill Rockwell
    Owner John Connelly started the fleet in 1957 with a single boat named the Gateway Clipper. Currently, the six boats in the fleet offer everything from shuttles to Pirate and Steelers games, wedding receptions, corporate events and Kids themed cruises, to music and adult cruises, sightseeing cruises, holiday cruises and, of course, dinner cruises.
Similar to the ducks, you get to see Pittsburgh’s skyline and riverfronts from the water and get an extensive narrative explaining the sights that seem to drift by at a leisurely pace. What’s different is the fact that you can get up and walk outside on the decks and top tier and get a more atmospheric experience. Nothing like the wind blowing through your hair on a warm day - plus the photo taking opportunities are more frequent and convenient.
    Again, thanks to the ship’s narrator, I learned that the Grant Building (there is was again) is a registered lighthouse, that up to 100,000 cars cross the Liberty Bridge daily, that the convention center is the world’s 10th largest and that the Fort Pitt Bridge was the first to be designed by computer. (Fact checkers, keep in mind these tidbits came from the ship’s narrator and did not originate with me).
Spinach Salad Anyone? Credit: Bill Rockwell
    Soon after leaving the dock, we got a chance to help ourselves at the buffet table. Both salads - a spinach with bacon and a cauliflower/broccoli topped with flower petals- made an impressive, if not healthy, beginning. Next came a chaffing dish full of beef, followed by others brimming with pasta in cream sauce, candied baby carrots and chicken breasts.
    Passengers are permitted to go back to the buffet line as many times as they wish on the Sunday dinner cruise, but remember to save room for dessert - two different cakes (a chocolate and a spice) the evening of my visit.
    The fleet’s website lists 27 types of dinner cruises which include chicken and rib barbecue, holiday, wine tasting, cocktail tasting, rock, lock and dam, Father’s Day, Sunday brunch and more dining options.
I was amazed at how good the food and staff were and how quickly close to 400 people went through the two buffet lines located on the first and second decks. And of course, the bar serves beer, wine, cocktails and specialty drinks in signature glasses that can be taken home as souvenirs.
    The two hour long cruise that left at 6:30 p.m. lasted close to sunset, a time that cast the city in a gorgeous light. Coming back down the Allegheny from near the Highland Park Bridge just before twilight made the cruise even more enchanting and magical.
For reservations or more information, phone 412-355-7980 or visit

Pittsburgh's Beautiful Skyline Nearing Dusk Credit:Bill Rockwell

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