To those sitting in the booths near the lunch counter during one of the final trips of the ferry Islander, the usual docking announcement over the public address system was utterly indecipherable.

Wah, wah ,wah, it went. It didn't matter; people know the drill.

The man at the cash register in the snack bar braced himself by holding onto the old brass wheel that opens the skylight that serves as air conditioning when it gets hot. There was ancient graffiti scratched into the tabletop and nearby and old posters showed how to don your life jacket in an emergency. The photos feature a guy with slicked back hair and a thin black tie tucked into his belt - the very picture of the American male, circa 1950.

All around were reminders of age.

The rest rooms - their signs dating from a time when men were men and women were ladies, the paint on the floor worn through to show a dull rainbow of the different colors of the various recoats over the decades - basic and not entirely sanitary in appearance.

On the walls of the passenger decks hung lethal-looking fire axes, easily accessible to anyone. These days, when airlines won't even give you silverware, they serve as a reminder of a time when the traveling public was trusted and automated firefighting systems were not.

Downstairs the incandescent bulbs in their metal mesh brackets paradoxically serve to make the place look dimmer. The steel-framed seats with their cracked vinyl covers are utilitarian in their cleanability, but hardly comfortable.

And on the steel decks, rust bubbles beneath the paint. This is not luxury travel by any means. And yet people love it.

"She's a venerable old lady," said Bob Aldrin of Vineyard Haven, who formerly commuted every weekend for 20 years - to New Jersey no less - and who loves her.

"Every time I saw her in dock on a windy day, it was a relief," he said. "I knew I was getting home."

The Islander might not have got you there in style, but she almost always got you there.

After almost 57 years, she will stop getting Vineyarders there on March 5. Her last run is scheduled for noon on Monday. And then, she goes up for sale. There are no potential buyers yet, said SSA general Wayne Lamson, but he speculated that the ferry may be sold overseas, where standards of ferry travel are not as high as they have become here.

As he spoke, the high standards of modern ferry travel were apparent all around. Plush seating, soft lighting, air-conditioning humming quietly, everything new and pristine.

Why, even the message which came over the public address system, summoning the scattered media contingent to seat themselves for the formal briefing - a powerpoint presentation, of course - was crystal clear.

It was impossible not to be impressed by the contrast between the old boat and the new. It starts with her sheer bulk. She towers over her predecessor - more than 50 feet longer and four feet wider.

But you don't really feel it until you walk onto the vehicle deck via the massive bow doors - although the term bow is a bit relative on a double-ended boat (SSA personnel refer to the Woods Hole end and the Vineyard Haven end).

You could fit a couple of basketball courts end to end on the freight deck. More pertinently, the SSA will be able to fit at least 60 cars (some of the deck hands reckon more), compared with 48 on the Islander, and seven semi-trailer trucks, compared with three.

There is space for another 16 cars on the lift decks, although these will only be used in unusual circumstances, like when another ferry is out of service, or when it comes to the last trip of the day and there are still extra cars in the standby line.

When the doors shut, inflatable seals blow up to make them completely watertight. There should be no water sloshing around the freight deck on rough days on this boat.

The bridges, one at each end, provide an almost vertiginous view and, with their huge bank of buttons, dials and levers, look a little like the set of Star Trek.

Down below there are two diesel engines delivering 3,000 horsepower each via carbon fiber shafts to the fore and aft propellers, compared with two 900 horsepower jobs in the old boat. It's all very high tech and clinically clean down there, too, not that the traveling public will ever see it.

And the new boat, despite its size, is actually lighter than the one it replaces, because the upper decks are fabricated from aluminum instead of steel.

From the passenger's point of view, the import of all this is that it should make the service more efficient, because the Island Home can, if necessary, make the crossing in less than 30 minutes, compared with 45. Not that it usually will, fuel costs being what they are. The Island Home burns a little more at the same speed than the Islander does. But then it delivers a bigger payload too.

Upstairs is a spacious snack bar so relatively expansive and club-like that the staff joke about putting a band in the corner. Instead of the old steel tube benches there are modern brushed aluminum seats. The boat is equipped with wi-fi technology and a quiet space so students or business travellers can plug in en route.

There is a sick bay too - although it is a little embarrasingly open to the public gaze.

The rest rooms no longer seem like a threat to your health. The abiding feeling is one of spaciousness and light. Wide stairways, big windows. A big sweep of lounge-like accommodation instead of train-carriage confinement.

The technical stats and passenger comfort levels of the new boat are impressive, yet it still has its critics, many of them among the authority staff.

It's too big, they say. It will run half empty for much of the year; schedules will have to be cut back. Its high slab sides make it a "sail" on windy days.

SSA management and the captains deny this. With all that power the ferry can stop in its own length, turn on a dime, and is actually more maneuverable than its predecessor.

Only time will tell if there is anything to the criticism. The Islander had her critics when she began service too. And there's not much point debating the merits of the design now - she's been built, christened and is about to go into service.

The first run will be next week. Meanwhile, those eager for a good look at the new boat can attend tomorrow's commissioning ceremony in Vineyard Haven, which begins at 11:30 a.m.


Island Home and Islander Schedule of Events

Saturday, March 3:
11:30 a.m.: Commissioning ceremony in Vineyard Haven for Island Home.
Noon to 2 p.m.: Open house on Island Home in Vineyard Haven.

Sunday, March 4:
2 to 4 p.m.: Open house on Island Home in Woods Hole.

Monday, March 5:
11 a.m.: Farewell ceremony for Islander in Vineyard Haven.
Noon: Islander departs Vineyard Haven on final scheduled trip.
1:15 p.m.: Island Home departs Woods Hole on first scheduled trip.