Monday, August 23, 2010

Baltimore, MD

Tuesday, August 10 - Tuesday, August 24, 2010
We left Annapolis Tuesday morning for the 30nm trip up to Baltimore. Leaving Weems Creek was rough, but we knew some new surroundings were needed. We had an easy motor up the Chesapeake (light winds on the nose - big surprise!), and made it under the Francis Scott Key Bridge by mid-afternoon. (Thanks to Google images for the cool shot of the bridge.) If you've never been to Baltimore, prepare to be inundated with Star-Spangled Banner trivia. First, here's a little refresher if you don't remember your American history course: Francis Scott Key, a young Washington attorney, was aboard a US truce ship during the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814. He and a companion had been sent to secure the release of a friend, Dr. William Beans, from a nearby British vessel. The release was arranged in a matter of days, but the British commander had plans to attack Baltimore and feared that Key and his friends had heard too much. The trio was held aboard the British ship until after the attack commenced; they were then transferred to the US ship where they witnessed the 25-hour long bombardment of Fort McHenry. On the morning of September 14, 1814, Key saw a massive American flag flying above Ft. McHenry amidst the smoke from the battle. He wrote a poem immortalizing the battle which was quickly put to song; that song, of course, is now our National Anthem.

So just how many Star-Spangled Banner references are there in Baltimore? Well, first up is the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge. Passing beneath the bridge, you can soon spot the Francis Scott Key Memorial Buoy to starboard. The buoy is painted with the stars and stripes and denotes the location of Key's ship when he wrote the "Star-Spangled Banner". Two miles further upriver, you pass Fort McHenry itself to port. (The property is managed by the National Park Service, and you can tour the fort and surrounding grounds daily for a small fee.) In town, you can tour the Flag House, where Mary Pickersgille sewed the original 42' x 30' flag commissioned by Ft. McHenry's commander, Major George Armistead. Legend has it that Armistead wanted the flag to be large enough "that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance"; having seen the original Star-Spangled Banner in the Smithsonian a few weeks ago, we can tell you that it truly is enormous (the flag's dimensions even exceed the footprint of the home in which it was created).

We started off our Baltimore trip as "dock royalty" at the Anchorage Marina. The forecast called for another heat advisory ("feels like" 100+), and the marina was one of three in our guide book that had a swimming pool. We managed to enter the marina fairway by 3pm, and Rene did a gorgeous job of backing Pipe into the slip (our power cord isn't long enough for a bow-in landing, and we wanted to plug in to use our newly topped-off A/C). Power on, A/C on, check-in at the marina, late lunch eaten, and we were off to the pool! Ahhh, heaven... Since "someone" didn't take anything out of the freezer for dinner (I can be sneaky sometimes), we decided to explore the town to find someplace to eat. The lifeguard at the marina pool recommended Kooper's Tavern for a tasty, simple meal; Tuesday was "burger night", where you could get anything from a basic burger for $3.50 to a Kobe beef with triple cream brie & onion straws for under $10. There were lamb burgers, veggie burgers, turkey burgers, and build-your-own burgers. Kooper's also has a case full of Mount Gay red hats (sailors, you know what we're talking about). There's a sign that says you can bring in a hat to trade, as long as it's worth at least as much as what you're getting, or is from a more difficult race (subject to management's approval). We didn't try to trade, but it must be a lot of fun during race week! Wednesday brought more new adventures as we walked back to Fells Point to attend their "Films on the Pier", a movie showing that takes place on the Boardwalk Pier. The event is "BYOC", or "bring your own chair", and there's a good-sized crowd. The movie was "Blind Side", and we finally got to see why Sandra Bullock deserved her Oscar. After the movie, we and our folding chairs found a table at Max's Taphouse, a local watering hole advertising over 100 draft beers and 1000+ bottled beers. (Who thinks this might be a dangerous place for us???) We each had a nightcap before the walk back to the boat, and learned that Max's would be holding their "Rare & Obscure Beer Fest" event that weekend. We knew we'd be back!

We've spent the past week getting to know Baltimore. Neither of us has been here before, and the place has really grown on us. After staying at Anchorage Marina for two nights, we moved the boat to a popular anchorage spot between Anchorage Marina and Baltimore Marine Center. How can you pass this up? There's a dinghy dock at the head of the anchorage, a huge Safeway (complete with Starbucks) across the street, a West Marine two blocks down, another Starbucks next to the bus stop in the Safeway parking lot, not to mention a liquor store, a wine bar, and a Cold Stone Creamery all within sight. For food and shopping, Canton Square is two blocks northeast of our dinghy dock, and historic Fells Point is a mile-long walk along the city's waterfront promenade. The only negative thing we'll say about Baltimore is the harbor: this is officially the MOST polluted body of water we've been in so far! There's trash floating everywhere, and much of it gets caught up in the marshes along the shoreline. Baltimore even has a fleet of "garbage boats" that look like floating bulldozers; they motor around the harbor with their scoops picking up crap, and push the garbage to the back of the boat. It's a losing battle, and we cringed when we watched our neighbor don his snorkeling gear for a waterline cleaning. Yuck!

Baltimore is also famous for its National Aquarium, which hosts over 10,000 species. Besides the usual suspects, there's a tank full of rays and baby hammerheads; a 5-story Atlantic reef tank with sharks, moray eels, tarpon, and other fish; a rain forest exhibit complete with birds, tarantulas, tamarins, and marmosets; an Australian outback exhibit complete with 35-foot waterfall; a jellyfish exhibit; and even a dolphin show. The aquarium covers two piers in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and is near even more shopping and dining. (We managed to spend a few hours in the aquarium, go across the street for a PF Chang's lunch, and return to spend the rest of the day at the aquarium.) If walking or taking a bus doesn't suit you, there's always the water taxi. For $10, you can get an all-day pass with on/off privileges to over a dozen stops around the inner harbor, Fort McHenry, Fells Point, and Canton.

We decided to try Baltimore's water taxi on Saturday, which gave us a chance to explore the Inner Harbor and the visitor's center. We've gotten so used to closet-sized tourism offices that we were blown away by Baltimore's visitor's center. Situated between the Science Center and Phillip's Seafood restaurant, Baltimore's visitor's center offers city, state, and regional information (brochures, maps, etc.), plus volunteers to help you find the perfect activity and a ticket center to purchase your harbor cruises. Pirate ship? Check. Schooner ride? Yep. Party boat? Sure. Super-fast rooster-tail boat with chickies doing the Macarena? Of course! This place really does have it all. Granted, we don't really need to go on a boat tour of the harbor...getting OFF the boat is our idea of a good tourist day! Not to worry, we found a couple of neighborhood walking tours that got us excited. First up was the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood (not to be confused - as we did - with George Washington's home). Hopping on our trusty bus #11, we rode to Harbor East and started walking uphill...and uphill...and uphill...all the way to the Baltimore Basilica. The Basilica was the first metropolitan cathedral built in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution, and visitors have included Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Built from 1806-1821, the Basilica had fallen into disrepair; it recently underwent a 30-month renovation to restore it to its original splendor, and visitors may now tour the area underneath the Basilica which houses a museum, a chapel, and the Archbishop’s crypt.

Next up on our Mount Vernon tour was the Washington Monument - the first monument built to honor George - which pre-dates the DC monument by 50 years. Designed by the same man who created the DC obelisk, this Washington Monument rises 178 feet (vs 555' in DC) and could once be seen by ships entering Baltimore's harbor. From the monument, we wandered up Charles Street, lined with shops, restaurants, churches, and interesting architecture. We found a great little bistro for lunch, and were too full from our sandwiches to partake in the gelatto that greeted us at the door (next time!). Mount Vernon is full of antique stores, restored town homes, and funky little shops. It's a great way to spend an afternoon, and is close enough to both the Inner Harbor and the new Harbor East district if you want to cover multiple tourist spots in a day.

Thursday we met Dave from the catamaran, Hullaballoo, for lunch. (We originally met Dave and his wife, Lisa, through Rick & Linda at a Sojourner happy hour.) Dave took us to Miss Shirley's (thanks, Dave!), a great dining spot not far from the aquarium. We got to catch up a bit, and made plans to visit Dave & Lisa at their home on the Magothy before heading back to Annapolis. After lunch, we took a self-guided walking tour of Federal Hill, which is situated southwest of Harbor Place. Federal Hill was first called "John Smith's Hill", after Captain John Smith spotted the hill in 1608. The hill later became the site of a "marine observatory" and signal tower; the tower allowed approaching ships to be seen up to 15 miles away, thus alerting the local merchants that business was on its way. The city bought Federal Hill in 1880 and turned it into a park; if you ever go to Baltimore, you really should get to Federal Hill Park for an amazing bird's-eye view of the Inner Harbor.

After a 3-hour walk around Federal Hill, our tired feet were ready to hop on a bus, but the Baltimore Police had other plans. Some of you have heard of our travel horror stories before...our arrival at the Bristol, England airport a day after they'd had a bomb scare; our transit back from Ireland through London on the day the underground was bombed. Well, Baltimore now gets a special mention of its own. We were watching our bus slowly make its way down Pratt Street towards us; thanks to horrendous traffic, it had managed to cover two blocks in 20 minutes, and was a block away from us (of course they won't let you on if you're not at an official stop). Just as the bus was about to get the green light that would bring it to us, a police car came zooming down the bike lane against traffic and cut in front of the bus and the other cars waiting at the light. A block ahead of us, another cop car was blocking traffic and forcing it away from the waterfront area. Nearby, a black, unmarked police vehicle (similar in shape to an ambulance) sat next to the curb...SWAT team or Bomb Squad? It became very apparent that we weren't going to find a bus to get home, so we decided to start walking. Hold it...pedestrians weren't allowed to go any further along the waterfront, either. What's going on? The officer began to say something, then said he wouldn't tell us anything at that time. However, we overheard two officers talking about a suspicious suitcase that had been found a couple blocks away. We were told we'd have to detour eight blocks before we could get back to the waterfront promenade. Thank god it wasn't quite that far! Strangely, we never heard anything else about the scare - there was nothing on the local news or on the internet afterward. Go figure.

That weekend we got to welcome one of Stacy's college friends to the boat. Stacy's family may remember Jennifer as Lexie cat's first mom; Stacy's mom adopted Lexie when Jen left Embry-Riddle. Jennifer and her family live in New York now, but she flew down to BWI to spend a couple of days with us. The girls hadn't seen each other in 14 years, so it was quite a reunion! We showed Jen Fells Point and the Inner Harbor, and met up with another college friend, Becky, for dinner Saturday night. We had a terrific time together, and will try to keep up with each other better than we've done so far. (Facebook has made the process much easier!)

We're finally leaving Baltimore on Wednesday. We've really enjoyed getting to know Baltimore, but we're ready to see what else the Chesapeake has to offer. First up, we're meeting up with Lisa & Dave from the catamaran, Hullaballoo, on the Magothy River. Dave has also told us that Chestertown, a college town nearly 30 miles up the Chester River, is well worth a visit; we'll likely head there from the Magothy, and will then explore the Wye East and pay St. Michaels another visit. We have two weeks before we're due back in Annapolis for Rene's mom's visit, so we're hoping the weather will agree with our plans to explore a few more anchorages. Til next time...

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