Bright Lights, Big City? Yeah, maybe, but Baltimore's Inner Harbor
is also a big shore side playground-- ask any kid who's been there. [July 2004]
By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Photographs by John Bildahl
The first time my family sailed to Baltimore, it was so hot the weathermen were predicting certain incineration for anyone foolish enough to spend time outdoors, followed by thunderstorms that would rock the world. They were right, but who cared? We had a blast. At the end of a long, sweaty, rollicking day of exploring the Inner Harbor and its myriad attractions by foot and water taxi, our son Kaeo bestowed on us what has to be the highest praise a child can give to his own parents: "I had so much fun today," he said, "I forgot you were grown-ups."
Last summer we set out to one-up that trip. I wanted to have so much fun that I would forget that I was a grown-up. We wanted to explore Baltimore's waterfront from a kid's point of view, find the best possible rides, find out how much fun we could pack into a three-day weekend before we all dropped—and since the kids are obviously more knowledgeable than the adults in this department, they got to determine most
of the itinerary.
Fortunately for us, our kids (Kaeo is 7 and his sister Kailani is 4) love nothing more than going everyplace they can by boat, so the means of transportation was never in dispute. We would sail there. Of course. So off we set on a cool early autumn Saturday afternoon from Annapolis, riding a pleasant southerly under the Bay Bridge, past Sandy Point and Baltimore lights and up to the Patapsco River, where the first great ride of Baltimore begins—on the river itself. Just off the mouth, two dredges were carving out the channel, flanked by a pair of enormous barges and a couple of tugs scurrying about tending to things, as tugs do. The dredges' hinged buckets resembled the maws of enormous hippos, open as they plummeted to the bottom, then clamped shut when they broke the water's surface on the way up, mud and water sluicing from their gums.
"Wow!" Kaeo yelled, as the chutes and ladders and erector sets of the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point hove into view. "That looks like a giant playground!" Sure, everything was grit and smoke, with black and blood-red buildings poking between the mountains of aggregate here and there, but if you put your kid glasses on, of course it's like a giant playground. Big orange cranes hunched like gigantic praying mantises, and just beyond, past the Key Bridge, the even taller, ganglier cranes of the Seagirt Marine Terminal poked up like the distant antennae of some inquisitive bug.
From the get-go, the Patapsco is all big, broad-shouldered and busy. I never get tired of coming here and just watching all the focused commotion of a hardworking river. Sailboats flit here and there, and now and then a go-fast boat or motoryacht will rumble by, but the river's true nature is in its muscle and its pure, unadulterated bigness. Diminished as they may be from Bethlehem Steel's heyday, the smokestacks and industry of Sparrows Point still dominate the river's northern skyline at the mouth, while more stacks, fuel terminals and tanks pop up on the southern shore like giant mushrooms. In between, the unexpectedly graceful span of the Key Bridge arches across the water. Though it's true that I love the solace of the Bay's quieter, more undisturbed places, there is something about this river—the ships, the tugs, the constant movement—that fills me with energy and excitement every time I visit.
As we reached under the bridge in the long, flat water, a pilot boat hustled past on its way to a ship we couldn't even see yet. Past abandoned Fort Carroll, whose gun ports eyed us with spooky, hooded darkness ("I'll bet there are skeletons in there," was Kaeo's deliciously grim historical assessment), we came upon Seagirt Marine Terminal, where bright containers were stacked alongside the long-legged blue cranes, and a small parking lot of new John Deere tractors (the trademark green and yellow gave them away) awaited shipping. To port, the new Vane Brothers (a tug, fueling and maintenance company) complex sprung up in Fairfield, its architecture artfully mingling a modern, airy design of arches and windows with something more reminiscent of the port's warehouses of the past. Ahead, the green sward of Fort McHenry was the only green in sight, really, in the hard-edged harbor.
Directly across from the fort we scooted past theAtlantic Trader, a huge black cargo ship that seemed close enough to touch, tied up at the cement terminal. With a procession of dump trucks alongside, the ship's cranes were executing a slow, methodical ballet of up, out, down, dump, up, in, down. . . . How long would it take to unload the whole ship like this, bucket by bucket?
Drawing closer to the Inner Harbor, we watched industry give way to recreation. Now, instead of huge ships and cranes lining the waterfront, there were recreational marinas, water taxis, the tour ship Clipper City—and sailboats tacking back and forth as powerboats cruised past. Floating over the whole scene was a huge balloon on a long tether. "Wow, do you think we can go on that?" Kailani asked. "Don't see why not," I said, immediately regretting it. Was I completely insane? Me, with my kids up in that balloon with nothing but a skinny little cable connecting us to mother earth? I quickly added "We'll see," but to little effect. That horse was out of the barn.
The tugboat Cape Romain, heading out of its berth at Fells Point, tooted its whistle at the kids as they waved. And, getting one last glimpse of the maritime industry that founded this city, we slipped past the
Antilles I tied up at the Domino Sugar plant, delivering its sweet-smelling cargo. Just beyond were the tall pilings and floating piers of Harbor View Marina, our home for the weekend. The first great ride in the city—the ride up the river—was over.
The kids had a major weekend planned and a lot of ground to cover. First and foremost—since it was closest, and because we'd been there many times before—was the Maryland Science Center, specifically, its IMAX theater. We had barely gotten the lines on the dock before they were clamoring to head over there—it's a 15-minute walk from Harbor-View—and since one of the weekend's M.O.s was to avoid, as much as was reasonable, the dreaded "no" word, we said, sure, let's go.
The IMAX theater is simply amazing. Where else but in the real thing is the feeling of flying through the chicanes in a Formula 1 car so intense you find yourself leaning sideways out of your seat? Where else but at a shuttle launch can you feel the roar and fury of a rocket's struggle to overwhelm gravity in every bone and tissue in your body? Since an IMAX film can be such an intense experience, I was a bit concerned about my young daughter, but we started the evening with a big bucket of popcorn and an enchanting, gentle film called The Living Sea. It transported us from Baltimore to the Pacific islands of Palau, one of the seven "Underwater Wonders of the World." There we met a fairly isolated culture of people whose lives and livelihoods are entwined with the sea, and who respect and revere the ocean and their profound relationship with it. We immersed ourselves in the gelatinous world of Jellyfish Lake in Palau, we screamed down Hawaiian waves on the backs of surfers' boards, we barreled through the vicious surf at the U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Wash., we dove 3,000 feet under the sea in a remotely operated sub and came face to face with critters more alien than Venusians, we swam alongside humpback whales and listened to their haunting songs.
From there, it was off to the International Space Station in what is the first three-dimensional IMAX film,Space Station 3D. So real is the 3D imagery that when an astronaut tossed an orange and it floated gently, weightlessly toward us, we found ourselves leaning far out of our seats and holding out our hands to catch it. (I looked around and most of the audience was doing the same thing, and laughing in
astonishment). Fortunately, Kailani had conked out in my lap by the time a Russian rocket blasted off to travel to the station. The liftoff was so powerful, dirt and gravel slammed into our faces and our bodies shook with the force of it. Then, just as suddenly, we were deep in the silent darkness of space, looking back at earth, at Palau, at Baltimore. When it was all over, we carried both kids back to the boat, where Kaeo fell asleep mumbling about becoming an astronaut.
Next morning it was off to Port Discovery, the "Kid-Powered Museum." We tried to take a water taxi from the stop at Harbor View, but it seemed to be going everywhere but the aquarium, which was the closest stop to Port Discovery. So we opted for a land taxi instead—nowhere near as fun, but this time, at least, far quicker and more efficient. Port Discovery sits about a block up from the waterfront, with a clear view from its front door to the Coast Guard cutter Taney and the huge black stacks of the Power Plant (once an actual power plant and now a trendy mixed-use complex with restaurants, bars, office space and a vast Barnes & Noble bookstore). In front of Port Discovery is a brick courtyard a few blocks square which includes a fountain, an open cafe under some umbrellas, some trendy clubs with names like "Babalu" and "Mundo," and two life-size plastic giraffes that seem to be nibbling the urban foliage. Oddly, they don't seem out of place.
The museum's entrance clues you into its overriding sense of play; a huge glass arch with a peaked roof is framed by whimsical vertical sculptures covering two columns of corrugated metal, including a nice variety of propellers, metal grates squiggled around like rusty lace and some industrial light fixtures. This—plus the giraffes, little gardens of ornamental grasses and pansies, and the fountain complete with some smallish gargoyles—results in a fun sort of sensory overload. Which seems to be the point.
Kailani was the first one to spot the balloon we had seen from the harbor, around the corner and clamped firmly to land at the moment. This was the HiFlyer, a huge helium balloon with an enclosed gondola for up to 30 passengers. The HiFlyer, I read from the museum's literature, is tethered by a steel cable. Upon liftoff, you are raised to a height of 450 feet, from which you can see God, or at least the entire harbor and maybe even the Eastern Shore on a clear day. On this crystalline autumn day, the wind was blowing about 20 from the northwest, and I had a perfectly clear vision of me and the kids in the gondola (there isn't much Johnny won't do, but heights top his "no way" list), the HiFlyer whipping in the breeze, the kids oohing and aahing and I trying in vain not to lose breakfast. "Can we go, can we go?" my daughter begged. Divine intervention, that's what I needed—either that or a handy aunt or uncle. I got the former, or so it seemed, when the person at the ticket counter told me the high winds had grounded the balloon for now. Saved.
Kailani wasn't too blue about it. The basic idea of Port Discovery is learning through play, and she's all about play. The building's centerpiece is Mount Kidmore, a three-story jungle gym comprised of slides, tubes, rope ladders, net walkways, metal spiral staircases—all connecting the three floors at various points. In other words, it's a kid magnet, and mine were in there and vanished from view in an instant. For the next couple of hours Johnny and I took up stations around the building to figure out where they were going to pop out, with occasional forays into the thing to rescue Kailani, who got lost now and again when her older brother raced ahead.
Surrounding the jungle gym on all three floors were a variety of places to learn and play. There was a computer lab where kids could use programs to play games or make music; a conveyer belt widget machine into which you had to place different shapes in the correct places as they rolled by; an art room for creating all kinds of art projects; and, in one corner, the Space Time Travelator. In here was a dark and rather spooky exhibit about ancient Egypt. It included "Fatima's Bizarre Bizarro," where we lifted the lids of a series of wooden boxes and tried to identify the exotic spices within using only the sense of smell. In another area, two big brass dials let you turn a disc to match English letters to their hieroglyphic counterpart. I used charcoal and paper to etch my name in hieroglyphics. We pulled ourselves across the Nile on a sliding wooden bridge, against a backdrop of palms and stars, deserts and camels.
We could easily have spent all day at Port Discovery, but I had something even cooler planned—the ultimate Baltimore ride. Admittedly, this was outside the "kids choose" rule of the weekend, and also it's not something available to the public. But there are certain perks to this job, and one of them is to meet a lot of interesting people, and every now and then call in a favor. So I had done a few weeks earlier when I called Duff Hughes, president of Vane Brothers Company, and asked him if he had really meant it awhile back when he said he'd love to give my family a ride on one of his tugs. You bet, he said, and we set it up. We were to meet at the aquarium, so off we went, stopping by briefly to say hello to the harbor seals in their outdoor tank, then rounding the corner and there she was, the two push knees on her bow snugged up against the concrete pier: the Mitzie Hughes. Our ride was here.
"Whoa," Kaeo said when he saw her. "Whoa," we all agreed with him. How cool was this? A 60-foot, 800-horse tug waiting, just for us to go tootling around the harbor? Built in 1973 in Houma, La., the Mitzie Hughes is one of Vane Brothers' 10 towboats and tugs that help bunker ships and move barges throughout the Bay and elsewhere. Deckhand Ross Gaither helped us onboard, and we headed for the bridge, where Captain Tommy Payne spun her on a dime quickly away from the pier and we were off, a giant among the powerboats, water taxis and sailboats scurrying around the water like bugs. The heck with the balloon—this 360-degree view from the tug's bridge was the best ever. "Yeah, for a view, it's okay," Payne agreed. We passed HarborView and looked for the reassuring sight of
Luna's mast, right where it belonged, and headed out into the no-nonsense, business end of the harbor. "Where do you want to go?" Payne asked us. Where to begin?
I had never been into Curtis Bay, so that's where we headed. "Hey, Tommy, what's this?" Kaeo asked, and Payne showed him how the radar worked. "That's us right there," he said. "See that barge there movin'?" He pointed out the window. "That's that. And that ship there (more pointing), that's this here." Minutes later, "Hey, Tommy, what are these?"
"That puts the electric to my flanking rudders, and these run the winches so I can pull the barges in and out."
"Hey, Tommy, what's that?"
"That's the Curtis Bay ore pier, and Curtis Bay Coal. And that's Bayside Coal, and the Hess oil dock."
"Hey, Tommy, what's this? . . ." And so it went for about an hour, kids and grown-ups alike peppering him with questions, his answers patient, generous and sometimes amused. Johnny finally achieved the weekend's goal of forgetting he was a grown-up when Payne offered him the chance to take the steering arm and guide Mitzie Hughes out of Curtis Bay and back toward the Inner Harbor. As we approached the aquarium pier, we thanked Payne for taking time on a Sunday afternoon to give us a ride. "Hey, you got me out of housework!" he laughed.
Even after that, the kids weren't yet done with the water. Right in front of the World Trade Center is a fleet of colorful pedal boats—the ultimate tourist candy—and they wanted to take one out in the worst way. Johnny and I tried to weasel out of it; after all, our kids are on the water nearly every day, and back at Luna they had their own dinghy to paddle anywhere they wanted. But there was no escaping it. As a kid's ride, the pedal boats are cool, especially the ones that look like dragons and are painted purple and green. Kaeo chose his perfect boat. Johnny, the boatyard owner and need-for-speed yacht racer, sighed deeply. "Do you think we could haul her, power spray her, tune her up just a little?"
After the Mitzie Hughes, it was a bit too grown-up to suddenly have to succumb to the orders of two demanding midget captains to pedal faster. "Hey, this is a lot like work," Johnny said. We let the kids take over, and in about 10 minutes they agreed with that assessment and headed in. From there, it was a half-hour walk home, with a quick stop at the carousel for some caramel corn and yet another ride, this one on the back of a painted horse.
Monday morning dawned—another perfect, bright autumn day. We snagged an easy, delicious breakfast of coffee, juice, muffins and pastries at the marina's Barista Espresso Cafe, and set out on foot again for what will always be my one true love of the Inner Harbor—the National Aquarium in Baltimore. On cold winter days I can spend hours in the warm dampness of its rainforest, looking for scarlet ibises and sloths and listening to the tropical music of the birds. On hot summer days I can sit mesmerized in the cool dimness of the shark tank, watching the silent, constant passage of fierce pointed snouts and leathery bodies and feathery gills.
Of course, that was before I took the kids there. Now when we go it's a full-on sprint from start to finish, a sort of Evelyn Wood speed-reading interpretation of everything this remarkable place has to offer. My kids ricochet through the aquarium like pinballs, bouncing off of one amazing sight after another, slightly overwhelmed and emphatically astounded. Perennial favorites (and reason for stopping more than 30 seconds) are the electric eel, the brilliantly colored poison tree frogs, the gigantic groupers—and of course the rays, sharks and sea turtles.
This time was no different, except the place was full of little bobbing shark's heads, since all the kids got a little visor in the image of Bruce, the meat-addicted great white shark from the movie Finding Nemo. Despite our enforced haste, we spied a green sea turtle missing a front flipper and learned that it had suffered an infection in the wild. When it was brought to the aquarium, the turtle's flipper had to be amputated. Even with all that, it was still a bewitching, mysterious animal, full of grace. We identified a roughtail stingray and a cownose ray, a lemon shark and a sand tiger shark, and we watched the slow, steady fluttering of a nurse shark's gills as it rested on the tank's bottom, not three feet away from us. We laughed at the quick, busy travels of the lookdown fish, which always remind me of stock traders rushing to some bell. We visited the seahorse exhibit once more, stunned at the ethereal magic of these creatures that seem like they should spring from fairy tales.
Finally we took in the dolphin show (another perennial favorite), and this time was fun because Kaeo was old enough to really understand the trainers and play along, identifying the dolphins' signature whistles and spotting the new calves. Watching the dolphins, their grace and perception, their pure power and joy at leaping and rifling through the water, I always forget I'm a grown-up.
It was a lovely day for a boat ride, and at last, the kids (and grown-ups) were tired of running—and walking. We grabbed a water taxi and headed back to the marina, where Luna was waiting to take us home. Behind us, the HiFlyer soared over Port Discovery. "Can we go up in that?" my daughter asked me, one more time. "Next time," I told her, and I really did mean it. Next time.
Cruiser's Digest: Baltimore Inner Harbor
Navigating to Baltimore's Inner Harbor is almost as easy as following the yellow brick road; this is a major port, obviously, and so it's extremely deep and well marked. That said, you should tune your VHF to channels 9 and 13 to keep an ear on the many tugs and ships that are constantly coming and going. And it probably goes without saying but we'll say it anyway:Stay the heck out of their way. Big ships and tugs need the channel, you don't, and there's enough depth outside the channel that recreational boats would do well to simply parallel it or at least stay well to the side. Also, try to make your first approach to the harbor during daylight. You get quite a light show coming in at night, but because of that it's difficult to see the channel markers and the running lights of heavy metal.
From the green "3B" and red nun "2B" that mark the entrance to the Patapsco just off North Point, it's a little over 9 nautical miles into the Inner Harbor, following the Fort McHenry Channel. On your way you'll pass Sparrows Point, the Seagirt Marine Terminal, Dundalk Marine Terminal and Canton on your right, as well as Curtis Bay, Fairfield and the Patapsco's Middle Branch to the left. Once you see Fort McHenry dead ahead and then leave it to your left, the channel narrows considerably, and a curve to the north and then west brings you past Fells Point and into the Inner Harbor proper (called Northwest Harbor on many charts).
Unless otherwise noted, the following marinas offer overnight slips, electric service, fuel, showers and pump-out. Overnight slips range from $1.50 to $1.75 per foot.
Anchorage Marina (410-522-7200);www.anchoragemarina.com; fuel nearby, pool.
Baltimore Marine Center (410-675-8888);www.baltimoremarinecenter.com; pool; Bagel Works (410-563-0550), Bo Brooks Restaurant (410-558-0202), Semolina Restaurant (410-327-9540), Sushi-San (410-534-8888).
Bayview Marina (410-327-8600); no pump-out or showers, laundry nearby; Captain
James Landing Restaurant (410-327-8600).
Center Dock Marina (410-685-9055); fuel, laundry and pump-out nearby.
HarborView Marina (410-752-1122);www.coastal-properties.com; pool; Barista
Espresso Cafe (410-234-1222), Catalina
Henderson's Wharf Marina (410-522-7777);www.hendersonswharf.com; fuel nearby.
Inner Harbor East Marina (410-625-1700);www.innerharboreastmarina.com; Victor's Cafe (410-244-1722).
Inner Harbor Marina of Baltimore (410-837-5339);www.innerharbormarina.com; pool next door; Rusty Scupper Restaurant (410-727-3678).
Tidewater Yacht Service Center
(410-625-4992);www.tysc.com; full-service yard, laundry nearby.
The Baltimore Convention and Visitors Bureau has a good website with tons of tourism information on the city;www.baltimore.org. A great way to save money is to purchase a Harbor Pass. It's good for the day you buy it plus two additional days, and costs $35 for adults, $25 for kids (ages 3–12; under 3 is free). Among other things, it gets you full admission to the National Aquarium, Maryland Science Center, Port Discovery and the Top of the World Observation Level at the World Trade Center. It also gets you some breaks on water-taxi rates, and saves you a buck on admission to the Baltimore Maritime Museum, Museum of Industry, Seaport Taxi and the U.S.S.
Constellation, $2 off admission to Passport: Voyages of Discovery and $3 off Ride the Ducks. Purchase the Harbor Pass by calling 410-877-BALTIMORE, or at the new Visitor Center on Light Street (near the Maryland Science Center) or online at
Following are Inner Harbor attractions within easy walking or water-taxi distance to the local marinas and high on any kid's list of cool places to visit:
Maryland Science Center (410-545-5927);www.mdsci.org.
Port Discovery (410-727-8120);www.portdiscovery.org.
National Aquarium in Baltimore (410-576-3800);www.aqua.org.
U.S.S. Constellation (410-539-1797);www.constellation.org.
Baltimore Maritime Museum www.baltomaritimemuseum.org; (Coast Guard cutter Taney, World War II submarine Torsk, Lightship Chesapeake, Seven-Foot Knoll Lighthouse).
World Trade Center, Top of the World Observation Level. (410-837-VIEW).
Baltimore Museum of Industry (410-727-4808);www.thebmi.org.
Fells Point Maritime Museum (410-732-0278).
Ride the Ducks (410-727-DUCK);www.baltimoreducks.com.
Passport: Voyages of Discovery (410-468-0700);www.passportvoyages.com.