Branching out in Baltimore The city's family attractions extend well beyond the aquarium and Camden Yards.

Posted: April 01, 2001

BALTIMORE — I was convinced that the two grandkids would be absolutely wowed by Baltimore's National Aquarium, the city's signature tourist attraction for almost 20 years and reason enough for a visit here.

But we couldn't pry 4-year-old Caroline from Port Discovery, a new children's museum, where she was totally taken by the colorings, cuttings and pastings in what she called the "hearts and crafts" room. And Michael, 10, wants to return just to revisit the Torsk, a World War II submarine, and its neighboring harborside attraction, the Civil War-era USS Constellation (or, as he called it, the USS Constipation).

This is not to say that they did not enjoy the National Aquarium and all its creatures of the deep when they finally got there. Indeed, they did. But their enjoyment elsewhere is a reflection of what has happened to Baltimore since the aquarium and Inner Harbor development got rolling 20 years ago.

The choices of things to do have multiplied; Baltimore has matured into a major tourist destination.

You've heard about the aquarium, of course, and the acclaimed Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. Plus the nearby Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum. And, for certain, Harborplace, the pioneering retail development of shops and restaurants around the harbor that helped spark Baltimore's renaissance and became the prototype for other waterfront developments across America.

But how about the National Museum of Dentistry? The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum? The Great Blacks in Wax Museum? The American Dime Museum?

And, if none of those appeals, there's also a Civil War museum, a maritime museum, a museum of industry, a public-works museum, several art museums, numerous galleries, a Jewish museum, a streetcar museum, a railroad museum, a fire museum, a lacrosse museum, and a few others I've either missed or ignored.

Even our choice of a place to stay, the historic Fells Point neighborhood, qualifies as a Baltimore attraction, especially since it is readily accessible to the Inner Harbor not just by taxi ($5, including tip) but also by boat. Water taxis run regularly scheduled service, with more than a dozen landings at various tourist haunts, from May through September ($5 for adults; $2 for children).

Traveling with my daughter, Rachael, and her two kids, my goal was to see at least a half-dozen museums in a few days. But I was in for a big surprise, having long since forgotten the essential elements of traveling with small children: time and patience. The little devils, I was quickly reminded, have a tendency to go at their own pace and in their own direction, instead of doing what you'd like them to do.

By the time we had driven to Baltimore and checked into the Admiral Fell Inn and gotten to the Inner Harbor and had a brief lunch, it was already early afternoon - too late, we figured, to attack the aquarium. So we headed instead to Port Discovery, which calls itself a "kid-powered museum" and is located in Baltimore's historic Fishmarket building.

Whether the place is truly kid-powered I could not say, but it was certainly crawling with children in various states of advanced agitation.

The noise level, combined with the motion of little kids darting here and there, flailing their arms, and running through, up or over various rooms and contraptions, was certainly enough to get my blood pumping.

Caroline gravitated to what was called the Studio Workshop, where, with paper and paste, she quickly set to creating . . . well . . . whatever it was, a picture, I guess, which she clutched proudly in her hand for perhaps all of five minutes before her grandfather ended up carrying it. (By day's end, it had been lost.) But "hearts and crafts" made a lasting impression; even as we wound our way through the aquarium the next day, she was asking to return.

Michael, being a 10-year-old, was quickly drawn to KidWorks, described by the museum as "three stories of climbing, crawling, jumping, sliding, swinging and swooshing fun." One of the creations here was a padded wall where kids have to jump or climb to punch various flashing buttons that are spaced at scattered points on the wall and light up for only a few seconds. The more they hit the buttons, the higher their scores. Michael, wiry and athletic, did very well.

We also wandered from place to place in Port Discovery, through oddball and wacky exhibits, both static and interactive, that were clearly designed to make children think. It wasn't really much of a museum in the traditional sense, but it certainly was an engaging place for children.

By then, we'd already arrived at - guess what? - nap time. So we headed back to the Admiral Fell Inn, where Caroline ("Can we go to hearts and crafts again?") and her mother napped while Michael and his grandfather explored the historic, somewhat gentrified Fells Point section.

The neighborhood, which is really the eastern point of a hooked peninsula of the harbor basin, was Baltimore's original deepwater port and a shipbuilding center from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. It's said to be one of the few colonial-era waterfront communities on the East Coast to have survived relatively intact, and it reminded me a little of Alexandria, Va.

The combination of old, mostly brick townhouses, brick sidewalks, and Belgian-block streets gives the neighborhood a sense of Old World charm.

Michael and I headed up Broadway, past restaurants and galleries and businesses with names like Reefer's Bar and Grill, Killer Trash, Java Squeeze, and After Midnight ("Clothes That Make Noise") to the Broadway Market, which has stood at the same spot since 1783 and is a smaller version of Seattle's Pike Place Market or Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. We had no need of meats or fish, or fruits and vegetables, so we wandered back down to the harbor again.

Dinner that night was at John Steven, a tavern and seafood house a long block from the inn at 1800 Thames St. (In Baltimore, the street is pronounced the way it's spelled, instead of the traditional British "Tems.") We were a little disappointed with our crabcakes - a heresy in Baltimore, home of the crabcake, but true nevertheless.

The Admiral Fell Inn, one of only a handful of places to stay in Fells Point, is a comfortable, Europeanstyle (or boutique) hotel with 80 rooms, furnished in the Federal style. Before its renovation in 1985, it had at various times been a boardinghouse for sailors, a seamen's YMCA, and a vinegar bottling plant.

Next day, the aquarium was at the top of our list. We took the advice to visit before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m., and got there shortly before 9. (If you're traveling on weekends or at peak travel times, keep in mind that the aquarium occasionally sells out by afternoon. It's possible to buy timed and dated tickets in advance by calling TicketMaster at 800-551-7328. That adds $2.75 to the admission cost of $15 for adults and $8.50 for children.)

By almost any yardstick, but particularly from a visitor's standpoint, this is a top-notch, world-class facility, dazzling in its architecture and design and loaded with engaging exhibits for all ages. One of the first things I noticed was that the big glass windows on many of the aquarium enclosures came almost down to the floor, so little children could easily squeeze right up to the glass.

From the second-floor level, we could look down to open pools below, where huge stingrays, tarpon and sharks swam about. Hanging overhead in the center was a mammoth fin-whale skeleton, said to have come from a whale taken off Cape Cod in 1880.

Other exhibits explained how fish survive and adapt to their environment, and how they use their fins and muscles to swim.

A "North Atlantic to Pacific" gallery covered everything from striped bass to puffins ("Look, penguins") to wonderfully colorful tropical species such as blue devils, tangs, triggerfish, and butterfly fish.

The aquarium boasts an Amazon rain-forest environment, complete with tropical birds, as well as a relatively new, companion Amazon River forest gallery inhabited by snakes, piranhas, miniature caimans, turtles, reptiles and fish.

Perhaps most mesmerizing of all are the two huge tanks containing the Atlantic coral-reef and the open-ocean exhibits. Because of their size, the tanks virtually enclose visitors descending ramps from Level 4 to Level 1, with the tanks seemingly on all sides. The biggest eye-catcher is the open-ocean tank, where it's possible to come almost nose to nose with huge sharks swimming back and forth just behind the glass walls.

As we stood there, I lifted Caroline so she could better see the sharks going by.

"Aren't they big?" I asked. She nodded and said: "Can we go back to hearts and crafts now?" But there was one more show to go: a performance by some trained Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the marine-mammal pavilion's 1,300-seat amphitheater, which was fast filling up by the time we arrived.

Coached by three trainers in wet suits, the dolphins put on quite a show, racing through the tank, porpoising, diving, corkscrewing, tail-walking, flipping a beach ball around with their fins and noses, and splashing water into the delighted crowds.

We headed back to Fells Point for a pizza lunch; then, while mother and daughter took their nap, Michael and I caught the water taxi back to the Inner Harbor and boarded the USS Torsk. This submarine's claim to fame is that it sank the last Japanese vessel in World War II, a frigate torpedoed Aug. 14, 1945, in the Sea of Japan. The Torsk later became a training vessel and, in 1972, was brought to the Inner Harbor as a museum and memorial.

This was not the first sub I'd visited, but it was Michael's, and he was almost immediately struck by what seems to hit most people once they have seen the tight quarters.

"You mean they lived down here?" he asked.

Yes, they did - a crew of 80 men, cramped into a length of 311 feet with a beam (or maximum width) of 27 feet. The tour began in the aftertorpedo room, where a memorial noted that 52 U.S. subs were "still on patrol" - lost at sea - with a total of 374 officers and 3,131 crew members. There were some bunks here in the back of the sub, stacked no more than three feet apart.

The Torsk is part of what's called the Baltimore Maritime Museum, which includes the adjacent Chesapeake, an old lightship, and the nearby Taney, a 327-foot Coast Guard cutter said to be the last vessel surviving from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We skipped the Chesapeake, flew nearby to the Taney for a quick tour, and then returned to the immediate harborside for a look at the USS Constip . . . I mean USS Constellation.

The Constellation has its own superlative: It claims to be the last Civil War vessel afloat, and was used in the West Indies to catch Confederate privateers and blockade runners. Before the war, the 1,400-ton, 180-foot all-sail vessel was used to interdict slave traders off the coast of Africa.

The ship has gone through two restorations, the more recent from 1996 to 1999, which left it looking as it might have 150 years ago, with a fresh paint job and decks that definitely needed no swabbing. Michael and I boarded and wandered about before going below and listening to a "sailor" talk about the vessel's various missions over the years.

As a Little League player, Michael just had to see the Babe Ruth Museum, so we caught a taxi for the five-minute ride to 216 Emory St. This was the equivalent of "hearts and crafts" for Michael.

"Do you think he was the greatest baseball player ever?" Mike asked as we looked over the exhibits. One of them, I said, mentioning guys like Gehrig and Mantle and Aaron and Ripken, all of whom pop up in this small museum squeezed into the little brick rowhouse where Ruth was born. But, with the help of a film, it's the saga of Ruth as baseball hero that is told here.

After picking up Michael's sister and mother, we headed for the nearby McCormick & Schmick's seafood restaurant, a chain operation I'd sampled a few times in Washington and found to be excellent, although a little pricey. But we found McCormick & Schmick's did not disappoint.

After dinner, we did what most visitors to Baltimore do sooner or later: strolled the Inner Harbor, checked out the shops, bought ice-cream cones, and made plans for the next morning, as our final stop, to visit the Maryland Science Center, on the edge of the Inner Harbor. (The highlight: an Imax film of elephants in Kenya and Zimbabwe.)

After dusk, we found our way to the water-taxi station and boarded for a trip back to Fells Point. As we pulled from the harbor I hoisted Caroline to a standing position beside me on the seat so she could see better, wrapping my left arm firmly around her body to hold her in place.

She was tired and wasn't too chatty, but I could feel her heart thumping at a good pace as we nosed toward Fells Point, surrounded by a fairly dazzling display of lights in the harbor.

"Are you excited?" I asked.

"Grandpa," she said a little wistfully, "can we come back to Baltimorrow for hearts and crafts?"

If You Go

Getting there. Baltimore is an easy two-hour drive, or less, from most parts of the Philadelphia area via Interstate 95. Take I-95 south through the Ft. McHenry Tunnel, then take Exit 53 downtown.

Staying there. Downtown Baltimore has hotels in every price range; for more about lodging or for other tourist information, call the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, 1-800-343-3468, or the Baltimore Visitors Center, 1-800-282-6632. Among the lodging choices in the city's Fells Point section, a five-minute drive from the Inner Harbor, are the Admiral Fell Inn, 1-800-292-4667; the Inn at Henderson's Wharf, 410-522-7777; Celie's Waterfront Bed & Breakfast, 1-800-432-0184; and the Ann Street Bed & Breakfast, 410-342-5883.

The aquarium. Baltimore's National Aquarium is the one city attraction that is not to be missed. But if you're going on a weekend or holiday, it might pay to purchase tickets in advance; they're sometimes sold out by afternoon. To learn more, including how to purchase tickets ahead of time and the seasonal hours of operation, call the aquarium information line at 410-576-3800. Admission is $15 for adults and children over 12; $12 for those over age 60, and $8.50 for children ages 3 to 11. The best, least crowded times to visit are before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m. daily, and before 10:30 a.m. on weekends.

On the Web. The National Aquarium and the city of Baltimore have Web sites you can check out: Aquarium, www.aqua.org; and Baltimore, www.baltimore.org.

 Mike Shoup

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