What could be better than a leisurely brunch cruise on a spring Sunday afternoon aboard a brand new ship?
Lots of things, if you're brunching aboard the Spirit of Baltimore, docked off Key Highway on the south side of the Inner Harbor. Even the weather didn't cooperate the day we were there.
We could overlook the occasional gray clouds and chill breezes, but not the largely mediocre food, unnecessary entertainment and spotty service, especially at $24.75 per person. (The price does not include juice, soft drinks or alcoholic beverages; there is a full bar on board).
The folks who operate the Spirit of Baltimore have similar ships in eight other ports, including Boston, Philadelphia and Norfolk. Apparently,they think they have hit on a formula that works, but not for me.
We boarded about 20 minutes before the boat was to sail and were shown to a fine table by a window at the back of the first-floor dining room. A two-man band was playing and the mood was festive, if a bit loud for Sunday brunch.
Brunch began with a basket of breads -- muffins, Danish and mini-bagels -- served with butter and cream cheese, followed by an attractive fruit salad of melon and pineapple. The fruit was fresh and sweet, the breads cold and ordinary.
From here on, brunch was buffet. Our maitre d'/floor show host announced that diners would be shown to the buffet a few tables at a time. Little did we know, nor did our waitress tell us, that we would be among the very last tables served, meaning a `f 45-minute wait.
We weren't starving, to be sure, but we might have taken a walk on one of the other decks had we known how far off brunch was.
The menu was truly a mixture of breakfast and lunch: fruit-filled pancakes with syrup, Eggs New Orleans, sausage, O'Brien potatoes, turkey with cranberry sauce, steamed vegetables -- broccoli and carrots -- and Pasta a la Chesapeake.
The potatoes, sauteed with their skins amid onions, were delicious-- brown and inviting, sometimes crunchy, sometimes chewy. The pasta, too, was good, with tender green and white tortellini in a light creamy seafood sauce. Those were stand-outs.
The eggs were light and fluffy with cheese throughout. The broccoli baked into the eggs and cheese didn't work -- the pieces were too big and too mushy for the rest of the dish. The steamed vegetables were OK, but nothing special.
The turkey was the biggest disappointment; it looked and tasted like turkey roll. Fresh turkey does not seem too much to ask when the food is prepared on board.
We passed on the pancakes -- they looked too soggy and sticky with fruit and jimmies to be inviting.
Our host had said that when everyone had been to the buffet table once, it would be open for seconds. The buffet ran so late, however, that when everyone had made one trip there, it was soon dismantled to get on with the show. There was no "last call" for food.
Our waitress was friendly, though a bit perfunctory. It was difficult to get her attention for more coffee and when we did, the coffee was barely warm. Not once, but several times.
The entertainment was a program of Broadway and patriotic songs performed by the waiters and waitresses. It's a cute idea, but seems unnecessary when you've already got Federal Hill, Fort McHenry and the Francis Scott Key Bridge passing your table.
Our captain did narrate the cruise, though what he had to say was pretty basic. Like the food, the narration lacked flavor.
I was generally disappointed -- in the food and the whole cruise. It was just too generic for something called "the spirit of Baltimore."
Brunch on the Spirit of Baltimore 801 Key Highway (410) 523-7447 Hours: Brunch, Sundays 1 to 3 p.m. (Daily lunch and dinner cruises offer different menus.)
Reservations: Recommended in advance.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: No smoking, except on open-air top deck.