Once the weather gets warm, it seems that the entire population of the Baltimore-Washington area converges upon the Inner Harbor. And you can bet that every inch of foot space, every seat in the food court of the Light Street Pavilion, will be claimed.
That's when it's time to hit the water. Time to get away from the heat and the crush and take a ride on one of the many boats that ply the Inner Harbor.
That might seem overly touristy to many Baltimoreans, and in a sense, it is. You can look at the passengers on many boats and know right away that at least half of them are from out of town. So who wants to spend an afternoon with a bunch of camera-toting tourists who put the "T" back in Baltimore?
Here's a little secret: You should, too.
A boat ride can be a welcome break from the Baltimore summer weather. When it's close to 90 degrees and the humidity is climbing toward the murderous range, a spin on the water can be most soothing.
Even better, it's a good way to see a city that you think you might know cold. And even if you know all about Fells Point and how the neighborhood of Canton got its name, and have memorized the landscape around the Domino's sugar plant, it's still a kick to make another tour about the harbor.
For instance, a trip to Fort McHenry has been done by nearly every Baltimorean at some point in his or her life. But it takes on a whole different light when one takes the Inner Harbor shuttle to the fort.
It's a very pleasant 25-minute trip, offering passengers a leisurely view of Federal Hill Park, the old Beth Steel ship repair works (now the HarborView development), the Domino's sugar plant, the Procter & Gamble plant, and various enormous ships unloading cargo. The return trip gives good views of Canton and Fells Point (stopping at the Broadway Pier) before passing by the National Aquarium and the Constellation. The boat's pilot gives a well-informed narrative along the way.
An ideal excursion would be to plan a picnic at the fort, first stopping at the nearby Cross Street Market for food -- barbecued chicken, say, or some soft-crab sandwiches. The fort is a wonderful picnic site: plenty of grassy areas, a stunning view of the outer harbor from nearly all sides. You can raise a breeze there on even the most stifling day.
The cost is reasonable: $4.40 for adults and $3.30 for children, round trip from the harbor. If you want to stop off at Fells Point, it's $5 for adults and $3.75 for children. Boats leave every half-hour. (And you have to love promotional copy on a flier that tells passengers, "The British tried it and failed. But now YOU can land at Fort McHenry.")
For quicker rides around the Inner Harbor, there's the Water Taxi, which hits such spots as the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium, the Rusty Scupper restaurant and Little Italy. It's not really a service that most Baltimoreans would need, except to give a nice finishing touch to a day or night on the town. After dining at a nice restaurant in Little Italy, taking the Water Taxi back to the Inner Harbor seems debonair, even elegant. Rides are $3.25 for adults and $2.25 for children.
If you want to hit the outer harbor and beyond, there are many choices. To capture some of the old Baltimore sailing spirit, one might try the old working oyster boats, the skipjack Minnie V. and the buy boat Half Shell. They operate six days a week (off Mondays) from the harbor and offer 90-minute, 7 1/2 -mile round trips. Cost on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays is $10 for adults and $3 for children under 10; Tuesdays to Fridays, it's $8 and $3.
A larger vessel is the Clipper City, a 158-foot tall ship that goes out on two- and three-hour cruises. You see it moving majestically through the harbor waters, almost princely in its grace as it goes into the outer harbor. The two-hour cruises cost $10 for adults, the three-hour cruises $12. Children cost $2 for both.
For those unnerved by the prospect of being on a sailboat, there are the Bay Lady and the Lady Baltimore, those enormous ships that are docked by the Light Street Pavilion. They can hold as many as 500 passengers, and are host to a number of cruises with different themes (Mexican night, Hawaiian luau). Dining and dancing often are features.
There are two-hour cruises that leave at noon and 6:30 p.m. daily, plus 2 1/2 -hour midnight cruises Friday and Saturday that leave at 11:30 p.m. Prices vary considerably; call (410) 539-6277 for information and reservations.
Anyone who has ever been to Paris might find the Baltimore Patriot boats eerily reminiscent of the bateaux-mouches that cruise the Seine River. The Patriot II and Patriot III are enclosed on the lower level; the upper deck is open and quite pleasant. Ninety-minute, roun-trip cruises leave the harbor six times a day and cost $6 for adults and $3.30 for children 2 through 11.