You don't have to be a New Jersey tourist to enjoy Baltimore's harbor ballet.
Three competing water shuttles skim from the Light Street Promenade all over the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River. For less than the cost of a designer ice cream confection, you can dart all day to and from the waterside neighborhoods of Fells Point or Canton. You'd never get there so fast in a car and voyagers see Baltimore as it looks best -- from the water.
Some fans are even taking one of the lines from Canton to the Oriole games.
This is the summer for visiting international tall ships and the gray Navy ships to call. For those of us not privileged to have a private power boat, the $3.25 all-you-can-ride Water Taxi is the way to go. For $4, the Harbor Shuttle will sprint you all the way to Canton and back, and back again if you don't want to get off. At $5, there's a Fort McHenry Shuttle.
All the tours permit stop-over rights at any of the points. The taxis vary in size; most hold about 25 people.
What's this season's most asked question? Visitors are curious about the collection of copper-clad domes and spires near a clump of trees at the top of an East Baltimore hill. It is St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church at Montford and Eastern avenues. The trees are in Patterson Park.
Eddie Evans, of the Harbor Shuttle staff, quickly identified St. Michael's as well as a half dozen other East Baltimore spires and landmarks to a group of passengers one day this week.
Another query is directed at tugboat identification. Moran Towing's are a deep maroon; McAllister's are red with a white stripe; Vane Brothers' are green, white and blue. Blessedly, these picturesque tugs are still busy in the harbor scene.
The staff on the McHenry Shuttle, part of the Baltimore Patriot tour line, gives a complete harbor discourse designed to answer questions.
The talk neatly avoids downtown renewal puffery and gets to the heart of the matter, describing the amount of raw sugar that goes into the Domino factory and why soy beans flow through the Locust Point grain elevator only once or twice a year. The tour proudly points out the site of the city's raw asphalt storage tanks or where thousands of European immigrants got their first taste of Baltimore.
The Water Taxi business (seven individual taxi boats) was founded by Ed Kane. The fare includes a copy of Kane's excellent brochure map, which is filled with practical advice on getting around the city. It's one of the best waterfront maps available, particularly helpful with the sights of Fells Point. The Water Taxi makes 10 stops, some only on demand.
There's also a way to call a Water Taxi and Harbor Shuttle to certain spots where the boats usually do not stop. Word is relayed via VHF radio, channel 71, to bring a launch to the Rusty Scupper, the HarborView pier at Key Highway and Cross Street or the Museum of Industry.
Roland Forrest, the Harbor Shuttle owner, recalls the night a certain bibulous Fells Point passenger thought he'd boarded the wrong boat. "He jumped overboard and started swimming toward the other shuttle. Most of our passengers aren't like him," Forrest said.