Seeing Baltimore as Others See Us A Letter from Baltimor Youth Hostel

August 08, 1993|By ALLISON KLEIN

When British travelers Sharon Whitehead and Katharine Wrathall were approached on Charles Street by a disheveled man claiming he had psychic powers, they were startled. When he correctly identified one of them as having an Aquarius birthday, they became uncomfortable and quickly moved on. After walking a few steps, they began to laugh and told each other they had to remember to tell this funny story to their new friends at the Youth Hostel where they were staying.

They are 22-year-old students who made Baltimore a stop on their tour of the United States. Before Baltimore, they were enjoying fast-paced New York lifestyle until their funds began to run out. Finding a discount coupon for the Baltimore Youth Hostel, they pulled out their East Coast map and decided on their next destination. They easily became charmed by the city and this budget accommodation. At the Youth Hostel, they made friends from countries like Germany, Japan, Scotland and Denmark.

American Youth Hostels (AYH) is an organization that began almost 60 years ago in the United States, after hostels had been successful in Europe. An average of $12 per night will get travelers a comfortable place to lodge for the evening. The result is usually a house full of youthful, budget-minded tourists swapping stories about traveling and their home countries. Kathleen Towers, from Scotland, said she appreciated the family atmosphere at the hostel. "Oh, it's made my stay here much more enjoyable. Everyone here is so friendly."

Ms. Wrathall agreed, "I never saw anyone in Boston or New York cleaning. Here someone is always mopping or Hoovering [vacuuming]."

The hostel staff schedules a tour every Saturday to show its guests around Baltimore. Tour guide Tara Hynes takes them to places such as Edgar Allan Poe's grave, The Walters Art Gallery, Great Blacks in Wax museum, Mount Vernon and Lexington Market.

"Everyone thinks that Baltimore is just the harbor. People are shocked that there is so much here," Ms. Hynes said.

Overseas travel in Maryland increased 7.7 percent from 1990 to 1991 and is estimated to have increased another 38 percent from 1991 to 1992 -- almost double the increase in Washington, D.C.

Baltimore's Assistant Director of Tourism/Promotion, Gil Stotler, said more international travelers are here because of advertising campaigns launched in Europe. The campaigns promote the Capital Region USA, which includes Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Each of the three contribute $200,000 toward overseas advertising, and airlines offer an additional $550,000. Heightened publicity for the entire region draws more tourists to Baltimore.

"It used to be that tourists stayed in Washington and took a day trip to Baltimore. Now, they are staying here and taking a day trip to D.C.," Mr. Stotler said.

The United Kingdom was the top source of overseas visitors to Maryland. Germany, Japan and Australia also supply large numbers of Baltimore visitors.

Harborplace and the harbor itself are keys to Baltimore tourism -- aside from the aesthetic value, it's easy to walk around and it's free. Harborplace opened in 1980, but the majority of people didn't start visiting until 1983.

In June of that year, a 19th century, three-story mansion on West Mulberry Street opened as Baltimore's first and only American Youth Hostel. It is a brownstone townhouse with high ceilings and a wide staircase that contributes the feel of antiquity. Ten years after opening as an AYH, it still provides a clean place to stay and a friendly atmosphere for budget-minded travelers like Bhupinder Gujral and Tom Godber, who are students from England.

Arriving at the train station with typical, suitcase-size "rucksacks" (backpacks) on their backs, they walked the 10 blocks to the hostel.

They were greeted by friendly hostel staff manager Joelle Porter and assistant manager Frederic Fontarosa. Mr. Fontarosa checked them in and explained in his slight French accent that all the hostelers are assigned a small chore to help keep the rooms clean.

On a map, he showed them the Inner Harbor, and the nearest supermarket, sandwich shop and convenience store.

The 19-year-olds were on holiday from their secondary college in Loughborough, England. When they came to the United States they had no specific plan of where they wanted to go, but while in Daytona Beach, Fla., a friend tipped them off.

"We were told about a pub here called Hammerjacks," Mr. Gujral said in his proper British accent.

They came equipped with American-style fake identification cards so they could get into bars which only serve patrons who are 21 or older.

"We heard it was tough to get into bars here, but for us it's been quite easy, really," Mr. Godber said.

For daytime entertainment, their choice is the harbor (even though they insist we spell it incorrectly).

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