Take water taxis to discover new harbor pleasures

May 26, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Tourists pile off the buses in search of a day's fun at the Inner Harbor.

They are intent on getting into the National Aquarium and spending $4 for an ice cream cone at Harborplace. I guess all this contributes to the regional economy, but I think I'll pass.

During the warm weather months, the onslaught of tourists has led to a distinct tendency of Baltimoreans saying let them have the harbor all to themselves. Only if visiting cousins from Pittsburgh or North Carolina come a-calling will many of us locals bother to take in the harbor sights.

That's a mistake. Baltimore's harbor and its old waterfront neighborhoods are assets that grow and improve each season. It takes a little sales resistance to pass up some of the places (and lines) the day-trippers all flock to, but the effort is worth it.

Beyond the Basin at Pratt and Light streets is a world of the harbor that is smaller in scale, less hectic and more characteristic of the real Baltimore.

The tourists don't know any better. You do. And here's some free advice.

Take the water shuttles, the flat-bottomed craft that skim around the harbor like maritime insects.

They seem to be pitted in a price war. The Water Taxi rate is ZTC $2.25 weekdays, $3.25 on weekends. Its competitor, the Harbor Shuttle, is $2 Sunday through Friday, $3 Saturday and holidays. You can't ride a transit bus all day for such low fares.

Once you pay the fare, you can ride all day and make as many stops along the route as you wish. Or you can go just for the ride -- a nonstressful, quiet way to take in the harbor sights without standing in lines. You can ride for hours and the operators won't throw you off.

This year the Water Taxi stops at the Museum of Industry on Key Highway. My guess is that many people have had good intentions of visiting this shrine to blue-collar Baltimore, but haven't done so. This is also a good place to begin exploring a sort of cove-like indentation in Federal Hill geography.

Don't be chicken. Get off the taxi and walk up one of the rowhouse-lined streets to Fort Avenue, the main thoroughfare that leads to Fort McHenry, a fairly long walk away, but not out of the question.

Why spend a week's wages for lunch at the Harborplace restaurants when you could eat at Rallo's Restaurant on Fort Avenue and Lawrence Street? Or have a real chocolate ice cream soda at Earl's Malt Shop, 635 E. Fort Ave., at Webster Street. Earl's ice cream sodas or milkshakes go for $2 each and are served in an authentic, street-corner, soda fountain setting.

All it takes is a little shoe leather and curiosity to locate some worthy Baltimore destinations.

These water taxis also link the foot of Broadway (Fells Point) and the Inner Harbor at Pratt and Light streets. But, for some reason, Fells Point seems much more visitor-friendly this spring. It's hard to judge just why, but it has something to do with repaired streets, shop openings and the presence of all the people who live in the ancient rowhouses.

The neighborhood successfully suppresses the cloyingly cute restoration gimmicks. This is no Oldtown Alexandria or Georgetown. It has not been sanitized of its Greek and Polish past.

The foot of Broadway, with its maroon tugboats and Recreation Pier (this is the building that doubles as police headquarters for the television series "Homicide") has become conveniently linked with Pratt and Light streets.

There's now a guide to this neighborhood's small shops and restaurants distributed via the Water Taxi.

The pace here is a lot slower than the Harborplace district.

It's also hard not to find all sorts of little interesting diversions, like the garden of the Robert Long House on South Ann Street or the stalls of the Broadway Market.

The market is an often overlooked gem. Its two sheds house an excellent coffee shop and bakery, meat and produce stalls, ethnic foods, florists and a few small gift shops. Most items are sold at lower prices than at Harborplace.

After lunch at the market, take a walk through tiny Shakespeare Street or Lancaster Street to get a feel for the way Baltimore was in the 1790s. You might visit the shipbuilding yard at Caroline and Lancaster streets. Then board one of the water taxis to return to the parts of tourist Baltimore you will be glad to have skipped.

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