Ye Olde Tourist Trappe Annapolis: Every summer, some 300,000 tourists descend on Maryland's capital, taking over its streets and sometimes private homes in search of Colonial history and crab cakes.

June 29, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

When people visit Annapolis -- a state capital, a military landmark, a sailing mecca and a bastion of Colonial history -- most are dying for the answer to just one burning question:

Where is the bathroom?

Every summer, more than 300,000 out-of-towners spill from tour buses and the interstates, bringing with them a seemingly unending search for pit stops and a wide range of quirks, demands, queries and desires.

This time of year, the city turns from scenic haven to Ye Olde Tourist Trappe. Streets fill with swarms of sightseers led by costumed guides. Confused visitors wander into private homes in search of lost tour groups. Restaurants burst with hungry travelers willing to pay almost anything for a crab cake. Store shelves swell with souvenirs branded with one word: Annapolis.

When the tourists take over the city, the place can go a little haywire. Consider the following moments that never made it into the glossy brochures:

After getting drenched in the rain at City Dock, several German musicians stripped off their clothes on their tour bus and wrung out their underwear by the front exit. The band members waited until they were fully clothed to resume their walking tour.

The historic Paca House accidentally took a tour group hostage when visitors failed to hear the gentle tinkling of the closing-time bell. Trapped inside a cloistered garden and panicking, the group finally boosted its guide over a brick wall for help.

Travelers en route to Ocean City from Pennsylvania selected Annapolis as a pit stop. Bad move. The group so overwhelmed the two historic bathrooms at the local visitors bureau that an assistant had to hand out extra rolls of toilet paper to folks in line.

The Naval Academy didn't make a splashy impression on one little boy, but the reverse is probably true. The overheated child passed through the main gate, approached the white-gloved Marine guard and stopped in his tracks. Then he promptly threw up.

Such low moments are hardly anything for these tourists to write home about -- they are often so captivated by the city they barely notice minor sightseeing setbacks. Instead, they want to ask questions. Dozens and dozens of questions.

The obvious: "Where is Annapolis" and "How long is the 40-minute tour?"

The obscure: "How many watts are in the light bulb over John Paul Jones' crypt?" and "The academy dormitory courtyard contains exactly how many bricks?"

The dull: "Where is the mall?"

The disturbing: "Where are the fighter planes?" and "There are great white sharks in the Chesapeake Bay, right?"

The downright odd: "Is this a shrimp or a sea horse?" and "Is someone buried in the Naval Academy flower beds?"

Annapolis residents endure the summer tourist season as well as they can -- knowing they won't easily find parking or a seat at a restaurant. Sometimes, even privacy is difficult to come by.

Stephanie Carroll always loved her quaint home on Cornhill Street in the downtown historic district, but she never considered it a tourist destination until some sightseers barged through her iron gates one morning. The group wandered by Carroll's cottage, poked around the courtyard and then moseyed up to her landlords' 18th-century house next door.

"My landlords said, 'Can we help you?' And they answered, 'No. We're just looking,' " said Carroll, who works at the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "They were really oblivious to the fact that they were in private space. They were on their own personal tour."

Still, folks like Carroll can't help but enjoy some of the attention.

"Everybody likes to play it up -- 'Ugh, the tourists are back' -- but I think there's a certain sense of pride," said Carroll, 31, who has lived in the historic district for three years. "People will stop me on the street and say, 'Do you really live here?' "

Indeed, there are many redeeming moments in the touring racket. Grateful travelers say they would be lost without the guides who traverse Annapolis on even the hottest summer days, telling the city's story on nearly a dozen different tours.

Some folks in town for a conference on liquefied natural gas gushed praise for the city. They were about to spend lots of money in its shops after munching on chicken salad stuffed in pineapple halves at a catered affair in a Colonial-era basement.

"We learned so much about Annapolis," said Nina Duncan, a Nashville, Tenn., resident who took a history tour because her husband was in a meeting. "I got a little history lesson."

But not everyone responds so well to hour after hour of historic landmarks.

When 42 mostly female international exchange students did the circuit recently, virile young midshipmen at the Naval Academy were a big hit, but the same cannot be said for the rest of the city. The State House apparently wasn't that interesting.

While cruising under the wooden dome, tour guide Peggy

Krysiak tried to win over the crowd with her Colonial-style charm, faux Scottish accent and handmade wench outfit.

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