Waterfronts to Wineries: Central Maryland

Originally published in Group Travel Leader

“Hi, hon.”

You’re sure to hear that greeting in Baltimore. It’s our local version of “Howdy.” No one knows how it started, but shopkeepers, burly longshoremen, and society matrons all use it.

See, we’re a friendly bunch here in Central Maryland. We have a bounty of museums and antique shops, midshipmen and aquariums, farmers markets and art galleries. Nautical and rural landscapes with relaxing views, sailboats and bald eagles on water and wing, vineyards and urban bustle sooth and excite.

“Baltimore is a quirky city,” says Mindy Bianco of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. “You can have several different experiences all in the same city.”

A loop along the Inner Harbor proves that! Tracing a path along the waterline moves groups from Baltimore’s most famous landmark to the heart of the harbor and then to the place where it all began.

Fort McHenry is a fitting place to start. While watching the battle for the star-shaped fort during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write The Star Spangled Banner. When weather permits, a flag in the same dimensions as the one Key saw flies over the fort. At 42 by 30 feet, it’s easy to understand how he could spot it through the rockets’ red glare.

“The rangers at Ft. McHenry work with groups to have something special going on,” according to Mindy. “A popular event is the flag-folding ceremony. They let you touch the flag and teach you how to fold it.”

Housed in an old oyster cannery, the Museum of Industry shows Baltimore during the Industrial Revolution through more modern times. Join an early assembly line or ‘work’ in a print shop. Groups can cater a crab feast here; good food with a bonus, according to Mindy. “Talk about a wonderful view of the harbor. It is from a totally different perspective.”

The American Visionary Art Museum promotes the works of untrained, intuitive artists. Their works range from charming to bizarre. The current exhibit: We are not Alone: Angels and Other Visitors runs through September 3.

The Maryland Science Center is another ‘hands-on’ place. The Davis Planetarium takes you on a tour of the heavens, while the IMAX theater delivers more earthly topics in a larger-than-life format.

Two gleaming glass pavilions and the Galleria with its 4-story atrium overlook the Inner Harbor. The layout of shops and restaurants was designed with casual browsing in mind. In the summer, enjoy a carry-out lunch from one of the stalls while watching a free noontime performance at the waterside amphitheater.

The USS Constellation is the floating backdrop for the amphitheater. The only surviving Civil War-era Naval vessel, it’s back in the Inner Harbor after a 31-month restoration. Nearby is the 3-ship ‘fleet’ of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, including the Lightship Chesapeake, a floating lighthouse.

The highlight of a visit to the National Aquarium is the stroll down the ramp located ‘inside’ the water. You’re surrounded by dozens of fish and other sea creatures gracefully swimming past you. The new permanent exhibit, the Amazon River Basin, opened in March.

The Power Plant was once just that: a coal-fired facility that generated electricity for the city’s trolley lines. It’s now an entertainment and shopping complex with a Hard Rock Café and the sports-themed ESPN Zone.

During the Civil War, Baltimore was the dividing line between the North and South. Trains from the North stopped at the President Street Station, while those from the South left from Camden Yards, nearly a mile away. The President Street Station is now the Baltimore Civil War Museum. It tells how the conflict affected the city. As for Camden Yards – we’ll get to that a little later.

Say “Lit’l It’ly” to a Baltimorean, and the mouth begins to water. Imagine an entire 12-block neighborhood dedicated to food. There are as many restaurants in Little Italy as there are photos of grandkids in most seniors’ pocketbooks.

“When I was growing up, for every major occasion, we went to Little Italy,” Mindy recalls. From small, family-run bistros to formal establishments with heavy white linen tablecloths and waiters in tuxes, dining here is a requirement.

Fells Point is where Baltimore began. The oldest part of the city, many of the narrow townhouses lining the equally narrow, cobblestoned streets date back to the early 1800s. The waterfront shops and restaurants spent many of their incarnations serving sailors who stopped here after voyages around the world.

Want to see a Baltimorean get excited? Start a discussion about the best way to steam crabs. Want to see one of us get really excited? Start a discussion about the Orioles. Our baseball team is a source of great pride and often, great frustration. We revere Cal Ripken, who broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

The pride extends to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the stadium that’s home to the O’s. Designed with the old-time stadiums in mind, it fits nicely into its neighborhood just beyond the Inner Harbor. Camden Yards – as most locals call it – was where the railway station for trains headed south during the mid-1800s stood. See, I promised I’d get to that. The behind-the-scenes tour is of the stadium is fascinating.

Baltimore’s ‘other’ famous ball player was Babe Ruth. While he never played for a Baltimore team, the city of his birth claims him. The Babe Ruth Museum is just steps from Camden Yards. It’s where the Babe was born. “This was his grandparents house,” explains Laurie Ward, the Communications Coordinator of the museum. “His parents lived above a bar. His mother didn’t want him born there, so she moved back to have the baby.”

There are lots of artifacts from the Babe’s life and career. Proving that athletes’ egos were just as large then as now, there’s a hymnal in which he wrote, “George Ruth, world’s worst singer, world’s best pitcher.” Groups can rent the museum, have a barbecue out back, then get tickets to a game.

The B&O Railroad was a foundation of Baltimore’s prosperity. Its roundhouse, the centerpiece of the B&O Railroad Museum, stands as a monument to its success. Designed by a man enamoured by European cathedrals, its has the same dimensions as those houses of worship.

Over 100 locomotives and cars are displayed. Equally interesting are the exhibits about the different jobs in the railroad – engineers and porters, of course, but also stewardesses. Yep, B&O had stewardesses on the trains in the 1930s and 40s.

Anchors Aweigh in Annapolis
Heading south, you leave the urban bustle for Annapolis, the state capital. It also claims the title “America’s Sailing Capital.” Spend time at the harbor and you’ll agree. Nicknamed “Brag Alley,” it’s where all the yachts, sailboats, and dinghies parade by to see and be seen.

A parade of a different sort is held every noontime in front of Bancroft Hall, the enormous dormitory that’s home to the 4000-strong Brigade of Midshipmen at the US Naval Academy. The Academy’s mascot, an oversized bust of the warrior Tecumseh, impassively watches the daily noontime formation of the mids. He’s decked out in full war paint before every football game, and “middies” heading for exams toss pennies into his arrow-filled quiver for luck.

At the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, a 12-minute film, To Lead and To Serve explains the challenging life these young men and women have chosen.

Leaving the high walls of the Academy, you’re in an 18th Century town that just happens to have a lot of 21st Century traffic. Preservationists have worked hard to successfully keep the ambiance of the colonial times intact.

Be sure to visit the William Paca House and its restored gardens. The mansion of a signer of the Declaration of Independence had become a hotel and its gardens long-lost and scheduled to become a parking lot when it was rescued and restored.

Groups can take a riding tour with Discover Annapolis Tours’ minibus. Touring by foot is best done with Three Centuries Tours. Guides are in period costume and work to stay in character.

Annapolis has a number of sightseeing cruises. Chesapeake Marine Tours has 40- and 90-minute narrated cruises into the Bay. The schooner Woodwind takes passengers for two-hour cruises under sail.

The Top of the Bay
At the top of the Bay is Havre de Grace in Harford County. Don’t get fancy with the name; locals call it “Have-er dee Grace.” From the Concord Point Lighthouse, where the Susquehanna River joins the Chesapeake, stroll along the waterfront promenade to the Decoy Museum. Inside, you’ll marvel at how simple chunks of wood are transformed into lifelike imitations of geese, ducks, and other waterfowl.

The Susquehanna is too shallow for navigation by anything larger than fishing boats. The story of the canal that linked southern Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake is told at the Susquehanna Museum, housed in a lock keeper’s house.

The skipjack Martha Lewis is one of the few surviving boats of her type in the Bay. Keep one eye skyward while sailing aboard her. This area of the Chesapeake is one of the most popular habitats for the bald eagle.

On the bluffs overlooking the Susquehanna, The Steppingstone Museum preserves and demonstrates the rural arts and crafts of the turn of the century. Scotsmen can don their tartans and join the gathering of the clans at the Scottish Festival in June.

“Darlington loves to hold festivals!” says Diane Molner, of Discover Harford County. In June, the Herb Festival with demonstrations on using herbs for cooking, decorating, and health. On a crisp October weekend, it’s the Apple Festival. A large country crafts show is part of the fun.

A different outdoor experience is at Ladew Topiary Gardens. Fifteen seasonal and topiary gardens surround a house that architects claim has ‘the most beautiful room in the country.’ The refurbished stables are a restaurant that’s a pleasant setting for a group lunch.

A Blast from the Past – that might cross your mind when you lunch at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen. This is not one of the new diner franchises, but an authentic, family-owned, family-run diner that’s been open since 1955. It’s the neighborhood’s eatery; the waitresses call the regular customers by name. The Lobster Bisque is a treat!

Clanging Bells and Charming Teas
Pure fun for the kid inside everyone is at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Towson in Baltimore County. Hand- and horse-drawn equipment, displays of fire-fighting paraphernalia, and useful safety tips are all part of the museum. All that’s missing is a Dalmatian on the seat of the fire engine.

The centerpiece of Hampton Historic Site is the 33-room mansion built between 1739-1790. It sits in the center of the 60-acre estate, an oasis from the bustle of 20th Century that surrounds it. The Tea Room offers lunch daily.

Tours and tastings are ‘on tap’ at Boordy Vineyards. The winery is housed in a restored 19th century barn, where the grapes from the vineyard become fine wines made in the traditional way.

Where the Old Ways are Preserved
The rolling countryside of Carroll County is a surprise to those who think of Maryland only in terms of the Chesapeake.

The Carroll County Farm Museum takes you back to life circa 1850. The 142-acre site shows how self-sufficient people were back then. It’s also the site for the Deer Creek Fiddlers’ Convention and the Community Jubilee for Older Americans, both held in June. During Steam Show Days in September, coal-powered traction engines and threshers fire up.

Union and Confederate troops both used the grounds of the Union Mills Homestead and Grist Mill. Built in 1797, it’s been home for six generations of the Shriver family.

Jim Shriver’s still there, overseeing operations at the mill. “We operate three stones to create a variety of grain products,” he says. “Every group that visits gets to see the mill in operation.”

This area, just south of the Amish community of Pennsylvania, holds a Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market in Westminster from Thursday through Saturday. Amish, Mennonites, and local vendors sell soft pretzels and other baked goods, crafts, dried flowers, and Amish quilts.

Antrim 1844 is a lovingly restored Greek Revival house, now transformed into an elegant country inn. The outbuildings and grounds were also converted into guest rooms and private suites. The old kitchen, with its brick floors and step-inside-sized fireplace, is now a wonderful, cozy dining area.

Unique Shops in Historic Settings
The name ‘Savage Mill’ sound foreboding. But this building which once housed a textile mill founded by the John Savage is anything but ominous. The machines that produced cotton duck for sails, tents for soldiers in WWII, and silent movie backdrops have vanished. The vacant buildings were converted into an airy delight of stalls and artist workshops.

Founded four years before America declared its independence, Ellicott City is a charming town of granite buildings and stone walls weaving down a ravine to the Patapsco River. The original grist mill that gave the place its name is long gone, but America’s oldest railroad station is at the bottom of the hill. Start at the top and wander past antique shops and good restaurants. A visit to “Celebrate Maryland” guarantees that you’ll find the perfect souvenir of your visit to the region.

We’re glad you came, hon.