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Cheap cruise on harbor is revealing


It's only when I'm in a foul mood that I tell people to stay away from the Inner Harbor during the summer when it is crowded with tourists.

The crowds shouldn't deter a Baltimorean from enjoying the harbor area and the landmarks and neighborhoods that surround it.

Each year I try -- and don't always succeed -- to slip away, board one of the tourist shuttle craft and take the cheapest cruise you'll ever find. Tell the boss you have a dentist appointment.

Yes, there are plenty of tourists. Recently, the water taxi I was on had visitors from Germany, Mexico, Africa and New Jersey. A lot from New Jersey, specifically Hammonton.

Still, no matter how many times I take the harbor cruise, I'm never disappointed. How many times have I seen the Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry? Wednesday was Flag Day and there was a new pennant flying. The colors were electric and vivid. The June breeze caught it perfectly. You don't have to be patriotic to admit this is quite a sight.

The cruise I selected stops at the fort (the more frequent Water Taxi and the Harbor Shuttle do not) and lets passengers off on a small pier next to the city's fire boats, the Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. and the J. Harold Grady. The names commemorate two mayors, one of whom defeated the other in a hotly contested Democratic primary.

There's a waterfront fire house at this corner of the fort property. Scott Sheads, the park historian and ranger, explained that this building was all that remains of the World War I hospital structures that once filled much of what is now the lawn at Fort McHenry.

The harbor fire house is official Baltimore Fire Department property. It has the classic brass pole connecting the first floor with the second-floor sleeping quarters. A magnificent brass alarm bell hangs on a wall. A fire fighter said the alarm bell, when it sounds, resembles the racket of a large platter of hard crabs being dropped on a cement floor.

One of the other Baltimore touches I spotted here was a vintage set of blue summer window blinds. These June-July-August cooling devices (strictly pre-air conditioning) are rare today, but some of the older fire houses still use them. I've been told the dark blue blinds would darken a room so the firemen could sleep when the sun was out.

PTC The fort was getting crowded with seasonal visitors, but it was nothing like the way it gets on a warm and sunny Sunday morning when the fort's broad lawn fills with people, lugging folding chairs. The Fort McHenry grass is a favorite place to read the Sunday papers.

It is also everything that Harborplace is not.

It is difficult to buy anything at Fort McHenry. You mostly hear maritime sounds, especially the lapping of the Patapsco River on the sea wall. And what a view for anyone who likes boats.

Throughout the afternoon, the maroon Moran tugs crisscrossed the channel. There were a couple of bulk cargo carriers docked at Canton and the foot of Clinton Street. Around the bend in the harbor, there was another ship unloading raw sugar at the Domino plant.

The breezes that carried the American flag so nicely were also bringing the aroma of fresh-baked H&S; bread from Fells Point to one satisfied harbor visitor. The winds were pushing along several of the reproduction clipper ships that have taken up residency in the Patapsco.

Every so often, there will be a published forecast that the old Baltimore harbor is finished and that heavy commercial shipping will go elsewhere. Maybe one day these prognostications will be accurate. In the meantime, the old Locust Point-Fells Point-Canton harbor and wharves seem happily busy.

If you are at all romantic about harbor views, this little harbor circuit is the place to be. Where else do classic fire boats bob across the river from a preserved World War II Liberty Ship? The answer is Baltimore, possibly San Francisco.

And the best place to get a look at what's left of the aircraft carrier Coral Sea is the walk around Fort McHenry. Built in the late 1940s and named for a decisive Pacific battle, the behemoth slowly being dismantled at a dry dock.

Another impressive sight is the Baltimore skyline as viewed from the harbor. Even seated in a fairly low tourist shuttle boat, the landmarks and church spires of Baltimore pop up like old friends. and visit.

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