Kid’s tour of Inner Harbor: submarine, crab cakes, piranha

05/03/2014 12:00 AM

04/30/2014 6:07 PM

I grew up outside Baltimore. When I was 7, my parents and I boarded the USS Torsk, a World War II attack submarine that floats in the Inner Harbor. I was entranced by the tight sleeping quarters and the torpedo tubes. The tour director described the Torsk’s missions off the coast of Japan, but his voice faded as I peered into the periscope. Through the lens the hulking atrium of glass that houses the penthouse of the National Aquarium was visible in the distance. It was a dazzling place to grow up.

Twenty-five years later I returned to the Inner Harbor with my young son, Andy. The Torsk still floated in the harbor and the aquarium’s penthouse was unchanged, tropical birds swirling through its misty, glass-encased faux rainforest.

A three-story tank in the center of the aquarium was teeming with tarpon and towering heads of coral. Andy’s eyes stretched to the size of half-dollars as he peered at the patrolling, colorful fish. We headed to the roof, my curiosity matching my son’s as we pressed our noses against the thick glass tank that holds a handful of piranha. Those same piranha were my favorite exhibit decades ago. They still are today.

The aquarium keeps it fresh, even in water that isn’t, and has changed considerably since my youth. While the major exhibits are the same, they’ve added many new ones, our favorite being Blacktip Reef. When I was young this expansive pool housed only rays. Today, a live reef has been added and the rays have been joined by fleets of roaming sharks that can be viewed from a giant window, allowing Andy to come face to face with these predators.

Inner Harbor isn’t all boats and fish. Its culinary offerings lay firmly in the grip of the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab, the edible pride of Maryland and the harbor alike. After a long day in the aquarium I smashed claws with hammers and licked Old Bay crab seasoning from my fingers at Phillips Seafood Restaurant’s outdoor eatery. Andy chewed on boardwalk-style fries, content. Although he refused to try crab, crabby he was not despite the late hour, likely because of a treat of Italian Ice from Rita’s, the same confectionery I enjoyed as a child.

The morning’s rain took us inside the world-class Maryland Science Center. A gaping planetarium, IMAX theater and 100,000 square feet of evocative, educational exhibits brought back memories of school field trips. We wandered amid globes swirling with static electricity and snapped photos in an optical illusion room that makes you appear miniature.

Like most of my early forays to Inner Harbor, lunchtime in the drizzle landed us in Harborplace, an indoor mall with a multitude of eateries and shops. Over a frosty beer I stared out at the water and the non-operational factories in the distance. This used to be an industrial part of Baltimore. Today the skeletons of that era frame the backdrop, the only remaining active factory being the Domino sugar refinery. Its towering neon sign has been the symbol of Baltimore’s sweetness for decades, glowing at night as party boats and the water taxis motor around the harbor, making their way to Fell’s Point.

Fell’s Point is a historic waterfront neighborhood rich with colonial influence. By sunset we rambled Andy’s stroller down cobblestone streets, past momentous buildings and historians in full colonial costume. While Fell’s has developed into a popular strip of pubs and restaurants, its history is steeped in tradition, which can be explored by taking a Baltimore Ghost Tour, an eerie walking exploration of haunted buildings and sites.

There also are a number of museums in Fell’s, the most evocative of which is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, the largest museum in the east dedicated to African American culture and history.

After a quick stop for some oyster shooters, we were back aboard the water taxi, heading for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles. The stadium didn’t exist when I was a child. Rather we watched the O’s play at the run-down Memorial Stadium across town. Camden Yards is anything but.

Since its opening in 1992, this “retro-park” rings of the 1940s when stadiums pulsed with energy and patriotism. Camden’s throwback architecture is open; its borders peppered with shops and viewpoints. It’s a great place to bring a child. During the game Andy finally broke his seafood fast and nibbled on a crabcake while I did the same. And the Orioles won.

The area around Camden Yards is a baseball memorabilia collector’s haven, not only because of its special atmosphere but its proximity to the Babe Ruth Museum. Located next to the stadium, at the row home that was his birthplace, the museum holds one of the World Series trophies, exhibits of Babe’s retired uniforms and bats and even a replicated Baltimore and Ohio Railroad car. It’s chilling to see where the legend was born — and fitting, considering that his first professional contract was with the Orioles.

Next door to Camden is the ultra-modern M and T Stadium, home to the Baltimore Ravens NFL team. The Ravens weren’t playing during our visit, but when they do Inner Harbor erupts with team spirit.

However, this is Maryland, and few sports here are as popular as men’s lacrosse. In 2003 (and many other years) M and T hosted the NCAA championships. Andy wasn’t born yet, but I was there. Virginia beat local Johns Hopkins, the team with which I was obsessed during my formative years as a high school lacrosse player. Hopkins fell 9-7 in a nail-biter I viewed from the sidelines. I still get goose bumps thinking about the final minutes.

On our final day in Inner Harbor we sat on the steps by the water, licking ice cream cones and watching street performers. Some of my earliest memories were watching men on stilts juggling flaming torches or swallowing swords and this aspect of Inner Harbor hasn’t changed. Andy flipped some change into a mime’s hat. The eccentric man gave a robotic wave; Andy giggled and scrambled to my feet.

Before heading back to the airport we took one last tour, boarding the USS Constellation, a Navy sloop from the Civil War era. In the hull of the vessel we wandered among iron tools and coils of giant rope. Rows of cannons line the sides of the ship, protruding through portholes. Andy wandered up to one of the weapons, closed one eye and shot a glance down its barrel toward the giant prism of glass that caps the aquarium.

He looked back at me and chirped: “That’s where the piranha swim, Daddy.” I nodded yes. He shot me a curious look, lowered his line of sight back to the side of the cannon and released a toothy grin.

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