I tried my first oyster in Baltimore. I’ll never forget the day. I was a teenager living in Maryland for a year as an exchange student, and we’d driven about an hour to the famous Lexington Market for lunch.
If you’re a fan of The Wire, then you’ll have some preconceptions about Baltimore that will make you want to pack a gun as well as your jarmies, or at least have McNaulty’s number on speed dial. But I found the pretty bay and historic quarter completely quaint – and not once did I hear a gang shooting.
Maryland is famous for delicous blue crabs, so it is only right that I eat as many as possible. Cue the next 36 hours and the Crab Fiesta:
1.00pm After spending a few days with my American “family” in Delaware from when I was an AFS student back in the 80s, we arrive at Baltimore’s historic quarter of Fells Point after a two-hour drive. The streets are cobbled and the wooden buildings look like they’ve been here since John Wayne might have swaggered through. A door with a metal gate squeezed between the shops on Thames Street signals the entrance to Celies Waterfront B&B. I ring the buzzer to be met by the bubbly Stacey and shown to my room up three flights of lift-less stairs.
A four-poster bed in front of a fireplace greets me with large bay windows off to the side. I think I will be very happy here. They also have free wifi and Kevin, the owner, kits me out with a wifi phone explaining he got rid of the landlines because everyone uses cell phones these days. Now I can ring everyone I know for free – well, US numbers that is.
2.00pm Tuesdays are half-price burger days at Kooper’s pub next door and as luck would have it, today is Tuesday. The place is packed so “mom”, “dad” and I snap up a table beside the bar and I start my crab fiesta. We order homemade crab dip, three enormous American-sized burgers with fries and a beer each. Total $28 greenbacks. Even I can shout this lunch on the wee kiwi dollar.
3.30pm I wave them good-bye as they head back over the mighty Chesapeake Bay and decide I will take the ferry to Ft McHenry. In 1814 the British got as far as here in their quest to take Baltimore. They fired wildly inaccurate bombs from their tall ships all night and a young lawyer, cowering from ‘the rocket’s red glare’, penned a poem the next day. The Star Spangled Banner became the national anthem in 1933.
6.00pm Wandering around the eclectic boutiques of Fells Point, I nosey through a warehouse with a plaque reading ‘Homicide Life on the Street’. It turns out this is where the cops-and-robbers TV series was filmed from 1992 to 1999. Still no gang drive-bys though.
7.30pm Time for more crabs. I walk about eight blocks towards the run-down part of town. But Obrycki’s is the best place to go for crabs, I am reliably informed by the locals. They’re not wrong. Owner Cheri, joins me at the bar and we decide I should try a taste of everything – including a tour of the kitchen where buckets of blue crabs are waiting, their pincers slowly moving, to be sprinkled in spices and steamed whole. Walking back was strongly advised against by restaurant staff, so I took a cab. The inner part of Baltimore, around the bay, is gorgeous. But further out the terraced houses are rough and a girl alone is not wise to walk amongst it.
9.00am Over the breakfast table I chat with my fellow lodgers. Two went to the baseball last night where the Baltimore Orioles beat the Boston Red Socks against all predictions. Another has meetings all day selling books. I am here to eat crabs, I tell them.
10.30am It’s a beautiful morning and as I need to walk off Maryland’s fare I wander around the water front to Harbour Place even though the ferry would have scooted me across in ten minutes.
11.00am Barnes and Noble draws me like a moth to a flame and I enter the former power station which is worth going into just for the architecture. Browsing the shelves, I grab a pile of interesting looking titles and sit with a Starbucks among the Johns Hopkins medical students doing the same thing.
12.30pm Lunch is at M & S Grill in Harbour Place. My dining companion is eight and three-quarter months pregnant so we get premium service outside in the sunshine. We share the crab dip (well, it might taste different) and a crab cake. I try crab soup and she goes for a burger (clearly not sharing my fanaticism for the crustacean). They’re so divine I wonder how I can farm them in New Zealand.
2.00pm With the pregnant one needing to get back to work (maternity leave not starting for another two weeks) I potter around the buzz of Baltimore’s inner harbour and buy a pair of wedge shoes from Gap in the Galleria shopping mall.
3.30pm The best view of Baltimore Harbour is on a hill in the distance so I wander towards it but detour into the Maryland Science Center where I am fascinated by the interactive exhibits. I take a ‘how old is your body’ test and discover I’m six years younger than my passport declares. Nice.
5.00pm Continuing on to the hilltop I notice the sun is now behind thick clouds. No good for photos, I decide, so walk back to the National Aquarium. This building is awesome with realistic rock walls and huge tanks for the vast array of sea life. I take in a dolphin show and marvel at the shark tank covering a whole floor. A pool of puffins are showing off as I head towards the Australian exhibit featuring crocs and turtles and lots of gum-tree swamps. It’s very cool, but I am in Maryland and you can probably guess what kind of ocean life I’d rather be comsuming – and not just with my eyes.