Military maritime vessels have evolved from 19th-century wood and sail to the steel ships that are more awesome than elegant. If you want to get onboard these massive “gray hulls” during Sailabration, you’ll have to get through some military red tape.
Piers at North Locust Point, normally not open to the public, will house six ships that offer tours. Visitors must ride free shuttles that depart and return to M&T Bank Stadium.
The USS Fort McHenry, a dock landing ship, will be berthed near her namesake. The ship, which was commissioned in 1987, has been part of disaster-relief efforts around the world, including those after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. At 610 feet — the size of two football fields — the Fort McHenry dwarfs its 19th-century counterparts.
Great Britain, which has gone from enemy to staunch ally since the War of 1812, has sent the RFA Argus to the Baltimore festivities. The Argus, which was converted from a container ship to a military vessel, was equipped with 100 hospital beds during the first Gulf War and has treated war wounded ever since. She also helps in disaster situations and is headed to the Caribbean to offer assistance in case of hurricanes.
If you choose to bypass the gray hulls at North Locust Point, you can visit the JCG Kojima, a Japanese Coast Guard training ship, at Tide Point (tours only June 16). The area, which is between the Inner Harbor and Locust Point, is accessible by water taxi with minimal street parking.
Dining and shopping options in this industrial part of town are very limited, so after checking out the ships it’s better to head to Federal Hill. East Cross Street features several lunch and dinner spots, including Ryleigh’s Oyster. The restaurant, known for its raw bar, also offers the bivalve in a po’boy, taco and stew. Maryland’s beloved blue crabs are well represented, and the non-seafood eater has sandwich and salad options. Area shopping includes Pandora’s Box, a tiny Cross Street gift shop packed with jewelry, accessories and home decor. Nearby Charles Street also features several art galleries.
If it’s eclectic art you want, the American Visionary Art Museum is one-stop viewing and shopping. The museum’s current exhibition, “All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs & Karma,” offers works in toothpick, paper plate, light bulb and even a few traditional media. The museum’s gift shop is an attraction in and of itself. Sideshow, on the first floor of the museum, has artwork, crafts and loads of toys and novelties you never knew you needed. If you typically eat at museums only in desperate moments, the on-site Mr. Rain’s Fun House will be a shock to the system. Think wild boar and pheasant sausages. The restaurant’s rooftop terrace, with its views of the Inner Harbor, will be a coveted spot during Sailabration.
Federal Hill Park, which overlooks the museum and harbor, also offers an excellent vantage point for watching the Parade of Sail on Wednesday at 11:15 a.m.
Whether you see one ship or dozens, you can’t get the full bicentennial experience without visiting Fort McHenry. The star-shaped fort was the target of British warships during the Battle of Baltimore on Sept. 13-14, 1814. The British aimed to sail into Baltimore’s harbor but first had to get by McHenry’s guns. So they bombarded the fort for 25 hours. When the guns stopped and a young Frances Scott Key saw the huge flag flying over the fort, it inspired him to write what would become known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The original flag is on display at the National Museum of American History, but the fort remains. Its buildings are set up with 19th-century furnishings, and recordings tell the story of those militiamen who defended the city. The fort’s visitors center, new last year, features a short movie about the battle and an exhibition that puts the war in context. The grounds also provide a panoramic view of Baltimore’s modern port.
The fort itself and its visitors center will be closed June 15-16 for air shows featuring the Blue Angels, so to get the full experience you must visit on a different day.
Consider checking out the fort June 18, 200 years from the day the United States declared war on Britain. Instead of focusing on war, Fort McHenry is staging a “Declaration of Peace” with dignitaries from Britain and Canada, military bands and the fort’s fife and drum corps.
Federal Hill Park, Key Highway and Battery Avenue. American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy. Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 410-244-1900. www.avam.org. Ryleigh’s Oyster, 36 E. Cross St. Daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. 410-539-2093. www.ryleighs.com. Pandora’s Box, 50 E. Cross St. Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 410-244-1442. Fort McHenry, 2400 E. Fort Ave. 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. 410-962-4290. www.nps.gov/fomc. Adults $7, age 15 and younger free.