CHANCES ARE you've already visited Baltimore's Inner Harbor. But for a different take on this familiar location try braving the elements and visiting the Harbor area in the winter, when the summer's large crowds and pervasive humidity are thankfully in hibernation. I recently headed to downtown Baltimore with my three young sons on a damp, gray winter's day. Our goal was to get outside and find some relief from a bout of cabin fever.
Visiting on a cold day paid immediate dividends when we snagged rare on-street parking on Key Highway, just behind the Maryland Science Center. From there it was only a short walk to the area's most conspicuous winter-only attraction, the Inner Harbor Ice Rink.
The first thing you'll notice about the rink is the sweeping perspective that it affords you of the city's skyline. The Harbor's major attractions are primarily clustered on its north side, so the view from the south-side rink is always a treat. The rink itself is pretty, and the nicely strung white lights running its length give it a lingering holiday feel. Although the threat of rain kept away the crowds on the day we visited, the rink is obviously one of the Harbor's more popular attractions in the winter. If you have novice skaters that need their space, try hitting the rink early or late in the day on weekends. On clear afternoons, try arriving right around 5, when most visitors are heading home for dinner just as the winter sun from the southwest temporarily paints the skyline red.
After an hour or more on the ice, you'll probably want to pursue warmer interests, so head west from the Ice Rink in the direction of the Maryland Science Center. On the short walk to the Center you'll encounter a couple of small sights that are worth a brief pause and glance. The first is the 1912 Herschell Spillman Carousel. Although shuttered for the season, children will enjoy seeing the veritable barnyard of animals represented on the ride.
Just beyond and in stark contrast to the aging carousel is the thoroughly modern National Weather Service Station. It's a small, jumbled set of curious-looking equipment, fenced-in but well-explained by the informational plaque beside it. Young scientists in the group will be interested to know that the station is part of the Automated Surface Observing System and measures air pressure, temperature, dew point and precipitation and reports them to the NWS and FAA. Snowfall and rain are measured by a "liquid precipitation accumulation sensor" that looks suspiciously like a gardener's pail.
Since we'd visited the Science Center many times before, we didn't go this trip. I had recently spotted a brochure touting tours of nearby Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A few blocks from the Harbor, a tour held special interest to us as baseball fans, who must endure particularly acute withdrawal until spring training. My 9-year-old twins leaped at the prospect of an insider tour of Camden Yards. Unfortunately, my 4-year-old's battery was running slightly low (no mean feat), so we drove to the stadium, although it is an easy walk for most grown-ups and fully charged children.
After parking in a stadium lot, we picked up tickets from the fan assistance lobby at the north end of the massive B&O Warehouse. The tour begins in the shadow of the warehouse, and our guide, Andrew Holly, immediately impressed our group by telling us that Oriole Park is made of more than 3.5 million bricks (they stopped counting at 3.5 million). He also told stories of monstrous home runs that had soared over the right-field wall of the stadium to land at various points all around us.
Holly knew that there's no quicker way to get a group's attention, particularly the under-12 set, than to talk about numbers in the millions and mammoth home runs. Had he started in right away on the stadium's unique wiring he may have faced an uphill battle.
The tour continued, and the impressive history of the site and the structure itself was played out before us. Stops in (heated!) luxury suites and press rooms gave us the feel that we were insiders for the day and that we were seeing things most summertime fans would not be privy to. Hearing that my son Neal was a huge Cal Ripken fan, Holly worked in a story of a local beat writer who had questioned Cal's baseball ability in ink, only to have his laptop shattered later that week by a morally guided (or so suggested) foul ball off the bat of the great one himself. Neal immediately flashed me a smile afterward, as if to say that perhaps my lectures about right and wrong had just been validated. That alone was worth the visit.
Holly solidified the tour's kid-friendly rating by handing out Orioles buttons, schedules and a picture of Cal Ripken at its conclusion.
My youngest quickly fell asleep on the ride home and my older boys swapped tales of what they liked most about the day, with equal time given to the Ice Rink and Camden Yards -- a solid hit on a gray, cold day.
INNER HARBOR ICE RINK -- Rash Field, 201 Key Highway between the Maryland Science Center and the Rusty Scupper, Inner Harbor, Baltimore. Take I-95 north to I-395 (downtown). Continue on 395 to right on Conway Street just before the first light. Take Conway until it ends on Light Street. Turn right on Light, stay to left and make first left into Harbor parking area. Rink is to the right of the Science Center approaching from the south. 410/385-0675. Web site: www.baltimoreevents.org. Open Monday through Friday noon to 2, 4 to 6 and 7 to 10; Saturdays 10 to 6 and 7 to 10; Sundays noon to 5 and 7 to 9. Admission is $3-$5, depending on session. Skate rentals, $2. Toddler skating aids for rent.
Tykes on Ice -- A special series of children's sessions, held every Saturday morning through March 4, featuring discounted admission ($3 for children under 12), children's music and other activities.
Sunday Great Skates -- Expert skating exhibitions followed by drop-in skating classes for all ages and abilities. Sundays at 5:15. This Sunday the Metroliners synchronized skating teams of the Bowie Figure Skating Club perform. Lessons are from 5:45 to 6:15 p.m., $6 per person (skates included).
ORIOLE PARK AT CAMDEN YARDS TOURS -- 333 West Camden St., Baltimore. Take I-95 north to I-395 (downtown). Continue on 395 to first light. Camden Yards is immediately to the left. Make first left into stadium parking lot, follow signs to public parking. Parking is $5. On foot from the Inner Harbor, simply walk west on Conway Street until you reach Camden Yards. 410/547-6234. Tours take place Monday through Friday at 11 and 2; Saturdays at 11, noon, 1 and 2; Sundays at 12:30, 1, 2 and 3. $5, $4 for children and seniors. Tour lasts about an hour and 15 minutes. Depending on progress of field renovation, it may include a visit to field dugouts. Call ahead in off-season for adjusted times and tour availability. Tickets can be purchased before the tour in the north end of the ballpark warehouse in the fan assistance lobby. The lobby is between the Orioles Baseball Store and the main ticket windows. It is recommended that you buy your tickets at least 20 minutes before the tour.