By Karen Rubin

Fell's Point, a colonial maritime community founded by William Fell in 1730, has survived progress, urban renewal and development to become Baltimore's oldest and architecturally most historically significant district. Just as it has for more than two centuries, it bustles with activity at night, with tourists as well as locals flocking to cafes, restaurants and saloons, just as the merchant sailors did in Colonial times. But there is something special about waking up as day is dawning and watch the cobblestone streets light with the sun, the harbor fill with orange glow. When you stay at the Admiral Fell Inn, which dates from 1892 as the Anchorage Hotel and was more recently named for the district's founder, you feel like a resident of the district and its storied past.

The Inn, itself, has played an important part in Baltimore's seafaring heritage. It was built by the Port Mission Women's Auxiliary as a boardinghouse for merchant seamen and became the Seamen's YMCA in 1929 until 1955. The rules of the house were sailors had to be good Christians, had to bathe, and were subject to delousing if necessary.

After serving for some 30 years as a vinegar bottling plant, the Inn, which consists of some eight adjoining buildings (some dating back to the late 1770s) was restored to a hotel in 1985. Guests today enjoy European-style comfort and intimate elegance of the 80-room hotel, literally at the cross-walk of the district, and a water taxi ride away from Baltimore's acclaimed Inner Harbor attractions.

Walking around the Fell's Point district was a delight-boutiques, some 39 antique shops, colorful cafes and saloons, and some 31 historic buildings and sites (listed in a self-guided walking tour), such as the Captain Pitt House, circa 1790-1800; the Captain Steele House, circa 1788-1792; the Robert Long House and Garden, circa 1765 (Baltimore's oldest surviving urban residence); and the London Coffee House, built in 1771 and operated until 1804 as a gathering place for locals, it was a center of political foment during the Revolution as well as the War of 1812.

The Admiral Fell Inn was a marvelous base from which to discover the many charms of Baltimore (a four-hour drive from New York). From a stop at the pier just across the street from the inn, you can take a water taxi to more than 35 attractions of the Inner and Outer Harbor--an unlimited travel ticket for $5; $2 for kids 10 and under; 800-658-8947, www.thewatertaxi.com (we found however, that the water taxi doesn't operate in inclement weather).

The major sites that make up the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore can all be reached by the water taxi: the USS Constellation, Lightship Chesapeake, US Submarine Torsk, Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse, U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney, Steam Tug Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Industry, Fell's Point, Fireboat Base, Fort McHenry, Historic Canton Waterfront, and Federal Hill. (The National Historic Seaport of Baltimore tour, introduced last year, offers one-ticket access to 15 maritime-related historic sites; 410-396-3453, www.livingclassrooms.org.)

There is also a new 7 ˝ mile shore-line promenade, which when completed will connect the waterfront neighborhoods including Canton, Fell's Point, Little Italy and the Inner Harbor (5 ˝ miles have been completed already).

Our first stop was what is probably Baltimore's most famous and popular attraction, the National Aquarium, a centerpiece of the Inner Harbor, and soon discovered why this was true-it is one of the best aquariums anywhere. Some 8,000 marine animals are on display, including massive sharks and a melange of stingrays in breathtaking exhibits, many of which are presented to show entire ecosystems or teach about important principles of survival and adaptation (my favorite was watching giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, and learning that the octopus has control over its skin cells in order to change color for camouflage). We were surprised to find an entire dolphin show, housed in a connected building, which this year has been expanded to offer a production exploring behaviors and lifestyles of dolphins in a fast-paced MTV-like presentation; live underwater cameras and high-tech video graphics enhance what you see the dolphins performing in front of you (when you purchase your ticket, you are given an assigned time to see the half-hour dolphin show). Just opened: an entire Amazon River Forest you walk through, feeling the steamy air and hearing the shrill calls of birds the birds that fly about. The presentation of the exhibits is very engaging for both children and adults. Allocate about three hours to visit ($14/adult, $7.50/child; 410-576-3833).

The National Aquarium is at the hub of Inner Harbor, where there are a score of fabulous attractions. Another major one is the Maryland Science Center, established in 1797, has three floors of interactive exhibits, the Davis Planetarium and an IMAX theater, and is just opening the National Visitors' Center for the Hubble Space Telescope (410-685-2370).

Also new is Port Discovery, appropriately dubbed a "Kid-Powered Museum" in a building that was once the Baltimore Fishmarket. Designed in collaboration with Walt Disney Imagineering, Port Discovery is the third-largest children's museum in the nation and offers an amazing array of hands-on activities that make science, art, and even adventure child's play. It is so much fun, it seems more like an urban theme park than a museum, but there is real educational stuff going on. The centerpiece is a three-story climbing playground (you can get off at different floors to explore different areas, if you like). During our visit, members of the Center Stage Theater Group put on workshops in theater arts; a man from NASA was demonstrating how a space suit works (you climb into a big plastic bag and he uses a vacuum cleaner to suck out air to demonstrate the pressure of the atmosphere; in another experiment, you take a straw and pierce a potato, to show how the speed of an object gives it force). My favorite area was the Adventure Expeditions, where you walk through a Pharaoh's tomb, and even climb into a Mummy case (be careful, there is a voice!). There is a Mystery House which teaches about perception and problem-solving, an R&D Dream Lab where visitors become stars of a gameshow in a TV studio, and a special Sensation Station section for toddlers. There are even overnight adventures. (Best for children up to 12. Plan to stay at least two hours; $10/adult, $7.50 child 3-12, 410-727-8120, www.portdiscovery.org.)

Also in the Inner Harbor, the new ESPN Zone, developed jointly by ESPN cable network and Disney Regional Entertainment. It has a second-floor Sports Arena-a playground for kids of all ages, with virtual reality and other interactive sports games filling a 10,000 sq. foot high-tech arcade; a screening room (13 screens), a grill-style restaurant (410-685-3776). Also for entertainment and dining, there is Harborplace, a kind of indoor mall, and the Power Plant, a building dating from the early 1900s which now houses a Hard Rock Café and Barnes & Noble superstore.

Several new attractions are opening (many giving new life to old structures), contributing to this incredible feeling of renewal throughout the city. This year, the Babe Ruth Baseball Center is opening in the historic Camden Station at Camden Yards, which will complement the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, near Inner Harbor (just one of the many, many sports-related attractions in Baltimore).

Other Baltimore Attractions

B&O Railroad Museum (now we know what B&O Railroad stands for on our trains--Baltimore & Ohio Railroad) is a wonderful, magical museum, where the family can enjoy sitting in the engineer's seat, playing with the mechanical controls of coal-burning engines, blowing the whistle (well, actually a bell), and running through bright red cabooses. The B&O Museum, housed in the Mount Clare Station, the country's oldest railroad station and the birthplace of railroad technology, contains nearly 200 rail items, including 120 full-sized train steam, diesel and electric locomotive cars, passenger and freight equipment, dating back to the 1830s. This museum is a must even if you are not "into" trains. Train rides are available on Saturdays. (open daily 10am -5 pm, 901 W. Pratt St., 410-752-2490).

The Baltimore Museum of Industry chronicles its industrial history; panels describe the many technological "firsts" that came out of Baltimore, including bromo-seltzer, mercuri-chrome, the umbrella, the gaslight, the first linotype machine to typeset on paper, the aluminum ski. Weekdays, docents assist students take on skilled/unskilled roles and use actual equipment to work in an oyster cannery, to print a newsletter, to create garments, even help in a machine shop; elementary students can also participate in a simulated auto assembly line. If you are coming as a family, call in advance to get your kids into a group. Cost is $2/student, $2.50/adult (1415 Key Hwy., 410-727-2308).

Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers a rolling history of Baltimore streetcars through exhibits and unlimited rides on cars that were used from 1859-1963 (open weekends, noon -5pm, 1901 Falls Road, 410-547-0264).

Edgar Allan Poe House was his Baltimore home where he spent three years writing much of his early work; call for tour times. (200 N. Amity St., 410-396-7932). Westminster Burying Grounds & Catacombs, one of Baltimore's oldest cemeteries, is where Edgar Allan Poe is buried; (Fayette & Green Streets, 410-706-2072).

Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum was the home of Mary Pickersgill, who hand-sewed the US flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem, in 1814. (844 E. Pratt St., 410-837-1793).

The Baltimore Civil War Museum is housed in the President Street Station erected in 1852. The station is documented as an "Underground Railroad" site used by slaves escaping northward to freedom in the 1850s. In 1861, 700 soldiers from the 6th Mass. Regiment arrived at the station one week after Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. As they marched west down Pratt Street, the troops were attacked by a stone-throwing mob of Southern sympathizers. Fighting between the two groups resulted in the first deaths of the Civil War. (601 President St., 410-385-5188).

Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, the house where he was born, contains the Orioles Museum and the Maryland Baseball Museum (daily, 216 Emory Road, 410-727-1539). Oriole Park offers ballpark tours, including the dugout, pressbox, scoreboard control room. Baseball fans will love the tour. Call to reserve tour time. (Daily, 333 West Camden St., 410-547-6234).

Fire Museum houses one of the largest collections of antique firefighting equipment in the East, with pieces dating back as old as 1806; they even have a working fire alarm telegraph system (1301 York Road, 410-321-7500).

Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the first of its kind in the country, displays wax figures of notable African-Americans as Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriett Tubman (1601-03 East North Ave., 410-563-3404).

The American Visionary Art Museum is a new national museum which features original works of art by self-taught artists and offers very modern and unique art forms (800 Key Hwy., Inner Harbor, 410-244-1900).

Baltimore Museum of Art has a collection of 20th century art by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Cezanne. It also has the state's largest collection of contemporary art, including Andy Warhol (10 Art Museum Dr., 410-396-7101).

Baltimore Zoo/African Watering Hole has a great collection of 1200 exotic animals; interactive areas for kids; cost is $7.50/adult, $4/child ages 2-15 and seniors. (open daily, Druid Hill Park, 410-396-7639

The Baltimore Area Visitors Center, located on the west shore in the Inner Harbor, provides maps, menus, brochures, and is where you can purchase same-day and advanced tickets to many of the venues. It is the only place in Baltimore offering discounted ticket packages to individuals and the only full-service TicketMaster outlet in the Inner Harbor. Open year-round (888-BALT-TIX or 888-BALTIMORE).

For further information, contact the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association, 100 Light Street, 12th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202, 410-659-7300, 888-BALTIMORE, www.baltimore.org.

Admiral Fell Inn

The Admiral Fell Inn made us feel that we were more than spectators but in some measure a part of Baltimore's rich history. A member of Historic Hotels of America, we have always found these hotels not only to be special in their architectural significance and distinctive ambiance but providing extra measures of service, sophistication and comfort. The Admiral Fell Inn even exceeded these standards of excellence, providing outstanding service and amenities in a cozy setting.

We were delighted to find that the hotel offers valet parking ($7/day), and guests could take advantage of free self-parking at a lot 1 ˝ blocks from the hotel. The 80-room hotel, which has its own Hamilton's restaurant, and The Point, a neighborhood pub-style eatery opened late into the night, provides breakfast. Any time of the day or night, you can help yourself to coffee or tea in the lobby-lounge. There is a new rooftop (that is, fifth floor) ballroom and balcony with a spectacular 360-degree view of the harbor, Baltimore's downtown skyline, and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. As another service feature, the Inn provides a complimentary van drop-off service to the Inner Harbor attractions, main Johns Hopkins Hospital and other downtown locations (with advance reservations). Our room, decorated in Federalist style but with modern amenities, was wonderfully comfortable, with two double four-poster beds with a lacey canopy, remote control cable television, telephone and hair dryer in the bathroom; some of the rooms have Jacuzzi and there is one suite which is two-story with fireplace and Jacuzzi.

The Admiral Fell Inn is offering "A Historic Seaport Package," available throughout May, providing two nights accommodations, two Seaport passcards, $50 dining certificate, breakfast and a six-month membership in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for $245 per night, based on double occupancy. (Admiral Fell Inn, 888 S. Broadway, Baltimore, Maryland 21231, 800-292-4667, 410-522-7377, www.AdmiralFell.com, or contact Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946, http://historichotels.nationaltrust.org).

Caption: The dolphin show is a highlight of a visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore (photo by Karen Rubin).

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