travel - baltimore & the us east coast

coming to america? or maybe you should let america come to you. a base at baltimore in the heart of the us east coast means you can drive around a lot of america in remarkably little time. jonathan crouch does just that

The whole 'Road America' thing sounds great until you're the one that has to be on the road. Seeing even a small part of the USA requires a great many miles at the wheel and an awful lot of stamina. Or does it?

Introduce yourself to Baltimore in Maryland, on America's East Coast. Philadelphia and New York are a half a morning's drive North, with Washington and beautiful nearby Alexandria and Annapolis much the same distance South. Get yourself a rental car and in just a couple of weeks with the minimum of mileage, you can properly experience them all from a Baltimore base - or at least that's what the guy at the tourist board told me.

We decided to put that claim to the test at the wheel of a Lincoln LS, a car Ford nearly sold in the UK, developed as it was alongside Jaguar's S-TYPE. Ours was the 4.0-litre V8 version which provided glorious performance, excellent refinement and an average of around 17mpg throughout our trip: but then who cares about that in a land where petrol is a pound a gallon?

Arguably the best summation of Baltimore comes from US film Director John Waters who claims "I would never want to live anywhere else. You can look far and wide but you'll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It's as if every eccentric in the US South decided to move North, ran out of gas in Baltimore and decided to stay." Certainly, this is a pretty cosmopolitan city. So much so that it's hard to believe that there's room for somewhere of this size to co-exist, sandwiched between Philadelphia to the North and Washington to the South - and more importantly in doing so, preserving such a distinct identity.

This is one of those places where ideally, you need to stay in the heart of the metropolis - in this case, within walking distance of the hub around which the city revolves: the harbourfront. We tried the Days Inn Inner Harbour. Thirty years ago, the harbourfront area was an industrial waste set around chemically poisonous waters. Now it's a thriving centre of leisure, full of restaurants, gift shops and, well. more restaurants. Oh, and there's also America's finest aquarium, plus nearby, a great place for children called Port Discovery. This boasts all manner of 'kid-powered' activities and even has a tethered hot air balloon that lifts you over 400 feet up for an unrivalled view over the city skyline.

On thing you really need to do while you're in town is to catch a game at the Orioles, Baltimore's famous baseball team. Even if you're not into baseball or, as in our case, hardly understand it, a trip here is a must. It's one of America's friendliest stadiums and has a food court that any UK venue would die for. If you can't match up your schedule with an actual game, the Camden Yards stadium does tours.

Just over an hour's drive to the South lies Alexandria, now an up-market suburb of Washington but a place which nonetheless, retains its own unique identity, sitting as it does the other side of the Potomac River from the US capital. If you've never heard of Alexandria, then you're in good company with most Americans we met. "It's one of those places I drive through but never stop at," one of them told me vaguely, unwittingly in UK terms likening the hometown of 1st US President George Washington to the status of Slough or Bedford.

Like many modern visitors, Washington preferred Alexandria's more peaceful streets to the bustling city centre just across the water and kept a town house in what is now classy Alexandria Old Town. Most Americans are more familiar however, with his mansion at Mount Vernon, eight miles or so South. Though this residence attracts literally hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, the Alexandria area itself isn't on the general foreign (or domestic) visitor's route: it should be. In a land over-filled with fast food joints and outlet malls, the Old Town's traditional High Street is a refreshing change. So are the varied shops and the friendly attitude to strangers from local hotels, even the chain ones like the Holiday Inn Select we tried.

More to the point, this unprepossessing and comfortable place can combine its charms with a position that makes it a great base from which to explore Washington DC itself - though not by car. Aside from the 15 minute drive south to Mount Vernon, it's best to leave your vehicle in the Hotel garage. Like DC, Alexandria seems to supplant its income with parking tickets and inspectors are everywhere.

On a journey like this, it's easy to approach a trip to Washington DC as something you feel you ought to do rather than a pleasurable excursion. And sure enough, your first day there may well end up feeling like one of those school field trips as you tick off the White House and the various monuments and memorials from your must-see list. Get beyond that however and the appeal of the city can begin to quickly unfold, particularly if you've your own wheels with which to explore after dark when parking is plentiful and traffic light. If you can afford it, the best accommodation choice here is a good downtown chain hotel. We tried Hilton's Homewood Suites off Thomas Circle.

Make sure you visit the Georgetown district with its traditional High Street that's home to countless shops and designer stores. Then get yourself a booth at Clyde's restaurant on M Street, order steak and eggs and blueberry pie and sip your iced tea as you watch the world go by. Back in the centre of DC, things are a little more formal of course, with small restaurants like Signatures on Pennsylvania Avenue and thought-provoking museums like that on 14th Street commemorating the Holocaust. Surprisingly perhaps, Washington doesn't have much of a theatre district but what there is is well done. We tried the Shakespeare Theatre on 7th Street.

Time to move on once more, this time just 45 minutes to the East. "A museum without walls" is how the folks in Annapolis like to describe their city. Not that the capital of Maryland feels like a city. There are the usual industrial and chain food strips surrounding the place of course but once you get into the heart of the 'historic district', it's all very town-like and quaint. Down by the harbour, the wealthy jostle to show off their boats and the tourists (nearly all American) troop round the gift shops and rib shacks.

The US Naval Academy is here, imbuing the lace with an extra dose of history. Surprisingly, for a country currently obsessed with security and anti-terrorism measures, you can actually walk around much of the Academy after showing your ID to the uniformed guard at the gate. Under the huge church that serves the religious needs of all 16,000 students on the base lies a grand crypt housing a tomb that must be the most resplendent of any in America. In it are the remains, not of a President but of a once-forgotten navy hero, John-Paul Jones.

As everywhere, there's a wide choice of accommodation in Annapolis and, as everywhere, you'll do better by choosing somewhere further out of the centre of town where rooms are easy to come by and rates are more flexible. We tried the Country Inns and Suites, which offers pretty much what it says on the tin. In other words, a 'suite' you can stretch out in for, in our case, just $65 a night all-in.

If you want something a little plusher, the Loews Annapolis Hotel nearer the historic district is worth a try: if you can't afford their room rate, just visit their Corinthian restaurant for breakfast as we did. Down at the harbour front, you'll need to make sure that you eat crabs (smashing them with a provided mallet) fresh from the Chesapeake Bay at Buddys Crabs and Ribs and take in a light lunch and a long drink at Pussers Landing at the waterfront Marriot Hotel. Once you've eaten fit to burst, you'll need one of the Visitors Centre's walking tours to shake it all down. Or maybe a harbour cruise, assuming it's not too choppy.

"We don't live in America," US citizens like to tell you, "America lives in us." If that's true, then Americans must be extremely complex people. Take Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a couple of hours to the North, home to the Amish, a people who have chosen to ignore the march of time. For more than 200 years, they have dressed, lived and farmed the same way, ignoring every pressure to conform to modernity.

It's hard not to like the Amish. They're kindly, God-fearing Christian people who travel far and wide, often right across America, voluntarily helping out when disaster strikes. Their little black horse-drawn carriages are everywhere across Lancaster County and their pretty white farms speckle the landscape. Their slower approach to life somehow rubs off on you as you visit, particularly if, as we did, you take the trouble to get someone who knows them to drive round the country roads with you (easy enough to arrange from the local Mennonite Information Centre).

There's no point in staying in Lancaster itself: try for somewhere actually out in the farming country. We tried the Harvest Drive Family Inn, not especially plush but clean, cheap and friendly. There are all kinds of tourist-orientated 'glimpses' into Amish life dotted around the area but nothing beats a personalised guided tour in your own car. If, as we were, you're travelling with kids who don't grasp the whole 'back-to-basics' theme, then the nearby Dutch Wonderland childrens' amusement park will provide a welcome relief for them. Ironically, in what is supposedly a place of simplicity, there are also plenty of outlet malls. A steam railroad (the Strasburg Railroad) is in keeping with the whole historic theme: there's even a museum (The National Christmas Centre) devoted to the origins of a festival the Amish won't celebrate.

In contrast to old-style Pennsylvannia, the state capital Philadelphia is as modern a city as you could wish for - though it too has its share of history. This, after all, is supposedly 'America's birthplace', home to two of the country's most famous monuments to freedom. These include the Liberty Bell, ironically manufactured for the New World by her previous rulers, the imperialists from London. It sits next to Independence Hall, where a group of dissatisfied colonists adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776.

Of more importance to modenday Philadelphians is the performance of their beloved baseball team, the Phillies [info on 215.463.6000]. If you can't catch a game in Baltimore, then you should take the time to see one here. Indeed, if you're into sports, there's everything from lacrosse to women's soccer and of course, American football. Driving around Philadelphia is a nightmare, due largely to traffic lights that seem to stop you every 50 yards. Better to leave daytime city tours to tour buses like Trolley Works or, if there are kids in tow, ignore the city centre entirely and indulge them. There's a great zoo and a Sesame Street theme park to name but two options.

We could have carried on an hour North and done New York but time had defeated us. In a small time, just two weeks, we'd seen a big slice of America, travelling to six very different places, all of them less than a couple of hours apart. Our Lincoln LS was predictably perfect for the trip, as you would expect given its Jaguar development background. To be honest, we ended up rather preferring it to the Jag: surely UK Ford showrooms could sell this car given sharp pricing and some smart carpet tiles in the corner. But then, America doesn't have a great track record in selling premium luxury saloons here.

Much of this is down to ill-informed prejudice. The kind of prejudice that says the only places worth visiting in the States are Disneyworld, Hollywood and Las Vegas. You need to ignore it all and check out the truth for yourself. In the case of the US East Coast, you won't be disappointed.


Baltimore - - / Accommodation Suggestion - Days Inn Inner Harbour - [410.576.1000].

Alexandria - / Accommodation Suggestion - Holiday Inn Select [703.549.6080]

Washington - / Accommodation Suggestion - Homewood Suites by Hilton [202.265.8000].

Annapolis - / Accommodation Suggestion - Country Inns & Suites [ 410.571.6700]

Lancaster County - / Accommodation Suggestion - Harvest Drive Family Inn - [717.768.7186]

Philadelphia - / Accommodation Suggestion - Crown Plaza Hotel [215.561.7500]