Thursday, June 28, 2012

Baltimore

Baltimore has a terrible reputation. Lonely Planet’s website - our default tourist information outlet - states “B’more, Bawlmer, and the less flattering ‘Body-more’ (if London had this town’s murder rate there’d be 3560 bodies floating in the Thames every year), Baltimore dares you to visit.”  Additionally, The Wire, a popular “cop show” (quotes are theirs) set in Baltimore, probably does not help with this perception.  Though I haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure my friends were warning me when I told them I was going to Baltimore and they responded, “have you seen The Wire?”.  Thus, having had limited experience beyond the above, we landed in White Marsh, MD - a suburb of Baltimore and where the Megabus from New York City deposits you - on a lovely June afternoon mentally prepared for a pretty rough stay.

The Tripadvisor Baltimore travel forum had instructed us to take the #35 local MTA bus into Baltimore, picking up near the White Marsh Park & Ride where the Megabus stops.  Our first observation upon unloading was that the Maryland Transit Administration doesn’t really want you to use their system.  The park & ride, which you think would have plenty of maps and signs to show you where the various buses pickup as well as their destinations, was absolutely devoid of any type of signage.  Not only are there no maps or signs but one must look very hard for the actual bus stops.  Additionally, there are no sidewalks in the area, which makes walking along the busy street rather dangerous.

Luckily, the travel forum had equipped us with pretty good directions and a foreknowledge of the lack of pedestrian protections, so we ventured away from the park & ride, across a busy street and through a business park, finally arriving at the Hampton Inn where the #35 stops.  Upon arriving, due to the aforementioned poor signage, we were confused about which direction of travel we needed.  Fortunately for us, there was one other person waiting at the stop and we asked her for help.

Our first interaction with a Baltimore local proved to be emblematic of our overall experience.  She was exceedingly helpful, very friendly, and even asked for our email address in order to make sure we got to where we needed to be (which she has since done, also asking about our experience).  We were gobsmacked by her level of assistance, interest in our plans, and attention.  We immediately began to adjust our preconceptions.

When we got on the bus - the correct one, thanks to our new friend - the bus driver was helpful and another passenger even struck up a conversation with us, asking if we’d just taken Megabus, which was apparently evident by our suitcases.  Of course, the ‘If you mess with an MTA employee, it won’t end well for you’ sign placed near the driver (accompanied by an image of a fist and handcuffs) was noticeable but many cities have similar warnings.  In actuality, this seemingly routine bus ride from White Marsh to Broadway & Madison would prove to be the extent of our experience of the rough side of Baltimore.

When we checked into our hotel in the Midtown area, near Mt Vernon, we were told of the free city bus which picked up right across the street and would take us into the Inner Harbor area within minutes.  A visit to the Tourist Information Center would enlighten us to the whole system of free buses called the Charm City Circulator and, although struggling slightly with timing issues, this proved to be an amazing service utilized by both tourists and locals alike.  If nothing else, the new, air conditioned buses were a welcome respite from the early June heat.

We spoke and otherwise interacted with many locals and rarely in a service capacity.  These were just people going about their day and after each exchange (seriously, EACH exchange) we were overwhelmed by the kindness and friendliness we received.  We had considered the possibility that we’ve just become accustomed to the inconsiderate nature of the Brits and that we were experiencing the equivalent of people simply saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘please’; normal and expected behaviour.  But, even our friend from Washington DC, who had come to visit us for a few hours, was equally charmed by the people and also commented on their amazing kindness.  Now we understand why Baltimore is nicknamed Charm City (we had previously assumed the nickname to be sarcastic).

We utilised the Charm City Circulator often during our stay, sometimes just for sightseeing (return trip to Fort McHenry) but usually for transportation (Penn Station, Federal Hill).  The view from Federal Hill was lovely and the Inner Harbor area was diverting.  We were also fortunate to be in Baltimore immediately preceding the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations; it was nice to see the decorations and preparations without having to deal with the crowds.

Baltimore is a lovely city and the people of Baltimore are definitely charming.  The Charm City Circulator makes getting around the city very easy and pleasant but, being a rather small city (comparable in size to, and reminiscent of, Seattle), walking is also a viable (and pleasant) option.  We enjoyed our time in Baltimore and felt relatively safe throughout.  Although the reality of Baltimore, as seen by The Wire and Lonely Planet, may be bleak and disturbing, we experienced nothing resembling those realities.  We definitely wouldn’t mind returning to the area and are looking forward to the possibility.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Journey: Edinburgh to Amsterdam to Brussels to New York City to Baltimore and Reverse

On a Saturday in early June, we experienced the best travel day ever.  We took the train from Dundee to Edinburgh and, to save money, we walked about a mile (with our bags) to the stop for the local bus to the airport (£1.40) rather than the Airport Express bus (£3.50), which picks up right outside Haymarket rail station.  We've done this once before and it was pretty straightforward but this time, due to construction for Edinburgh's tram, it wasn't as clear cut and we wound up getting lost.  We arrived at the airport less than 30 minutes before boarding.  Luckily, we were flying KLM (instead of one of the discount airlines) and we got the VIP treatment (escorted to the front of the line to check our bags) upon arrival.  We cruised through security and made it to our gate with time to spare.

Schiphol Train Station
The flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam took us only about an hour.  We waited longer at the airport, for our bags and the train to Brussels, than it took to get there.  We grabbed the train (€25, first class) from Schiphol to Brussels Central (an excruciating 2.5 hours) and arrived at our flat in Brussels about 30 minutes earlier than expected, around 11PM.

The trip from Brussels to New York City wasn't as pleasant as our first leg because a) the Brussels airport is shit and 2) our flight was connecting rather than direct, but the flights themselves were fine.

Comte de Flandres metro station
Getting to the Brussels airport is pretty easy (subway and bus, €3.50) and Air Canada was a nice enough airline.  We could've done without the 1.5 hours in Montreal but the flights only cost £230 so if the connection made the trip £500 cheaper then it was well worth it. We arrived into LaGuardia and took the bus to the subway to our hostel in the Bowery ($2.50).

For our trip to Reisterstown, MD we had to get creative.  We took the Megabus from New York to White Marsh, MD ($9.00), a suburb northeast of Baltimore.  From there we took a local MTA bus ($1.60) into Baltimore where we then grabbed the subway to Owings Mills ($1.60).  Our only option at this point was a cab and, luckily, there's a taxi rank right outside the Owings Mills station.  The taxi from the station to our resort cost $30.00.

Happily, we made a friend over our weekend at the resort willing to drive us into Baltimore.  We forced $20 on her for the inconvenience though, since she would've been travelling in the completely opposite direction otherwise.

Megabus, Baltimore to New York City
To get back up to New York we just reversed the above; local bus to White Marsh and Megabus into New York City.  Once we got to New York we had to make our way to JFK which required the subway ($2.50) and the AirTrain ($5.00).

Our flight back to Brussels was uneventful.  This leg was on Brussels Airlines and, besides the flight staff seeming rather surprised to be there, the flight seemed short and the seats were the most comfortable we've experienced in quite some time.  We arrived in Brussels an hour later than expected, around 7AM.

This next portion was one of our worst travel experiences ever.  We had hoped to simply reverse the above but the bus ticket (€3.50) is only good for a free transfer to the subway within an hour from purchase and we were stuck in a Brussels traffic jam for just over an hour, missing our free ride to Gare du Nord.  Not wanting to pay again we decided to walk, venturing forth with a compass, no map, and luggage.  We eventually got to Gare du Nord around 10AM and checked in for our 12PM Eurolines bus to Amsterdam (€9.00) only to be told that it was going to be late and not to expect it before 1PM.  It eventually showed up at 1:45PM.

We arrived at Amstel station in Amsterdam almost two hours later than expected.  Furthermore, for some reason our Google map had placed the distance from Amstel station and our flat at a mere 1.4km.  The reality was that Amstel station is 5km away from our flat, which makes a huge difference.  Had we known the actual distance we would've sprung for public transportation.  As it was, we just walked.

The train from Amsterdam's Centraal station to Schiphol airport was €4.05 (including €0.50 credit card fee because only Dutch bank cards are accepted for no-fee processing).  Schiphol is a wonderful airport but we didn't have much time to explore before boarding.  Our KLM flight back to Edinburgh was uneventful and we were home shortly thereafter, 17 days after beginning this journey.

This trip had many legs and, though the return trip from Amsterdam to Brussels and the bus ride from Baltimore to New York City were very long, it didn't feel as though we spent a huge chunk of time travelling.  Even at the end of the trip, the two solid days of travel (from Baltimore to Amsterdam) had almost been completely forgotten, though I fear the horrible Eurolines experience will stay with us for quite some time.

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