You could look at Baltimore as an urban version of Keeping Up With The Jones's. Set in the shadow of Washington D.C., about 35 miles away and just down the I-95 corridor from Philadelphia, Baltimore is a city determined not to fall behind. Yet, while Philadelphia continues to struggle with a grand vision for its downtown and waterfront districts, and D.C. wars against the pathologies of modern urban life, Baltimore today actually glitters and gleams. Boosted in a big way by the development of its Inner Harbor -- a shimmering circumference of hotels, restaurants, attractions, and promenades that as late as the 1970s was a vacuous eyesore of dilapidated wharves and warehouses -- "Charm City" is now host to an estimated 13 million visitors per year.
Once the second largest city in the United States, Baltimore thrived commercially, the result of being the westernmost of Atlantic ports. Baltimore's vision has always possessed a western view: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which led western expansion into the nation's midsection, originated here. The B&O was also the nation's first public carrier railway. The city, in fact, boasts a number of "firsts," including the first to have a city street lit by gaslight (1817), the first dental college in the world (1839), the first umbrella factory (1828), and the first monument to Edgar Allen Poe (1875).
Draw a 45-minute driving radius around downtown Baltimore's Inner Harbor and you bring almost 30 golf courses into play, several of them modern, upscale, daily-fee facilities. Quite accessible via the I-695 Beltway that encircles the city, many of these venues are situated in the verdant, rolling countryside of Maryland's farm communities. Competition within an urban setting has kept fees on the moderate side (with one notable exception). A spirited 19th hole debate will accompany attempts to rank some of these tracks in relation to one another, and that's a good thing for golfers coming into the city looking for variety and value.
WHERE TO PLAY
Bulle Rock (410-939-8887). No area course has opened to more praise than this sumptuous Pete Dye masterpiece located where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Set on a lush horse farm, Bulle Rock, unveiled in 1998, rolls along amid 100 feet of elevation change. Greens are long and narrow. At $145 to walk or ride, it's the biggest ticket in town, but one of the few anywhere that are worth it.
Beechtree GC (877-233-2487). Tom Doak's tribute to minimalist design, Beechtree is little more than a driver, 5-iron from Bulle Rock. Don't let the simplicity fool you. The routing takes you on a links-like journey on the front, where wind and fescue can cause fits, while the back meanders among sturdy hardwoods. Greens are firm and fast.
Whiskey Creek (888-883-1174). One of three new tracks recently opened within a few miles of one another, Whiskey Creek has benefited from a fortuitous location featuring wonderful views of the ridges and hardwood stands that shape the panoramic views. The par-five 18th is a tumbling beauty, its fairway bisected by the ruins of an old stone farmhouse.
Mountain Branch (877-588-1492). The first design effort of self-proclaimed "Saloon-keep" Davis Sezna, Mountain Branch, opened last fall, has elicited a strong response for a layout that features 18 distinct challenges cut through woodlands and hills. A creek meanders throughout, finishing in serpentine fashion at the 18th.
South River (800-767-4837). Brian Ault managed to create playability for the average player with wetlands and hazards that penalize only mishits. Beyond that, the sheer physical beauty of the layout makes it difficult to pick a signature hole. Top fee of $75 makes it one of the area's best values.
THE SECOND TIER
River Downs (410-526-2000). Tight, shotmaker's design by Arthur Hills takes the long ball away from big hitters and evens the playing field for short knockers.
P.B. Dye GC (301-607-4653). A "Must Play" contender were it not for P.B.'s unnerving tendency to penalize good approach shots with greens that sometimes shed crisp irons into steep swales and drop-offs. A visually stunning layout.
Waverly Woods (410-313-9182). Another Arthur Hills effort that places a premium on accuracy over distance. A number of holes require restraint off the tee to avoid driving into cross hazards.
Worthington Manor (301-874-5400). A very playable Ault-Clark layout that features open, generous fairways, but plenty of challenge for long-ballers who try to hit tighter landing areas.
BEST OF THE REST
The Woodlands (410-887-1349). One of two top munis run by Baltimore County Revenue Authority, this Lindsay Ervin design hugs thick woods throughout. Greystone (410-887-1945). Premier muni started out as a private club before Baltimore County acquired property. Beautifully groomed. Greens are among area's best.
Timbers at Troy (410-313-4653). At $55 for its top rate, this muni with attitude features tight fairways that roll gently along thick woods and wetlands.
WHERE TO EAT
Being a major eastern seaboard city, Baltimore has the big names in steaks like Morton's and Ruth's Chris. But this is home to the Chesapeake Blue Crab, and your taste buds should first hanker for these delectable crustaceans, especially in season. Whether you're a picker, or prefer to have your crabmeat lumped in a cake or laid out in an Imperial, you won't have to search far to find it. Phillip's Harborplace is a local favorite, as is J. Paul's next door. Friendly Farms, a family-style restaurant near River Downs, serves terrific crab cakes. Check out Rudy's and Bateman's Sports Bar while in the Finksburg area. Seafood not your thing? Baltimore boasts its own Little Italy.
Besides Harborplace, which features the very first ESPN Zone, along with a Hard Rock CafE and Planet Hollywood, Baltimore also features the artsy/semi-bohemian Fells Point at the northeastern edge of Inner Harbor, a collection of quaint shops, galleries, pubs, and restaurants.
The Avenue at White Marsh, a Disney-like recreation of the old town square, is part of a mall development north of the city. Should your guilt take the form of a panic attack, Raimondi's Florist is on the Avenue, with Fino Jewelers nearby. Irish and Celtic Treasures features crystal, pewter, and pottery direct from the Emerald Isle. For those without guilt, Golf America features framed vintage photographs as well as a large collection of Tigermania.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the ballpark that started the nostalgia trend in America's pastime. If the O's are not in town, check out the Babe Ruth Museum. The B&O Railroad Museum is part of the oldest railroad station in the Western hemisphere. If your golf didn't provide enough pain and torture, spend an hour or so in the Natural Museum of Dentistry.
While it is neither New York nor D.C., Baltimore is nevertheless capable of some world-class rush hour traffic, so booking into one of the many chain hotels or motels located along the I-695 Beltway may help you get to those morning tee times on time. For budget lodging in the city, try Days Inn-Inner Harbor (410-576-1000) or Holiday Inn-Inner Harbor (800-465-4329). Contact the Baltimore Area Visitor Center (888-225-8466) or www.baltimore.org for more information and reservations.