Article excerpt

WITH the dollar hovering just below two to every pound - the best exchange rate for a quarter of a century - now's the time to explore fresh new parts of the United States says LINDSAY SUTTON...

"ARE you the driver of this vehicle?" I asked the old guy standing by the side of the World War Two amphibious "duck" parked by a slipway on Baltimore's impressive harbour-front.

"What's left of him," drawled Captain Joe.

"Any places left for the next trip?"

"No, but for you I'll make an exception," he replied.

Captain Joe's quirky humour and the Duck's joyously crazy tour round the city streets and then into the harbour itself set the tone for our visit to funky Baltimore at the head of a deep inlet off Chesapeake Bay, just an hour north of Washington D.C.

The two cities may share an airport, but they're chalk and cheese in terms of atmosphere. One's known all over the world, the other's said to be America's best-kept secret. One lets you have Presidential pretensions in front of the White House. The other shows you the heritage of the early pioneers who shaped a colony, a country and a continent.

Baltimore, in the heart of Maryland, has a great past, and, it seems, a great future. In fact the only thing it doesn't have are the famous cookies that bear the state's name - they seem to be a British invention from the 1950s!

Much has changed in the Land of Mary since the first British settlers stepped ashore from their ships, the Ark and the Dove, 300 years ago. But even though this city of half a million has hung on to that pioneer spirit, it has a quirkiness all of its own.

Unlike Washington, it doesn't take itself too seriously.

In fact it pokes fun at the capital by reminding them that Baltimore put up a memorial to George Washington long beforeWashington did. Baltimore even has his false teeth - an ill-fitting set that caused the first US President endless aggravation.

The horror writer Edgar Allen Poe lived and died here and on every anniversary of his death a bunch of red roses and a bottle of cognac are left on his grave by a mystery donor. The city was also home to tragic singer Billie Holiday, infamous divorcee Wallis Simpson, and it's the place where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star- Spangled Banner to celebrate an American victory over the British in 1814. As Captain Joe says: "It's a big deal for us, you know - beating you lot and running our own show."

Then there was one Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who made sail cloth for Baltimore's fleet before moving west to San Francisco, and branching out into tought cotton trousers from the same "Serge de Nimes" material, thereby inventing denim jeans.

Journalist H. L. Mencken, who coined the phrase "there's no such thing as a free lunch," was from Baltimore too. And since the city is renowned for its nightlife and partying, it's no surprise that Alka Seltzer was invented here.

It was the first time I'd ever seen a cop smoking a big fat cigar in public too' nobody batted an eyelid.

Spend some time if you can in Geppi's Popular Enter tainment Museum, devoted to comic book heroes from Dick Tracey and Tailspin Tommy to Spider Man to Wonder Woman. My favourite item on display was the Mutt 'n' Jeff Drum Kit, a souvenir from the long-running strip cartoon. But in the humour stakes, an early morning jogger on the harbour front took some beating.

A dead-ringer for John Cleese, his stretching action was straight out of The Ministry of Funny Walks. Across the harbour, Baltimore's National Aquarium has immense glasssided tanks full of sharks, rays, giant turtles, and rare seabirds, as well as incredible varieties of fish. We now know our tessellated darter from our mottled sculpin!

Then it's bye-bye Baltimore and back in time to nearby Annapolis, the spectacularly well-preserved old colonial state capital. With its brick-paved streets, Georgian architecture, and US Naval Academy it's described as a museum without walls and when you are taken on a walking tour by a flirty lady in full period costume, and with a fruity turn of phrase, you're transported back in time to the days when the early British settlers set up camp here. …