Two minutes into my stay at the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore, I’m whispering a secret password to the bartender.
“Here’s your history,” he says, splashing a healthy dollop of whiskey into my glass of ginger-infused fruit juice.
Okay, okay, I admit the free cocktail is simply restitution for my room not being ready. But it does make a gal feel special.
And that password is apropos — Fells Point, hon, has history galore. The Sagamore, which opened this spring at Recreation Pier, was built in 1914 at the core of this boisterous waterfront district. In its early days, many immigrants to Baltimore disembarked through “Rec Pier,” which doubled as their dance hall and social center. In the 1990s, the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street used the pier’s headhouse as a police station; it fell vacant until 2014, when Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank purchased the complex with plans for a 128-room boutique hotel. He named it after the nearby Sagamore Farm, the source for his spring-fed Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey.
On a recent Saturday evening, I craned my neck in front of the Sagamore to take in all of its historic brick facade, complete with Doric columns. Hurrying under the entrance arch out of the August heat, I’m impressed by local touches, such as a wall writ large with the fourth — and often forgotten — verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key in this very harbour during the War of 1812. The long hallway to the lobby is sprinkled with symbols of Maryland — a thoroughbred, blue crab, baseball player, Edgar Allan Poe.
I stopped at the hotel’s already buzzing Rec Pier Chop House, an Italian restaurant with an expansive view of Thames Street. (Edward Fell, the British landowner who founded Fells Point in 1763, had a soft spot for the motherland.) Since I’d booked a 9:45 p.m. reservation online — the earliest available — I asked if they could squeeze me in before. Sure, the host assured me, come anytime. Sweet.
My room was so new that I had to touch everything: Cloudlike linen, leather settee with octopus accent pillows, dark-grained wood furniture, cool marble sink, streaked charcoal granite, shiny fixtures. The minibar tempted me with Heavy Seas and Flying Dog beers, Utz Old Bay potato chips and Kinderhook mixed nuts. (The prices, though, quieted my growling stomach.) A paper on my bed announced that the Sagamore is environmentally conscious; the bathroom was stocked with sleek, refillable bottles of MiN New York products and the espresso machine came with compostable cups.
Looking outside at the leafy courtyard, I decided on a workout before dinner. I was awed anew by the hotel’s top-of-the-line treadmills, weights, rower and other equipment still unsplattered with sweat. At the same time, I felt a little like a guinea pig in a glass cage. The 24-hour fitness center is on the way to the pool, so people are constantly streaming by. And the rows of bottled water, with no water fountain — or even recycling bin — in sight, were decidedly non-eco.
A quick shower and change and in no time I was swirling my Biscotti Old Fashioned — Sagamore Spirit, Faretti Biscotti Liqueur, and aromatic and chocolate bitters — at the high-ceilinged Rec Pier Chophouse. Continuing the Maryland theme, I chose the blue crab linguine. It was fantastic, and the seafood obviously was fresh. For a nightcap, I crossed the lobby to the hotel’s whiskey lounge, the Cannon Bar. Stepping over a velvet rope and pushing aside a curtain into a mood-lit, windowless room, it seemed as if I had entered the belly of a ship. Over a Last Word — gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino and lime — I asked the bartender about the black cannon illuminated in a glass case at the entrance. He told me that it’s very real, dating to the 1600s and one of three discovered under Rec Pier.
Such is a dichotomy of the Sagamore: The history is at once obvious and hidden. Without plaques or exhibits or literature, the onus is on you to learn what happened here. Which is why, back in my room, snacking on the turndown strawberry macarons, I booked an 11 a.m. walking tour of Fells Point.
On Sunday, rather than hurtling headlong into the day, I relaxed back into the fluffy bedding and ordered room service for the first time in my life. The coffee was quality, eggs perfectly cooked, grapefruit juice not too sweet, and I ate it all, as one does, draped in a terry cloth robe. At checkout, the staff assured me I could leave my bags at the front desk and go to the pool after the tour.
I met my guide, Bradley Alston, across the street at the Fells Point Visitor Center. As we maneuvered over the cobblestones, past cheekily named bars such as Ale Mary’s, Alston told us that Fells Point has been a drinking town since the days of 18th-century English sailors. But it’s much more than that. Singer Billie Holiday grew up in a rowhouse a few blocks down. A hired slave named Frederick Douglass caulked vessels in Fells Point shipyards and later escaped on a train. Several races and ethnicities — some of whom came through Rec Pier — put down roots in this diverse neighborhood. Alston took us to his “spiritual corner,” where African-American Methodists, Jews and Polish Catholics worshiped in humble meetinghouses a stone’s throw from one another.
Back at the Sagamore, I took a dip in the infinity pool at the very end of the pier, where it seems to empty right into the harbor. Orioles caps were out in force, the pool bar churning out drinks on this fine summer’s day. When 3 p.m. rolled around, I grudgingly gathered my things to catch my train back to Washington. I’d come to the Sagamore thinking that Fell’s Point was a rowdy collection of bars, and left with newfound respect for its history – no password required.