For some people, like my wife, a hotel room is itself a destination. They notice the exotic hand soaps, the spacious shower and imagine a life, if only for a night or two, of crisp bedsheets and endless fresh towels.
Me? A hotel room is a means to an end. When traveling, you can’t bring your house along. So with a shrug I accept our assignment to stay aboard an experimental, floating hotel room in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
OK, I’m not the target audience for a hotel room sold as a lifestyle brand: “Flohom isn’t just a place to stay,” the website rhapsodizes (it goes on and on). Judging from the guestbook entries though, the 10 or so couples before us checked out as converts.
The houseboat caused a stir in Annapolis last month when boaters complained it was too big for its slip. The harbormaster ordered it out. Then the 53-footer docked in Baltimore and opened for minimum-two-night bookings.
There are simpler, cheaper ways to put up for a night near the harbor. But where else can you sleep beside a $370,000 pleasure yacht? After all, that’s the sales pitch of Flohom: taste life in a different tax bracket.
Would I find myself attempting downward facing dog on the deck at sunrise? (Yoga mats included.) Would I be reborn, like the website says, by the restorative power of life on the water? (Ahem, the Inner Harbor?)
Maybe a houseboat with 14 windows would feel like a fishbowl? Or maybe like the future of the hospitality industry around the Chesapeake Bay?
After work, on Monday, I swipe the keycard and the big iron gate swings open to the docks. My wife and I step into the exclusive world of yacht life.
Flohom 1 is the first in a planned network of rental houseboats at marinas along the East Coast. Our Inner Harbor home rented for two nights at $966. My receipt showed $700 for the nights, $200 for cleaning and $66 for city taxes. When we arrive, the upper deck carries a black Flohom flag, as if to signal the company’s planned conquest.
First impressions: white shiplap, gray wood floors, subway tiles. You’ve seen it on HGTV. There’s Wi-Fi and Netflix, and a bottle of white wine and fancy popcorn to welcome us. For the price of nearly a grand, let’s hope so.
Indeed, our Flohom has it all within 848 square feet. In the kitchen, there’s a gas range, refrigerator and a dishwasher, and the cabinets hold stainless steel pots and pans. We find no mismatched, beach house coffee mugs here, but a burr grinder, gooseneck kettle and, so I’m told, the famous Williams Sonoma garlic press.
“A wine cooler? Hello, ‘MTV Cribs,’” says my wife, who notices the hand soap.
She’s in the bathroom next, noticing his-and-her robes and, yes, a shower the size of an airplane hangar.
I pause, but I can’t feel the water. The Flohom’s as motionless as it is silent, like a hotel suite. The only clue is the marine toilets with two buttons: one adds water, one flushes. Really, though, the details are incidental to the upper deck.
The deck covers the houseboat from end to end in case you want to land your helicopter. There’s a space for eating, with a dining table and chairs, and another for lounging, with a couch and candles. One is tempted to sleep among the plush outdoor cushions. Even the skeptic can imagine wearing white linens — “Welcome aboard, old sport!” — for a yacht party beneath twinkling city lights. (The rental agreement prohibits parties, sorry.)
We sink into the deck cushions and munch popcorn. The wine bottle opens. Cellphones are forgotten. Maybe there’s something to this yacht life?
Dinner is a 20-minute walk to Federal Hill. Back aboard the Flohom, at night, we look out: ahead of us, the National Aquarium; to our left — “port,” us yachtsmen say — stands the Maryland Science Center; behind us, Federal Hill. We are about to sleep surrounded by Baltimore’s biggest tourist attractions.
The blackout shades pull from ceiling to floor and shut it all out. We have slogged through a hot summer in our old Baltimore rowhouse. Now, the thermostat’s in the mid-60s. The air conditioning is, well, delicious.
At sunrise, the harbor water moves briskly. It’s breezy, cool and dark. We sip black coffee on the deck and watch the city wake up. My wife works from the deck all day. It’s Tuesday, and the marina is quiet. The yachts seem empty. I walk around the docks and meet one neighbor: a night heron, still as a statue. We regard each other, two captains.
Later in the hot sun, the harbor is stagnant and, let’s be generous here, pungent.
For our last night, a few Banner editors and reporters plan to visit. Just then, the Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction of an 1800s clipper ship, docks in front of us. The crew is hosting a catered reception for city officials and developers — just outside the glass doors of our living room. It’s awkward, like someone’s standing on your porch and looking in.
We all climb to the deck. Up there, we drink and eat. One has to actually look down on the bigwigs. We gaze out and the wooden masts of the pirate ship frame our view.
A cool breeze stirs. The sun dips below the lip of the harbor. We could be anywhere in the world. The Hamptons, Bahamas, Florida Keys. Yacht life, indeed.
I’m still not sure about being transformed by the water and all that jazz, but there were sublime moments followed by doses of reality.
Just then, an editor shouts from the railing. We all look down to see floating in the murky waters of the Inner Harbor a fat, dead eel.