We have come to just expect it, ego-driven developers and architects building monuments to profligacy, with gold-plated restaurants and $18,000-a-night suites in Las Vegas, Dubai, Shanghai and the like. But how is it possible that humble Baltimore is now home to what we, in our reasonably learned opinion, believe to be one of the most perfectly realized luxury hotel projects of this still young century?
Indeed, the Sagamore Pendry, perched dramatically along the waterfront at Fells Point, is the true labor of love – and personal vision – of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, whose headquarters just happens to sit directly across the harbor. It opened in 2017, and has already practically reached iconic status, securing the #1 spot in the Conde Nast Traveler Best Hotels list for 2018.
We recently, purposefully made the trip to Baltimore to reconnect with the city, in the wake of the big media firestorm – which hardly needs recounting. Just as eager to explore the hotel itself, no sooner were we traversing the alluring, moodily lit entrance hall of the Pendry, than we were overcome with that rare but familiar feeling that we might never be convinced to leave the premises.
Here’s what we loved.
We’ve never been fans of the “hidden away in a quiet location” urban hotel; rather, we prefer to spill out the front door right into the hurly-burly of any given city. And the Pendry is not only perfectly positioned to act as a genuine social nexus for its historic Fells Point neighborhood, it also seems to be lording over everything around it – like the Blue Mosque over Istanbul. Busy Thames Street lays before it, the majestic Inner Harbor is just behind. And the happening Mount Vernon neighborhood, where we’ve also been known to spend time flitting about, is just a ten minute taxi ride away.
Completed in 1914 as the Recreation Pier, the building that now houses the hotel once nobly served to process thousands of immigrants from the Locust Point immigration center. After first closing in 1937, it proceeded to serve unceremonious time as everything from a maritime radio station headquarters to a parking garage to – not kidding – a filming location for Homicide: Life on the Street, before falling vacant again for a decade and a half previous to its new life.
Plank had stared across at the empty building for years, eventually re-envisioning it as a hotel – and it was at last reborn in 2017 as the Sagamore Pendry. The now protected Beaux-Arts style stunner is restored to its original glory, thanks in large part to the reverential efforts of local firm BHC Architects.
From the moment of check-in, we were vividly reminded that this is a harbor hotel – indeed, just behind the front desk is the first watery vista. Upstairs, we immediately noted the most awesome feature of our room: the view took in the “pirate ships” that rolled in an out of the inlet, courtesy of a company called Urban Pirate. Alas, we came to realize that on board were merely scallywags of the seemingly harmless variety.
And luckily, no maritime kitsch was employed in the rooms to overemphasize a theme. Rather, clubby Chesterfield style sofas, custom-patterned area rugs, elegant dark wood headboards and floor-to-ceiling factory windows ally to imbue each chamber with a singular aesthetic that’s somewhere between Mayfair and Hamburg, if you can imagine – a perfect marriage of the luxurious and the historical.
There’s also not a bad view amongst them, as those that do not face the harbor look out over the verdant, industrial-modern courtyard. There, a vastness of flora surrounds a prodigious Botero horse sculpture, which seems to act as the hotel’s…guardian angel. Fittingly, marriage proposals occur regularly in its shadow.
The Cannon Room
Yes, it is a bar that has a real cannon. As we were told, a trio of the Revolutionary War weapons were found during the dig, left intact since the 18th Century (they just don’t make ordnance like they used to). Two were positioned out back, facing the harbor – perhaps in case Fells Point is ever nautically invaded by Richmond or Philadelphia – but one is preserved in an acrylic “coffin” under the floor of this sophisticated drinkery…which is otherwise designed, and quite handsomely at that, like the inside of a distilling barrel.
The considerable selection of whiskeys at The Cannon Room includes bottles from Scotland to France, India to Japan, Tennessee to Taiwan. But we undertook a tasting of the good stuff from the local Sagamore Distillery.
Also founded by Kevin Plank, Sagamore Spirit opened a new distillery in the city center in 2017 – but we met up at The Cannon Room for full effect. Their Signature Rye Whiskey was actually awarded 95 points by The Tasting Panel, and as we found, it is a singularly autumnal spirit, with prominent notes of nutmeg and orange. And though it is certainly a very smooth sipping whiskey, it has a flavor that veritably reinvents a classic Manhattan cocktail.
But it is the Port Finish rye that had us searching for the proper words. Enigmatic, almost haunting notes of dark fruit underlie an elegantly dry whiskey, which we reckoned to be the equivalent of drinking velvet. An evening sat in a dark corner of The Cannon Room sipping this masterpiece would be difficult to best.
Rec Pier Chop House
These days, we seem to find ourselves much more impressed with the spectacle of the setting than we are with yet another chef’s ability to “innovate” a plate of short-rib risotto. And the hotel’s Rec Pier Chop House is pure theater, making histrionic use of a mammoth, genuinely jaw-dropping brick-walled space. Still and all it is an Andrew Carmellini restaurant; so the refined modern Italian menu includes octopus alla brace, olive oil poached halibut, trofie alla Genovese, and dry-aged steaks from James River, VA and Donnely Ranch, NE. It’s definitely also about the food here.
But we enjoyed nothing so much as lingering over a plate of affetati misti (chef’s selection of cheeses and salumi) and a Rec Pier Espresso Martini – made with Nardini grappa – amidst the almost Old Europe grandiosity of the restaurant’s elegantly styled lounge area, with its plush armchairs and neo-gothic chandeliers. Taking our drinks out into the courtyard, we also discovered a vending machine stocked extravagantly with bottles of Veuve Clicqout champagne – which, as amenities go, we decided is far more fab than bath butlers and in-room cocktail making kits.
Installing an infinity pool in a Baltimore luxury hotel is not likely an idea that has crossed all too many of even the greatest minds. Yet there it was, guarded by those aforementioned canons, looking across the harbor to the Under Armour tower – possibly the only pool whose distinguishing feature is the possibility of watching ships come and go as one takes a dip. Naturally, it had to have a bar; but certain historical protections meant that it could not be a permanent fixture. And so drinks, very appropriately, are served from a shipping container dropped onto the site.