Day 30 – Washington DC

We woke up to a cold and slightly damp Washington.

After unsuccessfully trying to find a laundromat and grabbing a quick breakfast, we went to the highly rated (but previously unfamiliar to us) museum of the history of news and media, called the “Newseum”.

Spread over 6 floors, the museum chronicles the history of print, radio and TV news, providing a number of interactive and specialist exhibits.  Among the generalist exhibitions of the major news events of the last couple of centuries, the museum includes specialist exhibits on the FBI, the Berlin Wall, sports photography and studios currently used in providing political broadcasts from Washington.

One of the interactive exhibits gave visitors the opportunity to role play being a reporter in front of a Washington landmark.  I chose to present the breaking news from in front of the Capitol building.  Although they provided a script on the teleprompter, ad-libbing is definitely encouraged.

I didn’t quite get my timing right, and the cheesy pointing at the screen at the end was intentionally tongue-in-cheek.  I’m sure the person in charge of multi-media on this blog (ie Jane) will post my novice attempt at reporting somewhere on this site (wearing my sunglasses was also intentionally tongue-in-cheek … )

Having intended to spend a couple of hours in the Newseum before choosing the next museum to visit, we managed to consume most of the afternoon at what turned out to be a fascinating and well put together museum.

By the time we left, it was a bitterly cold late afternoon, with howling winds that ripped through your soul.  Out of obligation more than desire, we trudged down Pennsylvania Ave to get a photo in front of the White House from the Oval Office side of the building.

We felt a bit soft when a group of girls skipped past us, dressed in jeans and t-shirts and seemingly on a hens party, particularly as we looked like we were ready for an Artic Expedition, but consoled ourselves that everyone else on the street were similarly rugged up.

Having secured the obligatory photo, we went for a drink in the “Round Robin Bar” of the historic Willard Hotel.  We perched ourselves at the small round bar to thaw out with a couple of sundowners.

Before long, we were chatting to an older couple from Arkansas, Bud and Tammie.  They were in town for a Conservative Republican conference, with an attendance of a mere 13,000 delegates.  Without saying so, it sounded like the conference had links to the Tea Party faction, so it was interesting to hear their views on the current Republican Primary process.

In addition to their insights on the American political process, Bud was a former pilot in the US Naval, then subsequently American Airlines, and had traveled the globe, including visits to Australia and coincidentally Fraser Island.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of a whole range of topics and a virtual photographic recall of the many places he had been, so we ended up spending a couple of hours sharing tales.

In addition to their visit for the conference, they were in semi-retirement trying to act as distributors for bottled Alaskan water, which they are attempting to market directly to hotels and restaurants.  With one of the bottles on hand, our conversation was interspersed with sales pitch’s to the bar man and the beverage manager of the Willard hotel, as Bud waxed lyrical about the quality of Alaskan water, and its specialised bottles, complete with blue LED lighting.

Declining their offer to spend the next day visiting a naval base with them, we bid our new friends good night and went in search of a good steak, which we found in the restaurant next door to the Willard.

During dinner, the ubiquitous TV mounted in the corner of the restaurant announced the death of Whitney Houston.  Quite surreal to hear news like that in the middle of a good bottle of red and a good meal.

These headlines were to flood the news wires for the next few days, but for tonight, we braved the horizontal gale force winds and snow flurries to grab a cab and head back to the hotel.

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Day 29 – Williamsburg VA to Washington DC

After breakfast in a great cafe, filled with students working away on laptops with enormous cups of coffee, we briefly explored Williamsburg.

Apart from Colonial Williamsburg, one of the city’s other claims to fame is being home to the second oldest university in the US, the William & Mary University, dating back to 1693 and named after Britain’s King William III and his wife, Queen Mary II.

Braving the cold, we walked through the university grounds and then briefly back through Colonial Williamsburg.  Given the time of year, only portions of the historic area were open, but we were able to get some quick history lessons from a couple of the traditionally costumed staff.

One thing that has continually impressed me throughout this trip, with only one or two exceptions, has been the knowledge level of tour guides and staff at tourist attractions.  Stopping to ask one lady a quick question, she was able to provide a thorough, and at the same time condensed, history of Williamsburg and its place in the history of Virginia.

We left Williamsburg around lunch and arrived in a very cold Washington mid-afternoon.  Whilst Jane opted for a quick nap, I was keen to stretch my legs after being in the car for the last few days.

Despite best intentions, the cold quickly drove me back indoors and I found refuge in the National Portrait Gallery.  I only expected to have a quick look around the gallery then return to the hotel, but with 3 floors of exhibits, before I knew it over an hour had passed and I had only still scratched the surface.

Based on several recommendations, we joined an evening “monument tour” of Washington.  A minibus with tour guide aboard took us around many of the star attractions of Washington, which looks great at night.

In addition to the expected stops at Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial (which is HUGE), we also stopped at the three monuments to each of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The Korean monument consists of a couple of dozen, larger than life size statues of soldiers in the clothes and formation they would have worn on a night time patrol.  The statues are set amongst dense undergrowth, in an attempt to replicate what conditions might have been like in Korea, and are dimly lit in what provides an eerie light.   Seeing the monument at night was particularly atmospheric.

The Vietnam monument is, by contrast, somewhat understated in its simplicity.  A marble wall listing all the casualties of the war, set in a recess carved into the ground.  Apparently it was designed by a young university student as part of a project set as part of her course.  Undeterred by the “B” she was awarded by her professor, she submitted her design to the national competition.  The selection of her design must have been immensely satisfying, especially as one of the competing designs had been submitted by her professor.

The last monument on the tour was the recently unveiled statue of Dr Martin Luther King.  Carved out of an enormous sandstone rock by a Chinese artist, it is another great addition to the monuments of Washington.  As we visited the monument, a group of very loud and sassy African American women were posing in front of the statue for their friends to take photos.  Lots of loud “Uh huh” and “yeah baby” comments from the girls drowning out the rest of the crowd.  The one that amused us most was one girl declaring “let me get to the back of dis photo so you can’t see ma’ big butt … ”  Dr King would have been so proud.

Snow started falling as the tour finished, so we were more than happy to get back to our warm hotel room.

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Day 28 – Wilmington NC to Williamsburg VA

Today was to be a day of chalking up some miles.

We joined the interstate just north of Wilmington and headed north.  By early afternoon, we had almost crossed the whole of North Carolina without stopping to see anything.  Feeling a bit bored by churning through miles on a freeway, we scoured the map for something to stop and see.

We randomly chose a lake on the map about 10 miles from the Virginian border and took a detour to Roanoke Rapids Lake.  One of the great things about a road trip and the flexibility of having a car is discovering out of the way delights that don’t feature in the tour guides.

The lake was stunningly picturesque and a short walk down to the lake shore provided a great tonic to what could have otherwise been quite a monotonous drive.

Rather than immediately rejoin the Interstate, we kept on the back roads for about 20 miles, heading to the town of Emporia, VA.

As has become the norm on our drive, we stopped a number of times on this short drive for Jane to capture some Kodak moments.  At one point, we pulled up near someone’s driveway so she could photograph a row of trailer trash homes beside a small cotton field.

I’ll admit to becoming slightly nervous when a 20 year old pimped Cadillac, driven by a very large African American with sideways baseball cap, pulled into the driveway where I was waiting for an oblivious Jane.   I was preparing myself how to respond when he asked “What the f@#* is your Ho takin’ pictures of, Mo Fo ?”, when thankfully Jane finished capturing the images and returned to the car.  I didn’t explain why I was a little rapid in my departure.

Safely making it to Emporia, we found the type of Diner that I had hoped we would find in small town America.  Sitting up at the counter, we had a huge meal of burgers (Jane) and BBQ (me) in a Diner where time could have been standing still for the last 30 years.

We chatted to a couple of the down home boys in one of the booths, who increduously asked “how the hell did you end up in Emporia ?!?!?”

He also explained that “he spoke slow ‘coz he listened slow”, and “them fellas from the cities that tries to talk fast is just trying to make sure you don’t understands what they is saying …”

From Emporia, we headed east to the port towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth, along the Southampton freeway.  Interestingly for me, as Winchester, where I spent 4 years in the UK, is between the UK port towns of Southampton and Portsmouth.

We got our first real sight of the the Atlantic ocean from the east coast of America, which sort of meant we had completed our mission to drive across America.  I had always envisaged New York as the end of our trans-American drive, so I subconsciously avoided taking too much in of the coastline.

We quickly left the coast to head north to Williamsburg, the original capital of Virginia, where we arrived in the late afternoon.  A section of the town, a few blocks wide and a mile long, has been restored as “Colonial Williamsburg”, originally under the patronage of John D Rockefeller.  All of the buildings in this area have been restored as best as possible to their original condition, and now serve as a tourist attraction, complete with guides and staff in traditional costumes.

Whilst it definitely runs the risk of being another cheesy tourist attraction, it has actually been done really well and gives a glimpse of what life may have been like.  I’m pleased to say it is much better than it sounds.

We dined in a restored tavern, dimly lit with candles.  Background music was provided in turns by a harpist and guitarist, playing (and explaining) a series of traditional folk tunes.  Perhaps best of all, for one of the first times on tour, our meals came with an abundance of fresh vegetables that weren’t lathered in sauce.  Although we have enjoyed some wonderful meals, it was a welcome break to eat what could have been a well cooked home meal.

After dinner, we returned to the 21st century and our cozy hotel room, a warming respite from the sub-zero temperatures on the walk home, as, in keeping with the colonial theme, there were no taxis to bring us back to the hotel.

Happy to get a taste of the 17th and 18th century.  Pleased to live in the 21st century.

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Day 27 – Charleston, SC to Wilmington, NC

Before we left Charleston, we had one last tourist thing to do.  At the insistence of Mrs Spell from the Two Meeting Street Inn, a tour of the City Hall is not to be missed, although as she warned us, “the poor girl who gives the tour is entirely without a personality …”

Intrigued, we arrived at the City Hall to be greeted by the slightly frumpy, mid-20s Maria, who was suffering from a terrible cold.  Throughout the “tour”, she regularly reminded us of this and the resultant symptoms, often stopping mid-sentence and holding a wall to get through the calamity of her terrible affliction.  As for her personality, Mrs Spell was right on the money.

The tour was of the single room chambers where council sat, but focused on the portraits adorning all four walls.  Pride of place was a portrait of George Washington, which was the primary artwork Mrs Spell, with a twinkle in her eye, described as something not to be missed.

The portrait was commissioned to commemorate Washington’s visit to Charleston, however in the first version, the artist John Trumbull included a battle that occurred in a Northern State as the background.  Incensed by the inclusion of a moment in a Union state’s history, Charleston insisted the portrait be re-done.

When the representative from Charleston went to pay for and collect the second version, the background appropriately depicted Charleston.  Although he accepted full payment, the artist insisted that the portrait required “a few finishing touches” and that he would deliver it shortly.

You can imagine the good folk of Charleston’s surprise when they finally received the portrait and discovered that the “finishing touch” was the inclusion of a horse, with its rear end facing the viewer, and placed strategically between the horse’s legs lay on the horizon the city of Charleston.

Mrs Spell thought this mischievous trick was uproariously hilarious, and it seemed our deadpan guide found it slightly amusing as well, although we couldn’t be sure.

The other portrait of note was of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President, who’s portrait features his head, apparently somewhat flatteringly depicted, atop another man’s body, because at the time Jackson declared he didn’t have time to sit for the whole portrait to be completed.

Despite having seen the portraits we had come to see, our tour guide insisted on walking us through each of the large number of portraits in the room, all the while reminding us that she was at death’s door.  Having hoped for a quick visit, our departure from Charleston was, as a result, somewhat delayed.

From Charleston we headed northeast along the South Carolina coastline, stopping mid-afternoon at the Brookgreen Gardens.  Previously a plantation, the gardens were acquired in the 1930s by Archer Hunttington, the son of a wealthy industrialist, and his wife Anne, a sculptor of some reknown.

Out of a total plantation 9,oo0 acres, they established a 300 section of the gardens as a outdoor gallery for sculpture.  We joined an hour long tour with one of the volunteer guides, who was only able to show us the tip of the iceberg of the sculptures on display.

We knew she was a volunteer, as she repeatedly told us so.  She also pointed out, with somewhat of a sneer, that there are over 400 volunteers, but “a lot of them just like having their name on the list of volunteers but don’t actually do much, unlike some of us who volunteer for hundreds of hours a year …”  It was difficult for her to conduct the tour with the enormous chip she had on her shoulder, but she somehow managed …

Like many places we have visited, you could have stayed at the gardens for a lot longer, but with the afternoon getting away, we continued northeast just across the border into North Carolina and the small town of Wilmington.

We arrived on sunset and found a small restaurant on the banks of the Cape Fear River (thankfully no sign of Robert de Niro) for an early dinner of Carolina seafood – chowder for Jane and stuffed shrimp for me (stuffed with crabmeat).  Feeling the pinch of a long day of travel, we found a Best Western and fell into bed for an early evening.

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Day 26 – Charleston SC

Although we’d enjoyed a good meal the previous evening, we woke up feeling there was a lot more to Charleston than we had seen, and that we should join a tour of the city.  We packed up our gear and checked out, and joined one of the many mini-bus tours that take you around the city.

At the recommendation of our hotel, we scored a great tour guide with a fantastic knowledge of the city.  The tour took us right through the city and past its wonderful mansion houses, as well as the Citadel, a military college on the edge of the city.  One part of the tour was past the now disused jail, where she described the public executions by hanging, quaintly called the “dangle and strangle”.

One of her stories surrounded the execution of a husband and wife team, who were found guilty of serially killing a number of the guests at the inn they ran.  The wife, a lady called Lavinia Fisher, had three requests of the judge as he handed down their death sentence, that they hang her husband first, that she be allowed to wear her wedding dress, and that she be allowed to address the crowd.

The judge agreed and they duly hung her husband first.  Legend has it that Lavinia then addressed the crowd and suggested that she would be willing to marry any man present, right there and then.  The method to her madness was that under the existing law, should any man marry the widowed woman, her death sentence would be lifted and her life would be saved.

Lavinia obviously overestimated the attractiveness of marrying a mass murderer, because surprisingly no man came forward.  Perhaps she was just not particularly attractive.  Her last words were reportedly “If any of you have a message for the Devil, let me know, because I’ll be seeing him soon”.  Good to hear she kept her sense of humour to the end.

At the end of the bus tour, we were dropped at the Joseph Manigault House, one of a half dozen of the mansion houses that are open to the public for tours.  The mansion houses were typically the city house of the plantation owners, and this one is attached to Charleston Museum..

The tours are conducted by volunteers, who seemed to be a couple of “South Carolina ladies”.  Our guide was about five foot nothing tall, and whilst obviously of good breeding, had the most delightfully broad South Carolina accent.  It is difficult to put on paper how she spoke, but phonetically, she said “South Carolina” something like “Sarf Cara-lie-na”, with extended emphasis on the “lie” syllable.

It took a while to tune into what she was saying, and for a while I thought she might have had a speech impediment, but once I got the hang of her inflections, the way she spoke was quite melodic.

It is easy to become enchanted by Charleston.  Throughout the tour, I could tell Jane would dearly like to spend more time in the city.  As we finished the tour, I suggested we stay another night.  I didn’t have to ask twice.

During the tour, we were taken through the Battery Park area of town, home to the biggest and grandest mansion houses.  One, that was originally built with the funds provided to a daughter by her father as a wedding gift, is now a hotel called the Two Meeting Street Inn.  Sensing that it would provide a unique experience, we went back and were able to secure a room for the night.

The hotel was something out of another era, renovated to its former glory and full of antiques.  Turning on the southern hospitality, our check in took about half an hour, complete with being served iced tea and coffee in the parlour.

We managed to drag ourselves aware from the hotel to walk around the streets of Charleston for a few hours, but made it back in time to join the owner of the Inn, a sixty-something Mrs Spell, for afternoon tea.  Another southern lady, Mrs Spell kept us entertained with stories of the history of the Inn and of Charleston.

With a twinkle in her eye, she referred to the “War of Northern Aggression” (otherwise known as the Civil War) and regaled us with some of the folklore surrounding the events of that era.  A delightful afternoon and one that you would never get in a Holiday Inn or a Marriott.

Mrs Spell recommended “Magnolias” as a restaurant for dinner.  Keeping with eating unexpected regional fare in a quality restaurant, I had Southern Fried Chicken, complete with mash and beans, while Jane had a slightly more sophisticated tuna dish.  What mine lacked in sophistication, it made up for in flavour, and definitely beat anything the Colonel could offer hands down.

In case it isn’t obvious, Jane and I very much enjoyed our Charleston experience.

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Day 25 – Augusta GA to Charleston SC

We couldn’t leave Augusta without at least doing a drive-by of Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the US Masters.  I had heard there was no chance of getting into the actual golf course, but wanted to at least have a look from the road.

If you blinked, you would miss the main entrance, as all that can be seen from the road is the security guard’s hut and a very discrete sign for the Augusta National Golf Club, with a clear “Members Only” directive.  From the road, we were only able to peer down Magnolia Lane, the tree lined entrance to the club, with the clubhouse in the distance.

We drove around the perimeter of the course, but all fences were protected by dense foliage, and all entrance gates are shielded by green tarpaulins.  I guess if I am ever to see the course, it will have to be as a paying guest during the Masters.

Right throughout our drive across America, the discrepancy between the poor areas and the wealthy suburbs has been obvious.  Nowhere has this been more stark than in Augusta.  In one block, there are literally crumbling houses, whilst a couple of blocks on are the most beautiful, well kept houses.  It constantly feels like there are some suburbs that are either conveniently forgotten or steadfastly ignored.

It also constantly makes me wonder just how relevant the incessant Republican primary, and the topics being debated by those potential Presidential candidates, must seem to the struggling slice of society that occupy these ramshackle parts of America.   To these people, the world being debated by Romney and Gingritch et al must seem like another planet, because where they live, definitely looks like one.

Leaving Augusta, we again took B-roads heading for Charleston on the South Carolina coast, some 150 miles away.  Our only stop on the way was to be at one of the few surviving plantation houses along the Ashley River, just outside Charleston.

We pulled into the Middleton Place plantation in the early afternoon, just in time for a late lunch prior to joining a walking tour of plantation gardens.  Middleton Place boasts Amercia’s oldest landscape gardens, dating back to the 1740’s.

Our tour guide took us through the gardens, describing the design and the history of the plantation in a droll monotone.  All the guides are volunteers, but judging by the enthusiasm ours put into the tour, I wondered whether she was performing the duty as part of some court ordered volunteer requirement as a result of unpaid parking tickets.

Like most plantations in the region, nothing remains of the original plantation house, as they were looted then burned by the marauding Union troops during the Civil War.  Middleton Place, did however, have one of the adjoining houses rebuilt after the war, and it remains standing as a museum to the plantation era.  Things improved with the tour inside the house, with a lovely Carolina lady taking us through with a more welcome level of interest and passion for the subject matter.  She actually seemed to enjoy the task.

We arrived in Charleston in the late afternoon and found a hotel by the harbour.  After taking advantage of the complimentary wine and cheese (very civilised), we followed the concierge’s recommendation and went to a restaurant called “High Cotton”, just around the corner from the hotel.

High Cotton specialises in “Low Country” fare, which is how the regional food of South Carolina seems to be described.  I was encouraged by the waitress to try the special, which was a carved sirloin served with “mac n’ cheese”, which isn’t something you expect to find in a restaurant with white linen tablecloths.

I think everyone is meant to say that their mother’s macaroni and cheese is the best, but (sorry Mum) this was as good a “mac n’ cheese” as I’ve ever tasted.

One of the catalysts to coming to Charleston was a recommendation of one of Jane’s friends.  Jane has since sent her an email letting her know we had made it to Charleston, and coincidentally, Jane’s friend had been to the same restaurant and had an equally good meal.

So if you ever find yourself in Charleston, seek out “High Cotton” on East Bay Street.  You’ve got two recommendations from two separate visits, and neither of us charge commission …

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Day 24 – Gatlinburg to Augusta GA

Jane and I both woke up coughing and spluttering.  I had been battling a bit of a chest cold for a few days and unfortunately Jane woke up with some of the same symptoms.

Gatlinburg apparently has manly Austrian historical links, and with that comes a plethora of pancake and waffle houses.  A guide book we have been using for this region suggested the Pancake Pantry was the “grand-daddy of pancake houses”, so it seemed only appropriate that we sample some pancakes for breakfast, for medicinal purposes only, y’all understand.

The line outside the Pancake Pantry bode well, and the fare lived up to its reputation.  Again, the serving sizes were enormous, and neither Jane or I managed to finish our plates of five pancakes each, although we gave it our best shot.

After breakfast, we rode the chairlift up to the mountain ridge overlooking the town of Gatlinburg.  As we reached the summit, a sign advises that they are about to take your photo, so get ready to smile, to kiss or to wave.  We thought we should do all three, and when we got to the top and looked at the resultant photo, for the first time on tour, we purchased the overpriced print that comes with almost every tourist attraction in America.

We thought we’d been pretty clever with our photo, until we looked at the photo board and saw all manner of poses, costumes and states of undress.   Obviously, we just aren’t zany enough, but you know what?  I’m OK with that.

Leaving the kitch of Gatlinburg behind, we drove into the National Park and discovered the true natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains.  The drive into the mountains on a twisting road alongside mountain steams was more what we were hoping and expecting to find.

As we climbed into the mountains, the clouds closed in, robbing us of some of the views.  Reaching the highest point accessible by road, Newfound Gap, at just over 5,000 feet, (which also marks the Tennessee – North Carolina border) the clouds gave way to spectacular views to the south.

Driving back down the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains, we pulled up and went for a short hike along one of the many trails in the Park.  About 5 minutes into the hike, I said to Jane “So, we’ve advised people where we’re going, we’ve wearing appropriate hiking gear and we’ve got plenty of water, haven’t we ???”

Er, no … on all three counts …  So the two least prepared hikers in the Smoky Mountains followed the trail into the hills for about half an hour, before retracing our steps to the car.  We didn’t even need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

Given our lack of preparation and equipment, we had intentionally chosen one of the less strenuous hikes, and we were following an abundant source of water in a mountain stream, so we weren’t actually putting ourselves at any great risk.  Nonetheless, we aren’t going to the poster couple for safe hiking any time soon.

Leaving the Smoky Mountains, our next objective was to chalk up some miles on the way to Charleston, our destination for the following night.  We didn’t have anywhere en route we were particularly wanting to reach, other than wanting to get somewhere to watch the SuperBowl, hopefully in a big American sports bar with lots of atmosphere.

Picking a spot on the map that was reachable before kick-off, we chose Augusta, Georgia, a drive of about 250 miles (400km) for the day.  Once again, most of the drive was along B roads with a 55 mph speed limit, that passed through lots of small towns, which always takes longer than expected.

We finally arrived into Augusta just as the Super Bowl was kicking off at 6:30pm and found the first hotel we could to book a room and dump our bags.  We raced back to a recommended sports bar, to find it fell somewhat short of what we had in mind.  The bar was only about a third full, with only half the crowd actually watching the game.

After watching the rest of the first half over a quick snack of the ubiquitous buffalo wings and potato skins, we gave up on the bar and went back to the hotel in time for Madonna’s halftime extravanganza.  We watched the second half from our hotel bed, witnessing what was apparently one of the closest and most exciting Super Bowls in recent history.

Even for the uninitiated, it was pretty exciting, although as life long supporters of the New England Patriots (we decided we were just before kick-off), Jane and I were gutted to see our team go down to the New York Giants in the dying seconds of the game.  Its tough being a fan …

Posted in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee | 2 Comments