Sunday, November 20, 2016

Deep South USA - Charleston v Savannah

Either side of lapping up the less famed delights of Beaufort and surrounding islands, we took the obligatory tours of the twin historic Old South coastal cities of Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. This aims to be brief "first feel" comparison.


Having battled through the traffic of the suburbs, passed a man dragging a crucifix and struggled to find somewhere to put the car, on finally finding ourselves on foot in its centre, Charleston certainly had that wow factor. Imposing public buildings, grand churches, beautiful old town houses and a zing of gentility.

It is littered with interesting sites, great cafes and, when the day gets going, tourists galore. While we really enjoyed walking the old streets and popping our heads into the odd interesting looking building which would let us in, it did have the undeniable whiff of a theme park. A bit like Venice, where so much of the city centre's energy is devoted to tourism that you wonder how much is left for real life.
We decided to embrace this reality full on, joining a dozen slightly rotund, retired, shorts and polo shirt wearing Americans on a "traditional" horse and cart ride around the city. As you would expect, the kids loved it and I have to admit I rather enjoyed it, cheesy tour-guide jokes and all.

For me, the highlight of our visit was parading along the water front in glorious sunshine, playing in water fountains with the kids and peering out to Fort Sumter, contemplating the shots fired at her which started the American civil war.
My lasting impression is of a very beautiful and historic city, that, while charming, is a little less so than it deserves to be due to the hollowing out effect of the tourist dollar.


When people talk about their visits to this part of the world they so often mention these two cities together that I suppose I assumed on entering Savannah that it would be much like Charleston. I was to be surprised.

Grittier, steamier and with a different type of beauty. While the heart of the city is also full of old, historic buildings, they fail to take centre stage. In Charleston, wide open avenues show off its grand facades. In Savannah the even wider, park strewn squares are dominated by hundreds of live oaks dripping with lashings of Spanish moss. These trees and their pretty parasites suck out the harsh Southern light, creating a softer, yet more sombre tone, enhanced by the dozens of statues of long gone city citizens.

We spent a day pushing the pram up and down the streets of the old town before settling down in Forsyth park for the afternoon. It may sound strange to keep banging on about these trees and their moss, but they really are startlingly beautiful, wonderfully creepy and, of course, quintessentially Southern. No where else did I encounter them as impressive and imposing as those in this mid-nineteenth public green space. It was fantastic.

While Savannah of course has its tourists and its tack, to be honest, I barely noticed it. Its beguiling atmosphere blocked everything out. Georgia's old city was the place for me.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Deep South USA - College, Coast and Crocodilians

We left Atlanta and headed out East towards the Atlantic. There was a long way to go. Georgia just kept on coming, hour after hour through forest interspersed by farm land. And to think it is only the 24th biggest State in the Union. God the USA is big.


We decided to make a detour towards the start of our 6 hour drive to the coast,to stop off in Athens, GA. Why Athens you may ask? At least a small part is that my wife comes from the original Athens and these little things make us happy. By far the larger part is the new Athens’ reputation as a cool, relaxed college town. Home to a top rate university, iconic college gridiron team and a little chunk of Indie music history – REM and the B52s both burst out of the local music scene as this small city briefly became a little sister of the Seattle Sound.
The city itself is pocket sized, smart, liberal and a little quirky. This is surrounded by a simply ginormous campus. It is more a university with a city, than a city with a university. It is safe to say that I have never seen anything like it. We were ushered in by a bunch sorority type girls wearing t-shirts marked “SHAG”, offering us fresh lemonade with too perfect smiles that just don’t exist in the UK. I had to ask and was, on balance, relieved that “SHAG” stood for “Sharing and Giving”. 
We wondered around the scores of grand, neo-classical building. Through one manicured quad after another until both the land in front of us and my jaw dropped. There it was, the huge 92 thousand seater stadium of the Georgia Bulldogs. Only in America can a college town have such a stadium. I just wish we had been there for game day when the surrounds turn into a BBQ and beer, footie festival.

Driving on and on from Athens, we passed Augusta and then kinked south, passing through the middle of nowhere and a noticeably poorer region. We saw nothing for miles and then would pass through a 20 shack town, a world away from the pristine suburbia we had left that morning. Rusty old cars that hadn’t moved for an age, low houses long ago bereft of paint and little signs of life except for the odd guy staring out from his veranda. For once, I could see why the massive billboards promising salvation draw people in.
The terrain became noticeably swampier as we crossed into South Carolina and approached the ocean. Flanked by rivers and riverlets, our road took us across an estuarine bridge onto the first of an archipelago of low-lying islands which huddle together in increasing wildness as they stretch 20 miles out into the Atlantic.
Nestled right in the middle is the city of Beaufort, genuinely old by American standards with a charter dating back to 1711, and our home for 4 nights. It is a gem. The main street and water’s edge are nice, but the real treat is row after row of home-lined streets that could barely be more quintessentially Southern or characterful. 
Roads swallowed up by mature live oaks dripping with sumptuous amounts of Spanish moss and flanked by grand, white, veranda laden homes. It was fantastic just wandering around, soaking it all in and occasionally conversing with engaging locals. This was then washed down with some great local food, drink and live Blues down by the water.


We took a boat out into the estuary to explore the wildlife which frequents the waters, reeds and banks of the tidal channels. We were not disappointed. The bird life was fantastic with large flocks of sea birds feeding on sand banks, egrets fishing and, most wonderfully, an Osprey on its nest. The highlight for the kids, of course, were the dozen dolphins which played around our boat for a good 15 minutes.
One day we ventured out across the islands as far as we could go by car, passing though small fishing towns and across many a bridge. This eventually took us to Hunting Island State Park, a long thin barrier island with the crashing waves of the Atlantic in front and the marshy estuary behind. We explored both extreme.
Following paths onto a series of boardwalks stretching out across the estuary, we found bird life galore and hundreds of crabs producing bubbles from holes exposed by the low tide.
Picking up a trail map from an ever-friendly park ranger (with the throw away warning to not worry about alligators as they “rarely take anything bigger than a small dog” despite my youngest two children in tow being just that size!), we then headed into the forested hinterland in search of the ocean. We passed through a dense tropical looking jungle, peering slightly nervously into the thick bush and pools on either side of the path, jumping at every suspicious looking log.
It was hot and sticky, with plenty of buzzing things. After a mile or so, we eventually passed over a large creek and into one last stretch of predominantly palm forest – where a raccoon said hello - before emerging onto the beach.
It was well worth the trek. We found a beautiful, long, golden sandy beach. The Atlantic buffets the coast with a prevailing current that is evidently eroding the island away and shifting it northwards. At the back of the beach, the skeletons of hundreds of dead trees eerily lurk, growing denser towards the southern tip where the island is being engulfed by the ocean.

We were so bitten by the place that we came back for more the next day, this time following trails from the centre of the island. Within a minute of parking up we had seen our first alligator! 
A particularly large specimen basking at the side of a large dark pool, with what I interpreted as a menacing manner, but was more likely just one of sedate re-heat and digestion. I know there are literally millions of these crocodilians littered across the South-East USA, but it was awesome to see one first hand with the family. Walking across a boardwalk to get a closer look, we also encountered a number of small turtles bravely sharing the pool with the big beastie.
From there we trekked for miles through dense pine and palm forests, encountering a few too many wee bitey flying things (we spent half the time frantically swatting around the kids), before circling back towards the stark, skeletal beach for some down time balancing on the fallen trees and following the brown pelicans as they swooped down to the ocean, opened their mouths and deftly removed fish from their dwellings. 
A final stop was to the islands lighthouse, which, after a lot of steps, gave up its phenomenal panoramic views of the archipelago and ocean.


Beaufort is a genuinely special part of the world, which I really took to. These low-lying islands house culture, history, wonderful wildlife and charm. Even the regular passing over of Navy fighter jets from Parris Island seems to add to their different character.
A place I can imagine spending a lot of productive time not doing very much. In fact, my lasting memory will be doing just that, rocking back and forth with the kids on a water-side swing-bench, watching the colours drain as the sun set over sea and reads, a hint of Bluegrass drifting in and out with the breeze.

We were sad to leave, jumping back in the car for the long trip back to Atlanta and a plane home. As we drove for hour after hour across the vast green expanse of Georgia, one thought dominated; in our crowded little world, this verdant part is half empty.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Deep South USA - Atlanta, Georgia

We spent 5 great days in and around Atlanta, Georgia. We were lucky enough to stay in the beautiful house of our friends Adam and Paget. It was a great base, first and foremost due to how welcoming our hosts were, filling us with fantastic southern cooking and hospitality, as well as taking time over a few drinks to educate us about the city and region.
What was also remarkable was the setting. I knew they were based in an affluent suburb of northern Atlanta, but did not expect anything like what we found. Yes, all the houses were much bigger than I anticipated (I have never – and I mean never – seen so many massive houses in close proximity than driving around the local area), but the main difference was the nature. The neighbourhood appeared to have been carefully plonked into a steamy forest of effervescent green and giant trees. Walking out from the deck of the house, their garden stretched down through the trees to a wild creek. Birdsong was everywhere with bright red cardinals dropping in and, on one morning, a deer carefully stepping by and stopping to stare in our direction as we tried to not make a noise (not easy with toddlers). This within the bounds of one of the largest metropolises in the States! A quite ridiculous, lovely surprise.


All of this leafy serenity is worlds apart from downtown Atlanta. From my limited experience, a relatively standard, if large, American city centre. Bricks, steel, glass and more tarmac fed by humongous inter-mingling highways which suck people in like over-filled conveyor belts. 
I will not forget in a long while journeying back into Atlanta from NC in a torrential storm, straining to not aquaplane as we first encountered en masse nut crazy driving (who doesn’t swerve in and out of bunched traffic at 90mph when the rain is so heavy the fastest wiper setting is sub-sufficient) and then solid jams as no less than three different car crashes blocked up the interstate. Not fun with a 9-month year old projectile puking white vomit in the back of the car…
While Atlanta is not the prettiest city, it proved to have some really interesting sites, which kept us more than occupied. Home to such giants as CNN, Delta and none other than Coca-Cola, it has all the associate commerciality, with the oddity of the Coca-Cola museum being a particular temple to American consumerism right in the heart of the Olympic Park. On the more traditionally educational side, while the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and fantastic Children's Museum were a hit, the Georgia Aquarium absolutely took the biscuit.
The largest aquarium in the world, it houses a mind-goggling array of marine life. Whole sections dedicated to different environments, from a polar zone complete with Beluga whales, via the minutiae of reef life, to the enormity of pelagic ocean goers. The coup de grace is the vast Ocean Explore tank, filled with some 6.3 million gallons of water. It was awesome to lay back beneath the main viewing window and watch creatures large and small swim by in the blue. Turtles, massive groupers, giant manta rays and, amazingly, whale sharks. Yes, whale sharks. Swimming about in the heart of inland Georgia are the biggest fish in the sea in all their blue and white-flecked glory. My boys could not quite digest it, eyes wide open and jaws dropping to the floor.


Atlanta’s most celebrated son is Dr Martin Luther King. He was born, grew up and later returned to Atlanta as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a post he was to hold up to the day he was assassinated. Consequently a few square blocks of downtown Atlanta are maintained and preserved in his honour as a National Historic Site. 
We spent much of a day learning about Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma at the thought provoking museum, as well as standing outside the house he grew up in, walking the streets he walked and contemplating in the church where he preached. The power of his oratory came across so clear through the crackle of half a century. 
I was very moved by this touching tribute to Dr King and the movement he so courageously led. As a Brit, I am well aware that my forebears are very much on the wrong side of history when comes to the past of African Americans. It says a lot about Dr King’s message and legacy that we felt so welcome. Given the current political climate, it is as vital as ever that places like this exist to illustrate how peaceful collective action can push prejudice and injustice back into the shadows. Here’s hoping.

In a lighter moment, I could not help but be amused by a Park Ranger driving by in a full blown muscle car, rev’s and all. His beat was 3 or 4 blocks. Only in America.


I enjoyed Atlanta. Like much of America, an interesting conglomeration of extremes. Nature and concrete. Affluence, aspiration and deprivation. Faceless architecture around fascinating sights. Politics divided.
Aptly perhaps, I said farewell to this city knocking back the beers with Adam at Manuel's Tavern, a renowned Democrat bar deep in the Republican South. It is a remarkable place, having that American knack of making places that really aren’t that old feel genuinely historic. Every inch of the walls is covered in political, drinking and sporting paraphernalia, slowly fading with time as they merge into one another. JFK holds pride of place above the bar. Once Jimmy Carter’s local, I could only but imagine all the chat that these four walls have soaked up. Apparently Obama dropped by just days before to chuck some darts. No better place to talk shit and put the world to rights with an old mate until the lights went on and we were told to go home...
The next morning I learned the real value of the Waffle House. A mountain of fat-filled hangover cure to make the flight home more bearable!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Deep South USA - Blue Ridge Road Trip

I have been quietly interested in the Southern USA ever since I touched upon the American Civil War when studying history as a kid. This interest has grown over the years through the drip-feed of innumerous cultural references, chance meetings with Southerners, and periodic delves into the history, culture, and society of the USA.

The incentive of visiting an old mate who married a Southern belle and settled in that fascinating corner of the world was all the excuse I needed to come explore.

The old mate was (and is) Adam, the belle Paget. Together with two lovely children, Iris and Tanner, they live in a beautiful, affluent suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. With the keen hospitality for which the South is famed and being wonderfully forgiving of the severe reduction in serenity that it entailed, they put Chris, me, and our three little ones up in their house before, after, and in between two road trips into the South. The first of these was to the mountains.


On Paget’s recommendation, we set off on a north-easterly direction in search of Asheville, North Carolina. The first thing that struck me as we turned onto the 10-lane highway out of the city was the scale of the everyday automobiles. Our Grand Cherokee was the biggest car I have ever rented (the airport rental company had suggested it was too small for us!), but it was nothing compared to all these giant SUVs and 6-wheeler pick-ups ploughing the road with a penchant for undertaking.

The second thing was just how green everything was. Verdant, steroid-fuelled green, dominated by huge trees that hemmed in the road for mile after mile. For some reason, I had expected Georgia to be dry and dusty cotton land, but instead we found what felt like temperate rain forest.  To my amazement, I later discovered that this forest stretched in an almost uninterrupted line for over 1000 miles all the way to Canada. Who said all the wilderness was out West?

Our long day at the wheel was only broken by two very different, but each quintessentially American, pit-stops. The first was to a highway Waffle House. An American institution I had never heard of, serving cholesterol-fuelled diner food and waffles to some of the more skint and hungover members of society since God knows when. It sounds strange, but visiting this small roadside diner complete with distinctly shifty looking guests and a waitress who slipped effortlessly between giving the locals an earful and acting sweet as pie to us was one of my top cultural experiences of our trip. Akin, I imagine, to an American visiting the UK and stepping into a middle-of-nowhere pub full of half-pissed locals.
Southerners do indeed love their God...
...and their Guns
Finally turning off the highway onto smaller roads, we found more forest, interspersed with farmland, as we briefly crossed into South Carolina. This was where we took our second stop, in the small middle-of-nowhere cross-roads town of Walhalla. I was in heaven. As well as the gun shop, multiple Baptist churches, and pick-ups to burn, this two-horse town is home to a dainty, prim little café run by people that are so inordinately friendly that it set my cynical European mind on edge. The South really is different.

On we went, back through the forests and into North Carolina, before arriving just before dark at the little piece of vintage Americana we were to call home for the next few days. A small wooden cabin at an original 1920’s motor lodge (the precursor to motels). Though just off I-25 and only a couple of miles north of Ashville, we found ourselves surrounded by towering woodland, cardinals, chipmunks, and, our kids aside, quiet.


Above all else, we had come here for the Blue Ridge Parkway. A highly unconventional road which owes its existence to desperate times and grand gestures. Part of FDR’s New Deal to provide work to the unemployed masses and give a Keynesian kickstart to the US economy ravaged by the depths of the Great Depression. The Parkway stretches 469 miles, snaking south from Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains at the very edge North Carolina. Apart from its roots, what makes this road stand out is its extraordinary setting and protection. It purposely clings to the higher reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is protected by Federal law as a National Park. No HGVs, gas stations, lights, or traffic, just glorious open road cutting in and out of the clouds.

The college town of Asheville is the main stop at the heart of the Parkway, nestled in a valley famed for its beauty. When we awoke the first morning, we could see none of it. Dark clouds had closed in to swallow up the mountains and it was pissing it down relentlessly. We decided to brave the Parkway anyhow. We chose south, climbed out of Asheville, and were delighted to join the Parkway in a gap in the clouds. We were greeted with a magnificent view back across a river valley and out to the forests. It lasted all of 5 minutes and then the weather closed back in, drearier than before. Within half an hour, we could barely see 10m in front of us, enveloped as we were in dense, dripping fog.

We cut our losses and quit the highway, descending on a small road which twisted through the Pisgah National Forest in a southerly direction. The mist slowly cleared until we reached a large waterfall (Looking Glass Falls), bursting through the trees and dropping 18m into a splash pool. The kids had seen nothing like it and were happily over-awed. On we headed to the town of Brevard, nestled in the wonderfully named Transylvania County. We settled in for lunch at a seriously quirky  50’s diner, where we were informed by a ridiculously sincere yet friendly local that we would find even better waterfalls in the Dupont State Forest, only a few miles out of town.

Given the weather we had little to lose, so we drove on, parked up and, in spite of the incessant drizzle, slapped Ariadne in the baby-bjorn, gave each of the boys a mini umbrella, and headed off round a well-marked trail through dense forest. It was awesome.

We trekked for an hour or so, following a 3-mile trail next to a river that intermittently found dramatic ways to transverse a troublesome landscape. First a sheer drop, where the whole river poured over a ridge and dropped 40m in a violent cascade.
Then a series of smaller, but no less beautiful, falls, funnelled by large chunks of granite. Climbing down a steep set of steps, we were able to get right up close and personal, feeling the spray. The rain then closed in and we ended our adventure jogging through the trees to our car with the kids on our shoulders huddling under umbrellas.


Fortunately, the weather improved and we spent the next two days exploring the Parkway to the north, entering on the first day up a rather interesting dirt trail that made me happy we had a 4x4. Once atop the Parkway, we were greeted with the most astonishing views of thick forests falling down from the mountains and out over the valleys, sporadically carpeted with thin streaks of pure white cloud.

As the smooth, empty road meandered high up on the ridge for mile after mile, the Appalachians threw up one amazing vista after another. A truly majestic part of the world.

Like so many National Parks in the USA, the Parkway is brilliantly organised, with maps, resting stops, and countless trails. We took the three small ones up one of these trails which led through Craggy Gardens.
Though only 2 and 3, the boys trekked a full couple of miles up hill through increasingly spooky terrain to the summit of Craggy Dome at 6,085 feet. As we climbed, the trees shrunk to gnarled, oxygen-starved beings covered in dripping moss and lichen. The clouds closed in to a claustrophobic mist, muffling sounds and enveloping whatever lurked within the otherworldly undergrowth.
By the time we reached the summit we had climbed into the clouds. A surreal, but fun experience. Staring out from the peak at wisps of white-washed nothingness all around.

On our way down from the Parkway, we chose to take back roads and found ourselves in rural Appalachia. Sticking God radio on the stereo (I kid you not, the first station I found had linked Hilary Clinton, gay marriage, and the coming apocalypse within 30 seconds), we passed through small villages cut out of the woods, lined with Baptist churches and the odd Confederate flag.

This was real, hard, red, back country, which shared little in common with the isolated blue speck of Asheville. Each evening we discovered a bit more of the joys of this laid back college town. Fantastic food, craft beer, and chilled-out atmosphere came as standard, alongside a fair chunk of interesting architecture. The latter, at least in part, thanks to money that poured in from the late 19th century onwards from the locally resident Vanderbilts (a big local tourist attraction is their grand country house of Biltmore, the largest privately owned house in the USA).


Taking the Blue Ridge Parkway south-bound, the sensational views stretched on and on, reaching a crescendo at and beyond Mount Pisgah, where the road clung to a cliff edge at an ever greater height and stark rocky formations littered the forests below.

We stopped off for a snack lunch at the foot of the Waterrock Knob Trail. Starting at a thinning out of the ridge where you could see out to the East and West, the trail headed in the latter direction up and through the forest. The trees then receded as the path strung back and forth up a steep ascent. The boys clambered up without any concern, clutching on steps, rails, and roots.

Approaching the 6000 ft plus summit, the forest thickened around us. A little out of breath we made it to the top and strung out on a bench handily positioned before a cliff edge and yet another stunning view. I was so impressed with our two boys for trekking up the whole way.

We had the place all to ourselves in the sunshine. It was marvellous. Relatively care free, I left Christina to keep our 3 year old and 9 month old away from the cliff edge, and took our 2 year old into the woods for a pee. As he was doing his business in a small clearing, I noticed something more than a little disconcerting. By his side was a massive paw print in the mud, much like a dog’s but on a multiplied scale. Further, it looked VERY fresh - deep, clean edged and untouched by the recent rains.

My mind immediately jumping to the rather large black bears that frequent these parts, I picked up my boy, headed back to the others and, deciding that there were advantages to explaining the situation later, hurried my small family back down the trail.

When back in the jeep it is fair to say that my other half was not impressed that I had waited until after the event to tell her, meaning she did not get the chance to see the print. An awesome reaction, but at least I had taken a pic to show her.


The plan was to follow the Parkway all the way to its Southern terminus. Unfortunately, the small matter of landslides put paid to that. This was announced by an unexpected gate across the road. There was nothing else to do but back track a good half hour and head down into the valleys to find another road.

While this was disappointing, the Blue Ridge Parkway redeemed itself with a parting gift as we made our exit. A massive raptor swooped down in front of us through the trees, before sharing a sharp turn in the road just meters in front of us. It was startling.

Who can spot the raptor?
We ploughed along the local roads, having that slightly dirty sensation of being surrounded by everyday life after touching wilder places. We eventually made it to the odd, rather sad town of Cherokee. A tiny enclave for the Cherokee Indians to sell tat and gambling in a place that was once the heart of their rich territories before most of the nation were forcibly resettled (where they did not perish on the journey) in the wake of a local gold rush to land far away that the white man did not want. This is part of what has become known as the “Trail of Tears”, a scar on the conscience of the US. I felt more than a pang of guilt as I passed through in my Chevrolet Grand Cherokee.

We soon moved on and arrived at the goal of our long day driving from Asheville. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

Thanks to a quirk of the last ice age, among other factors, this over 2000 square km mountain park is remarkably bio-diverse. Wildlife from colder northern climes were pushed south by the last great ice age and, unlike in the rest of the region, managed to stay put when the glaciers receded (thanks to the high altitude and unique climate) and now share the park with more natural southern dwellers.

I am a little sad to say that we only popped our noses a few miles into the park, rather than passing all the way through to Tennessee or exploring its wilder parts. One for next time. We did though encounter some great wildlife on our mini trek through the forest and along a clear water river bank. Chipmunks, wild turkeys, squirrels, deer, and, best of all, a group of ground hog. I am not sure who was more excited, the boys, Chris, or me. OK, probably me!
Before jumping back into the car for our long trek back to Atlanta, we just had time to go see a park ranger and ask the key question of the day. She carefully considered our photo and, to my caveated delight, confirmed that it was a black bear print!