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.