28 February, 2008

Homeward Bound

28 February 2008 marks the end of our fabulous 3 month round the world trip, highlighted by a full month spent in Paris (covering Christmas, New Year and wedding anniversary), and a wonderful driving trip up and down the east coast of the USA.

We flew from New York to Los Angeles, and spent 4 days there just hanging out, relaxing, and cruising around. Our hotel was in our favourite suburb, Redondo Beach, where there's plenty of good eating and walking nearby. We rented a Ford Mustang so we could really fit into the LA lifestyle, and we really did nothing much else but cruise around in it. The Mustang was barely big enough to take our luggage, but it sure did look and feel good, and was fun to drive.

This completes our blog of this trip. We'll start up again when we go on another travel escapade.

27 February, 2008

Postscript from New York

Our last day in New York dawned brilliantly clear and blueskied, with a fresh covering of snow underfoot, so we decided to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge with all the other tourists and local joggers and bike riders. What a great day it was! The view from the bridge is fantastic, you can see far and wide, including the Statue of Liberty, and the next door bridge, the Manhattan Bridge. There are lots of helicopters buzzing around, as there is a helipad below the bridge, and the structure of the bridge causes the wooden footpath to vibrate with the traffic flow. Looking back to Manhattan, the skyline of New York City is a lovely spectacle. The ugly Verizon building makes it very difficult to get a clear photo of the Brooklyn Bridge looking back into Manhattan [photo].

Brooklyn Heights is a very cute suburb, with lots of up market housing. The shopping village had lots of trendy shops, markets and cafes. Some of the houses have a great view over the East River, and have had balconies added to enhance them.

On our last morning we headed out by subway to Harlem, but found it rather run down, and weary. Maybe if we spent more time there, we would have found some treasures, but all we had was a brief walk before heading back to get our bags and walk to the bus station, for a ride to JFK. We had a good flight on Qantas, to LA, and were glad we were not continuing on to Sydney that night, but having a few days to chill out before the long flight home.

The photo shows the 1 Train subway bridge as it traverses Harlem.

24 February, 2008

New York, New York

Our New York hotel is well placed, right near Grand Central Station, which is a marvellous structure. It is clean and warm, and has a vast array of food shops, including supermarkets and a fresh food hall which is really good. The trains are pretty well hidden from view (unlike Paris stations), which is probably another good idea. From our hotel window we can see the Empire State Building, lit up at night in silver. On the weekend it was lit in red, white and blue for the President's Day holiday [photo]. Right next door is a great place for breakfast, and they have good wraps and salads. A short walk takes you right to Times Square, and we are adjacent to the well known streets, Lexington Ave, Park Ave, Madison Ave, and 5th Ave. New York is great city for walking!

Our week in New York has been very interesting, it certainly is a different city, and the people watching here is most interesting. Foreigners abound - the city is packed with tourists. The decline in the US Dollar seems to bring Europeans here en masses, and they seem to be buying up brand name luggage in bulk, maybe to sell on their return. English visitors swagger around as if they own the place, and maybe they do, what with over two dollars to the pound!

The weather has been below freezing every day, some days have been bright and sunny, and we have also seen the snow fall, which has been great. Just like home the fashions in the stores are all summer, even though it is snowing outside and every one is wearing big coats, and it will be some time before the little flimsy numbers will be able to be worn.

We have done the touristy things, and just walked as we usually do, gazing upwards as the buildings here are so interesting, especially the tops of them. The photo shows an interesting brick building in Soho, incredibly intricate detail at the top levels, and those amazing NY fire escapes. There were trips to Macy's and Bloomingdales, and Century 21 the great discount store. In fairly dismal weather, we walked thru some of the "village" precincts of NYC, looking at the quirky shops and cafes.

We're big walkers, but NYC is also very big, so we use the Subway to move uptown and downtown in big hops. There is a convenient 1 week Metrocard which gives you unlimited travel for about $25, very good value. For some reason, we were able to buy the first one on a credit card, but had to use cash to buy the second Metrocard. The underground trains are clean, frequent, crowded and feel safe. The sounds of live music and buskers permeate the system. The network structure is not as straightforward as it is in Paris and London, but you get the hang of it quickly.

In perfect sunshine, we took the Staten Island Ferry, and gazed back at the familiar skyline of the NY skyscrapers, a sad sight now of course, and passed by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where the early immigrants were processed. We took a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, mostly because Clare, as a little girl, remembers her Nana going there. It was crowded and freezing at the top, but the visibility was perfect. It's amazing to realise this building is 1931 vintage.

The Frick collection is very interesting, thanks Elaine for that tip, and the Guggenheim Museum in that wonderful building, although now covered in scaffolding for a massive external renovation, was amazing to see. Unfortunately on the day we went there, a new and very popular exhibition was opening, and it was also snowing heavily, therefore the cloackroom was suffering a huge overload and we decided not to stand in line to check our coats, but instead we spent the day over 5th Ave in Central Park.

This was a good decision, as it was very beautiful, covered in snow, with lots of cross country skiers, and children with sleds having a great time. All the wonderful buildings around the park had snow on the tops of them, and there were no cars in the park. The fresh snow in the park gives it a wonderful aspect [photo]

On a sunny day, we visited September 11's Ground Zero. It was very moving, we thought of the terrible events of that day, and looked up into the sky where the buildings used to be. It's really just a hole in the ground now. The design seems to be settled, and new foundations are well under way, and the streets around are full of construction workers and cement trucks. The pedestrians are very forgiving, and everyone gives way to the trucks as they turn and weave in the street. Noone can be offended by the minor inconveniences in moving around this place. We also looked at the sculpture, now temporarily housed in Battery Park, which once sat in the plaza of the World Trade Centre. It is badly bruised and battered, but is a fitting memorial to that terrible day [photo].

22 February, 2008

Return to New York

The day to return the Subaru Outback arrived quickly, and we scarpered out of Vermont and through New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut rather more quickly than we would have preferred. The scenery through these states was great, but we didn't have much time to stop and enjoy it. We especially liked the frozen lakes with people wandering around on them, presumably safely.

We had specifically booked a Subaru from Avis, because that would guarantee "all wheel drive" which is highly desirable on the snowy roads we expected. This was after our experience in the Rockies two years ago when we discovered (several states too late) that, in the USA, SUV does not mean 4-wheel drive!

In the 40 days we had the Outback, it performed without a hitch. We travelled 5880 miles (9408km) through 16 states. Petrol (gas) prices were between $US2.90 and $3.20 per US Gallon, which translates to $A0.89 to $0.93 per litre, so they haven't got much to complain about, have they?

On the driving trip, we followed our usual US travel procedure and did not book hotels ahead. In the jargon of the trade, we were "walk-ins", and this lets you get good deals and make use of those discount coupon books you get from state welcome centres and McDonalds stores. We deviated from this strategy only twice, in Key West FL (where, worried about limited options in high-season, only Cuba, we rang 2 hours ahead, and just as well, because the town was full when we got there) and in Alexandria VA (where we had to tell a friend where we were going to be staying). We almost had a wheel fall off once, in Rutland VT, a ski resort town on the Presidents Day long weekend, but we managed to pay more and avoid having to sleep in the car.

Depending on opportunities, we stayed at Days Inn, Best Western, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn, Quality Inn, Comfort Suites, Fairfield Marriott, La Quinta and one independent as well as two friends, of course. We like these chain hotels, because they not only provide the essentials and decent comfort, but also complimentary broadband (for this blog!) and breakfast. Three hotels let us down in the breakfast stakes, but we managed to avoid starvation.

Our reseach is anecdotal, of course, but we noted that, within any chain, the quality of the accommodation can vary widely. As someone said to us, look for recent construction or renovation! Our award for the most consistenly good hotels on this segment of our trip goes to Holiday Inn Express.

19 February, 2008

Covered Bridges of Vermont

We stayed in Kingston NY with a vague plan to drive through the Catskills Mountains the next day, but then we looked at much time we had left before we had to return the Subaru, so in the morning, we set sail for Vermont, so we could look at some the 100 covered bridges supposedly in the state.

Vermont is a picture post card state, fresh snow fell as we drove into the state, and the temperatures were very cold. We saw a few ski areas, and the whole area was very busy as it was President's Day Weekend. The first town of major size we came into was Rutland, and we turned back from passing this town when it was getting late and snow was covering the road. We then decided to hunker down overnight. A bit of a scare there, as we got the last room, in town after trying many hotels. A very nice lady at the Best Western rang around for us, explaining that it was a big skiing weekend.

The next day dawned clear and bright, but extremely cold, about -10C. It was a perfect day to see the covered bridges whech we had come to see, so we set off, on well cleared roads. There are many beautiful little towns, the first stop for us was Woodstock, where we got the daily coffee and had a walk on the frozen footpaths. Around Woodstock there were 4 bridges of note very close to the route we were on. The first of these was the Lincoln Bridge, built in 1877, then came the Middle Bridge [photo], and they were most picturesque. We saw Taftsville Bridge, built 1836, near the very pretty Taftsville General Store, and the most beautiful of all, Quechee Covered Bridge, over the Quechee River, at a spot where there was an old mill. This was now converted to a glass blowing centre, where they made their own hydroelectric power, using an old generator which had been brought back to life. The river there was mostly frozen, as you can see in the pic. All 4 of these bridges are still in use by motor traffic.

Also on this road was the Quechee Gorge Bridge, uncovered, which we risked life and limb, walking on to see the gorge [photo], whilst traffic roared by. There was no footpath, as it was covered in snow, thrown there by the road clearing.

16 February, 2008

Will More Guns Reduce Gun Crime?

Tragically, the USA has seen a spate of gun rampages in schools and universities, the latest causing 6 deaths, including the gunman himself, just out of Chicago. Not surprisingly, these outrages have been headline news, but what surprises us, as Australians, is the response of some of the "shock-jocks" on talk back radio.

As we are driving around, we spend a lot of time listening to the car radio. The music stations are usually boring (although we found a lot of great bluegrass music when we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway), and we gravitate to the talk stations on the AM band. On the day after the lastest rampage, we were listening to some guy called Al (we rarely know their last names). For two hours he assailed his listeners with his belief that the answer to these multiple gun crimes is for everyone to carry guns. We find this an extraordinary approach. In US schools, it is apparently forbidden/illegal to carry weapons, even if you have a permit, and Al says this makes them soft targets, and the victims, who can't shoot back, are no better than sheep at slaughter. He would have his audience believe that if teachers and students carried guns, then the perpetrators of these crimes would realise that they could face resistance and would think twice. The fact is that most of the gunmen in these situations are killed by police or themselves in the end. This would be known to the gunmen which means they are prepared to die in the process and thus would not be afraid of "resistance". This fact seems to escape Al, and indeed most of the people who call into his program and are of a like mind. We suppose that more rational people do not listen to Al's program.

It would be a fallacy to argue that supporting the right to carry guns into school is restricted to fanatical sections of the media. On the same day as the above radio broadcast, USA Today (a national newspaper that we regard as reasonably balanced because it usually gives both sides of an argument) reported that 12 US states, following the previous campus massacre, are currently considering laws which will prevent the prohibition on carrying guns at universities.

To use the common parlance, there is an "elephant in the room" on this topic. It is never discussed. It must be a taboo to debate the role of the second amendment to the US Constitution, viz: the right to bear arms, or to acknowledge the possible contribution of the ready availability of firearms to the occurrence of gun crime. We believe that if guns were much more difficult to obtain (you can buy them at Wal-Mart!), then the frequency of gun crime would be reduced, and that this would be a better solution than to have everyone carrying guns, as Al proposes. Al's listeners arguments include some memorable statements like "if guns are outlawed, then only the outlaws will have guns" and "if deer could shoot back, there would be less hunters". These are cute expressions, and both are no doubt true, but they are not the point. These gun massacres at schools are not being carried out by outlaws: they are being carried out by deranged people who, for whatever reason, have ready access to guns and ammunition.

The second amendment is sacred territory in the USA and cannot be discussed, it seems, no matter what atrocities are perpetrated because of it. Several weeks ago, we recall, another right-wing talk back radio host was inviting his audience to discuss which was the most important of the freedoms guaranteed in the US Bill of Rights. Was it religious freedom, or free speech? No, most listeners argued, it was the right to bear arms!

Australians and others know only too well (e.g. Port Arthur) that tougher gun laws are no guarantee against gun crime, but surely they help. The suggestion that everyone should carry guns to discourage anyone from using them is absurd. The fear of death won't stop the lunatic: they are of the same mind as suicide bombers.

15 February, 2008

There is a Bear Out There!!!

After 8000km of driving, we finally saw a bear! Just after stopping for a picnic lunch by the Delaware River a few km north of Bushkill NY, Mike happened to notice a black bear cub in the field. He was grazing on some maize stalks, but took off when he saw us. Mananged to get a photo, not close enough of course! This was the highlight of our day after peering into forests for a bear for all this time!

Prior to this, after surviving the ice storm in Washington, we headed north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. We called into the snow-covered Gettysburg battlefields (which surround the town), and did a road tour. These battlefields were the bloodiest in the Civil War and, apparently, Union victories there turned the tide against the Confederates. The fields are immense, and are peppered with hundreds of memorials and markers to various armies, regiments, positions and soldiers. Unfortunately the Visitor Centre was closed when we got there, "due to inclement weather" the rough notice on the door said, so we missed out on the ineveitable, very informative interpretive exhibits and movies. This is the only time we have felt let down by the management of the battlefields - there was no justification for the closure. We talked to a school teacher who had arrived there with a bus full of students, to meet a guide for the day. She was not impressed!

Gettysburg township itself is old and very pretty. The historical buildings are in very good condition, not doubt funded by the myriad of visitors to the battlefields in summer. But in winter now, the town was quiet (although many trucks seem to drive through), and we found a nice place to have cappucino and hot chocolate. We stayed overnight in Harrisburg.

The next day dawned perfectly fine but extremely cold, as predicted accurately by the Weather Channel, but the residues of the ice storm made for lots of black ice in car parks and sidewalks, and piles of snow, having been rained on and then frozen, were as hard as concrete. This made walking hazardous all day, especially morning and night, so we had to be very careful not to slip.

We called into Bethlehem PA to find a cappucino. The historic district of this town is very close to the now defunct steelworks, and it's quite sad to see this city, the birthplace of Galvalume, in a depressed state, a real rust-belt town [photo]. We passed through Pennsylvania into New York State. The landscape of fields and hills, was snow covered, and calm, with glimpses of the Catskills in the distance as we moved into NY. The town of Port Jervis on the NY side of the border was quaint, and provided us with an afternoon hot chocolate to help combat the cold.

13 February, 2008

Sunshine and Ice Storms in DC

We've spent 3 nights in Alexandria VA, needing a few days to see Washington DC just over the bridge. The weather has been very cold, about -6C in Aussie terms, so the extreme weather clothing has been out again. One day was sunny, and brilliantly clear, but with a biting wind, and the other very grey, finishing off in the afternoon with an ice storm, freezing rain which made the footpaths dangerously slippery and quite hazardous for pedestrians, namely ourselves, after we caught the metro home. The ice storm has caused chaos in the traffic in Virginia, DC and Maryland, and even caused the presidential primaries voting today (Tuesday) to be extended to a later hour. Later on the TV news, there were complaints about sidewalks not being salted.

We met up with friends of our good friend Jack, Mike and Janell. Mike was kind enough to spend the entire first day with us, driving us around to some of the well known sites, as well as others which we would have missed had we been on our own. We also had two delightful dinners with Mike and Janell - thank you for spending the time with us!

We saw most of the presidents' memorials. Roosevelt's, extraordinary granite ediface which sprawls along the Potomac River, complete with waterfalls and fountains, and some of FDR'S great statements cut into the walls. Lincoln's memorial is in pride of place and so impressive, lined up with the Washington Momument and the Capitol Building on the hill in the distance at the end of the Mall.

A new and spectacular memorial to Air Force pilots soars into the air above the Pentagon, made from shining stainless steel. Perhaps the most moving memorials are the war memorials. These included the World War I and II memorials, and the Korean War memorial. The Vietnam Veterans' memorial incorporates the names of all soldiers lost engraved into the grey marble (heart-wrenching like the roll of honour at the Australian War Memorial) [photo]. It is a very modern memorial, which created a lot of controvesy when it was designed and erected, but has now become very popular.

The Library of Congress is a most beautiful building, marble columns and colorful frescoes [photo is of lobby, no photographs allowed in the reading room]. We peeked into the glorious reading room directly under the dome, with about 200 wooden desks and individual reading lights arranged in a large circle around the librarians' desk.

We had a very pleasant walk through the conservatory at the National Botanic Garden (after all, it's warm inside). This building, recently restored, reminded us of the petit palace in Paris, and contains what must be the best and most artistic implementation of a garden conservatory we have ever seen. The orchids were in bloom, so the colours were fantastic. In the rare and endanged section, there is a Wollemi Pine from Sydney.

Of course, there is the Smithsonian Museum. It is not to be missed but we could only skim the surface. The Museum of American History is closed at the moment for several years of refurbishment, so we missed that, but we spent good time in the Museum of Flight and Space, the US Postal Museum, the American Portrait Gallery (with its fabulous exhibit of US Presidents), and the US Archives (to look at precious originals or early copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first 14 amendments). Both days we had lunch in the Sculpture Garden, a delightful, comfortable and warm cafe beside the National Gallery of Art. This Garden features what looks like a permanent oval-shaped ice skating rink, and the cafe is of a Parisian theme, complete with a faux Metro station entry.

A walk around the Capitol Building was all we could manage. It is hard to get a tour through this building, even at this quiet time of year. The Supreme Court, the White House (so close to the road), so many significant buildings to see. Washington is set out very nicely, no high rise nearby, and all the buildings, modern and traditional fit together so well. Looking at the layout, and the architecture of the Federal Reserve and other government buildings lining the Mall, we were reminded of Walter Burley-Griffin who was, we think, an American, and must have used Washington as a model when he designed Canberra.

The Metro (the partly underground rail network which serves the DC area, running into Virginia and Maryland) has some lessons for Sydney. For one thing, our day passes cost $8 each, about 70% of the cost of a single ride from Central to Sydney airport! Signs at stations listed all stations where elevators were out of action (and apparently shuttle buses were available from other stations). The carraiges were mostly modern and clean and we did not see any graffiti. The underground stations were strangely dark.

As we post this, while the ice storm continues, Barak Obama appears to have whipped Hilary Clinton in today's local Democrat Primaries, while John McCain has more narrowly beaten Mike Huckabee on the Republican side. While we didn't get to vote, we are now "experts" on how the main parties choose their candidates for the Presidential election! It's impossible to miss.

11 February, 2008

The Civil War

The Civil War, which took place in the 1860's, was fought in many battlefields up and down the eastern half of the US - we may have read that there were 400 sites! We restricted our "study" of this terrible conflict to the state of Virginia (where "more blood was spilt" than anywhere else). The battlefields themselves are interesting, fascinating indeed, but we were particularly interested in the background to and the reasons for the war.

The numerous battlefield exhibits and visitors centres deal with how the war went in that locality, but our more strategic question was answered perfectly at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. Richmond is the state capital and, we learned, it was also the capital of the Confederated States of America, a country which had seceeded from the "Union" in 1861 and had its own President, Jefferson Davis. The USA must have viewed his behaviour as treacherous, but he is nevertheless honoured in modern day America, with the main coastal north-south road, US1, being named after him for much of its length.

The Civil War Museum is a new facility, and it structures its displays ingeniously by clearly dividing itself into the points of view of the three major stakeholders, the North (defending the "Union"), the South (defending state rights, which the museum called "Home") and the negro population ("Freedom" from slavery). The displays emphasise that while the seeds for the war were being sown effectively from the War of Independence about 80-90 years previously, and the causes were complex, they basically got down to slavery. The South was determined to defend its source of cheap labour which allowed them the accumulation of great wealth. The North was concerned about the morality of slavery, certainly, but they were just as opposed to the burgeoning economic strength of the South as slave populations grew. The South's political strength grew with this population too, because despite slaves being traded as property, a rule of "three fifths" was applied to their numbers. The geographic expansion of the USA (the acquisition of the "middle" by the Louisiana purchase from France in 1803; and Calfornia, New Mexico and Texas from the Mexican war in 1848) aggravated the balance between north and south achieved by the Union's consitution. When the southern states seceeded, the North's argument became more philosophical (the defence of the Constitution) and tactical (refusal to allow important ports and resources to be taken over by a foreign power). With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, he called for armed retaliation to the secession, and seeking freedom for slaves was obviously not the major part of the motivation. We found this museum to be most interesting and informative, and it dealt with what we wanted to know perfectly.

Next door to the Museum is the Civil War Visitor Centre, run by the National Park Service. We were puzzled that the National Parks are the custodians of many Civil War sites and battlefields, but they take on this task with great effectiveness. Just as we commented when touring the Rocky Mountains two years ago, US National Parks are fanastically well organised and managed, and any natural or historical features under their care are in very good hands indeed. The Civil War sites are excellent and indeed awesome examples of this.

The main Richmond visitor centre has particular interest because of its location in the Tredegar Iron Works which manufactured cannons and other war machines for the Confederate army. Today, the works are partly ruins, but they have been stabilised and modified into a magnificent venue for the centre [photo].

At all the visitor centres we visited, there is a movie or some form of audio-visual presentation to describe the progress of the war in that particular locality. These are always very professional, very interesting and highly informative. The battlefields themselves (or at least those which survived and a now under National Park care) are laid out with walking trails, driving tours and numerous exhibits to described exactly what happened at this particular spot. In some places there are open fields or forests with few remnants of the war, but in others there are stunning artifacts and reminders, sometimes by reconstruction [photo], of how the war was conducted at that spot. To visit these places is very moving, and we were appalled at the horrendous loss of life which took place under our feet. It is notable that the use of metal detectors is specifically prohibited at all these sites.

At the Cold Harbour battlefield, near Richmond, we learned the extent to which this war involved "earthworks", the creation of protective barriers and trenches. No doubt these tactics and techniques were studied and adopted by European generals in the first world war, 50 years later.

At Petersburg, not that far south of Richmond, we were able to understand the battles which turned the war in favour of the North, and led to Confederate General Robert E Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S Grant only a week later. At this battlefield took place the "Battle of the Crater" where the two front lines were amazingly close together, and coal miner Union soldiers from Pennsylvania dug a tunnel 500ft from behind their lines to under a Confederate fort and blew it up with explosives. The Union troops were so amazed at the crater thus created, they actually lost the fight there, despite the damage and carnage suffered by the other side in the explosion.

At Fredericksburg, north of Richmond, we learned and saw how Union troops were repeatedly unable to capture a hill just out of town, and suffered horrendous losses, because the hill overlooked an open plain (now a suburb) and was easily protected by a rock wall, a "sunken road" and elevated gun emplacements. The Union army eventually won the hill by coming in from behind. The photo shows a portion of the rock wall, and a house, still riddled with bullets, that was in the way of the fighting. There is a huge cemetery here, full of mostly unidentified Union soldiers, buried on the very hill they died trying to capture [photo].

The towns we saw on these battlefield visits are worth a mention. Richmond is a large and modern city with a beautiful skyline as you drive in. It is undergoing great renewal in the CBD. We saw a huge modern edifice with Philip Morris emblazoned on it. Possibly it is the global headquarters of this company whose products must have killed more people than it is possible to imagine.

We didn't see much of Petersburg town, but Fredericksburg, just away from its battlefield, has a delightful and quaint historical district, full of life (University of Margaret Washington very close) and cafes, buildings in the English style (and one French, that we saw, right at the battlefield), and street names like Princess Anne, Prince Edward, George, Charles and William. A guide at the battlefield visitor centre told us of the Hyperion Cafe for cappucino, and we went there twice in two days (a record for us), so good was the coffee (ceramic cups!) and so cosy was the ambience [photo].

Thanks to excellent displays and short movies at visitor centres, informative exhibits at the actual war sites, and very clever reconstructions, we feel we know a lot more about the Civil War than we did before. We don't know that this sort of on-site historical representation of war battlefields is available in such volume anywhere else in the world - maybe the American treatment of its Civil War memory is quite unique?

As a final word, no matter what the war, no matter what the cause, the politicians are always to blame, and the tragic waste is always a deplorable testament to their failure!

09 February, 2008

Three Treats

The Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park is the northern extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we did this stretch on a fine, sunny day, although it was partly overcast while we were up in the mountains. It's strange that these two roads are managed separately, although both by the National Park Service. The Skyline Drive even has a "toll", strictly a park entry fee, while the Parkway is free.

The views of the Shenandoah River valley on the west side of the ridge are panoramic, although a little bit hazy due to pollution even during winter. There was even less private traffic (virtually none) on the Skyline Drive than there was on the Parkway, possibly because it's through a wider National Park and does not have private property either side of the road, although we did see a number of service vehicles.

We took a side trip to New Market (lots of Civil War battlefields here) to visit another of Virginia's covered bridges. This one you can still drive over! It was called Meem's Bottom, after a landowning family nearby. It's quite a photogenic bridge and its inside structure
(single span Burr arch truss) is fascinating [photo]. The current bridge is a reconstruction, having been burned by vandals in 1976, and like other covered bridges, it now sits on concrete piers and steel beams. The Meem's bridge predecessors were burned in 1862 in the Civil War by the Confederate Army, and its replacement was washed away in a flood.

After the excursion to the Shenandoah valley, we raced back to Charlottesville to visit the home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, hence the writer of those famous words "all men are created equal" and have a right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". He obviously did not practice what he preached, because he operated the surrounding tobacco plantation using slave labour. Even though he condemned slavery, he participated in it.

Jefferson was a great philosopher but also a self taught architect, and he designed his home, "Monticello". We did a tour of the building [photo]. It's unfortunate that no photographs are allowed inside, because the house features magnificent European design, and some extraordinary innovations. Jefferson was not an inventor, but he freely adopted others' ideas to great effect in his house. The house has some skylights, double glazing, a fascinating built-in pendulum clock that he designed himself (the weights have to pass through a hole in the floor), dumb waiters for wine bottles built into the side of fireplaces, a turntable servery for food coming into the dining room, so that doors do not have to be opened (letting a draught in), double doors linked with underfloor bicycle chains etc. Possible the greatest innovation is a device used by Jefferson to make copies of all his writing (something like a pantograph?) - the first copying machine?

Jefferson's wife died in childbirth at a young age. He had one daughter with his wife, but it had long been rumoured that he fathered several children with one of his slaves. Jefferson never acknowledged this, but it has apparently been recently been confirmed using DNA analysis, and we note that photos of these children at Monticello are now accorded the surname "Jefferson".

07 February, 2008

Cool Music on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Our previous blogpost mentioned our first frustrating day on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) when, due to road closures we regarded as unnecessary, we managed to only drive about 10 miles on the Parkway in the whole day (between Linville Falls and Blowing Rock). Since then, we have spent two more much more successful days driving the BRP, after getting back on it at Deep Gap near Boone. We had spent the night in this town, named after Daniel, the famous explorer and good all round mountain man, and we ate at Troy's, a classic American diner.

After two days, we arrived at Charlottesville VA at the northern end of the BRP, having done several hundred beautiful miles on it. The road closures in North Carolina persisted, and we hap to skip parts of the Parkway, but the posted closures in Virginia seem to have evaporated. The closed stretches may have been opened in the last day or so, and frankly, we could see no reason for the closures anyway, no ice, no snow and no signs of grading.

The first day was a sunny day, so we had beautiful views over the blue ridges of the mountains [photo]. The road is so peaceful at this time of year, we had it to ourselves, hardly seeing another vehicle, and no commercial vehicles are allowed on it, so no trucks. It is an absolute delight to drive, and the scenery, numerous overlooks, wildlife, and side trips are a real bonus. This road is so attractive, that it increases our distress at the inexplicable closures. After a night in Roanoke/Salem VA, the second day started clear but we had some rain and at the end there was a heavy fog, which only enhanced the beauty of the mountains, but didn't do anything for the long distance views! Banks of fog swept down from the peaks into the valleys.

Our enjoyment was enhanced by the very cool bluegrass music which was being transmitted around the Blue Ridge. A pleasant change from the rantings of shock-jocks on talk radio about the Presidential primaries!

The interesting thing is the "public" roads running near the BRP have villages and cabins as well as the traffic on them, and you can see them quite clearly from many places on the BRP. It is easy to pop off to see things and pop back on again.

The forest is made up of maple trees and firs, and there are rhododendrons growing freely, they must be a beautful sight in the spring when they are in flower. We made a few excursions on the walking tracks which are well marked and obviously well used in the summer when the parkway is heavily used. There are plenty of white tailed deer to see [photo] and we saw turkeys and birds, but no bears unfortunately.

One of the most interesting things along the way is the extremely photogenic Mabry Mill [photo], and a village set out in the style of the mountain people who lived in the area, in the early 1900's.

We made a detour into Floyd, to visit the General Store there: it is a place where music and dancing happens every Friday night. Although it was only Tuesday, we thought we would have a look in, but it is only open 4 days a week in winter, and we were out of luck. The best we could do was peer in the window, and look at the entertainment list for next Friday. Lots of Bluegrass music!

Another detour took us to see 3 covered bridges. There are only a handful in Virginia, and the 3 we saw (one from a distance, it's on private property) are well preserved and registered by the Historical Society, we were pleased to see [photo].

Another side trip took us into Buena Vista, a small town which looks as though it has fallen on very hard times. We had a nice chat to the lady in the cafe there, over lunch. She has entertainment in the cafe every 3rd Friday night. Live bands of course, and a variety of music. The purpose of this visit was to see the Country Store there, but to our dismay it had closed some time ago. The lady from the cafe said she hoped someone would get it going again someday, she seems to be thinking about it herself. This seemed very sad, we hope the town manages a comeback, it certainly is on the bluegrass trail and could do with an injection of visitors. We also met the policeman of this small town, just as he closed the road back to the Parkway because of a truck accident. He was very friendly and he told us of a secret alternative way back up the ridge which saved us many miles. The secret way was very steep and windy, but paved all the way - luckily no trucks use this road. Our Subaru handled it with aplomb.

Again we had cause to be disappointed with the commercial appropriation of natural scenic attractions. We didn't even bother to make the detour to Natural Bridge after reading that a stiff entry fee is charged, and realising that it would probably be closed and locked up anyway for winter.

Why are the attractions on this road closed in winter? Maybe it's because the road itself is not kept open reliably. There's a destructive circular argument in here somewhere - the attractions are closed because the road is not maintained because the attractions don't have enough visitors? Anyway, we were disappointed that the Linville Falls visitors centres, the Blue Ridge Music Centre, the Mabry Mill shop (although the site was still accessible), Virginia's Explore Centre (and the historical exhibits were behind locked gates), the Peaks of Otter visitors centre were all closed. No doubt others were closed too, but we didn't go in to find out. We feel there is enough winter traffic on the BRP to encourage more openings, and that this traffic would increase if they maintained the road. That said, we did thoroughly enjoy the relative solitude on the road! Luckily the Folk Art Centre visitors centre near Asheville NC was open, because this is where we got our best map of the Parkway.

05 February, 2008

Blue Ridge Farceway

Today was not a good day. Firstly, it was raining in the morning, and it rained steadily all day, which is enough to put any tourist in a bad mood, but our experience with the Blue Ridge Parkway made it worse.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a tourist road (no commercial traffic) which runs along a high ridge of the Appalachian Mountains for 469 miles in Virginia and North Carolina. The information about the Parkway proudly proclaims it to be a "designated All American Road" which requires it to have such exceptional and unique qualities that it is a "destination unto itself" and "the road must provide an exceptional travelling experience so recognised by travellers that the primary reason for their trip would be to drive along the Byway". This requirement places All American Roads well above "National Scenic Byways" which apply to a lot of particularly scenic roads in the US.

Well sadly, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a farce. Today it is closed in no less than 12 separate places, the closures totalling 241 miles of the most scenic (highest?) parts of the road. The closures are due to "ice and snow". Trouble is, we have seen almost no ice and snow anywhere on this trip. Even around ski resorts, the only snow visible is man made. The entire southern 80 miles of the Parkway, from Cherokee to Asheville, which we particularly wanted to cover, is closed.

Why is this "exceptional travelling experience" completely ruined by these closures? Our enquiries reveal that no attempts are made to clear the road, so travellers wanting to enjoy this All American Road have to wait for very old ice to melt naturally in areas where sun probably never reaches in winter. We have travelled the Rockies in winter, and mountain passes twice as high as anything in these mountains are kept open during snowstorms, and in exceptional circumstances, seem to be opened within hours of really heavy falls. Surely, no other American tourist attraction, not to mention one claimed to be as exceptional as the Blue Ridge Parkway, is treated with such contempt by its guardians.

Before we get flamed, let us emphasise that in no way are we criticising the staff of the National Parks service which, apparently, has responsibility for the Parkway. We are confident that the Parkway is being neglected due to underfunding, and that the staff are doing the very best they can with the limited resources available to them. Surely the "blame" belongs with the bureaucrats and politicians who determine the budgets available to the Blue Ridge Parkway, this road of exceptional significance. Shame on whoever is responsible for this!

Good information is available from recorded messages and from very helpful visitor centre staff on where the road is open or closed at any particular time, and what the best alternate routes might be. It's a pity that notices on the road itself about closures are virtually non-existent. Maybe the budget again?

So, our drive from Asheville to Boone which should have been 100 miles of the Parkway, was actually less than 10 miles of the Parkway (with hardly a trace of ice or snow), and the rest of the way on alternative routes, including Interstates and US Highways which hardly give the same experience.

This drive had its highs and lows. The scenery was both interesting and delightful once we were off the I40, and we saw some quaint mountain towns such as Black Mountain, Old Fort (which we would have missed if were on the Parkway, and Clare got cappucino at a friendly shop in Black Mountain) and Blowing Rock.

We tried to see Linville Falls which is supposedly one of the most spectacular sights of the Parkway, but it required a 1km bush walk, and frankly it was raining too heavily, and the path was slippery. We can't blame the bureaucrats for the rain! The Parkway visitors centre at the Falls was closed as was the State Forest visitors centre (a cute shack, photo). Why are these Centres closed? We are quite concerned at the tendency to close businesses and services down in winter when there are still tourists about (these mountains abound with ski resorts, after all) and most of them are accessible.

We tried to visit Blowing Rock, a natural feature in mountainous country apparently characterised by exceptional updrafts. Sorry, it's closed for the season, and because it seems to be on private property, not even able to be looked at from a distance.

We think the value of the Appalachians, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, is the exceptional natural beauty of the area, and the quaintness of the towns and small settlements. There is little or no value in the commercial capture of scenic beauty (Blowing Rock as mentioned, also Grandfather Mountain), turning them into tawdry attractions and theme parks. It's a shame that this exploitation has been allowed to occur in such an exceptionally beautiful region.

Driving slowly along the Blue Ridge Parkway today would have been a perfect way to spend a miserable rainy day or two. The scenery would surely still have been glorious. Instead, we missed that opportunity, although the other road was still good. Hopefully, the weather will improve - that will improve our mood considerably - but we doubt that anything quick will happen to open the closed sections of the Parkway.

04 February, 2008

The Vanderbilt's Country House

We had originally planned to skirt round the Great Smoky Mountains on the I40 and then drive the Blue Ridge Parkway near its southern extremity at Cherokee NC, but we were stunned to hear that the Parkway is closed throughout North Carolina due to snow and ice! We have just driven over the Smokies on the day after the last storm, and there is barely a flake of snow to be seen. We cannot fathom how the Parkway can be closed, but we do understand that the road is not snow-plowed, but has to clear itself naturally. This is a stark contrast to the approach we saw two years ago in the Rocky Mountains, where mountain passes twice as high as anything on the Parkway seem to be cleared within hours of a snowstorm. These are isolated roads of course, and therefore very important, while the Blue Ridge Parkway is a tourist road with lots of alternatives available.

Anyway, we had been advised by both Jack's friend, Mike, who lives in Washington, and our friend Judy from Greenville that when near Asheville NC, we should not miss the Biltmore Estate. We were not sure we wanted to take up these recommendations, having previously visited Versailles out of Paris, and Schoenbrunn in Vienna. But in the end, while waiting for the snow on the Parkway to melt, we made the pilgramage to Biltmore, and the investment of our time and the entry fee was amply rewarded.

At 8000 acres, the Estate is huge. The drive around it is about 11 miles long. The gardens are large and immaculate, and were designed by the same fellow who did Central Park in New York. There was once a working dairy, which provided the town with milk, but it has now been replaced by a huge vineyard and winery, which now markets Biltmore wines. We sampled some of the wines, which were very good! There are other tourist attractions now, a farm and horse stables, not to mention walking trails, jogging, bicycling, carraige rides [photo] and even Land Rover off road driving experiences. There is a large inn, for people to stay on the estate.

The highlight of the visit to the Estate is Biltmore House, the largest house in the USA. The house's exterior is very ornate, bringing to mind Windsor Castle and Notre Dame. The house was built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890's as a "country home". It is interesting to see this house and the furnishings, as there is so much of Europe incorporated there. Many tapestries, on the walls, all the furniture in the rooms, and the art works. For example, all the bedrooms are themed in such a way that you can almost guess the name of the room from the art on the walls, all European. The European palace approach of having narrow passageways between the rooms for servants to scurry has been adopted at Biltmore. Of course there are very practical American touches, specifically that all the bedrooms have ensuites. This would be an innovative idea in Europe, even today.

Sadly, photography is not allowed inside the house. There is a winter garden just inside the front door which is stunning. The main dining room is beyond description, it even features a huge pipe organ! The circular grand staircase goes from bottom to top and wraps around a gigantic multileveled chandelier. While the tour of the majestic rooms of Biltmore was as impressive as you would expect, possibly the feature of this tour which made it partly unique and certainly fascinating was the visit to the servants quarters, the kitchens, the pantries, the laundries etc, all in restored condition. We even saw a blower room which powers the organ upstairs, and a "mechanical" walk-in refrigerator. The washing machine was a sight to see!

Biltmore seems way ahead of its time: it has a bowling alley, an indoor pool and a gymnasium. We are guessing the house was used in the winter, there is no outdoor pool, no tennis courts etc, so maybe the Vanderbilts had a beach house as well, for summer use. Obviously the grounds would have been used for hunting, and shooting, geese, deer, etc., and there were large lakes for fishing.

Biltmore House did have an outdoor bowls area, and extensive vegetable gardens. Still functioning is a beautiful conservatory [photo], with many plants we recognised, all of which would grow in a Sydney garden all year round, and were flourishing in the hot house conditions, even pineapples!

The Estate is still in the Vanderbilt family, but it was opened to the public in the 1930's as a means of helping Asheville with tourism during the depression. Despite the entry fees, and the wine and merchandise sales, one would not assume that the "business" makes too much money. Maintenance of the grounds and the buildings would cost a fortune, and there are great numbers of staff employed.

03 February, 2008

Cades Cove

We stayed at Gatlinburg, Tennessee, just on the northern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our hotel room has a balcony overhanging a gushing river, and the town itself is a theme park in its own right, full of (apart from gunshops) a wide array of amusements (exemplified by Ripley's Believe It or Not) and rides, all no doubt designed to separate tourists from their money. Despite this, it is a very pretty place, jammed between mountains and divided by numerous rivers and creeks, and populated by tourists who seem to be totally unprepared for cold weather, judging by their clothing and footwear. We saw the same in Florida, but there, cold weather is unusual, here it is surely the norm! The next town, almost joined with Gatlinburg, but lacking its mountainous location and charm, is Pigeon Forge (it's on the Pigeon River), also full of motels and fun parks, and very busy with tourists. The photo shows fishermen in the Roaring Fork Creek or Little Pigeon River in the centre of Gatlinburg.

There is a ski resort above the town, although you cannot see any snow from the town. Gatlinburg reminds us of Jindabyne, but much bigger and flashier. We drove up to the slopes and still did not see a flake of snow, so it must be 100% artificial at the skiing area. We didn't go past the car park, because at 5pm, they still wanted us to pay for a day's parking. It is certainly cold enough here to make snow, and they have more than enough water.

We spent the day at Cades Cove, an old remote community from the 1800's in a wide valley surrounded by mountains, where "homesteaders" or "hillbillies" lived before the land was acquired for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cades Cove is a long, twisty, slow 30 mile drive out of Gatlinburg (along the Little River, being enjoyed by kayakers), and then to see the Cove you drive round an 11 mile loop (reserved for pedestrians and cyclists on some days in summer). It was a beautiful cool, sunny day, and it was so nice to be in this Shangri-la-like hidden valley where about 700 people once farmed and raised crops. There were several restored churches and houses [photo], with barns. We saw old waterwheel mill, a forge, smokehouse etc. The visitors' centre there was very impressive, with lots of information.

This is a very popular area, and the limited roads were quite crowded. People were fascinated to see wild deer - one can only imagine their reaction if a black bear appeared! The Cove has large empty fields and visitors really wandering off into those fields and enjoying the relative solitude and quiet [photo]. We think this Park, and Cades Cove in particular, is quite unique in the USA.

The descendents of the original Cades Cove families have a reunion every year, and we note that many of them are still being buried in the tiny cemeteries at the churches there.

Judging from their number plates, many people visiting Cades Cove, and indeed in Gatlinburg, were from the nearby states, Alabama, Georgia, and Nth Carolina and most were from Tennessee. We figure this is a popular place for weekends away.

02 February, 2008

The Great Smokies

In Greenville SC, we met up with old friend Ralph and his wife Judy, who generously invited us to stay at their beautiful new home. Thanks very much Ralph and Judy, and we hope we get to repay the compliment in the future! Ralph showed us around the delightful and recently restored historic downtown area of Greenville. The Reedy River flows through town, and the rejuvenation of this district has rendered the area beautiful and charming.

On this drive + walk, we discovered that the Poinsettia is a flower of Mexican origin but introduced to the US by a Greenville resident Joel Poinsett who became the first US Ambassador to Mexico. We also saw the beautiful campus of Furman University, within walking distance of Ralph and Judy's home.

Ralph and Judy advised us on a scenic route into the Great Smoky Mountains (GSM) which was to be our next destination. We followed this route, and found it to be (as warned) circuitous and extremely twisty, but as it climbed into the hills, it passed through delightful countryside and towns, such as Cashiers and Highlands. This route looks as if it is very popular in summer, but it was reasonably quiet for our drive. At the latter town, we found a great place for cappucino. It seems the arty and touristy towns are reliable sources of espresso coffee outlets!

We eventually arrived at Cherokee at the southern gateway to the GSM National Park, and decided that there wasn't enough time to cross the mountain at leisure, so we stayed the night. Cherokee is a big touristy town, full of "trading post" type souvenir shops, located inside the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The town is getting quite a lot of work during this off-season. The photo shows one of many painted bears which decorate the streets of Cherokee - they are quite cute!

Indian reservations in the US are allowed casinos to provide a solid source of financial support to the native populations. This is no doubt one way of compensating the Indians for atrocities performed in times past. In the Cherokee's case, the entire nation was marched to Oklahoma by the US Government in the 1830's, the famous "Trail of Tears", where few survived.

Hopefully the Cherokee Casino (and all others for that matter) is distributing wealth where it is most needed, but we found it quite dispiriting, a dark and very smoky place populated by sad looking and addicted gamblers. We remember someone saying that gambling is a tax on stupidity. Casinos are certainly habituated by people with poor mathematical skills, otherwise they would know that they are going to lose! The fact that gamblers seem to smoke heavily is perhaps another indicator of their intelligence.

We spent a fine but mostly overcast day in the GSM National Park. The drifting mists which give rise to the "smoky" were well and truly in evidence, and the park was amazingly beautiful. After an overnight downpour, the rivers were flowing apace [photo at a bridge over the Oconaluftee River], and the waterfalls were plentiful and magnificent. The altitude of the park is not so high (Newfound Gap is at 5046ft), so it's partly above and below the snowline, leading to the slushy and slippery conditions that also grace the Australian Snowy Mountains. We only attempted about a mile of the famed Appalachian Trial, and found the walking conditions quite challenging [photo].

At the vistors' centres, we learnt a lot about the history, flora and fauna of this Park. The GSM National Park is effectively the only wilderness area on the eastern side of the USA, and it only came about through the cooperation (sometimes grudging) and contributions of many landholders, residents and schoolchildren, and commercial stakeholders, including logging companies who had already logged 80% of the area, and the governments of Tennessee and North Carolina. A most important donation came from the Rockefeller family. The biodiversity of the park is stunning (a movie at the visitor's centre explains why) and precious, and accordingly we found it quite unnerving to see a lot of gun shops in the town of Gatlinburg on the north side of the park. These shops are here for a reason!

While considering where to stay after our Park visit, we looked for Dollywood at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. It's missing! We found the car park, but not the theme park (which is shut for the Winter anyway), and not the "emporium" which is supposed to be open.

01 February, 2008

Georgia on our Minds

Travelling north out of Florida, we moved up through the middle of Georgia en route to the Great Smoky Mountains. We avoided Interstates as much as possible, although at Tifton we were lucky enough to spy a Starbucks advertisement so Clare could get her fix for the day.

Although she would not normally have coffee from Starbucks in Australia (not great coffee, paper cups!), espresso has not taken off so much on this side of the USA,and cappucinos can be very hard to find. If you stay off the beaten track, you can travel 100's of miles between espresso shops, and a Starbucks outlet thus becomes a welcome sight.

We deviated to Andersonville to visit what proved to be magnificent National Monument commemorating Prisoners of War. Our Navman had some trouble getting us here, but we made it in the end. Andersonville was the site of the biggest Civil War prison camp on either side (it was a Confederate camp), and due to how the camp design contaminated its own drinking water, it suffered the highest number and percentage of prisoner deaths. The cemetery here was large, crowded and most moving. The dead soldiers were originally identified only by numbered stakes, but, after the war, the lady who established the American Red Cross (and others) painstakingly went through the records and identified the soldier associated with every numbered stake. Now these names of these soldiers appear on small tombstones across the cemetery. Like all war cemeteries, this is a very moving place.

But more fascinating is the site of the camp itself, about a kilometer away, with some reconstructions and other devices to clearly show where the wells were dug (in a desperate search for water during the hot summer drought, and to build escape tunnels), where the stockade (perimeter fence was), where the "deadline" was inside the stockade, beyond which any prisoner would be shot, and where Providence Spring appeared after a downpour to save the lives and quench the thirsts of the prisoners. The photo shows this site and some of the numerous memorials erected by the northern states to show where their citizens tended to congregate in the camp. Apparently the men from the individual states tended to stick together for better morale and peer support.

The museum at this historic monument features an incredibly gruesome and moving movie reconstruction of life inside this horror camp. The museum itself seems to memorialise American POWs of all wars, as well as foreign POWs held in American camps.

Although we spent a night in the large city of Macon (rhymes with "bacon"), we cruised up through Georgia mostly on back roads and passed through some delightful little towns, such as Juliette (where the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was filmed, centering on the Whistle Stop Cafe, see photo). Andersonville itself as particularly charming, as were places such as Monticello and Eatonville. In this last town, we stumbled across a very cute cafe which served cappucino, so we stopped there for a break. The photo shows the inside of this cafe, which was preparing for a lunch rush. While we were there, the phone rang repeatedly with people asking what was on - it was chicken pie and squash casserole, with rice and green beans!

We started to notice that the lakes and rivers are at very low levels. The "high tide" marks are well up from the present water edge, and some boats and wharves are particularly high and dry. There is a serious drought in this part of the US.