America’s south – loosely defined as the eastern states below Pennsylvania – is often overlooked by visitors in favour of the sun-kissed beaches of California or the urban excitement of cities such as Las Vegas and New York.
But this is where many of the country’s most pivotal historical events took place.
One of the best ways to learn more about the region’s legacy is to visit some of the grand old houses that are scattered across the states of Georgia, Virginia and North and South Carolina. Not only are they impressive from an architectural standpoint, they also provide a fascinating insight into the area’s culture and attitudes.
Here are three of the best.
Boone Hall Plantation
Twenty kilometres from the charming South Carolina town of Charleston, Boone Hall is one of the US’s oldest working plantations. Established by Englishman John Boone in the early 1700s, it evolved into one of the south’s biggest cotton producers, employing 325 slaves to work 1200 hectares. In 1743, Boone’s son planted two evenly spaced rows of oak trees leading to the house. This avenue of oaks, draped in Spanish moss, has become one of the most photographed driveways in the country.
It’s not often you feel like an eco-warrior when you check in to a resort but since arriving at Post Ranch Inn, I’ve been feeling positively virtuous.
After a welcoming glass of Taittinger, my car is whisked away and I’m ferried to my room in an eerily quiet Lexus hybrid. I’ve just learnt that 70 per cent of the electricity I’ll use will be provided by the vast bank of solar panels I passed on the way in and that the property pioneered the region’s first commercial grey-water system.
Now, as I explore my enormous ocean-front suite, I notice telltale touches that confirm the owners are serious about their environmental footprint: refillable containers of soap, shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom, reusable glass bottles of water by the bed and a stainless-steel water bottle that’s mine to take away.
It’s enough to make you want to hug a tree. And thanks to Post Ranch Inn’s extensive planting program, there’s an abundance of huggable giant redwoods on the 40-hectare property.
Of all Savannah’s 22 elegant, park-like squares, there is one in particular tourists make a beeline for. It’s called Chippewa Square and the reason is because it’s where Forrest Gump sat on a bench and famously declared that, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Visitors to Savannah seem to have a pretty good idea what they’re going to get because 50 million of them have been to the city in the past 10 years. Lured by its rich history, graceful architecture and scenic squares, they descend on the region by the coachload.
KiaOra (Air New Zealand’s inflight magazine), NZ – April 2011
Just the word “Tahiti” conjures up an intoxicating mental image of aquamarine lagoons punctuated by idyllic sandy atolls. A land of brochure-blue skies, bath-warm water and lazy days filled with massages and cocktails at sunset.
But what if you don’t want to lounge around all day gazing into the eyes of a loved one? What if you want to get active? Explore a bit. Damn it, you want to earn that frozen margarita.
Thankfully, there are other options. On a recent trip to Moorea, Bora Bora and the main island of Tahiti, I discovered three activities that should satisfy those with a more adventurous bent.
Ask most Australians what they know about Toronto and they’ll likely answer “not much”, which is surprising given it’s the fifth-largest city in North America. While it might not have the profile of LA or New York, it’s not short on charm. The world’s most multicultural city, Toronto boasts 200 different ethnicities and 130 languages. There’s a kaleidoscope of neighbourhoods including five Chinatowns, two Little Italys, a Little India and even a Little Poland.
Throw in a lakeside location, the nearby Niagara Falls and a thriving film industry and Aussies’ lack of interest seems downright ridiculous.
As I lower the roof on our convertible Ford Mustang, I feel that tell-tale rush of excitement that accompanies the start of something memorable. I’m about to tick off an entry on my all-time travel wish-list: driving Highway 1, the spectacular coastal route that winds its way from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Over the next four days a friend and I are going to tackle 700 kilometres of some of the world’s most scenic driving roads, stay in some of the country’s most awarded resorts and feast on California’s finest food and wine. There’s only one small problem: we have wildly different music tastes. I’m a Bruce Springsteen kinda guy whereas he (let’s call him Charlie to save embarrassment) has a curious penchant for 80s soft rock. We agree on a compromise. Whoever isn’t driving has control of the iPod.
A contender for sexiest city in the US, Miami is a product of its location. As an American city with close ties to Central and South America, it is a melting pot for Latin-infused culture.
You’ll find Cuban, Mexican and even Brazilian influences in everything from the music to the food and fashion. The location delivers a hot, humid, tropical climate that, combined with some of the world’s best beaches, makes it a magnet for holidaymakers.
Miami is really two towns separated by Biscayne Bay. Downtown Miami is where the city goes to work; South Beach is where the city goes to play.
Before visiting Pennsylvania, my limited knowledge of the Amish was based on a single viewing of Witness, the movie where Harrison Ford goes into hiding in an Amish community to protect a young murder witness.
I knew they dressed in quaint, old-fashioned clothes and used horse-drawn buggies to get around but I assumed they were a dwindling community numbering in the hundreds.
In fact, the number of Amish in North America is estimated to be about 250,000.
And far from dwindling, it’s one of the world’s fastest growing populations, with an average birth-rate of 6.8 children per family.
An announcement comes over the public address system that there are two polar bears off the starboard bow.
It’s 7am. I stumble out of bed, bleary-eyed, and throw on some warm clothes. Up on deck, it’s a clear, crisp day and everyone is peering intently over the side, cameras and binoculars at the ready.
Suddenly, there’s a shout: “There they are!” All eyes focus on two white heads in the water a few hundred metres away. It’s a mother and her cub, clearly exhausted, desperately scanning the horizon for somewhere to rest.
The captain tells us we’re 190km from the nearest land. That’s a 60-hour swim.
We see other polar bears during our trip – lone males trundling over ice floes while sniffing the air – but I’ll never forget the heartbreaking sight of that mother and cub, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing environment.
As I inched our new home out of El Monte’s hire depot in Orlando, I felt that tingle of expectation that signifies the start of something special. We were about to embark on the quintessential American holiday: an RV trip.
We had two weeks to get from Florida to New York a journey that would take us through eight states and some of the country’s most historically significant towns and cities. It was both exciting and, for someone who hasn’t owned a car for 10 years, mildly terrifying.
Venice’s premier concert venue is the Teatro La Fenice, a spectacular theatre whose interior is a decadent ensemble of frescoed ceilings, plush red velvet and gilded artwork. Over its tumultuous 218-year history, it’s been the site of many famous operatic premieres as well as twice being burnt to the ground and completely rebuilt.
Unfortunately, even if you’re lucky enough to be in the city when something is playing here, tickets can be expensive and devilishly difficult to come by. It’s still worth taking a tour of the theatre but if you’d like to give your visit a musical accompaniment, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Thankfully, there are a good range of options. Tucked away among the city’s maze-like network of alleyways, bridges and canals are some delightful venues in which orchestras and opera singers perform on a regular basis. Here are some of the best:
Deidre in the driver’s seat turns around and whispers to me: “Did you hear that?”
I can’t hear anything apart from my heart pounding between my ears. I’m in an open-top Land Rover in an area teeming with lions and my nerves are jangling from a heady mixture of fear and excitement.
We move towards the source of the sound and, eventually, I catch it: a low, cough-like bark that I never would have imagined could have come from a lioness.
“That’s her calling her cubs.”
Minutes later, we see her – a fully grown lioness – and for the next hour follow her as she meanders through the African bush. She is completely unfazed by our presence and at one stage walks so close to the jeep that I physically recoil when she glances up and looks me in the eye.
Mention rail travel in Europe and most people think of France’s TGV.
What’s less well known is that Europe’s high-speed rail network extends north into Germany and south into Spain and Italy. Taking the train is not only kinder to the environment than flying, but you also get to see some of the scenery you’re hurtling through at 300km/h.
So, on a first trip to Italy with my girlfriend, we decided to let the train take the strain. We’d take the overnight train from London to Venice via Paris and then use the train to get between Venice, Florence and Rome.
We also chose to stay in properties from the same chain, in this case boutique hotel operator Baglioni. It turns out to be an inspired decision. The hotels all have access to the same reservation system, so they can easily make arrangements and check bookings.
It’s Good Friday and I’m being guided by Moses. Ahead of us lies 24km of tumultuous white water, dozens of spectacular waterfalls and an impenetrable canvas of lush, dense jungle.
Moses is a guide with Rivers Fiji and I’m on their Upper Navua rafting trip, an all-day adventure that follows the river as it slices through a chasm of black volcanic rock in the remote highlands of Viti Levu. At times the sheer-sided walls of the canyon narrow to just 7m wide while waterfalls tumble down through a canopy of ferns and bamboo. All around is the unmistakable background music of the jungle.
I could get used to this. I’ve got a mojito in one hand, a plate of freshly seared tuna in the other and I’m surrounded by an idyllic vista of azure water and sandy atolls. Attentive crew wait on my every whim, there’s a frighteningly fast jetski at my disposal, not to mention three luxuriously appointed cabins should I need to take a nap. This is how the other half live.
Sadly, I’m not in that half. I’m only on board for the afternoon but for the fortunate few, the 26m MV Bel Mare catamaran can be chartered for anything from a day to a month. Custom-built in New Zealand and one of only two of its type in the world, it’s a floating haven of polished wood, blinding white fibreglass and gleaming stainless steel. If you want to see Fiji in style, this is how.
It’s 11pm and I’ve just walked into the foyer of Aria, the 4004-room hotel centrepiece of the new CityCenter development in Las Vegas. Given there are several hundred people milling around, interspersed with a dozen security guards, I automatically presume there’s been a bomb scare or a fire alarm. When I question a nearby staff member, he just smiles wryly and says, “No sir, they’re all waiting to get into the club.”
It was supposed to be a hypothetical question. When I ask Jack: “What would happen if the engine failed now?” I didn’t expect him to reply: “Let’s find out.”
I wouldn’t be so worried if we were in a car or a boat. But we’re in a two-seater plane – and we’re at 760m (2500ft). Jack powers back the engine of the Piper Tomahawk and then, with a grin, tells me we’re about to attempt a dead-stick landing.
I try to hide the look of sheer terror on my face. I don’t like the sound of the word “attempt” and I’m even less enthusiastic about a landing with the word “dead” in it. But I’m in safe hands. As an instructor, Jack has flown for 34 years and has racked up more than 12,000 hours in the air. After a couple of sharp, banking turns to lose height, he glides in and touches down smoothly.
I’ve been recruited to help solve one of Denver’s most notorious crimes. On December 18, 1922, a Federal Reserve Bank delivery truck was being loaded with money outside the Denver Mint when three men pulled up in a black Buick and jumped out, firing sawn-off shotguns. Fifty guards returned fire but the robbers still managed to get away with $US200,000. One of them, Nicholas Trainor, was killed in the gunfight but the two others were never identified.
The case remained unsolved for 12 years until the Denver police suddenly announced they’d worked out who was responsible. Conveniently, all the gang members had either since been killed or were already in prison.
No one was ever charged in relation to the crime and the case was officially closed on December 1, 1934.
Today, we’ve been instructed to be at the entrance to platform two in Denver’s impressive Union Station at 10am. Just as the clock ticks over the hour, an agitated-looking woman comes clattering down the underpass wearing a 1920s-style blue sequin dress and carrying a battered brown suitcase.
It’s 6am and I’ve just dragged myself out of a warm, comfortable bed and up a near-vertical 100-metre wall of sand to watch the sunrise. You’ll rarely find me awake at 6am, let alone up, but this seems an appropriately intrepid way to start a day in which I’ll be following in the footsteps of one of the 20th century’s greatest explorers, Sir Wilfred Thesiger.
The Oxford-educated Thesiger eschewed life in suburban England, spending much of his life exploring Africa and the Middle East instead. He is famous for two crossings, in the 1940s, of a vast expanse of desert known as the Empty Quarter. Notable as the world’s largest uninterrupted body of sand, this inhospitable wilderness dominates much of the Arabian Peninsula, extending from Saudi Arabia into the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Oman.
The journey I will undertake is not quite so ambitious. I will cross a much smaller desert in eastern Oman, called Wahiba Sands, which Thesiger visited in 1949. Despite the fact he did it by camel and I’ll be in an airconditioned four-wheel-drive, I can’t help but feel a certain comradeship with the explorer as I sit on the cool sand and watch the sunlight slowly flood the towering dunes. Thesiger endured unimaginable hardships on his travels and, as a tribute, I have decided to forgo my normal morning cup of tea.
With our belongings wrapped tightly in plastic bags and lashed to three body boards, the three of us tentatively wade into the creek. Soon the water is too deep to stand so we use the boards for buoyancy and kick for the other side. Ten minutes later, we’re standing on Whangapoua Beach, a long stretch of blindingly white sand backed by grass-covered dunes. Apart from a handful of birds, there’s not another soul here.
It’s hard to believe we’re on New Zealand’s fourth-largest island in the middle of the busiest holiday of the year. But that’s the appeal of Great Barrier Island – no one seems to know about it. The term “best-kept secret” is overused in travel articles but I honestly don’t understand why more people don’t come here. It’s only a four-hour ferry ride or 30-minute flight from Auckland and awaiting you is a ruggedly beautiful wilderness.