Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Break the Trip with Ava

Oh, how evil is Interstate 95.

The north/south artery of the east coast of the United States, once a monument to American motoring, is now a filthy, fume clogged, congested menace of a road overfilled with rampaging cars and trucks. The only place to eat is at nasty fast food restaurants whose rancid fat knocks you back before you get out of the car. Tacky chain hotels dot the landscape. It’s a horror.

But chances are that if you are travelling on the east coast of the US, sooner or later, you too will find yourself on 95. If so, and if you are heading south, I have a suggestion for how you can get only one mile off that road, have a neat “No Crowds” experience for an hour or so, eat an inexpensive and authentic lunch and maybe even bag a bargain or two.

Five hours south of Washington and one mile off I95 at Exit 95 in Smithfield, North Carolina is the Ava Gardner Museum http://www.avagardner.org/ . That’s right, a museum dedicated to the life and times of the Hollywood goddess, one of Smithfield’s most famous native daughters. Even if you have never been interested in Ava Gardner, Hollywood, movies or movie stars, this is a wonderful gem of a museum.

First, Ava Gardner was as drop dead gorgeous as they come. What’s more, she had an interesting if tempestuous and ultimately sad life with lots of equally famous husbands. The Ava Gardner Museum takes all these ingredients and tells a really interesting story about one woman’s rise to fame during the golden age of Hollywood. I spent a very happy hour in the place recently and highly recommend it. The curatorship is first class. The objects are beautifully presented and well explained. There is an excellent film which introduces the story and sympathetically sucks you in. How the collection of memorabilia and the museum came about is a mind boggling tale in itself. The gift shop has a small but truly camp collection of things to buy which would make superb stocking stuffers for even the most jaded person on your Christmas list. And all of this only a 5 minute journey off that evil road.

If you are feeling hungry before or after your visit, you can get a fine sandwich around the corner from the museum at Marla’s. My children swear that the Italian subs at Marla’s are the finest sandwiches anywhere in the world. I’m not so sure, but they are good. Everything is made fresh to order and the place is packed with locals. Marla’s can be found at 135 South Third Street next to the Howell Theatre. Marla’s opening times are idiosyncratic so be careful. Open Monday and Friday 8-8, Tuesday through Thurday 8-2, Saturday 8-2:30 and closed on Sunday.

Before getting back on 95, if it is a weekday (absolutely forget doing this on the weekend, particularly in the summer) you can pay a visit to a vast outlet shopping emporium, Carolina Premium Outlets, http://www.premiumoutlets.com/carolina where, over the years, I have found very good buys on lots of branded merchandise such as Gap, Ralph Lauren, Samsonite, Banana Republic and Nike. It’s a big horrible concrete jungle of a place. There’s nothing nice or charming about it but if it is a good buy you want and the time is right, it can be worth a visit.

So that’s my suggestion for how to beat the I95 blues. Can anyone suggest other places along the stretch from Maine to Florida where you can find quick, easy and interesting alternatives to the mind numbing and disgusting chains? I’ve checked out several websites listing Gourmet food off I95 and nice places to stay and when they included chains like Ruby Tuesdays (yuk!) and EconoLodge I knew that No Crowds had a job to do. Together, we can take back the American Interstate experience, one exit at a time.

Beaufort Addendum

I asked my friend, Mase, a Beaufort native, to check my material on his former hometown, and he had this to add:

"The one thing that I thought about that might be interesting to your readers is that "The Dockhouse" is a great place to relax outside with drinks while mixing with boat owners from around the world whose yachts are docked footsteps away in the town marina, listening to live music most nights of the week, or watching people stroll up and down the boardwalk. One of the great pleasures of Beaufort is that it is small and compact, so you are certain to meet people from all over who are spending the night or several days in the marina."

Thanks, Mase.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Beaufort, North Carolina

In Search of Lost Time on the Carolina Coast

Picking up my son at Raleigh-Durham Airport, I stupidly left my copy of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrances of Things Past” on top of the automatic parking ticket machine which, at the time, seemed auspicious. My project for the summer could have been resurrected by Amazon but instead I put off reading Proust for yet another year. Still, my appetite for recapturing the past was more than satisfied during the week I spent in Beaufort, an historic seaport on the North Carolina coast which retains an authentic small town atmosphere despite the crush of modern tourism elsewhere on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Frankly, if I had the mass readership of a travel writer such as Rick Steves, I wouldn’t even be telling you about Beaufort, which I visit every summer. Beaufort is too unspoiled to share.

Established in 1709, the town was once the home of whalers, merchants, fishermen and even pirates, including the notorious Blackbeard. Over 100 historic homes remain which are beautifully preserved by the current residents. The streets are wide, shady and quiet. Gardens are lovingly maintained. Wild ponies can be seen grazing on Carrot Island and local children spend lazy afternoons jumping off the town dock. In fact, children are able to walk around Beaufort as children used to do, on foot or bikes or in boats, unsupervised and just happy to be out of school.

With children or without, it is fun to buy an ice cream from the General Store and walk along the bustling waterfront to soak up the nautical atmosphere. Some of the boats are pretty spectacular, huge yachts hailing from tax havens from around the world. There are ferries to isolated places to swim where, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the water temperature is a blissful 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also on offer are harbour cruises, ecology cruises, parasailing, scuba diving, kayaking and a ride on a speed boat that looks like a shark, which the locals hate, but my 8 year old daughter finds thrilling. Deep sea fishing and bird watching are also popular.

Beaufort is also the perfect place to walk, jog and bicycle. The terrain is flat, the scenery is lovely and the other walkers, joggers and bicyclists are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet in your life. On my daily run from my parents’ house to the fish factory at the end of town, I would encounter rabbits, cranes, wild ponies and very little traffic. On the other hand, sitting on porches, sipping iced tea and doing absolutely nothing is also a perfectly respectable Beaufort pastime.

There is an active historic association http://historicbeaufort.com/bhaindex.htm which maintains a small but interesting collection of 18th and 19th century buildings you can visit as well as an historic graveyard, The Old Burying Ground, which looks like it is straight out of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. My daughter was fascinated by the grave of the girl in the rum barrel who died at sea while returning from England but was brought back to Beaufort in the barrel to be buried. Today, her grave, sheltered by 100 year old live oak trees, is covered in cult-like fashion with toys, trinkets, flags and coins which visitors have left. There is also the grave of a British officer who died on a ship in Beaufort harbour and was buried standing up “in rebel’s ground”.

Families will enjoy a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/maritime/default.htm containing a mind blowing collection of shells, lots of interesting facts and stories about Blackbeard the Pirate and a wealth of information about preserving the fragile coastal ecosystem. Across the street, there is an historic boat building operation where the hardy and practical ships of the past are being lovingly recreated. During the summer, the Maritime Museum holds one day “Build Your Own Boat Workshops” for a child working with an adult. By the end of the day, participants take home proper seaworthy boats that work well and look great, having learned a tremendous amount about the art of ship making.

For such a small town, Beaufort has a good selection of restaurants. Informal sandwiches and local seafood can be found at the Beaufort Grocery Company (which becomes more formal in the evening) and Finz’s Grill while delicious, upscale dining is available at Stillwater http://www.frontstreetgrillatstillwater.com/ with beautiful views over Beaufort Harbor, Blue Moon CafĂ© and and the recently opened Sharpies Grill. Your options for accommodations range from 2 inns, a number of good bed and breakfasts such as The Cedars http://www.cedarsinn.com/ and the Pecan Tree Inn http://www.pecantree.com/ and house rentals, which are a good deal if you are staying for at least a week. Check with Beaufort Realty http://www.beaufortrlty.com/ for rentals.

Interesting shopping can be found in the local stores and boutiques which focus primarily on things nautical and aquatic and the best news of all is that there is not a Gap or Banana Republic in sight. The Rocking Chair Bookstore has a well thought out selection of bestsellers and books of local interest. There are several well patronised coffee shops but no Starbucks.

On the drive down from Washington, D.C. to Beaufort each year, I pass an increasing number of SUVs filled to bursting with families on their way to the beach. I see these hot and irritated folks at the horrible and crowded fast food restaurants which is the only food available on Interstate 95. But I don’t find these people or the frenetic atmosphere they create in Beaufort and that is why Beaufort is the best place I know to relax, recreate, visit, eat and play. It is very southern in a “step back in time kind of way” and has been described, with some justification, as "Nantucket with a southern drawl". It has none of the glitz or hype of its better known northern counterpart. In fact, this is still a lovely small town where friendly residents and tourists peacefully co-exist for a few months. The pace is slow, there is not much to do at night, it is hot during the day, yet after a holiday in Beaufort, I feel that I have successfully recaptured those endless summer days of my childhood where doing anything and nothing was always possible.