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.

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