Monday, July 28, 2008

Anyone Who Don't Sing is a Communist

America. 2008. The summer of $4 a gallon gasoline, a mortgage crisis, expensive groceries and the stay-at-home vacation. As Barack Obama addresses crowds in Berlin, we are in a park in Clayton, North Carolina, a former farming community morphing into a suburb. The small park is full of families sprawled on blankets and lawn chairs listening to beach music. We are a good 120 miles from any beach.

The night is warm, but not too hot, with a soft, nostalgic sky and curiously, no bugs. The band plays the old stuff, the Temptations, the Drifters, and anyone over 50 remembers himself young. We sing along. Teenagers look pained. Little children gyrate and prance before the stage while their parents take pictures of them with cell phones. No one thinks about unpaid bills.

The crowd, as befits a town sitting at the intersection of old and new south, is a casual mix of races and cultures: good old boys and girls, African Americans, Hispanics, Yankees. Most people look like they work at tech companies,  not on farms. You can buy liquor by the glass. There's not a mule in sight. And then, the lead singer announces that everyone must sing along and that anyone who doesn't is a communist. The crowd laughs because communists aren't threatening anymore. The Cold War is over, Senator Jesse Helms is dead and Joe Stalin has been run out of town by Osama bin Laden.

But no one seems to be thinking about politics on this fine night in Clayton, North Carolina. Close to an Interstate, full of new development, commutable to the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, this is a town that senses it has a bright future, even as the economy collapses around it. New restaurants have opened beside such venerable institutions as the Jones Lunch Room where the finest hot dogs in America can still be had for under $1.75. There's a snazzy new tennis club with beautifully maintained clay courts and top tier instruction. There's a brand new bypass that get the Interstate traffic out of the town. Despite all the problems of this summer, Claytonians are an optimistic, forward looking and friendly bunch, at least that is the way they seem to this insider (related to lots of folks in town) and outsider (she doesn't even live in America).

NoCrowds has written extensively about holidaying in eastern North Carolina. It's not just that we spend every summer here, we think everyone looking for authentic travel experiences would love it too. Entering the United States via Raleigh Durham Airport still beats the socks off JFK or LAX. With new international arrivals facilities opening next summer, it will be even better. Eastern North Carolina barbeque is still the best in the world. Ask anyone. So are the beaches. (North Carolina has the east coast's longest stretch of undeveloped coastline) but the best reason of all to visit North Carolina are the Carolinians. The real ones, not the New York imports, are congenitally hospitable. Even if they have not a clue about where you are from or wonder why you would want to be from there, they will take care of you. It's just their nature.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Green, Sex, Cancer, Secret, Fat

Well actually, this post is about the Hotel Clery, located just outside Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France. Having read in the New York Times recently that “green, sex, cancer, secret, fat” are magic words that can catapult a story to fame and fortune instead of the spam file, we decided to see what magic words could do for NoCrowds.

If you are travelling in northern France, perhaps on your way to or from a ferry to the UK, you will find a comfortable chateau hotel set in a twelve acre GREEN and verdant park just outside the town of Boulogne. Built in 1766, the chateau is a fine example of 18th century romantic architecture and was once the residence of General Berthier when the town was under siege by Napoleon.

The 27 rooms are decorated to a high standard with very comy beds making them perfect for SEX. The only thing that might interfere with your lovemaking, or sleep for that matter, would be the naughty but elegant peacocks which have the run of the place. They like to stroll through the bar, peek into the restaurant, perch on the roof of the outbuildings and cry through the night. Their presence, while loud at times, nevertheless added a bit of glamour and fun to the experience.

As for the food, we had a first class dinner in the conservatory overlooking the beautiful park. The menu featured healthy, CANCER fighting ingredients from the region with many seafood options such as sea bass on a bed of mashed artichoke with fennel emulsion. We also enjoyed some particularly delicious local snails served in filo parcels with maroilles cheese, basil and parsley coulis. Dinner for three with wine and service came to €160 which seemed correct given the quality and sophistication of the meal.

In any event, the SECRET is out for British travellers wanting to overnight near Boulogne. On the evening we were there, the hotel was packed with fellow countrymen heading back to the UK. Despite the British invasion, hotel staff were in good spirits, although there was just a whiff of Faulty Towers about the place. Service in the restaurant was uneven, the machine at the desk had problems processing our credit card. But these were minor distractions from the overall good experience. We left feeling rested from our long journey, FAT and happy after our fine dinner and hoping to return again soon.

Hotel Clery
Rue du Chateau
62360 Hedsin l’Abbe
Tel: 03 21 83 19 83
Fax: 03 21 87 52 59

Photo courtesy of the Hotel Clery website

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hartland and the North Devon Coast

The Hartland Quay Hotel on the North Devon coast of England is a romantic kind of place. Not the romance of the pampered paradises featured in travel magazines. The view at Hartland Quay may be just as spectacular as a luxury five star hotel perched on a seaside cliff, but the appeal of this simple and quirky hotel is all about the location. A hotel since 1886 but before that a bank, an oast house and a stable, the hotel exudes the romance of Treasure Island (the 1950 version was filmed there) of shipwrecks, rugged coastline and crashing seas. This is a place for ancient mariners and seafaring tales. On a good day, you can easily imagine Long John Silver striding up the pier exclaiming “Aaarghh, them that dies is the lucky ones.”

The Editor and I spent the night there recently based on the recommendation of a local resident. We arrived late in the afternoon, just in time to see the Hartland Quay Museum opposite the hotel. This small, independent museum, devoted to the rich history of the Hartland Coast, provided the perfect introduction to the area. Shipwrecks, smuggling, fishing and the old coastal trades of lead, lime and coal feature prominently in the meticulously documented displays. After our visit, we retired to the bar where we met backpackers from all over Europe who were there walking the 630 mile long South West Coast Path. Everyone took their drinks outside to sit by the cliffs on a particularly beautiful evening. The atmosphere was friendly and informal.

For dinner, we made our way to the Red Lion Hotel in nearby Clovelly which is an extraordinary village hanging off of a 400 foot cliff. The carless main street descends spectacularly through flower festooned 16th century cottages ending in a restored 14th century quay. All of Clovelly is owned by one family which is one of only three since the Norman Conquest. Being too steep for motor vehicles, for centuries, donkeys were the main form of transportation. Today, each cottage has a sledge in front which is still used to haul goods up and down the street. Nowadays, the donkeys spend their time ferrying children and posing for pictures.

Dinner at the Red Lion Hotel was magic It was June 23rd, one of the longest days of the year. The sun was shining over the picturesque harbour. We ate red mullet and turbot which tasted as if it had just been pulled out of the sea and watched the boats go in and out. The waitress laughed at the Editor’s jokes although I suspect she thought he was “unusual”. The local teenagers provided the after dinner entertainment, diving off cliffs, throwing each other into the still freezing water and pulling off each others pants. I couldn’t decide which I enjoyed more, the food or the show.

After dinner we retired back to Harland Quay, grabbed some beers and watched a spectacular sunset. Breakfast the next morning was full-on English which we walked off on the coastal pathway. In honour of Jane Austen, we hiked over to see the cottage, part of the Hartland Abbey estate which was recently used in the recent BBC version of Sense and Sensibility. Watching the film at the time, I wondered, “Where did they find such a beautiful, remote, unspoiled location to make this movie?” Now I know, they made it in Hartland on the North Devon Coast. If you are looking for something beautiful, remote and unspoiled, you will find it there too.

Useful Addresses

Hartland Quay Hotel
Hartland, Bideford, North Devon
EX396DU, England
Tel: 01237 441218
Fax: 01237 441371

Red Lion Hotel
The Quay, Clovelly, Bideford, North Devon
EX39 5TF, England
Tel: 01237 431237
Fax 01237 431044

Hartland Abbey
Hartland, Bideford, North Devon
EX396DT, England
Tel: 01237441264