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Destination D.C.

Go sea to sky on less-travelled path

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Driving two of the most spectacular and scenic roads in the eastern United States takes time, but it's worth every minute.

One road is on a wilderness of sand banks -- connected by bridges and car ferries -- that runs down the Atlantic coast from Chesapeake Bay along Cape Hatteras, a graveyard of shipping for centuries.

The other is through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form part of the Appalachian range and extend northward from Tennessee almost to Washington, D.C.

My wife and I travelled both roads this year on a 13-day road trip that included sightseeing in Washington as well as stops at historic sites in Virginia and North Carolina, and four days of rest and relaxation in a beachfront condo in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

We went out of our way on the journey down to take the scenic route along the coast of Cape Hatteras. We made a detour on the way back to ride part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, where the park's northern tip is less than an hour's drive from Washington.

For hour after hour on both roads, we drove through wilderness protected by the U.S. National Park Service.

On Cape Hatteras, the ocean is just a few steps away on either side of the road for much of the time. On the Blue Ridge, there are panoramic views of valleys far below.

You must not be in a hurry in either direction. There was little traffic when we made our trip, but there are spots every few minutes along both roads to pull over and admire the scenery.

Heading south, we spent about five hours driving along the Outer Banks of Cape Hatteras. Mostly there was no sign of human existence, although occasionally, we passed through a village of summer rental homes.

 

By the time we reached the first of two ferries on our route, it was late afternoon. We discovered we were too late to connect with the last trip that day on the second ferry -- so our decision where to spend the night was made for us. We found a nice motel near the ferry and enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner.

The following morning, we enjoyed a free, 40-minute ferry ride to the next island and then came one of the highlights of our trip: the ferry ride from Ocracoke Island to Cedar Island. It takes about 2 1/2 hours and the total cost for car and passengers was US$15. The weather was perfect, sunny and not too hot. The occasional pelican flew powerfully past. We took in the views of islands and sand banks and dozed in the sun, carefree and sure that this was the way to travel.

Both ferries are operated by the North Carolina ferry system, which recommends reservations. We decided not to reserve because we were in no hurry and did not want to be tied to a schedule, but I recommend making reservations in the busy summer months.

Our northbound drive via the Blue Ridge Mountains was equally rewarding. It's called the Blue Ridge because of the blue haze that usually hangs over the mountains. The parkway runs along mountaintops the entire way from the Tennessee-North Carolina border to northern Virginia and consists of just one lane in each direction.

It was begun as a work project during the Great Depression and took more than 50 years to complete. At about 750 kilometres, it is the longest single planned road in the United States. It's possible to drive almost 1,000 kilometres of continuous parkway through forests and unspoiled mountain terrain, if you add the stretches at either end through Great Smoky and Shenandoah parks.

We joined the parkway near Winston-Salem, N.C., and took it as far as Charlottesville, Va., which is almost half its length. The speed limit is 45 miles per hour (or about 70 kilometres an hour) -- less on winding parts. My wife found it a bit scary, with nothing to stop us from plunging off the mountain if I swerved off the road, which is undulating as well as winding. For the first time I can remember, I repeatedly used the low-gear shift of our automatic car to slow us down and avoid wear on the brakes.

There are no services on the parkway, so we came down off the ridge to spend a night in a motel. Trucks are prohibited, and we met almost no traffic when we drove it in late spring. A park warden told us the busiest time is the fall, when the forests are a blaze of colour.

Usually it takes two days of 10-hour drives (plus rest stops) to travel by car between Ottawa and the South Carolina seaside resort of Myrtle Beach. We added about one full day's driving in each direction to take two of the most memorable drives in the world. In fact, those two scenic drives are what I shall remember most about our vacation, even though it was packed with enjoyable experiences.

We had started out in Washington, where we had timed our visit to coincide with the annual springtime Cherry Blossom Festival. As we strolled past the White House, a young person approached us and asked us if we'd like to see the gardens.

What a thrill! The White House is the most closely guarded place in the world, but, occasionally, the public is invited into the gardens. We joined hundreds of others strolling the grounds, including the Rose Garden outside the Oval Office.

The White House gardens are opened to the public only rarely, and without advance notice -- for security reasons. It is sometimes possible for the public to get a tour of the White House. Canadians must request a White House tour through the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

We also visited the National Gallery of Art, which is free and has one of the finest art collections in the world, and the privately owned Phillips Collection near historic Georgetown, which has Renoir's painting of a boating party on the Seine.

Mostly, we just soaked up the atmosphere, sightseeing, strolling the streets of Georgetown and visiting my favourite Washington pub and restaurant -- the Old Ebbitt Grill, on 15th Street, one block from the White House.

We stayed two nights in a Hyatt hotel in Washington's Virginia suburbs (cheaper than staying in Washington; easier access to the city than from the Maryland suburbs).

Then we headed for one of the most charming and historic places in the United States, just three hours from Washington -- Colonial Williamsburg, which was Virginia's capital at the time of the American Revolution in 1776.

We are enchanted every time we visit. A visit to Williamsburg is like stepping back in time by more than two centuries.

Over the past 80 years, Williamsburg has been restored and rebuilt -- at huge expense -- to the way it was at the time of the revolution. The restoration is due largely to the wealth of John D. Rocke feller Jr. and his family, who decided early on to make preservation and restoration of Williamsburg one of their largest philanthropic ventures.

Visitors are greeted by tradespeople in period dress, doing everyday jobs -- weaving, baking, making items to sell, driving the well-to-do about in horse-drawn carriages -- just as they did in the 18th century. In the evening, we visited a tavern, where singers and musicians in period costume entertained us.

We stayed in a modest motel outside the historic area, but had breakfast at the very grand Williamsburg Inn, where you step outside the front door and back into the 18th century. It's about $45 for two and worth the splurge. The Queen stayed at the inn when she visited in 2007 to mark the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first successful British colony in North America at nearby Jamestown.

From Williamsburg, we headed for Cape Hatteras -- with a stop at Kitty Hawk, near the northern end of the Outer Banks. There, we visited the site of the first powered flight in history by American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright brothers chose the site because of strong prevailing winds that they thought -- correctly -- would help get their primitive, heavier-than-air craft off the ground.

The Wright brothers monument is a towering stone memorial on a sandy hillock close to the spot where they made the historic flight (lasting 12 seconds) over sand dunes. More impressive, I found, was a full-sized sculpture, created to mark the 100th anniversary in 2003. The sculpture, at the foot of the hillock, depicts the aircraft with the Wright brothers and others present on Dec. 17, 1903.

After three days of driving and three days of sightseeing, we were ready for some rest and relaxation in Myrtle Beach, which we had never visited. In North Myrtle Beach, we found exactly what we wanted -- a studio condo on the beach called the Peppertree Ocean Club. It cost us a little less than US$100 a night, including taxes (but that was mid-April; I hear rates double in summer). I figure about half the cost is for the location: all we could see from our window were palm trees, the beach and the ocean. It was heavenly and relaxing.

After for four days and five nights on the beach, we started our return journey home via the Blue Ridge Parkway, even though it required a large detour west.

Partly we decided to go this route in order to visit the home of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, near Charlottesville, in Northern Virginia. Jefferson, who served as president and spent much of his life in politics, said he was happiest at the home he designed for himself on a mountaintop near the Blue Ridge.

In all, we covered about 4,500 kilometres on our road trip. People complain about the cost of gas, but car travel is still the cheapest way to go. We spent about US$325 on gas.

The total cost of our trip was a bit more than C$2,000, not bad for two people for almost two weeks' vacation. We found we could get reasonable accommodation for US$75 or less per night, and only came close to spending $100 a night for our beachfront condo in Myrtle Beach.

We kept costs down by having picnic lunches and buying food (and wine) in supermarkets for some evening meals. When we went out for dinner, we found we got excellent value in restaurant chains like Applebee's and Bob Evans.

When next we plan a road trip, it will be a challenge to find an itinerary that matches the Blue Ridge Mountains or the Outer Banks of Cape Hatteras.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 D1

History

Updated on Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 3:32 PM CDT: adds fact box

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