Friday 21 July 2017

Ghosts of the Confederate battlefields

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

GETTING THERE

America As You Like It offers flights from Dublin to Charlotte, car hire, two nights at Hyatt House Charlotte/Center City, one night at Inn on Biltmore Estate, two nights at Fibber Magee's Riverfront Inn and one night at Sourwood Inn. Price would be from €1,195 per person based on two sharing and with Delta flights for a March 2013 departure. www.americaasyoulikeit.com For further information on North Carolina visit www.uk.visitnc.com

We were looking for Shangri-La on a lost highway. But, then, isn't everyone? North Carolina's misty mountains – exploding with colour and enchanted beauty – are like something out of a dream that you don't want to wake up from. The dazzling Appalachian autumnal sunlight was hitting the trees when we took the long and winding road up to Sourwood Inn. I had read the map wrongly, or misheard the satnav, and we took the long way there.

It was 3,200 feet up the mountain on a dark, lonely road, up in the clouds next to hawks soaring on invisible updrafts. We didn't see a soul for the entire hour it took us to get to the hidden entrance to this mountain-top and family-run establishment.

Then we had to descend a terrifyingly steep driveway. So steep and so terrifyingly near the side of a sheer drop off the mountain side, in fact, that we parked the car and walked the mile down the road to the inn, whereupon two lovely staff members drove up to get our car down. We were gasping for a drink.

Almost as shocking as the vertigo-inducing heights of the road to the Sourwood Inn was the news that there was no bar. You bring your own drink, if you want to drink. There was a fire blazing in the fireplace of our room. We changed our clothes and went for a lovely walk in the trails in the hilly terrain around the house. On our return, the manager very kindly greeted us with the news that she had found a bottle of fizzy wine and we could have it with our dinner. From the look on our faces, it must have appeared that we had never been so grateful for anything in our lives.

After a delish dinner – the food was organic and fresh, like a lot of the food in the Carolinas – we sat finishing the remnants of the beloved wine on the porch looking out on the Blue Ridge Mountains all round us.

Our next destination was Lake Lure, where we went for a two-hour walk in the rugged trails around the lake.

Daniel Day-Lewis roamed these mountain passes, from Chimney Rock Park and the Hickory Nut Gorge, as Nathaniel Hawkeye during the filming of Last of the Mohicans. The scenery is beautiful – lofty peaks, wild rivers with fish dashing behind their rocky shelters. City noise suddenly becomes an alien concept amid all this overwhelming tranquillity.

You would be really hard- pressed to believe you are in the 21st century at all as you walk around up here, with only the eagles and – yikes – the very occasional bear and snake for company.

It is an idyllic place for strolling and just letting life pass you by.

We took a boat trip out on the famous lake. Lake Lure – as most of our discerning female readers of a certain age perhaps will know already – is where the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed in 1987.

It comprises 720 acres and about 21 miles of shoreline, making it one of the "10 most spectacular manmade lakes in the world", according to National Geographic. It was created in 1927 with a dam across the Rocky Broad River.

And it's where Patrick Swayze, the original Dirty Dancer, lifts Baby out of the water. We went to the Dirty Dancing festival nearby, now in its third year, and lifted watermelons (it was a homage of sorts to the "I carried a watermelon" scene from the movie), and joined dance contests.

There was a lakeside screening at 7pm of the movie as the locals – and us – snuggled down in blankets with picnic baskets to watch the sickly sweet classic about a bygone America.

We stayed later that evening at Fibber Magee's Riverfront Inn on the Main St, Chimney Rock, with the mountain river flowing underneath our quaint little room.

The following morning we had breakfast on the porch overlooking the river before driving to Asheville.

When we got there we had lunch in the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village – where President Barack Obama brought Michelle when he visited Asheville as president the first time around.

We checked into the Biltmore Inn – on the estate is the Castle of America, as it has been called.

The 250-room chateau was built in 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt on more than 8,000 acres and was one of the biggest private residences in America.

It was quite a leap from the rustic charm of Fibber Magee's Riverfront Inn in Chimney Rock to the grandiloquent Inn.

We went for a swim in the outdoor heated pool that overlooked the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Beach Boys were playing on the sound system. It was a magical moment.

That night, we hit the hip local town of Asheville, where we experienced the Weekly Bluegrass Jam and local beer sampling at Jack of the Wood, followed by a 20,000-calorie blob of choccy pie at French Broad Chocolate Lounge.

Two days later, we drove the 90 minutes to Charlotte, stopping en route for a super-stodge burger at a truck depot straight out of an old Elvis show.

That night we went for real gourmet elegance and had dinner at Halcyon, located within the city's famous Mint Museum.

The old US Mint building, now known as the Mint Museum, was taken over by the Confederacy during the civil war as headquarters.

Afterwards, we walked the three minutes to our hotel, the Hyatt House: there was music spilling out of bars and cafes as we walked but we were too stuffed-like-pigs with gorgeous local produce to go in for a bop. We were up at dawn the next day for a swim and then a Segway tour of Charlotte city.

I was initially sceptical of the idea of a Segway tour. I have to say I had a ball. It was a great two hours in and around the tree-lined streets of this deceptively modern southern city – the gateway to the south – with stunning architecture and history to match.

The battlefield stories from the civil war are captivating and moving. Our host entertained us with tales of ghosts and stories of zombies. During the civil war, badly injured men trying to get home would walk through towns, and such would be the southern soldiers' state of gruesome physical bloodiness that the locals thought they were zombies, waking dead.

The civil war was the bloodiest in America's history; 20,000 North Carolinians died in battle – more than any state in the Confederacy.

As we moved at 5mph through the town on our weirdly wonderful machines he told us how the town was named for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the German-born wife of George III.

North Carolina is certainly a place to visit to feel like down-home royalty.

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