Our journey started in a rainy, cold and generally miserable April morning in London. But after just a few hours we landed in a sunny and even hot Washington. Washington Dulles Airport is quite unusual, between some jetties and the main terminal building there is no fix connection. You have to board funny vehicles which are cross between a bus, truck and lift fork. Even with such added “attractions” the whole process is much faster and easier than I have ever experienced at Heathrow. Few minutes after clearing immigrations we collected keys to our car.
Washington has an efficient public transport (by American standards) but for the rest of our trip car was a necessity. We stayed in a cheap motel in Arlington, Virginia, just a few minutes from Pentagon, where transfer for the Metro is possible, so we decided to leave our car and explore the city. Trip to the center of took us no more than 20-30 min by bus and metro. Washington’s museums might be a little overwhelming in the first contact so we decided to spend the first day, or rather afternoon, just walking around. Central part of the city is The Mall, a long expanse of green between the Capitol, where we started our walk, and Lincoln Memorial, the two iconic structures. In between we visited a few monuments including the famous black wall of Vietnam Memorial and the big and elaborate National World War II Memorial. But of course the most iconic of all of them is the simple white pillar of Washington Monument. Sight of all the American flags around it might be a bit tiring for the eye, but that’s what you would expect from the national capital. Wouldn’t you?
What a difference a day can make. When we woke up the following morning walking was not an option because it was raining. I mean it was really pouring. So we decided to visit museums, or rather one of them, the National Museum of American Indians. Why this one? Washington is full of great museums but I think they are similar to the famous museums in London. Inside the American Indian Museum we were hoping to find something new and unusual and we weren’t disappointed. It is a great and very educational museum, created in large extend by the Native Americans themselves. Inside there is also one of the best cheap eateries in Washington DC. Museum cafeteria serves traditional dishes of Native Americans. Selection is large and the place is worth a few visits, just to try food from the different tribes and regions of America. So, even if you are visiting the other museums, come back here to grab some food. Just avoid the lunch hours when finding a seat is more difficult than winning a lottery. We also popped into the National Gallery of Art. I am not a fan of art but I like architecture of this building, especially the modern wing.
Next day our real trip started. For me the best way to see America is definitely by car. This country is designed for cars and with few exceptions (like New York or San Francisco) you can’t really travel around without one. Our first idea was to go south following the Appalachian Mountains but the weather (especially rain) forced us to change the plans. We headed south towards the South Carolina and Charleston. It is a long drive but it is worth it. Charleston is rather small but very historic city. In fact, I read somewhere that it has more structures on the National Register of Historic Buildings than Boston or mighty New York. It is one of the oldest cities in North America, in the current location since the 1670. Charleston seen the first shots of the Civil War and many other historic events. It is really pleasant to walk its narrow streets full of brightly colored small buildings or big mansions with gardens and verandas. It is like moving back in time to the XVIII century. Imagine West Hampstead with palms on the sidewalks and sunny pleasant weather. In other words it is simply gorgeous architecture. One of the most impressive mansions are located along the Battery which is a promenade along the riverfront. They are real beauties.
We stayed across the river from the downtown Charleston in one of the millions of cheap motels which line highways across the America. It is usually a very good option money-wise. We used to spend around 40-50$ per night for a double room. The best way to find them is to stop at one of the state welcome centers. They are located just across the state borders when you enter most of the states by the major Interstates (motorways, freeways). There you can collect the discount coupons books which offer cheap accommodation almost everywhere. Coupons are usually organized by the highway numbers and exit numbers. It’s a real help for the budget travelers. You don’t have to call around and ask about the rates. You just choose a place in your price range and go. In 90% of the situations hotels will accept the coupons. If no, there are usually other motels accepting them because the motels are usually grouped together next to the highways exits.
In Charleston we left our car in the motel and decided to walk to the town across the modern and impressive Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge. It seemed like a short walk when we drove the bridge a day before and it took us just few minutes. In fact it took us more than an hour to walk to the city center in a full southern sun. It was tiring but the bridge offers some great views of the whole peninsula where the downtown is located. As it is almost totally flat area many of the historical churches are clearly visible from the distance and it is easy to understand why it was sometimes called the Holy City. When we got tired of great architecture and history, browsing the local market was really great fun. You can buy for example the Stetson hats or genuine craft made by the residents of the coastal communities (woven baskets are the most popular). Of course you can buy almost anything with the South Carolina flag on it (I got the luggage label). Charleston also offers very big choice of places to eat and drink, so we decided to have a nice meal in restaurant with great view of the riverfront. On the way back to motel we took taxi. It is wise solution after dark because on a way to the bridge you cross some not so good neighborhoods. Fortunately the price of taxi was similar to the London Underground ticket.
Our next destination was Savannah. It is located about two hours drive from Charleston across the heavily forested coastal plains. It’s the archetypal south with the little towns where life goes slowly. Savannah itself is an old historic town although no as old as Charleston. It was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe who established last of the 13 original British colonies in Northern America, Georgia. Its layout is well planed around the 24 lovely green squares which are surrounded by the old houses. Some of these squares are gone by most of them survived. At the first glance Savannah lack some of the Charleston charm, especially around the riverfront, but it felt more lively of the two. Charleston has some posh atmosphere which is missing in Savannah. There are more T-shirt shops while in Charleston antiques shops are more common. But don’t be foul. Move more inland from the busy and partying riverfront and antique shops and big mansions appear and the southern charm takes hold. Some of the big mansions around the old squares reminded me New Orleans architecture, especially the iron wrought balconies and the big verandas.
Both, Charleston and Savannah, offer the horse carriage rides, bus tours, old trolleys tours (old trolley is in fact a bus which just looks like a trolley), walking tours, ghost tours and many, many more. But the best way to enjoy them is simply to put the map away and just get lost in the small narrow streets or to go for iced tea (the local cold drink of choice) and spend some time sipping it on the riverfront or one of the squares.
After Savannah we decided that it was enough of cities, history and architecture. Beach and fun was what we needed. For that we headed south. Florida was our next destination. But this is another story…..