After a frustrating and bureaucratic wait for the van to clear customs in Charleston we finally headed north for Asheville, North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway. Thanksgiving was spent as guests of the Boyd family in South Carolina. From here we headed South to Florida & sampled Spanish Colonialism in St Augustine, Universal Studios in Orlando & finally the Florida Keys.
We finally picked the motor home up on 20th November having waited a whole week for it to clear customs. Mike had to go and talk to them in the end and explain that all we wanted to do was see some of the States and spend some dollars. It appears that their forms don’t have boxes on with ‘leisure’, ‘tourism’, or ‘motor home’, to tick. They also wanted to know if our vehicle emissions met their criteria, they didn’t know what their standard was but Mike convinced them that a European emission standard couldn’t be far off an American one.
We still couldn’t quite get started on our escape from officialdom as we had to wait for the van to have U.S propane cylinders and valves installed. Our first trip took us one state northward to North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Staring from a place called Asheville in North Carolina we took the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway heading east to a place called Blowing Rock. The drive was spectacular with wonderful views either side of the range as the road had been built in order to be able to make the most of both sides. We have heard from Americans that we were very lucky to see anything at all as the views are usually shrouded in mist. We had just one night in the mountains because we had an important date to keep back in South Carolina.
The last Thursday in November is Thanksgiving. Well, I’m sure most of us have heard of Thanksgiving from the T.V but I certainly didn’t understand the significance of it for the American people. We were very lucky to be invited to a real Thanksgiving celebration by an American couple that we had met in Charleston. (Joann and Mitch) Joann thought that we would like to be involved with a Thanksgiving and asked her mum if she would mind a couple more people for lunch. Mum agreed that we could come long which swelled the numbers to a mere 17. Various Grannies, Aunties, Cousins and children were all there and the age range was from 3 to 94. We had a superb day and learnt all about the first ever Thanksgiving when the 1st settlers sat with the Native Americans to give thanks to God and the Indians for helping them get started in their new land. After drinks and dips we stood in a circle in the drawing room holding hands as Joann’s dad and uncles said prayers. Joann’s Dad even mentioned Lee in a prayer for those in the armed forces. We were very chuffed that he had been so attentive and remembered his name from what Mike had said to him earlier on the porch. We then had lunch which was an absolute feast of turkey, ham, curried apples and pears, cranberry sauce, rice, sweet potato, asparagus, melted butter, gravy, bread and butter and the most amazing puddings including chocolate squares, apple pie and ice cream, ambrosia pudding (pineapple, orange and coconut) sherry trifle. Joann made the trifle as an English dish for us. As you can see there were many similarities with our Christmas except for some of the sweeter accompaniments. Everyone had contributed a dish and I tried a bit of everything. We were absolutely stuffed at the end of it.
Having given our digestive systems a chance to recover we headed south towards Florida. After a full day driving we stopped back in St. Augustine and parked on the front for the night. It was very noisy, busy and crowded as many people were still on their Thanksgiving holiday. We got up early the next day and went round an alligator farm. It was excellent and very informative. Mike had to explain to one lady that one of the alligators wasn’t as she had supposed ‘carrying its baby in its mouth’ She obviously hadn’t attended the talk that we had done explaining that alligators do in fact eat each other from time to time. After the above mentioned talk I had been very brave and actually stroked an alligator. (Not that brave, it was a baby and its jaws had been taped together). After the alligator farm we stopped off at a camp site just north of Orlando in Blue Springs State Park. We were supposed to pre book and they were full but luckily someone had cancelled so we managed to stay a couple of nights there. It was absolutely packed on the Saturday night but everyone went home on Sunday morning and we had the place practically to ourselves which was great. On Saturday afternoon Mike and I took a walk to the spring. I decided to swim up the spring to where the water comes up. The water was a very pleasant 72 degrees, very clear but the swim was hard going against the current. Mike told me afterwards that some people with him at the top had seen an alligator in the water minutes before I got in. Another thing we learnt at the alligator farm was that they rarely set out to eat humans, generally they get bitten by mistake. I certainly would not have been in the water knowing that their jaws aren’t taped in the wild. Another feature of these springs is the migration of a large endangered species of mammal called a manatee from the sea to the warm springs in the winter. They look a bit like sea lions but are much cuter with snubby little noses that come up to the surface for air. We saw loads of them the following morning which was a treat.
At lunch time we set off for Orlando and the theme parks. We didn’t have much time and decided that Universal would provide enough thrills and spills for a couple of days. I loved every minute. The rides, special effects and shows were absolutely fantastic. Our experience was enhanced by the fact that there were no queues and we were able to get on the rides we wanted to twice and were able to get to the front of roller coasters having only waited 5 minutes. So anyone planning to go please put me in your suitcase and do think about going after Thanksgiving to avoid the queues and the intense heat and humidity of the summer months.
After a couple of days in Orlando we headed further south to the Florida Keys. These are a series of islands stretching west just off mainland America but linked to the mainland by a series of bridges. One of these is 7 miles long! We are currently at Key West the furthest south that you can get. It is full of trendy bars and posh shops. It is a popular holiday and cruise destination for Americans and also has a thriving gay scene. We are enjoying it but unfortunately it has rained all day today.
We are both enjoying our ‘American Adventure’ very much so far. We don’t have American accents just yet. We are enjoying learning about our new environment. There are a couple of things that we are still getting our heads round- these include;
· The vast distances that are involved driving from A to B.
· The almost complete dependence on the motor car. Americans seem to do very little walking. In fact because each town is so spread out you have to drive everywhere. This means that most places have a ‘drive thru’ facility to save getting out of the car. We have seen drive in pharmacies, photo developing, ice cream parlours, post office, insurance claims, and restaurants so far-no doubt they’ll be more.
· Cars, houses, electrical goods, computers, fuel and land seem to be cheaper than in the U.K. Eating and drinking out and entertainment are more expensive unless you go for the cheap chains.
· So Americans mainly appear to have more money to spend as they have more expendable income than us.
· They have fewer holidays!
· Tipping, 15% lowest acceptable.
· Happy hour in TGI Fridays in Orlando a pint of Budweiser an astonishing dollar a pint (66 pence) and free Mexican food on Wednesday and free roast beef on a Friday. (Wonder if that would catch on in the UK?)
· Laws vary from state to state but we particularly enjoyed this notice in a supermarket in South Carolina.