Brits behind bars in sunny North Carolina
“We just put a pin in the map”
The shop assistant’s face broke into a broad grin.
“That’s soooo cool!” He was beside himself with happiness and awe. He loved idea that a couple nudging their sixties had found his home town thanks to the whim of a pin.
Even if I had lied for the sake of a good reply.
Why had we come to North Carolina? To find out how easy it is to take a self-drive holiday in the U.S.
During our ten-day road trip we found mile after mile of tree-lined wide roads, drivers who paid strict adherence to comfortable and legal speed limits, numbered roads (highways) with clearly marked junctions and we had the pleasure of driving a hired Ford Mustang Cabriolet.
Charlotte is the most populated city in North Carolina, though not its capital. Direct flights from London and connecting flights to numerous U.S. cities make it a great gateway for exploring the United States.
First stop The Dunhill Hotel, an easy drive, centrally located in Charlotte, with speedy and willing car valets to park the car and return it stocked with chilled bottles of water.
The hotel’s modest 10 stories once made it the highest building in the city. It is now dwarfed by the towering head office of the Corporate Center of the Bank of America, one of 28 high rises over 300’ (90m) that give Charlotte its modern and stylish skyline. At pavement level the view is even better. The city is characterised by wide, leafy streets, parks and plants, numerous bars and restaurants, stylish shops and offices.
The Dunhill Hotel is the only historic hotel in the city centre and was built in 1929. The souls of those who sought its high stories to provide a long-term solution to the Great Depression are said to be among its permanent guests. They are alleged to tap table tops, fiddle with the electrics, make phantom smells or cause temperatures to rise or fall.
The only ghosts we encountered in Charlotte were those of the original Moonshiners, who made a living running illegal alcohol and souped up their cars to outrun the police. These early racers soon took their skills to a competitive level to become America’s first stock car racers.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame in the heart of the city is a state of the art shrine to history and heritage of car racing. We stepped into a stock car to simulate a race, drove the wrong way around the track, forgot every simple instruction given during the briefing and stepped out to find we were still alive and a ten year-old had won our virtual `race’.
Next stop, a touch of luxury at The Ballantyne Hotel, close to Charlotte’s perimeter road. The hotel is a magnificent white palace of a building, set in a sea of greenery with its own 18 hole, par 71, golf course and golf academy. Six or seven courses of a gourmet tasting dinner was served impeccably by Billy, our waiter, and once again during our stay, our trusty Mustang was valeted away and returned ready for the onward miles.
Charlotte Motor Speedway is a short drive around Charlotte’s ring road, has seven race tracks and acres of camping spots for fans to follow today’s Stock Car racing stars. The driver of our prebooked Feel the Thrill Speedway Tour showed us how to pick up speed, negotiate banked tracks, avoid flags sticking up out of the ground, and he waited patiently while we took photos in the Winner’s Circle.
Still on the scent of moonshine we drove out into Cabarrus County to the Southern Grace Distilleries, housed in the former Cabarrus County Correction Centre.
Distilling equipment installed by these new, passionate and award-winning distillers can be found in the authentic 1980s prison block, in cells and dormitory wings behind heavy prison bars. We took a guided tour, did our best to remember how to turn grain into spirit and followed the sound of booming rock music to the original 1929 brick-built prison block. In the gloom of the former penitentiary were rows and rows of barrels, their contents fermenting to the sound of Meatloaf, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. It seems that good vibrations make for good whisky, or perhaps that was just the sound of the former residents turning in their graves.
Rosemary House is a pleasant couple of hours’ drive from Charlotte in the tiny town of Pittsboro run by married couple, Jamie and Heather Buster. On our arrival they expansively indicated the huge fridge in the dining room, stocked with fresh juices, craft beers, chilled local wines, all kinds of yoghurts and dairy and said, “just help yourself.” So, we did.
Their gracious 1912, colonial revival house is the archetypal American home, with a wide front porch where you can while away time on an old-fashioned rocking chair. Just be careful not to spill Jamie’s wine.
Not wishing to contradict stereotypes about Brits behind bars, or completely empty the `maxi bar’, we dined (and drank) at the Carolina Brewery & Grill, less than 10 minutes from Rosemary House. Confused and spoilt for choice for their `grain to glass’ beer selection, we ordered the colourful tasting glass selection which treated us to a few gulps of each of their wonderful craft beers. Local area tours of vineyards, breweries and bed and breakfast inns can be found at heartofNCTrails.com
Rosemary House was the most exceptional places we stayed in. Jamie and Heather have made it into a stylish and comfortable home from home / B&B for their guests, with colourful artisan artworks on the walls, quirky furnishings and generous sized rooms and bathrooms that are clean, comfortable and welcoming. Not to forget the biggest mini-bar (free) ever encountered.
The road trip left Rosemary House behind and stretched past the artisan galleries of nearby Siler City. Here we stopped for an unforgettable brisket Mac n Cheese and home-made baked beans at Artisan Hub, prepared by owner and chef, Dustin Poe. Artisan Hub is open just for breakfast, brunch and lunch, and dinner on Friday evenings, and in a short time has become a hub for, well, local artisans.
The miles opened up to the strains of Country music on local radio stations to arrive in Mount Airy, birthplace of American actor Andy Griffith, the 1960s star of The Andy Griffith Show. Imagine a blend of Dixon of Dock Green, Z-Cars and Heartbeat. As sheriff and justice of the peace, widower and single parent to his young son, Andy Griffith cast his friends, neighbours and family in a fictitious town called Mayberry. Mayberry is Mount Airy. Or as Americans would have it, Mount Airy is Mayberry.
Despite never having heard of the sit-com, we rubbed shoulders with older Americans, booked a ride around the town in a vintage cop car, took photographs of ourselves behind bars in Andy’s jail, saw his birthplace, his old school and the locations made famous in the sit-com, until we felt just as if we were old friends.
When not behind bars we spent our time in Mount Airy as guests of Chris and Pam Bastin’s B&B `Heart & Soul’, the original family home of early 20th C entrepreneur, William Merritt, whose hardware story and brickyard business helped to shape the town.
A line of the town’s most famous characters, immortalised in brick sculptures, is the latest monument in the town, which is also in a thriving wine region with private wineries opening their doors to visitors to taste the wines, see the vines and dine in the heart of the vineyards.
Heart & Soul is a magnificent 1901 brick built historic home with a wrap-around porch, gardens and historically styled interior. Its five suites are themed after periods of the Bastin family’s lives, including a sea-themed room with model boats, soft grey and blue colourways and a figurehead, a red, black and gold themed firefighters’ room, and a railway themed room. Each suite is crammed full of traditionally styled heavy furniture, drapes, memorabilia and artefacts to contribute to an unforgettable stay in a truly unique property.
After ten days behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang touring America’s south eastern state of North Carolina we left behind prison bars, mini (and maxi) bars, a legacy of car racing and driving experiences, the ghosts of a 1960s sitcom and of hotels guests past and my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which flew out of the open roof of the car while filming on the highway.
A driving holiday in the United States was everything, and more, that we had hoped for. The routes were easy to navigate, the roads were easy to drive on, the car (an inexpensive upgrade from hiring a standard saloon) was a joy to travel in.
The towns and cities were memorable, the hotels and B&Bs were of a consistently high standard and every day brought new experiences and new pleasures. The language was (nearly) the same, the American dollar is easy to convert to sterling, and everything about our road trip was simple and streamlined, even if the Americans drive on the wrong side of the road. Or maybe that was just us.
Now. Where did I put the pins.
For information about visiting North Carolina visit:
For information about self-drive holidays to the U.S. visit www.americansky.co.uk/fly-drive-self-drive or call 01342 887123.
Travel Advisor recommends American