America's Civil War Sites By Coach Part 2
Published: August 2006
"The coach waiteth for no man". Grasp that simple truth and you're 90% of the way towards having a successful coach holiday. Now, under normal circumstances that means I'd never have made it out of DC. My idea of a holiday is sleeping until at least 10am. But I embraced the alarm clock and reconciled myself to a daily 7am call. This trip is definitely not one for nightlife.
We wheeled our way into West Virginia for a morning stop at Harper's Ferry and an afternoon at the Luray Caverns just a spit from the Shenandoah National Park. The former of course was the scene of John Brown's ill-fated raid on the Federal arsenal in 1859 which left his body a'moulderin' in the grave while the latter is what it says it is. I've done a few cave complexes so was prepared to be underground and under whelmed but these were pretty impressive caverns, ceilings decked with drying tobacco, underground lakes only 20 inches deep but creating the most amazing visual effects, and an amusing spot called Skeleton Gorge which should've been named Dick's Dyke. If you had seen the stalactites, you'd know what I mean.
The Shenandoah National Park, squeezed between West Virginia and Virginia, sits at the northernmost end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469 mile trawl nicknamed "America's Favourite Drive", which snakes along the peaks of the eastern Appalachians down towards the Smoky Mountain National Park between Tennessee and North Carolina. This region was the meat of our tour. Now, I'm no lover of landscape though I get beauty when I see it, so I had to turn to my fellow bucolistas for an opinion. "You see one tree, you've seen them all," said one, and it kinda summed it up. The views were repetitive. In my case, it was all the log cabins that got to me. By the time we hit the Museum of Appalachia on Day Eight, I felt I was ready to build my own little frontier town. That was one folk museum that didn't catch me in good spirits.
However I was excited about the New River Float (New River by the way, is a bit misleading seeing as how this stretch of water is older than the Nile). It's one of a raft of optional tours Cosmos offer, most of which are trips to restaurants. I took the option on three that weren't, the first of which was the Float; the Ice Cream Float as I called it. We're talking white water rafting. Nothing too rapide for my elderly companions of course, but what, no water? New River Gorge in West Virginia has some of the best white water in the States as well as what used to be the world's longest steel arch bridge. It's still a pretty terrific sight. Our jaunt however was more about scenery and banter with our guide ("Call me Red Neck"). All very pleasant but even the most timid in the boat was disappointed not to have been splashed a little. Come on Cosmos! Spice it up a bit!
Six days into our tour and my itch for civilisation needed some urgent scratching. We coached on into Bluegrass Country, Kentucky and the environment was getting curiouser and downright crazy. Walk into a supermarket and there'd be more Good News than real news, two Bibles for every newspaper. The Bluegrass is the home of American horse racing. It provides the backdrop for the movie SEABISCUIT. But instead of the obligatory trip to the Kentucky Horse Park, something in me snapped and I ran AWOL for Lexington, population 300,000. What a great town! I had a fantastic afternoon exploring two of the main attractions, Mary Todd Lincoln's House and Ashland. The latter was a bit of a dream come true, a fascinating tour of the Victorian home of Henry Clay, the19th century US Senator who's attributed with having staved off Civil War for so long and ran unsuccessfully for President three times. The day ended with a visit to Jonathan's, one of the city's leading restaurants, a cosy dining room adjacent to a "pub" style bar. The food was local with an haute twist; the likes of shrimp and grits, and Kentucky Bison Carpaccio, Starters kick off at $6.95, mains are from $18.95. Highly recommended.
You couldn't get a bigger contrast with Lexington than Gatlinburg, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, base camp for Dollywood, and Tennessee's take on the great British seaside resort. It ain't perty; a smear of samey attractions, amusements, fast foods and repetitious stores. There were at least three where I could be immortalised in frontier dress on camera. However, encircling Gatlinburg are the Great Smokies and lovely they are. Shame then, that Gatlinburg is a bit of a blight.
Of course for many, the whole point is to visit Dollywood. So this is where I took up my other two Cosmos optionals, a day at the theme park and a visit to the Dixie Stampede. If you're expecting me to dis Miss Parton's patch, then you'll be disappointed. It's actually a very good theme park where the focus is the culture and traditional lifestyles of the Appalachians as opposed to Miss Dolly herself. Having said that my fave attraction was the Chasing Rainbows Museum, a kitsch kaleidoscope of Dollyana and a well-presented biographical exhibition, perfect for Dolly fans. In the evening, I attended the Dixie Stampede, another branch of the Dolly franchise. It's a well-executed dinner show affair where the punters are plied with soup, chicken, and apple cobbler while down in the dust of the arena the North South rivalry is fought out in a series of games and entertainments involving horses, lassoes, buffalo, and clowning. OK, alls well that ends with a roaring patriotic finale. Dolly sings a piece called Colour Me America. (recorded for posterity on video of course!) Some of my companions actually stood up, visibly moved! All a bit much for this cynical British stiff upper lip but there's no denying the show itself is worth a visit.
And then onto Asheville, North Carolina. Or rather not. Though the guide waxed lyrical about the joys of this small town, birthplace of author Tom Wolfe, I wasn't to experience them. We were actually staying way outside on the highway. Which brings me to my main criticism of the trip, and one shared by many of my fellow travellers. Too many of the hotels are situated outside town centres and the result is bored evenings in front of the TV and the same old eating options; Denny's, Arby's, McDonald's, Shoney's. Not being a fan of fast food or diner fare, I had more of the stuff in 14 days than I have in 14 years. By far the worst overnight location was outside Asheville where an escape cab was a no-no at $30 one way.
That's not to say the accommodation was bad. Overall it was more than satisfactory; clean, comfortable, with all amenities (though the absence of a bar in most ensured another drab end to the day) and the staff was in all cases friendly and helpful. Bottom of the pile without a doubt was the Washington Plaza; excellently situated but shabby and in desperate need of some TLC. Top was the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Gatlinburg; smart, modern, and attractive. Accommodation is one area where Cosmos need to do a little work to improve the package.
I went AWOL a couple of times to cleanse my palette with some real fare. In Beckley West Virginia I hiked up the highway to The Char, 40 years old and a family favourite. It's cosy and casual with a lounge atmos and big picture windows overlooking a pond and greensward in the process of being landscaped. I had a fantastically meaty shrimp cocktail followed by tasty lamb chops with mint jelly. Starters are from $3.50 and mains from $15.95. Oh, and a big hello to the staff who were spot on! In Bardstown Kentucky I toddled off to Xavier's in the basement of Spalding Hall. The environment's great; a Catholic school that's now a whisky museum. There's progress for you! The food however was disappointing. I had a Chicken Wellington that was more Boot. It looked as if it had been sitting in the sun or on a hot plate slowly en route to ashes. Starters kick off at $2.25, mains from $10.95.
Our day in Williamsburg was the great disappointment of my trip. Let me be clear. Williamsburg is fantastic, a preserved slice of living history, its main street offers an insight into everyday life in Colonial America. Characters in period dress wander primitive pavements, carriages trundle through the dust, there are shops where you can see candles being dipped, buy period produce, and explore the great issues of the 1770s such as Independence. Just what I was looking forward to except the weather thought otherwise. It tipped down. The street was a veritable ocean. And the tragedy was we only had one day. Williamsburg is part of the "Historic Triangle" in Virginia, which includes Jamestown, the first English settlement dating back to 1607, and Yorktown, where Britain surrendered to the Colonists in 1781. I'd recommend Cosmos cut down a bit on the never-ending tree lined Appalachians and allocating a couple of days to this area, which everyone agreed would have been fascinating to explore. The Visitors Centre was one of the best I'd ever seen.
One thing Williamsburg achieved was whetting my appetite for some of the sights I'd be seeing in the American capital, Washington DC.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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America's Civil War Sites By Coach Part 2
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.
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For more info on Cosmos Tourama Holidays visit
For more info on Lexington Kentucky visit
For more info on Jonathan’s visit
For more info on The Char in Beckley visit
For more info on Colonial Williamsburg visit