North and South: Maine and South Carolina

Bored with Florida and looking for something different, we decided to try a new holiday. It was autumn and all the cheap flights to the American sunshine belt were booked - at least from Heathrow. We'd heard Delta had these great club-class seats, as good as first, and not too pricey, but their only available service to Atlanta was from Manchester. So, we thought, shuttle up to Manchester and get a (sort of) first-class seat to Atlanta-Savannah-Boston-New York and back to Manchester for an attractive fare. Good, in theory. Not quite so good in practice.

The plan had been to have a relatively petrol-free holiday. We would do the American South (Hilton Head, South Carolina) and the North (Bar Harbor, Maine), using bikes and foot where possible. We rented a large and comfortable apartment on the sea in Hilton Head. The island is carved into a handful of huge resort sites, and we chose Palmetto Dunes.

Hilton Head is one of those pristine Disneyesque made-to-measure resorts where golf is the religion, everything works, the lawns are hand-manicured and the visitors largely middle class and middle-income. Apart from the superb golf there's kayaking, fishing, nature walks and really cheap shopping at 'factory outlet' stores. The restaurants aren't that exciting and some have silly evening dress codes. But my warmest memories of Hilton Head are saving money by simply shopping for breakfast and lunch at the local supermarket and eating in, locking my car keys inside the car (requires serious stupidity), all the friendly strangers who came to help us, and, above all, the bike rides.

I happen to take cycling quite seriously, so to find a beach whose sand stayed firm enough between tides to take the weight of a bike, then to ride down that infinite sandy stretch racing the incoming tide, the warm sun on your back, ozone filling your lungs is, for people like me, a taste of Nirvana. If you like leisure cycling, come to Hilton Head, it's a cyclist's heaven.

On our way north we stopped a day in Savannah. Mistake. This history-drenched town with its early British Colonial echoes, its Georgian architecture and its European manners demands at least three days. We did the place far too speedily on a bus from the Old Savannah Tours company. They run every 20 minutes and you can dismount anywhere and remount later. So much to see, so little time. We spent a valuable hour in the Telfair Museum of Art on Barnard Street - 'the oldest art museum in the South', designed in neo-classical Regency style and built in 1818.

We went to see a small collection of Hoppers, but everyone else had come to see the famous sculpture by Sylvia Shaw Judson of Bird Girl, whose picture adorns the jacket of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (am I the only person in the Western hemisphere who gave up on that slow, slow book?). This small museum with its eclectic range, including some excellent American Impressionists, is just small enough to interest and stimulate and never too overwhelming to take in. A visit to the cemetery to try to find some ancestors my wife believed had died locally when the British still ran the place, was not successful (too hot, too many graves). Nevertheless, the cemetery is a great British Colonial relic, a pleasant and cool park to explore and, if you read the stones, a sad reminder of just how people died so young in those days. Next time we'll stay for a couple of nights in this romantic and history-filled town at one of its very posh B&Bs.

We looked at the Hamilton Turner Inn on Abercorn Street on Lafayette Square, in the heart of Savannah's historic district. The inn is generously furnished with antiques (Empire and Renaissance Revival), has quiet rooms with beautiful original marble fireplaces and was built in 1873. Prices swing between $149-$310 (£107-£223) depending on room amenities and include a full Southern breakfast and calorific afternoon tea.There are several similar inns among the old town's unique squares. Avoid the chain hotels if possible.

From Savannah we flew to Bar Harbor in Maine, just south of the Canadian border to join the ritual pilgrimage to see New England in the fall. Bar Harbor is a tad touristy but has an elegance and style of its own. It is quiet, dignified and one of those locations so evidently at peace with itself, if for no other reason than because it has scenery to die for. We took a friend's good advice and stayed a few days at the Bayview Inn, slightly out of town and set in eight wooded acres yet sitting square on the Atlantic oceanfront. Our room was literally a stone's throw from the sea.

Even the most rancid America-phobe would have to admit that the nation's National Park Service is one of its enduring success stories. Acadia National Park is more than 30,000 acres and a testament to the preservation of a dramatic portion of Maine's coastline. It is a carefully preserved eco-system of its own with mountains, bird-watching, extended nature trails and bike trails that meander effortlessly through real-life wide-screen scenery. To ride effortlessly on the special hard-core (but not tarmac) trails, flanked by the blazing red maples and the vibrant greens and oranges of the park's glorious autumnal display is a hauntingly vivid experience.

There are two serious bike rental stores in Bar Harbor. They have sound mountain bikes with good tyres - you don't need a puncture in the wilds of Acadia, but you need gears for some small inclines. For the partner who doesn't cycle, there are grand car tours of the park. We went to Sandy Beach and, yes, we saw a whale disporting itself about half a mile out; wherever we drove we were close to water yet always wrapped in the Fall foliage that drenches this beautiful place in such dazzling colours. There are paper birches in a clear pale yellow, white ash that morphs from purple through bronze and dark chocolate to a brown and finally a cool salmon colour . . . and all this framed by the rich clear blue of the northern sky. I've never really been that big on trees and leaves, but this was my baptism. Take your camera, buy high-quality film, and go in late September, early October. Check the web for local leaf colour charts and the general progress and quality of the Fall before you go.

The ubiquitous seafood restaurants in Bar Harbor have a warmth and intimacy unusual for a tourist resort. As befits the state, Maine lobster is served everyhere - from cheap short-order joints to the classiest restaurants. We were never lobstered-out and the delicacy remains cheap. The restaurant wines, unusually for the States, were cleverly selected (superb Sauvignons and Chablis) and not the invariable over-ripe and over-oaky Californian Chardonnay with which America maintains an overlong and pointless love affair.

This is a holiday for those who can dump, er, I mean wish, their children on the in-laws or nannies for a fortnight; a grown-up experience, slightly indulgent, not that cheap but unusually rewarding. We went by boat on a tour of the Cranberry Islands and saw yellow-stained seals soaking up the last of the summer sun, and the lobster boats scurrying between colourful marker buoys to bring in the evening's dinner. We rubber-necked stunning seaside estates as big as Sandringham, owned by industrialists from the South who use them as vacation lodges, we bargain-shopped and then slept like the dead, overwhelmed by the ozone and oxygen and absence of air pollution.

When we left, we returned via Boston and New York, and once again, in those most-comfortable Delta seats, returned to a Manchester in semi-flood, and the hard bump of reality.Taking the British Airways shuttle back to London became an infuriating production. The flight took only 45 minutes, but we stacked over Heathrow for another 45 minutes.What is the point of a huge international airport like Heathrow which seems incapable of receiving or dispatching a single plane without a delay? Until BA can organise its Manchester shuttle better, I shall avoid taking this route in future because what you save in cash you lose in sheer aggravation.But don't be put off trying this tour - for a young to middle-aged couple with a taste for action and luxury in just the right proportions, this works.

I haven't felt so refreshed for years.

Travel Facts

Palmetto Dunes Resort, PO Box 5606, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, 29938 (tel: 001 800 845 6130) offers a one-bedroom oceanfront villa from £143 per night. Visit www.eastwestresorts.com. Bayview Hotel, 111 Eden St, Bar Harbor, Maine (001 207 288 5861) has double rooms with sea views from £90 per night. Visit www.barharbor.com/bayview"

Trailfinders (020 7938 3444) offers a Delta Air Lines business-class fare Manchester-Atlanta-Savannah-Boston-New York-Atlanta-Manchester for £3,917. (Delta no longer flies direct from New York to Manchester.)

The same fare is available on Delta's service from London Gatwick. Delta Air Lines (0800 525308) economy tickets cost from £790 from Manchester, and £677 from London. Tom Mangold used 80,000 Delta sky miles for a free business-class ticket. BA's London-Manchester-London shuttle costs from £89. Call 0845 7733377.

US Airways Express (0845 600 3300) offers return flights from Boston to Bar Harbor from £168. There are numerous relevant websites to check on the state of the autumn foliage.

Try these three: www.fs.fed.us/news/fall.shtml is the US Dept. of Agriculture dedicated leaf-peepers' site. www.weather.com/outdoors/falla gives weather reports, maps and fall colour reports. www.state.me.us/doc/foliage is Maine's official foliage site.

 

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