Had things turned out differently in the American Civil War, it could well have been Richmond in Virginia that would now be home of the most powerful government in the world. Richmond was the Confederate capital, and still houses an impressive museum in and around the rival White House – albeit in an otherwise fairly non-descript town.
From Richmond we planned a loop around Chesapeake Bay, up the Delaware peninsular, and round to Philadelphia. First stop was Virginia Beach, a fairly touristy resort town, most memorable for the still very hot weather – and Norfolk Naval base. This was a couple of days after the announcement of the air war on ISIS, and we spent an interrupted night of sleep under the stars listening to the US Navy F/A-18s practice their extremely noisy takeoffs and bombing runs.
The bottom of the Delaware peninsular connects to the mainland via the 23km long Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel complex, an engineering marvel. The peninsular – encompassing parts of Virginia, Delaware and Maryland – is quite different to the mainland. There are huge areas of untouched wetlands and grasslands, quaint small towns containing antique shops, narrow lanes and cute harbours. We particularly liked the tiny picturesque settlement of Oxford on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.
At the top of the bay lies the main north-east US urban corridor, including Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and Philadelphia. Historic Philly, one time second-largest city in the British Empire, hotbed of the Revolution, and first capital of the United States, is a really interesting and varied place. The old narrow streets were full of character, and included old taverns, stores, and the home of one Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a true polymath – diplomat, inventor, businessman and writer – and we spent a highly entertaining few hours in the museum set up in his old abode.
Franklin was present during those heady revolutionary days when debates raged over cutting ties with the British, culminating in the Declaration of Independence that was agreed upon during meetings at the Colonial court, since renamed Independence Hall. The National Parks Service tour of the building was exceptionally good and made the history come alive.
The sites of the old town contrast nicely with the grand civic buildings of the downtown area, close to which lies the famous contemporary ‘Love’ sculpture. From there we checked out the vibrant Reading Terminal indoor market, before exploring the fabric district, a down to earth inner suburb of antique shops, trendy hipster cafes and, even today, still a handful of shops selling fabrics.
We couldn’t leave Philadelphia without taking a peek at the ‘Rocky steps’. No, not an uneven staircase, but the place where that famous boxing movie scene was shot. Altogether now: dum, dum dum dum, dum dum dum, dum…
We stayed at a campsite just outside the city, in what could easily have been English rolling countryside, with narrow lanes and hedgerows. A little further afield we ventured into Lancaster County on the hunt for the Amish. Early immigrants from northern Europe, the Amish live very simple lives and, though the rules of their communities are more flexible than we might imagine, they still shun most modern technology and our frenetic modern life. Lancaster County is beautiful, with small farms dotted amongst green fields, noticeable for their simple buildings and unostentatious washing hanging on the line. (Almost all American houses have dryers, and hanging out the washing is generally a sign of lower socio-economic status, apparently.) Occasionally an Amish horse-drawn buggy trots down the street, past a roadside stall offering produce grown in the adjacent field, or a small store selling locally made quilts.
We left Amish country and headed up once more to the Canadian border, and an extraordinary natural feature. Niagara Falls is both a natural wonder and the name of two towns – one each side the US-Canada border. It is hard to describe how impressive the falls are – you can stand so close to the rushing water just before it tumbles headlong over the falls in a rush of spray and noise. From different observation points we marvelled at the power of the monstrous falls, while the scene kept shifting as the winds whipped the spray in different directions, first making it clearer, then enveloping the view in a fog of mist. It all contrasts with the awful tourist trap of the town, of which the less said the better.
From Niagara we tracked east, across Up State New York, through Fingerlake country, and in to the rugged mountain country of the Adirondacks. With autumn upon us and our high latitude and high elevation, the trees were beginning to change colour in that famous New England way. We passed through forests and lakes, and lovely small towns with the smell of wood smoke in the air and cute little country stores selling nick-nack to tourists and those New Englanders lucky enough to own holiday cabins on one of the thousands of perfect lakes. One of those towns on a lake is Lake Placid, home of the 1980 and 1932 Winter Olympics, which was a beautiful spot – even if it did get down to -6°C one night. Brrrrr….
A few days further east, as the late afternoon sun gently set over the Adirondack mountains behind us, we left New York State and took the ferry across the sublimely peaceful Lake Champlain and into Vermont.