This is a summary of a trip we made from the 1st April 2013 to the 19th April. We live in London and are both in our early seventies. This report may seem to contain an unfair number of criticisms but it is intended as a document of advice to following travellers as well as some of the plaudits for things that went right. Most of the time everything did go right and often it exceeded expectations. The holiday is certainly remembered as a resounding success. Thank you to an almost universally kind and welcoming country.
Maybe this report will help those who follow our footsteps to avoid the odd bits that went wrong.
The biggest problem we faced was half an hour after landing at Atlanta. It was the first time we had been in America since the green fingerprint testing devices, at immigration, had been introduced. We had both completed our ESTA forms in advance and had copies with us. My wife was checked without problems. When I put my hands on the green pads I was told there was a ‘biometric discrepancy’. We were told we could not collect our luggage from the baggage hall and we both were locked in a glass cell. There were probably about twenty other people in the cell. Despite requests from my wife (an immigrant without a problem) she was told that she could not recover our luggage. After about forty five minutes a Homeland Security Officer released us from the cell and told us there was no problem – attributing the detention to a computer error.
Luckily we were terminating our flight at Atlanta. By then it was around 8.10 in the evening. What would have happened it we had been taking, and missed, a connecting flight I dread to think. Would Homeland Security have paid the costs of overnight accommodation and alternative flights? I very much doubt it.
When we got back to the UK we found that Homeland Security had a web site for reporting what travellers could call unfair detention. I have completed my entry. They say each claim can take about 30 days to process so I am awaiting my response.
However, if I genuinely have a biometric discrepancy I face the chance of being stopped every time I visit America. This time we got away lightly. Atlanta airport was quiet at 7.00pm and we had no onward flight. Arriving mid-day at a busier hub with the intention of taking another flight would be problematic. To conclude – until I know this is not going to happen again I would rather not take another holiday in America.
Collecting our Alamo car at the airport was so easy. I was surprised at being presented with a row of differing SUV’s and being given carte blanche to chose the one we liked best. In Europe you are given one set of keys at the desk – and no choice.
We had hired a GPS with the car. Luckily ours was a Garmin and we have a Garmin in the UK. Someone at Alamo kindly keyed in the address of our hotel but initially our route seemed incorrect. I stopped and worked out that the GPS was working in simulated routing mode and not actually using the satellites. This is the mode used when pretending to follow a route indoors. How it had got into that mode I have no idea – but, especially if you are not fairly satnav savvie it is worth getting someone who is to check the machine is working fully. Extra important on your first ever use of the car.
We stayed at Loews Hotel. It is pleasant and in a pleasant location. We made the mistake of asking a concierge where we could find some interesting shops. He sent us to Atlantic Mall which is nothing more than a modern, dreary shopping mall. We gave it fifteen minutes and spent the rest of the day in Piedmont Park enjoying the lovely weather. In the evening we went to Mary Mac’s Tea Room – a fun choice.
The next day we did our biggest leg in the car. Neither of us are keen in driving for more than five hours and hence the number of overnight stops that younger people might find unnecessary. Our target was Charleston and the GPS got us there without a problem.
At this stage it is worth mentioning that whereas the GPS is brilliant for defining routes one does miss a map to tell one what the surrounding areas are like. If one is thinking about taking a break with a map one can see whether there is something interesting a short drive off the main road. Our second drive was from Charleston to Savannah. We knew we were quite often fairly near the coast. It would have been pleasant to stop and take a stroll along a beach. With a GPS it hard to pick the right time.
The next time I do something similar I plan to put a mapping app on the Android tablet I take with us. The tablet has its own GPS. I would still let the Garmin do the routing but I’d turn on the tablet from time to time to get a simulation of what a paper map would give me. Of course, people will say, one could always still buy paper maps but the odd time I looked for them in filling stations they seemed to be thin on the ground.
Whilst on the subject of filling stations we Brits will find that the system of slotting a credit card into the pump rarely works with UK cards. My understanding is that the US pumps need a ‘zip code’ as part of the verification and they do not understand our post codes. Once you realise this the quick solution is to give your card to the cashier who will then release the pump.
Charleston was busy for the time we booked. We had not realised it but there was a Historic Building Festival, a Ladies Tennis Tournament and a mini-marathon across the Bridge. Consequently we could not stay downtown and our agent booked us in to the Holiday Inn Riverview. I have little experience of Holiday Inns but this one does little for the reputation of the brand. Most of the staff were surly and unhelpful. Porters (if that is what they are called) would stand watching old folk struggling to remove cases from the lift. Reception was unwelcoming. The shuttle to town only held about a dozen people and only ran once every two hours.
After Charleston we moved on to Savannah. We’d been booked in to the River Street Inn and again the Reception was unhelpful. We assumed we’d been sold a sea view room. We were so surprised to be shown to a city view room that we failed to notice it was only a single. One bedside lamp. One bath robe. One queen size bed. We slept in it one night and then complained. The Reception moved us to a city view room facing out on to a brick wall and directly above a noisy aircon unit. After another grumble they moved us to a room on the same floor, with the same brick wall outlook, but further away from the aircon.
Once one has got an acceptable room the River Street Inn takes on a different feel. They serve free drinks from 5.00 to 6.30 which gives any evening a good start. The location is excellent. The hotel claims to have two restaurants. Our impression is that it housed two independent restaurants that served all comers – but I guess that does not matter much.
Tripadvisor gurus had advised us to stop at Beaufort for lunch on the Charleston to Savannah leg. It was good advice and it gave me the chance to add lots more antebellum houses to my picture portfolio. Brits would liken it to gentle seaside resorts like Frinton or Filey. I am not sure I’d want to stay the night there – but worth the short detour for a lunch break.
In Charleston we spent four nights and three days. In Savannah three nights and two days. For us those timings were spot on.
After Savannah we aimed for New Orleans – but it is, by our standards, a long way. We made (Tripadvisor advice again) our first stop a Cabot Lodge a few miles east of Tallahassee. It was a good recommendation. A friendly welcome with an upgrade and a discount. Complimentary drinks from around five to seven. Complimentary cooked breakfast. They deserve to succeed.
Our next stop was at the Fairview in Orange Beach. The Fairview is oddly located on the edge of a shopping mall but the rooms do have quite a pleasant view over a man made lake. The Fairview has no bar but there are masses of liquor and food stores within a few minutes walk. Orange Beach is interesting. We had intended to hire some bikes and explore the backcountry trails. It was entirely our own fault but we made such a mess of finding the bike hire company we had to abandon the idea – with regret as it sounded lovely.
Then on to our final target of New Orleans. Here we’d been booked in to the Maison Dupuy. It is a well located hotel if you want to be in the French Quarter but slightly away from the main noise and excitement. Again Reception turned out to be somewhat thin on charm. Our room contained a large bureau of which 50% was an empty cupboard designed for a fridge. Reception told us we could have a fridge – but at an extra cost!
The room documentation told us about a room safe – which did not exist. A second complaint to Reception produced a man with a drawer, containing a safe, that he swopped with an existing drawer. No extra cost on this one!
All this seemed so petty in a hotel so well appointed.
For those who have not been to New Orleans I’d comment that it seemed like a town with two different personalities. Totally by luck we arrived in the middle of The French Quarter Festival. I’d reckon there were around twenty outdoor stages serving up an assortment of flavours of jazz for about twelve hours a day. When I was planning this trip I asked TA gurus where I might hope to find some good jazz. During the Festival you cannot avoid it – talk about the child in the sweet shop!
The Festival ended on the Sunday. By Tuesday the town had transformed. The Bourbon Street bouncers were trying to push you into bars rather than keep you out. The music was predominantly 2013 style punk noise. Horrendous. Yes, there were still little havens of ‘proper’ music – but what a difference to when the Festival was on.
As I read it the good folk of NOLA keep jazz alive by having a series of Festivals. We were there in early April. I think I saw another one advertised for the end of the month – and presumably they are repeated until the weather defeats them. So, if jazz is your bent you need to pick your time carefully.
And our final stop, on the road from New Orleans back to Atlanta, was at the Hampton Inn, Eastchase near Montgomery. This was another TA suggestion and scored ten out of ten. We had a great welcome. We had a complimentary upgrade to a huge studio room. We sat by the small swimming pool for our sundowners. The complimentary cooked breakfast was spot on. The manager was highly evident and checking that everyone was happy. We kept our room until mid day, which was perfect as our final drive to Atlanta dictated as late a set off as possible.
Closing observation from a Brit. I must have driven about 1,700 miles. I must have had a couple of hundred different cars in my rear mirror at one time or another. Not once in all the driving did anyone flash their lights in the desire to overtake. If we got in the wrong lane (easy to do despite the GPS) a flick of the trafficator was all that was needed to encourage someone to pull back and let me in. In the UK our roads are overloaded with aggression. Sit in the fast lane of any motorway and within minutes someone will be flashing headlights. Changing lanes at a roundabout rarely fails to stimulate a two finger reprimand. We love the Americans for their politeness and friendliness – and your road manners are a lesson to us all.
I hope the above is a bit of use to someone. I will post the odd restaurant and hotel review where I feel it might either help or give a slightly different view. If anyone wants me to amplify anything I have said above then do let me know. I’ll also accept challenges to my opinion – after all any debate is useful. And finally, a big thank you to all the TA gurus who helped us choose the trip and make is such a winner.
PS. If I hear from Homeland Security that I don’t have a ‘discrepancy’ we’ll be making plans for another mega-flydrive.