Travel: Carolina Cruising; A French Chateau, the Lure of Lake Lure, the Porridgemobile and Attempted Suicide by Whitewater Rafting. Ah Yes, Must Be GEOFF HILL in North Carolina
OK, here's the quiz. North Carolina is famous for: a) Even less than Belgium b) Being north of South Carolina c) Don't know.
The answer is, in fact, all three, so here is a potted history.
Geography: Sea to east, Appalachian mountains to west. Mountains once 40,000 feet high, but now suffering from old age, so highest is 6,684 feet Mount Mitchell, named after professor who fell off while measuring it in 1857.
At foot of mountains is oldest river in US, called New River.
Natural history: North Carolina only natural home of Venus flytrap. As a result voted least popular destination with flies worldwide.
Also home of rare ruby-throated hummingbird, which eats more than half its weight every day, a habit adopted by many Americans.
History: North Carolina discovered by English in 1585. English greeted by pleasant, helpful Indians. English murder pleasant, helpful Indians, move in, refuse to pay tax to England. English become Americans, and refuse to pay tax to each other. More fighting. Civil war (which Carolinians refer to with delightful coyness as The Late Unpleasantness). More fighting. Civil war ends. North Carolina discovers tobacco and banking, in that order. Venus flytrap adopted as official plant of American lawyers.
The present. And me in it, driving west in a hire car towards the mountain from which Dr Elisha Mitchell plunged in 1857.
Like most hire cars, mine was so bland that five seconds after getting into it I forgot what make it was. Not only that, but it was a nag. Do anything wrong, and a light would flash on saying ''Fasten your seatbelt! The door's open! You've left the lights on! That tie doesn't suit you!'' accompanied by one of those bleeping sounds designed by men in white coats to be so melodious and pleasant that it was, in fact, deeply irritating.
Driving it, I thought after half an hour, was like making love to porridge: an image so disturbing that I turned on the radio to blank it out. The radio had all three types of music: country, western and elevator. I turned it off.
Thankfully, after driving for a couple of hours I found myself in a boat in the middle of Lake Lure with a glass of Chablis, surrounded by water, pine trees and sunset, and on the way to dinner.
It was, in short, so idyllic that I resolved there and then to retire here. Unfortunately, I suddenly realised I had a girlfriend, job, house and cat to consider, so resolved instead to phone girlfriend and tell her to call work, sell house, grab cat and get out here. Tragically, when I got to the restaurant and called home it was engaged.
Disconsolate, I returned to the Lodge at Lake Lure, where I was staying, spent the evening alternately scratching Chips and Muffin, the resident labradors, and went to bed.
The next morning, since I was still in a job, I went off to explore the area's two man-made attractions. The less obvious of these is Lake Lure itself, created by Dr Lucius B Morse, who rode his horse into the area in 1900 seeking a cure for his tuberculosis in the clear mountain air.
What he found instead was a paradise of wooded hills, rushing rivers and towering rocks, which he immediately determined in the best American tradition to turn into a theme park.
Today, the good doctor's vision lives on: you can still hike his trails, breathe his air and either climb his mountain or ride up the middle of it in his elevator, which last year had its 50th birthday party. With elevator music, naturally.
Haven't time to visit it? Just watch The Last of the Mohicans, which was filmed there.
Twelve years before Dr Morse had his vision, however, George Washington Vanderbilt had quite a different one just down the road.
In 1888, 26-year-old George was the quiet one of the family, more interested in touring around Europe studying French Renaissance architecture than adding to the family's $200 million dollar fortune. …