Travel Destination: North Carolina - When You Go out Rafting Don't Head for the White Bits; GEOFF HILL Finds an Unsung Paradise of River and Rock
Byline: GEOFF HILL
OK, here's the quiz, if you're all sitting comfortably in your favourite armchair by the fire. North Carolina is famous for:
a) Even less than Belgium
b) Being north of South Carolina
c) Being the fastest-growing US destination for British tourists, with mountains, lakes, golf, historic towns, fine beaches and sunshine.
The answer is, in fact, all three, so here is a potted history for those of you who answered a or b.
Geography: Sea to east, Appalachian mountains to west. Highest is 6,684-foot 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, currently staging a resurgence. As a result voted least popular destination with flies worldwide past five years running. 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, become Americans and refuse to pay tax to each other. More fighting. Civil war (which Carolinians refer to as The Late Unpleasantness). More fighting. Civil war ends. North Carolina discovers tobacco and banking, in that order.
The present. And me in it - on a boat in the middle of Lake Lure with a glass of Chablis, surrounded by water, pine trees and sunset.
Lake Lure may look like one of God's greatest hits, but it was, in fact, created by Dr Lucius B Morse, who rode into the area in 1900 seeking a cure for his tuberculosis in the clear mountain air. What he found as well was a paradise of wooded hills, rushing rivers and towering rocks, which he immediately determined in the best American tradition to buy and turn into a theme park.
He began by damming a river to create the lake, and today you can still paddle across it, hike his trails, breathe his air and either climb his mountain or ride up the middle of it in his elevator.
All that rugged woodsmanship had a strange effect on me: next morning I discovered that I had somehow agreed to go whitewater rafting with a company run by several former hippies who are so laidback that when they start a sentence you can go away, get a drink and come back before they finish it.
They also talk in curves: the words appear to be coming straight for you, but at the last minute swerve past your left ear. If you don't believe me, just try saying ''Y'all'' in a straight line.
"Where's my raft?'' I asked a man called Craig Plocica as we stood on the river bank.
"You're not in a raft. You're in a duck,'' he said over a period of several minutes, pointing to a glorified inner tube barely bigger than I was.
"And who else is in it?''
Two hours later I had discovered three things:
a) Just because it is called white water rafting does not mean you should head for the white bits. The white bits are where the rocks are.
b) If you look at the rock you are trying to avoid, you will hit it.
c) I have the whitest legs in the world.
Half-drowned, and wholly exhilarated, I got in the hire car and trundled north through the Smoky Mountains, a landscape of forested hills and rolling meadows occupied by clapboard houses.
Just before dark I arrived in Boone, a sleepy town in the middle of the backwoods where I had booked into a hostelry called The Inn at Hawk's Head.
I liked the sound of that. An inn is a place where the cheery landlord greets you like a long-lost friend, his wife cooks you a meal involving the death of at least one small cow and their curvaceous daughter brings you pints of foaming ale with a coquettish twinkle in her eyes. …