YouTube Channel Launch: Visiting North Carolina’s Crystal Coast

We’ve lived in North Carolina for more than a decade and there’s so much in this state we haven’t seen yet. Recently, we decided to fix that by getting out to see all inpsiring, amazing, and quirky things in this great state.

Of course we want to document these trips to mark the times and places where we made these memories by making videos and posting them to YouTube.

So I’m very excited to announce that this long-dormant blog is back and it has expanded to YouTube and Instagram!

Our first trip took us to New Bern, NC, but there’s no video for that trip. We visited the Tryon Palace historic site, which is a full-scale replica of the royal governor’s residence in colonial North Carolina. It’s a lot like a small version of the Colonial Williamsburg, but they don’t really allow videography. We also tried to record our trip around the city on a historic trolley tour, but it wasn’t very interesting in person so it wouldn’t be much good on video either. Despite that, we will go back and make another video because there’s so much else to see and do in New Bern.

With a bit more planning and experience, we headed furhter east to visit some of the best spots on the Crystal Coast, a length of the North Carolina coast that is southwest of the famed Outer Banks, and northeast of the bustling Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington areas.

Our first stop took us to Morehead City for lunch at the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant. This is one of those “must do” places, and it didn’t disappoint. The walls are covered with photos of locals and famous people alike. There’s memorabilia and nautical flair everywhere. The menu was almost all seafood provided by local fishing boats, and the hushpuppies were some of the best we’ve ever had.

After picking up some salt water taffey and T-shirts, we headed over the bridge to Atlantic Beach. There was a steady 30-mile wind blowing onto the beach and the surf was rough, but the sand was very nice. We didn’t stick around too long, but we knew we will be back. We decided to travel lenght of Bogue Island from Atlantic Beach through Pine Knoll Shores and Emerald Isle to see what types of accommodations and attractions are nearby. We made a note to go back to visit the Civil War-era Fort Macon State Park.

After doubling-back on the mainland, we drove back up to historic Beaufort, NC (pronounced bow-fort unlike the South Carolina version which is called B’you-fort). The day was getting away from us, so we only had enough time to walk up and down Front Street, grab an ice cream at the General Store and find a geocache at the history museum. With lots of ferries and sound tours launching from Beaufort’s docks, there will be more for us to do when we return for sure.

One last note, an emergency bathroom stop on the way home brought us to a great little roadside restaurant near Wilson, NC that we will have to go back to again. It’s called Bill’s Grill, and it has some of the best fried okra I’ve ever tasted. The burgers weren’t bad either.

We already have three other video trips in the can that we will release weekly. Where do you think we should go? We like off-the-beaten-path as much as tourist traps. Let’s us know in the comments.

Thanks for reading and watching, and as we say in the videos, “Come along with us!”


Saturday is the last full day

We woke up exhausted again today. It was another day that we slept in. On Friday we breakfasted at the creperie near our hotel that I wanted to try. It was run by real French people, so it had to be decent, right? Nope. The crepes were overcooked in my opinion, but I am no expert. Susan was willing to try it, but she didn’t like it. I was afraid she’d be turned off on crepes altogether, which wouldn’t bode well for our plans to visit France (the land of my ancestors) someday. Today, instead, we waited until lunch to eat.

This particular Saturday featured three Tube lines taken out of commission for work, the Picadilly line, which was our main mode of travel anyway, was overly crowded. It was our last day to really get in the last of the sight and to finish the tourist business. It was also St. George’s Day, a national holiday honoring, you guessed it, St. George.

Hogwart’s Express

We journeyed over to King’s Cross national rail station on the north side of London Friday to see Platform 9 3/4 from the famous Harry Potter books. It’s clear that there was a great deal of movie magic involved in creating the scene from the first movie. Platforms 9a and 9b don’t have brick walls between them as they did in the movie.

Already exhausted

By Friday, we were pooped. We packed so much into three days, we had done so much walking, and we had spent so much time on buses and Tube lines that we were exhausted. The two of us slept in on Friday morning. Our plans to go museums early were scrapped. I could spend all day in a museum, especially ones with the large collections in London, but I know Susan doesn’t fancy them all that much. Without telling her, I modified our plans a bit. Without telling me, she was grateful.

We slowly got ready for the day, then headed for downtown London to check out some sights we wanted to get in before the trip was ended. We hiked first to Tower Bridge.

This is the famous two-towered bridge that I have always thought of when singing that nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Because it is a drawbridge, it always seemed logical to me that the game associated with the song includes two kids lowering the outstretched arms clasped at the hands over a third child. This is not the reality, though. London Bridge is a modern span, built in the 1970s, and like other public structures of that time, it is largely nondescript, especially in comparison to the Victorian, mock-gothic Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge was in the distance during our stop at the Tower of London during our Tuesday tour. We had a brief moment before going into the Tower of London to take pictures of Tower Bridge. Susan and I agreed to check it out for ourselves. The bridge is impressive, though narrow. Judging by the video stories told in each of the towers, the bridge was an engineering marvel. It was the first time a steel structure was to be built, and it came with steam engines to power the two lifting decks. Many people of the day speculated it couldn’t be done, but the engines worked right up until the decommissioned them in the 1970s (Why were the 70s such a horrible decade?).

While we were in the south tower, the lift operator announced that bridge was going up and we could see if from the observation decks, which were built as walkways for people to use while the bridge was up. They must have liked stairs in the 1890s, because there are about six stories’ worth in each tower to get to the walkways, which is now the observation area. And they weren’t enclosed in glass until much later. I can’t see how this was an appealing alternative to waiting for the ship to pass. Anyway, I digress. Susan and I were excited and surprised that the bridge was going up because our Tuesday tour guide, remember Rodney?, told us that bridge only went up about five times a year. I was thinking, “what dumb luck. We’re up here while the bridge is going up and we won’t be able to see it.” On the way down in the lift, though, the operator told us it goes up about five times A DAY.

From there we walked along the Queen’s Walk (everything is named queen, king, Victoria or Albert or both, or it has some nonsensical name like Tooting Bec or Picadilly), to the London Bridge Tube station where we Tubed to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of Susan’s religion, the Anglican church. She was unimpressed with that aspect, but like the building. They’re in the process of doing all kinds of cleaning and restoration to the building, and seeing it in process gives a unique before-after look. The exterior around the front door has been cleaned to look as it did the day Sir Christopher Wren presented it to the King and Queen in the 1600s, but the rest of it is stained an awful black color probably from the exhaust of millions of cars and other industrial particles in the air. St. Paul’s isn’t far from the formerly dirty Thames.

What I found most interesting is they have turned the crypt into a destination. There’s a gift shop, museum and something called the Crypt Cafe. It all sounds very morbid, but in a genius stroke of irony, it was a very lively place.

The rest of the day was a bit a of a wash. We had both taken to sitting and resting more than walking. We agreed to go to Covent Garden to look for dinner. We had heard that it was a neat shopping district. It was. in fact, it was laid out very similar to Quincy Market in Boston. But the main hall was more like a flea market than a shopping area. The area was flanked by arcades of expensive international brands, but nothing of interest to us.

After almost being hit by a cab, Susan and I ambled past another church named St. Paul’s that stood at one end of the quad, and was supposedly the location of the first Punch and Judy marionette show. Fittingly, a street performer was about to set up and go through his routine. He had a small electronic music maker and a suitcase, the latter of which he swung about a bit, then set it down and pulled out a long yellow rope. With a bit of theater panache, he laid the rope out creating three side of a square, making some people move out of the area now defined by the rope. He went back to his suitcase and motioned to the crowd in front of him, which pretty much ignored him. That was amusing. He tried to start his act, but oblivious Brits stepped over his rope and walked through his performance space. Next thing we knew, the music machine was gone and he picked up his rope and stomped over to some friends waiting in front of the church. Susan and I agreed that if this wasn’t part of his act, he should give up performing, because this was the best we’d seen of him yet.

We walked on and ended up in Leicester (like Lester) Square and supped at the Spaghetti House, which turned out to be really damn good, and a great spot to people watch. Dinner was slow and enjoyable. We finished the night with dessert in the Internet cafe nearby.

Thursday upon Avon

Another all-day tour today. This one also interested me. It took us into the countryside to see a medieval castle, last occupied by a real British lord in 1978, Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Oxford, where scenes from the Harry Potter films were shot. Today’s tour guide, Jason, was dressed in a nice suit and car coat, but judging by his hair he looked like he was in a rock band at night.

The tour started with a long drive on the motorway through some of the greenest pastureland I’ve seen yet. Some were dotted with grey sheep, while others were carpeted with a yellow-flowering plant known as oil seed of the rape. That’s the name. I think it’s the same as rapeseed, which is farmed in Canada and turned into canola oil (Canada Oil). Susan took the opportunity to sleep, while I read the two of the daily tabloids. Jason was a knowledgeable and informative guide. He chatted over the microphone through most of the ride giving us various interesting history lessons and pointing out important landmarks along the way.

Warwick Castle in the town of Warwick (pronounced Warrick) was the first stop. It’s completely a tourist destination now, owned by Madame Tussaud’s, and there are even wax people inside. The first part of the castle was build 1,000 years ago, along with many other things in England, and it has a real torture chamber and dungeon. Some of the scracthings on the wall of the dungeon show that people actually lived in a 12-by-16 stone cell for years. Some were even forced into a small hole no bigger than a dog house. Others were sentenced to die in hanging iron, where they would be hung from the ceiling in an iron cage that encased their trunk. They would stay there until the rotted out of it.

Other parts of the castle were more pleasant, such as the state rooms, which were decorated much the way they’ve been portrayed on television and in movies. Large portraits of dead, but important, family members crawl up the walls. Madame Tussaud’s does a good job also bringing the castle grounds to life with various daily demonstrations. And there was a sign posted on our way out that Meatloaf was scheduled to perform there soon.

The most interesting part of the tour came next, in Stratford upon Avon, where William Shakespeare was born and is buried. The town resembles a period version of Wellesley. There’s a ton of great shops, and the property values are sky high. Many homes are into the £500k, which is about $1.1 million.

Here I am at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford upon Avon. His house, from 450 years ago, is behind me. It’s an awfully creaky and uneven structure.

The house where Shakespeare was born is about 60 percent original, according to one guide. It was a nice house for the time, and it has held up well. They don’t have any true documentation that the room they say he was born in is actually the one, but they believe what was handed down through oral history because the family owned the home until the 19th century.

The next leg of the journey took us to a pub in the Cotswolds, which is a region of rolling hills and that-roofed houses. That’s it. We didn’t have any choice but to eat at this pub, and the cost of lunch wasn’t included in the tour price. We had budgeted for this, though, and the food was very good. On the way out, I stopped in the loo, only to be startled by the sound of small footsteps on the ceiling. To my surprise, I looked up and saw a dog standing on a skylight. When I got outside, I saw that two Jack Russell terriers lived in the residential portion of the pub, and they’re play area was the roof of the pub!

The Cotswolds led us to Oxford University, where we were set free to explore the 1,000-year-old cloisters and cathedral at Christ Church College. The cloisters and Tom quad, named after the bell in Tom Tower, were used in the Harry Potter films. The dining hall on campus, which was built later, was also used as inspiration for the dining hall in the film, but it was actually built inside an airplane hangar.

Our journey brought us back to London, where we Tubed to dinner in Picadilly Circus. Susan had been dying to try an Italian restaurant chain we saw all over the city. Trouble was, they didn’t serve chicken parm, Susan’s favorite, so she ordered pizza. I thought she had a lot of nerve, because we passed umpteen pizza places to get to this pasta place. Nevertheless we enjoyed our meal, then walked to the Internet cafe to end the night.

London Underground

The subway here is known by two names. It is officially the Underground, and colloquially as the Tube. I believe it is truly an American trait to make the word Tube a verb, as I have used it here, “We Tubed home.” I haven’t heard any Brits speaking that way.

The Tube is laid out rather logically, although some naysayers might say it is overly redundant. It’s redundancy is it’s charm and appeal. See, we can go into most stations and have a choice of two or more lines. What’s more, we often only need to go one or two stops on one line to get to the line we want.

It also allows the Underground to close entire sections at both random and scheduled times. One night we got on and heard an announcement that the train wouldn’t be stopping at Holborn because of a security incident. That’s OK, because Holborn is a short walk to Covent Garden. On Saturday and Sunday, two lines were right out of commission all day. Although this caused us a bit of a long walk from Blackfriars to Embankment, we later learned we had another option to take a water ferry from Blackfriars Pier to Embankment Pier, and it was covered by our TravelCards.

Speaking of TravelCards, these were the best investment of the trip. We have spent more than our money’s worth on the Tube in these cards. I think they were about £38 apiece, but the number of times we’ve gotten on and off the Tube, including the trip from the airport has saved us a ton of dough.

Another part of the genius of the Underground is in its connections. Many connecting stations don’t have the over/under style connection as in Boston, like at Park Street or Downtown Crossing. Sometimes lines are hundreds of yards away in entirely separate stations. But the walk underground is not unpleasant, but there are a lot of stairs. If this were available in more parts of Boston, the subway would be more user friendly.

Tim’s dream day II

I posted this day in two parts because the post was getting too long, and it was two amazing experiences that need to be dealt with separately.

After lunch, we made our way over to Picadilly Circus in Susan’s quest to find the Hard Rock Cafe. We saw it on our Tuesday tour, but neither of us could remember exactly where. Our pubkeeper gave us directions to the one in Picadilly. After walking there from Trafalgar, which was a short walk, we found the Hard Rock Casino. Not the same thing. Susan was disappointed. I was in pain thanks to my shoes. I think Susan saw the pain on my face, so she agreed to let me buy theater tickets. It’s been my dream for years to see a show in the West End. I have this knack for finding good shows. I saw the “Sunshine Boys” on Broadway starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman for $10 a ticket on Broadway. After doing some research, and using Susan’s rule #1 (no singing), I found the perfect show. It was the David Mamet play, “A Life in the Theater” starring Patrick Stewart (aka Capt. Jean Luc Picard) and Josh Jackson (aka Pacey Whitter).

With some time still before show, we walked to the London Eye, a 300-foot tall ferris wheel. To get there, we got to walk across this neat footbridge that is canti-levered and suspended off a 19th century steel train bridge. It’s an interesting blend of old and new architecture.

Susan and I walked across the Thames on one of London’s new footbridges to get to and from the Eye, in the background.

The Eye, itself, looks like a huge bicycle wheel canti-levered over the south bank of the Thames. It’s owned by British Airways, so we were a bit skeptical based on our flight over, but this flight was much better. Passengers board the “capsule” while the wheel is still moving. It moves very slowly. They do stop it from time to time, though. The wheel then turns anti-clockwise when viewed from south (which is actually the east because of the orientation of the river at that point). The whole capsule is glass and steel. It is climate controlled, and it stays perfectly stable through the whole ride. It’s kind of hard to explain, but the capsule rides on a double track that encircles it, and goes around the whole outer circumference in a single revolution.

This is about the best picture I could get from the London Eye of Big Ben and Parliament. Slightly beyond Big Ben’s face is Westminster Abbey, with its white double tower.

Still hurting from a day of walking in uncomfortable shoes, I hobbled back up the to Bakerloo Tube stop with Susan in Trafalgar Square, and we made our way back to the hotel so we could change. I had to put on my black shoes again, which I had traded after the Eye for a pair of trainers to ease my pain.

We Tubed to Picadilly again and found a delicious (pricey) steak house that looked right out on the Circus. From dinner, we went to show, which was well acted, funny and poignant, meaning, as you can imagine, Susan didn’t like it. After a brief stop in the Internet Cafe, we tried searching for the real Hard Rock Cafe, but ended up walking alongside the gardens of Buckingham Palace at 10 at night. We hopped a cab and went home. We needed our rest because Thursday is set aside for a long tour of the countryside.

Tim’s dream day

Wednesday was not an early wake-up day, but we did rise at early enough to catch breakfast at a little diner a couple of blocks from our hotel. We found it during a vain search for Harrod’s. I had dropped egg on “brown” toast (wheat) and coffee. Susan had a bagel with butter. We sat in the window and saw our little corner of South Kensington come to life. Across the street was a creperie, which Susan and I agreed to try another day, and a place that sold door handles and knobs.

Fully nourished, we ducked into the Tube at South Kensington and took the Picadilly Line one stop to Knightsbridge to go to Harrod’s, which makes all US department stores look like KMarts.

First of all, there’s about 10 levels to the place, three of which are underground, and it takes up a couple of city blocks. There’s all kinds of regular clothing departments, but Susan and I fancied the food lots and souvenir section. We regaled our tourist status by lingering among the many items marked with the Harrod’s name, then walked wide-eyed through the food stalls to see what was for sale. The place was loaded with candy of all kinds, fresh meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and more. There was a food court replete with a full-size Krispy Kreme. Susan and I enjoyed a mocha cap and chocolate gelato, even though we had only eaten an hour before.

From there, my day began. We Tubed over to Trafalgar Square, where there is a towering monument to Lord Admiral Nelson, who won the famous sea battle at Trafalgar. That’s all I know. He is joined in the square by a pair of fountains.

Lord Admiral Trafalgar is on the pedastal behind the horse statue.

I’ve often said Boston needs more fountains. It’s just such a nice place to repose. Trafalgar Square also happens to be home of the National Gallery, not to be confused with the National Portrait Gallery, which is in an adjoining building. The National Gallery is full of works by the masters, started with unsigned reliquary from the 13th century all the way until famous 19th century painters such as Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, and more.

I tried to explain to Susan the changes in art and how most of the art from the Middle Ages was commissioned by wealthy families for use are prayer objects, and how during the Renaissance, the painters, still working by commission, were painting biblical scenes for family chapels and so on. Well, she was tired of it all by the time we got to the Dutch masters, such as Van Dyck and Vermeer, all of whom led the painting world into portraits of living people, still lifes and landscapes. She was bored, so she hung out in a room of post-Renaissance Italian painters while I moved from room to room taking all of the wonderful art. I got to see works by some of my favorite Spanish painters Velazquez and el Greco. Then it was on to the Ruebens room, which is a grand room of three octagons full of mostly Peter Paul Ruebens paintings, including two biblical scenes that were amazing. One of them was only discovered to be a Ruebens in 2001, and it was a match to another scene, long known to be his.

Finally, I finished with painters I was sure would interest Susan. They didn’t. She was nonplussed, even when I took her in to see the Rembrandts and Monet’s We got to see Monet’s “Bridge over lilies” and she complained it was no big deal. I was undeterred, but it was time to go. I had seen all I wanted to, or so I thought. When we got to the gift shop, I saw they had copies of Van Gogh works I hadn’t seen. I left Susan standing under a display of the artist-in-residence while I ran back to see the Van Gogh room. In there was a painting I have been dying to see since Suzie and I were in grade school together. It was Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” I could have stared at that painting for hours. It was amazing, and the card beside it said he painted it for his spare bedroom in Arles, France in anticipation of his friend Paul Gaugin’s arrival. Imagine, one of the most recognizable piece of artwork in the world was done on a lark to welcome a friend.

We left with the intent of trying to cram in another museum, but I was pooped. Susan of course had long had it over an hour before, so I modified my mental schedule while we ate a late lunch in a pub outside of Trafalgar Square. My feet were also killing me. I was wearing the most uncomfortable pair of black dress shoes that I can’t tolerate for too long. Despite being dressed in blue Dockers, I donned trainers anyway on our way to the London Eye.

Discovering London

Tuesday was set aside for an all-day discovering London tour. We were collected at our hotel and brought to the Victoria Coach Station, which is a bus station, and it is several blocks away from the Victoria rail station (which we found out later during a different journey). At the coach station, we were greeted by our neatly appointed guide, Rodney, who was polite, but not amiable.

This tour brought us to various famous landmarks such as Westminster Abbey, which is right next to Parliament. It is very much like other Gothic Cathedrals I have visited in Spain. There’s a ton of famous dead people buried in the floor, including several poets, scientists and musicians. A few kings and queens are also entombed there, and memorialized in effigy. After a quick run around there with Rodney pointing out all of the appropriate historical artefacts (that’s the British spelling), we made our way over to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard. I don’t know why this is a big deal, except that it has been going on for a few hundred years. There’s one group of soldiers who march up one street into Buckingham Palace, and then a few minutes later a second group comes along and also goes into BP. Aside from being accompanied by a band, it’s really no big deal. Judging by the traffic that let loose after each regiment passed, it seems like a place to avoid at 11 a.m. each day, unless it’s raining, because they don’t change the guard in the rain.

We ate lunch in a “true” British pub near Trafalgar square, which meant being cordoned in a downstairs room and given a choice between meat pie (which I ate and enjoyed), chicken or lasagna pasta (with the a said like when saying “as”). Susan had the lasagna, which turned out to be vegetarian, defined by Susan to mean inedible.

After repairing to the coach again, we were off to Tower of London, which isn’t much of a tower. Perhaps in the 11th century when it was first built as a strategic defensive position on the River Thames it was considered a tower, but it didn’t look like what we think of as a tower today. That said, it was quite full of history and fascinating. I liked the armor and weapons inside the White Tower (the main building often referred to as the Tower), Susan, of course, liked the Crown Jewels. I liked them, too, but there weren’t as many as I thought. I was imagining a room like Scrooge McDuck’s vault.

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite photos of Susan. She’s got such a pretty smile here. And why shouldn’t she? The sun had just come out during our tour of the Tower of London. Tower Bridge can be seen poking through the trees in the background.

The next part of our journey was aboard a passenger ferry on the Thames from the Tower area to Parliament. This is where we lost some people. Although everyone who got on the boat also got off, Rodney took a hairpin left along the Embankment (sic) walkway and up some stairs. Some people continued straight without realizing and they disappeared. When one of the passengers told Rodney after the coach pulled away from the curb, he said, “Oh, well. They’ve got to keep up.” He also promised to make sure their belongings, such as souvenirs, umbrellas and jackets would be taken to the tour office and if the people found their way back to the office, they could collect their things.

This should have been the signal that Rodney had mentally shut off his guide function. He was now Joe Schmoe Londoner who wasn’t in the mood to deal with tourists anymore. We asked him to drop us at Hyde Park Corner, but he forgot, and so we were left at Marble Arch, which was somewhat near the Corner, if you consider Boston’s Theater District near to Park Street Station.

On the recommendation of a trusted family member, whose trust is beginning to erode (Susan suggests I write that I am being cheeky as I write this, and that it is meant in good fun), we ate dinner at Garfunkel’s, a chain restaurant with nearly as many locations in London as McDonald’s has in any American city. The food was borderline disgusting, and not worth the value. We swore we wouldn’t be back. We checked into the cost of theater tickets, ducked into a few stores in Picadilly, took the bus to Blackwell’s bookstore, ducked into an Internet cafe and Tubed back to the hotel. We’ve set aside Wednesday for museums. That’s my kind of day!