x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gardens of glory

From spectacular azalea-lined streets to dramatic history, Georgia and the Carolinas have several claims to fame.

Atlanta is also known as the 'city of trees' because of the dense canopy of woods that extends into the suburbs far beyond the urban skyline.
Atlanta is also known as the 'city of trees' because of the dense canopy of woods that extends into the suburbs far beyond the urban skyline.

It's an idyllic scene. A perfectly manicured garden bursting with pink and yellow azaleas. The virginal white blossoms of dogwood trees frame a gorgeous, white-columned mansion and its formal lawn. People amble slowly along the paths, gazing out over the marshes and the river beyond. It could be a typically English summer vista, except the river is Cape Fear, the house is a plantation house, and, bending down by the lagoon to take a closer look at the springtime wonder that is the azalea, I catch some movement on the far bank. Not an otter or a water vole. An alligator. But he's in a suitably soporific mood - which is apt in the glorious surroundings of Orton Plantation Gardens, just a few kilometres outside the charming town of Wilmington, North Carolina.

It feels a long way from where our trip began - 600 kilometres south-west in urban Atlanta, Georgia. But, as the southern states of Georgia and the Carolinas remind the visitor again and again, the story of America is right here. Orton's rice plantation was built on the back of slavery. The Africans cruelly transported here in the 18th and 19th centuries may have been "freed" in 1864, but it took the courage and campaigning of Atlanta's most famous son, Martin Luther King Jr, 100 years later to truly emancipate black people.

Rightly, Atlanta is proud of such heritage, and the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site makes for a poignant and shocking experience. His whole life is here; there are tours of the restored home where he was born on Auburn Avenue, exhibits marking his career as the leader of the peaceful civil rights movement which successfully campaigned to end segregation, and, finally, his tomb at The King Center. The shock comes in realising that it really wasn't that long ago.

The sprawling metropolis of Atlanta has many of these claims to fame. Coca-Cola was first made here in 1886 - its headquarters are still in the city - and The World Of Coca-Cola is a major museum. If you wish, you can take a tour around the Atlanta company that changed the concept of news forever, at the CNN Center. But sitting rather incongruously amid the many high-rises of downtown is the house that, for many, still symbolises Atlanta and The South. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind was written at 990 Peachtree Street, in a Tudor Revival building converted into apartments.

Inside is a fascinating - if brief - exploration of her life, with a tour of the small flat in which she wrote the bulk of her epic. Still, it's something of a pilgrimage site for fans of the book based around the life of Scarlett, a spoiled plantation owner's daughter. It's also somewhat satisfying to learn that Mitchell and Martin Luther King's lives actually overlapped in their work with the city's black poor.

Both museums are glimpses into a bygone central Atlanta lost to rapid commercialisation by the time the Olympics came to town in 1996. You have to search for the interesting areas - and to do so you certainly need a car. We had lunch in Virginia-Highland, a lovely spot for quirky boutique shopping and dining. And Buckhead's dogwood-lined streets are home to some of the best residential areas and hotels in Atlanta. Proof that it's very much a spread out, car-based city, is the 12-kilometre drive from downtown to where we were staying - The W in Buckhead. Watching the sun go down from the rooftop swimming pool, it felt like the perfect place to stay after a long-haul flight. The restaurant, Market, is pitched perfectly with its simple but refined comfort food.

Still, that even a straightforward hotel restaurant should raise the bar shouldn't have come as much of a surprise: Atlanta is something of a foodie's dream. Even foreboding warehouses on industrial estates have become destination restaurants, in this case the brilliant Two Urban Licks. For a taste of southern food (we loved the braised lamb) in a modern, accomplished style, it was the perfect introduction to America. As a band began playing country covers, the apple tart arrived slathered in ice-cream, and we were pleased, for once, we'd trusted the sat-nav.

The back of Two Urban Licks looks out over the Atlanta skyline, and we were given the option of sitting outside to experience it. It's not surprising: early spring is undoubtedly the right time to visit Georgia and the Carolinas - it's warm but without the oppressive heat and humidity these states buckle under in the summer. The trees are festooned with Spanish moss, an almost ghostly plant which wraps itself around any branch it can find. And then there are the azaleas. Coverage of the Masters golf tournament last month in Augusta, Georgia, showed them at their best but they're by no means unique to that setting. Go to Savannah, near the Georgia coast and about a four-hour drive from Atlanta, and they're truly a sight to behold.

It's the combination of the azaleas' sheer beauty and location (the blooms literally take over the 22 little squares that characterise one of the biggest historic districts in America) which makes it impossible to be in a rush here. We dawdled our way around them, taking in cafes, boutiques and a boggling array of interesting buildings - and in just 45 minutes came across three outdoor weddings in these effortlessly romantic public spaces. The waterfront is slightly tacky after the pure refinement of the historic Victorian streets, but even then, it's difficult to be that disappointed with dolphins splashing around in the Savannah River. There are all sorts of tours planned for this spring, too: walking ones, visits around the city's hidden gardens, and horse-drawn carriage rides run all year.

In fact, the latter seem to be something of a signifier that you've arrived in a historic American city. And it doesn't get much more historic than Charleston, just two hours up the coast from Savannah in South Carolina. This was where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired, and the boat trip out to Fort Sumter where it all began in 1860 is a must. Perhaps because they don't have thousands of years of it, Americans are obsessed with their history and every museum we visited was not only bursting with information but also employed guides who intricately set the scene. At Fort Sumter, that meant listening intently as a ranger explained how the first Confederate shells whistled towards this outpost of Abraham Lincoln's Union. Back on the mainland, the narrated Charleston carriage ride around the beautifully genteel French quarter was an evocative way to explore a city regularly destroyed by war, hurricane and earthquake.

In early to mid April, Charlestonians celebrate the Festival of Houses and Gardens - a fascinating opportunity to see how the other half live in the immaculately restored homes in some of the most historic areas. It's almost worth waiting until the 2011 festival to experience the place known as "a city within a garden" (and next year will also be the 150th anniversary of the Civil War), but if you can't, this is the right time of year to simply wander the streets. Staying at the Vendue Inn, a brightly coloured townhouse right in the heart of the old town, Charleston felt a world away from Atlanta.

And yet, as this trip reminded us again and again, it really isn't. Just across the staggeringly beautiful Charleston Bay is Boone Hall. It's another plantation house, but aside from the tour of the home, you come here for the slave huts nestled by the side of the grand, tree-lined drive. These are the only remaining huts of their ilk in the United States; probably because they were made of the brick the slaves themselves manufactured rather than the wood constructions elsewhere. Inside each one is a quite brilliant evocation of life on the plantation but also of the struggle for basic human rights. Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement is documented here, and the tour of the huts ends with a celebration of the United States' first black president, Barack Obama, who is married to a direct descendant of a slave family.

It had been a trip, then, of sublime contrasts - from the shiny glamour of the W to, as we continued to travel through North Carolina, a taste of small town America in Wilmington, where the Verandas B&B is without doubt one of the most interesting and elegant inns I've ever stayed in. And we'd had the beautifully warm spring, characterised by delicate flowers and genteel gardens, as a backdrop to the turbulent history of America. You wouldn't suggest they're past their struggles quite yet, but the friendly states of Georgia and the Carolinas seem to be at peace with themselves at last. travel@thenational.ae