Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hidden Gems

After a lifetime of rambling around North America, I admit to falling in love with it over and over.

I also keep finding places that somehow become extra special to me. Sometimes it is the flora and fauna. Sometimes it is the terrain or even geological splendor of a place. Sometime its it the people, the food, or a unique culture. For whatever reasons some places just get elevated into the "special" category.

Some of these places gracefully fly below the radar of the travel guides. So here are a few of my favorites:

Wilmington, North Carolina
Try to imagine a city with over 200 city blocks of pre-civil war housing. A place with the charm of Savannah or Charleston without the tourist hype. A place with huge canopy trees filled with spanish moss. A place where the Cape Fear river joins the intercoastal waterway. A place where all the hurricanes head, but has never had to be evacuated. A place that serves as the third most popular US location for movie and television production right after LA and New York. A place where college kids can come to study and to surf.
Wilmington North Carolina seems to quietly go about its business humming to its own laid back rhythm. Everyone seems to just let you be. Movie star. No big deal, certainly no reason to stare, besides it would be plain rude. So if you see movie and tv star on the street or sipping a perfect latte at Port City Java just go about your own business.

Amazingly, Wilmington's hotels are all a bit sad. I'm a diamond member at Hilton, and prior to its renovations I would have rated the monolithic wall of a Hilton in Wilmington as one of the worst on the planet (not quite as bad as the wretched Desoto Hilton in Savannah, but close). Even after its own "renovation", Wilmington has the worst Marriott Courtyard on the planet.

But, take heart, the shortcomings of its hotels are more than off-set by its top rated bed and breakfasts. My favorite is The Front Street Inn. I know that since my last trip the ownership has changed, but the wonderful reviews on Bed and would suggest that even with new owners it has retained its character and quality. The other B&B that I have always wanted to stay at is the Greystone Inn. These are both in the Historic District and within walking distance of downtown.

There are fine restaurants in both Wilmington and in close by Wrightsville Beach. Wilmington is also an excellent home base to make a side trip to Kure (pronounced "curry") Beach and Fort Fisher and one of the state's three aquariums.

Besides coming for a relaxing weekend, consider a stroll in the splendid Airlie Gardens, a tour of the antebellum Bellamy Mansion and gardens, or the terrific Cameron Art Museum (with its exceptional collection of Mary Cassatt sketches).

Wilmington seems to rest below the radar. Maybe that is precisely what makes it so special.

The Mission Inn

All the way at the other end of the nation is the Mission Inn in Riverside California.

Now in the middle of the smoggy LA inland empire, Riverside is certainly not a place on much of anyone's "gotta see it" list. Yet set in the heart of downtown Riverside is the lovely Mission Inn. The Inn stands in testament to a time when Riverside was just the quiet home to fragrant orange and lemon groves. Even today, the Mission Inn harkens back to another time. Its original owner lavished love and attention on every incremental stage of its growth and development. Some rooms have prayer niches, others fireplaces, or even pianos. A few look like they were made for a visit by Rudolph Valentino. 

Every layer and level of this architectural fantasy is different. You peak over one wall and there is a Moorish chapel (complete with windows by Tiffany). A little further and the theme changes to a village in China. You can easily get lost trying to find your room here (I'm serious).

When it was built nothing was spared and everything was for sale (and had a pricetag underneath to prove it). There were birds and rare plants. There is still damage from a circus elephant that got loose on its grounds.  

Because of its grandeur the Inn has played host to presidents on official business and pleasure (one even wed here). It was also a favorite hideout of hollywood stars for decades.

But as Riverside changed into a big city, and the groves disappeared, the Inn lost its glamor and eventually closed. It then remained in a state of advancing decay for decades. 

Luckily it survived the wrecking ball long enough to be revived in the 90's. I have to hand it to those responsible for its resurrection, as they clearly paid great attention to restoring its lovely details with obvious affection.

The Inn has its faults, and I caution those that have a 5 star expectation of perfection may be disappointed.  It is a very old building.  The elevators are miniscule.  It is not part of a chain that exacts perfect management.  It does not have plasma screens in every room.  What it has is precisely what every modern hotel lacks. It has character, charm, personality, and soul.  So if you are looking for a "Frette sheet" experience, go to Beverly Hills (see references to Scottsdale and La Jolla).  If you can allow yourself just a moment to step back in time, go enjoy the Mission Inn.

While pricey, on my visits the Inn's restaurants have always been excellent. Truly a perfect place for special occasions and sunday brunch. The Inn also features an elegant pool in which I have floated at night in complete solitude and bliss.  

It is decorated in spectacular fashion at Christmas.  

For an anniversary, splurge, rent one of the Inn's very private two-story rooftop suites. This place transports you back to California in its dream state.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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