Travel: Rainy night in Georgia

How did the early British colonists survive the humidity and heat of Savannah, asks Guy de la Bedoyere
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Anyone who thinks American TV is devoid of intelligent, thought- provoking drama, pin-point reporting and a ruthless pursuit of accuracy, has not watched the Weather Channel. My wife had not done so either, before we pulled up in Savannah, Georgia, at the end of a 650-mile drive from Washington in late October.

Outside the rain poured from the heavens as if through a burst dam in the sky.

The Weather Channel men and women were in their element. Their favourite trick was an action replay of cloud movement. Over Georgia, straggling orange fuzz-balls representing clouds were in high-speed motion over a map of Savannah. The compelling effect was relentlessly repeated at two- second intervals. "There it goes, plenny of rain in Savannah tonight, folks."

After a few minutes it was obvious that death by total saturation was imminent, an impression reinforced by skilfully editing in news stories about a catastrophic snowfall in far-off Nebraska.

But the icing on the thundercloud was the prospect of tornadoes in not- so-distant Alabama. For my wife, unfamiliar with US geography, this was almost too much. Five hundred miles away, she felt, was as good as down the road.

In the morning the rain had disappeared with a shameless indifference to the mayhem it had caused. The odd epic puddle the size of a minor inland sea lingered to record the overnight inundation, but the roads were otherwise dry and the sky clear.

I have been frozen solid in Savannah, but this time we were baked to death beneath low cloud with suffocating humidity, before the rains came.

Savannah is a city of shady squares, elegant houses and bumpy roads. It is also a place where international building gangsters have passed the odd year.

This is the only explanation for the multi-storey car parks and other concrete monstrosities that sit between the houses like Monty Python's famous enormous lead weights dropped on unsuspecting Gumbies. You can only imagine the wretched neo-classical houses that must have been obliterated to make way for these buildings.

The best survivor is the Owens-Thomas house, said to be the "fahnest Regency" house in North America. Yessir. It is in fact quite smart, even by our standards. It is handy that the Americans use British monarchy periods to describe their architecture.

The visit, as in all of these houses, begins with an "orientation" video - which sounds awful but in truth rarely is. You end up with the sort of information that makes the visit more interesting.

A colossal amount of care goes into restoring the interiors and their small, intimate rooms make these buildings plausible places where people lived, unlike the sterile great rooms of the English stately home.

About 10 miles to the south east lies the Wormsloe Historic Site. Here, like the entrance to the Sleeping Beauty's castle, the road leads under a canopy of dark, overhanging trees to the ruins of a plantation house, now entirely submerged in a subtropical forest.

As any film-goer knows, such areas are exclusively populated by people enjoying intimate relationships with their siblings and self-loading rifles. But the reek of salt from a seawater marsh is all-pervasive, and no one populates this area except for miniature crabs that scuttle across the mud, and the occasional spider the size of a lobster.

Wormsloe was founded in the early 18th century, and its present state makes it seem amazing that anyone from England could ever have made a go of hacking out a life here. Even the Indians avoided the area, which was why James Oglethorpe and his 114 colonists came here in 1733. The Wormsloe site was leased to one of their number, Noble Jones, whose descendants still own some of the land.

We drifted north to the curious backwater of Beaufort. Overlooked by the vast military complex of Paris Island, this was a real Southern town of faded verandas, trees and vegetation, amid simmering humidity.

The visitors' centre handed out a free map to tourists, complete with the most comprehensively inaccurate information about historic houses. No house could be found where the hapless map indicated it should be. We gave up and wandered around at random.

But what of the weather? Across at Weather Channel HQ, on a trading estate on Atlanta's equivalent to the M25, the forecasters were reduced to replaying the edited highlights of the Savannah storm.

As we steamed north via Charleston, North Carolina, to Richmond, we discovered instead Dr Laura Schlesinger, whose phone-in is networked on AM talk stations.

"Dr Laura" is to phoners-in with problems as the sea is to lemmings. Battalions of (mostly) women ring up with their problems which range from feuds with chums, families, and pregnancies.

The miles disappear while this kind of thing churns out of the speaker. It makes driving in the US a joy - and not just because 300 miles means just over four hours (as opposed to the 10 hours it could easily take in the UK).

I am convinced that the habitual use of automatic transmission (you accelerate as fast as your car can, not as fast as you would like) and smooth flowing traffic make for a better mood.

In an intemperate climate, it evens the temper wonderfully.

Fact File

THE WRITER paid pounds 450 for a United Airlines flight from Heathrow into Washington Dulles, and hired a Hertz rental car. He could have flown direct into the South by flying into Charlotte (BA), Raleigh-Durham (American) or Atlanta (BA or Delta).

United offers connections from Dulles. Virgin also offers flights into Washington.

Accommodation was arranged on an ad hoc basis in local motels clearly signposted from main roads. Be prepared to pay between US$40-60 (about pounds 25-40) for a clean double room in a motel belonging to one of the better budget chains in an average location. Advance reservations can be made in the UK for some chains (Best Western: 0800 393130; Choice Hotels International for Econolodge and Roadway hotels: 0800 444444).

The total mileage covered was 1,585 miles in a week. In general, Interstates have a 65 or 70mph speed limit which drops to 55mph near cities and through roadworks.

You can work on the basis than an average of 60mph can be sustained with little difficulty, making 200-300 miles per day easy and even 400 straightforward.

Air conditioning, standard in American hire cars, has a dramatic effect in reducing drowsiness.