Simon Calder finds unexpected warmth on an out-of-season journey down the mid-Atlantic Coast

The blizzard degenerated into freezing rain and began to infiltrate my allegedly weatherproof jacket. The loneliness of the long-distance traveller reaches its greatest intensity midwinter on the mid-Atlantic coast, I concluded as I splashed through the historic town of Lewes, Delaware. The port's grand monuments to the early Dutch settlers were a blur - barely more distinct than the opaque view from the deck of the vessel that had brought me across the mouth of Delaware Bay from Cape May in New Jersey.

The blizzard degenerated into freezing rain and began to infiltrate my allegedly weatherproof jacket. The loneliness of the long-distance traveller reaches its greatest intensity midwinter on the mid-Atlantic coast, I concluded as I splashed through the historic town of Lewes, Delaware. The port's grand monuments to the early Dutch settlers were a blur - barely more distinct than the opaque view from the deck of the vessel that had brought me across the mouth of Delaware Bay from Cape May in New Jersey.

My memory of the pastel cottages, welcoming cafés and wide-screen seashore of that pretty resort was fading as quickly as my hopes of making any further progress before nightfall. Visiting America's second smallest state in winter was looking a bad move.

America's capacity to amaze is limitless - which is just as well, since the British are visiting the US in greater numbers than ever. Travelling through the off-season is a good way to avoid the crowds, and the northern stages of my January expedition had proved rewarding. Beneath a searchlight sun low on the horizon, Boston dazzled, Providence gleamed and New Haven - the home of Yale University - sparkled brilliantly. The North-east is the one part of the US where the railroad is an essential part of the transport infrastructure. Hopping between rattling commuter trains and sleek, silent expresses, I followed the tracks that thread along the coast.

From the mid-point of my journey, New York City, I could have meandered inland; within an hour of leaving Manhattan, you can lose yourself in countryside as empty as the mountains of Maine and the Florida Everglades, and understand why "New Jersey: the Garden State" is a serious state motto rather than a poor attempt at humour. Instead, I took the coast road. Trace the ragged Atlantic shore south from New York and you sketch the course of American independence. The fast trains call at only the grandest stations en route to Union Station in Washington, so at 30th Street in Philadelphia I diverted into New Jersey. I trod the boardwalks of a largely boarded-up Atlantic City, then wended down the coast via a string of historic ports to where my problems really began.

"Hey, come in from the rain," yelled the guys at what I hereby endorse as the finest exhaust-replacement business in Delaware. One mechanic plied me with coffee as the other called around local car-rental companies and Greyhound Bus Lines, searching without success for my escape route. But a motorist named Dave was heading to the state capital, Dover, and was happy to take me along. He insisted on giving me a tour of the fine civic buildings of this city that looked uncannily like a 1930s movie set, while asserting the state's claim to ascendancy: Delaware was the first former British colony to ratify the US Constitution.

On learning no buses were running that day, Dave demanded that he drive me a further 40 miles to the East Coast main line at Wilmington. Within 90 minutes, I stepped down into the railroad cathedral of Union Station - and strode into the world's greatest concentration of art, architecture and power, better known as Washington DC. The US capital is designed to cope with climatic extremes, from suffocating heatwaves to ice storms, without seizing up.

Soon I was warming up in a bookshop with the help of Jack Kerouac and a glass of Calfornian red. Just one of the good ideas at Kramerbooks is the Afterwords Café, where the lonely traveller can find solace in literature - or strike up conversation with others. The greatest assets of America's most historic cities, as with the hundreds of less-celebrated towns along the East Coast, are the citizens: gracious, welcoming and kind to strangers in their strangely wonderful land.

First impressions

New York City, scarred yet defiant, is the starting point for many British visitors to the East Coast. For first-time arrivals, there are three grand approaches to the city. If you arrive at Kennedy airport, take the shuttle train to Howard Beach and jump on the Subway as far as Brooklyn. Get out and walk across the bridge: as you get closer, Manhattan expands to fill your field of vision. Anyone arriving at Newark airport should grab a cab to the port at Hoboken, which glowers at Manhattan across the river. From here, ferries shuttle over to deliver and collect commuters - and in so doing provide a superb approach to the city that barely takes a nap. Ideally, you should arrive by rail from the north, gliding majestically into Grand Central Terminal. The transcontinental expresses of old have been superseded by suburban trains. But the sense of majesty that prevails when you emerge from the tracks into the great hall is the perfect preparation for New York City: beautiful yet overwhelming.

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