Travel: My Rough Guide - USA: Every eye followed me as I made my way through the silence

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The Independent Travel
Best discovery

Donna's Bar and Grill in New Orleans is a tiny one-room lounge that features live brass bands six nights a week. Young local musicians play a unique streetwise fusion of bold, blaring brass with raucous rap and reggae. There's no amplification, let alone a separate stage, so the musicians often wander among the audience - playing a trombone solo while ordering drinks at the bar, for example. Provided you can elbow your way through the dancing crowds and find a corner to eat it in, you can buy spicy boiled crawfish by the pound or plates of jambalaya.

Bizarre meeting

I can't compete with one of my (male) co-authors, who, back in 1990, met a pre-Presidential Bill Clinton in an elevator, and was invited for a drink. The strangest encounter I've had was with Paul McLeod, whose home in Mississippi, "Graceland Too", is open to the public as a shrine to Elvis Presley. Together with his son, Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod (he seems to believe the name is a miraculous coincidence), he monitors all US TV and radio networks around the clock, logging all mentions of the King. It took us four hours to get away.

Favourite Hotel

Two places we stayed last summer really stand out. One was the Vee-Bar Guest Ranch, near Centennial, Wyoming, which offers all-inclusive vacations for would-be cowpokes, with accommodation in luxurious streamside log cabins and as much time on horseback as you can handle. The other was the rambling old Shadowcliff Youth Hostel in Grand Lake, Colorado, set in the forests just south of Rocky Mountain National Park. This gorgeous timber lodge offers rock-bottom rates, a huge cosy lounge, and stunning mountain views.

Biggest disappointment

I imagined my first ride on the New York subway was going to be a glamorous experience. I've never seen such a spooky, intimidating, hell hole.

Best meal

Mrs Wilkes Boarding House in Savannah is one of the last survivors of a great old-time Southern institution - the round-table restaurant. Diners are seated at large communal tables, and served an all-you-can-eat feast of Southern delicacies - succulent fried chicken and ham, of course, but also creamed corn, okra, spinach, and collard greens, plus pies, soups, cornbread ... anything you could possibly want. Between mouthfuls, your fellow eaters tell you their entire life story.

Embarrassing moment

Walking into a packed local diner in the town square of Winterset, Iowa, having every eye in the place follow me as I made my way through the silence to the one empty stool at the counter, and perching self-consciously while I wolfed down my lunch. That evening, I saw the movie Bridges of Madison County, and saw Clint Eastwood go through the same silent scrutiny in the selfsame cafe.

Biggest mistake

Only allowing half a day to research Orlando's waterparks. After three days in Disney World, and one at Universal Studios, we thought we'd pretty much exhausted central Florida's potential for unadulterated joy, but the waterparks were something else again.

Best drive

The terrifying but exhilarating Moki Dugway, in south-east Utah, is a dirt road built by uranium miners in the 1950s. It switchbacks down an 1,100ft cliff into the eerie sandscape of the Valley of the Gods, whose red-rock pinnacles were seen in the movie Thelma and Louise.

Ten miles further on, you come to Goosenecks State Park, where another 1,000ft cliff towers above the extravagant loops of the San Juan River.

fact file

A week's all-inclusive stay at the Vee-Bar Guest Ranch, Centennial, Wyoming (tel: 307/745-7036) costs $2,695 (pounds 1,673) for two. The ranch is 70 miles west of Cheyenne, though the nearest major airport is at Denver, Colorado - a half-day's drive.

Dorm beds at the Shadowcliff Youth Hostel, Tunnel Road, Grand Lake, Colorado (June-Sept only; tel: 970/627-9220) cost just $8 (pounds 5); the nearest airport is also Denver.

Donna's Bar and Grill is at 714 N Rampart St, New Orleans (tel:504/596- 6914); the cover charge is $5 (pounds 3), a pound of crawfish costs $6.50 (pounds 4).

Mrs Wilkes Boarding House is at 107 W Jones St, Savannah, Georgia (tel:912/232- 5997); lunch costs $8.50 (pounds 5.30).

Admission to all three Disney water parks in Orlando - Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and River Country - is $25 (pounds 15.50).

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