Delve into the District

I have developed a bit of an obsession with Washington, D.C. OK, actually that’s not quite true. What I actually have is a HUGE obsession with the award-winning and utterly fabulous TV show The West Wing, and consequently when I’m in D.C. I live in secret hope that I’m going to bump into Bradley Whitford jogging along the Potomac. But, aside from this, D.C. is a great city to visit, and I could go back again and again and still not grow tired of it. Having been once on business and once on pleasure it’s now very near the top of my list, and has the rare distinction of being a city in which both my husband and I enjoyed staying.

I like D.C. for many of the same reasons I like Canberra. It’s not, comparatively, a huge city (i.e. it’s not New York.) There is an element to which it’s a planned city rather than one that’s grown organically, and as a result you have wide streets and plenty of green. As the national capital it has, like Canberra, the national museums and monuments, and as the home of the political elite it’s over-provided with excellent restaurants and drinking spots.


Unlike other major American cities such as New York it’s also remarkably friendly. New York, for me, ranks alongside London and Hong Kong (you might disagree) where the locals are always in a hurry and are somewhat resentful of any idiot in their city that doesn’t know where they’re going and has the audacity to slow down or come to a halt to look at a map or show any sort of weakness at all – I consider myself a very friendly person, yet I have heard myself tut loudly behind the person on the London tube who waits until they are standing by the exit gates to then dig around and find their Oyster card. D.C. lies on the cusp between the north and the south. It incorporates southern friendliness with east coast confidence and sophistication. By the time we got off the metro on the day we arrived in the city we had been adopted by not one but two solicitous locals keen to ensure we made it safely to our destination, while telling us everything about themselves (the one who had adopted me was from St Louis and had visited London ten years ago for a period of study abroad, the one who had adopted my classically British, reserved husband probably had a less interactive experience and so sadly I know nothing about him). While they argued with one another about which crossing we should use we skulked off with Googlemaps and found our own way.

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The Lincoln Memorial

There is of course a plethora of hotels ranging from the positively primitive to the gloriously opulent. We chose the Watergate Hotel, wonderful for Georgetown and convenient for all the major sites, which are walkable if you’re keen. It overlooks the Potomac, with Arlington Cemetery on the opposite side, and, of course, you have the added joy of being able to tell your friends you stayed at the Watergate. It remains one of the smartest and friendliest hotels I’ve stayed at, with a huge pool and fitness centre, rooftop bar and fabulous rooms, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Sunset from our room in the Watergate Hotel

There is more to do in D.C. than one can write in a blog post. In two trips we have done just a fraction, and I am planning a third trip as soon as I can cobble the money together. I’m yet to visit Newseum or the Library of Congress, which both appear in many “top 10s” of the city. I would however recommend the following:

The National Museum of American History

This is the museum that tells you how the Second World War was a war between the US and Evil that the US ultimately won. There was so little mention of the UK that it caused me to raise my eyebrows. However, it’s an excellent introduction into US history from the country that unashamedly considers itself to be the best in the world.


The National Mall

Photo opportunities abound, but you have to admit that the Americans are very good at monuments. Be warned – it’s a far longer walk than it looks on the map. However it’s really worth it for those sites you’ve seen so often on TV.


National Zoo

Having been to New York and found all the museums there eye-wateringly expensive it seemed bizarre yet delightful that everything in Washington, the zoo included, seemed to be free. You can see pandas here. Go on, go and see the pandas.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Washington is a city of memorials and it’s impossible to pick the best one. However, I think if I had to then it would be this one. The controversy of the Vietnam War still hasn’t faded all these years later, and many soldiers who came back found themselves the target of abuse and even hatred. The memorial, winner of a national competition that was opposed by many at the time for what was considered its brutal lack of ornamentation, brings home with its painful simplicity the sheer scale of the toll on American lives – more than 58,000 young Americans lost to a war that many now agree was at best futile, and at worst a national shame.

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The scale of war in the simplest of formats

Arlington National Cemetery

Technically in Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac, this continues to remind us just how well the US does memorials. I’ve blogged about this in another post, but want to stress again how glad I was to have visited.

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The permanently-guarded tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The National Cathedral

Again, any West Wing fan will tell you, whether you care to listen or not, of the importance of this building in that show, and the episode Two Cathedrals rightly won multiple awards. But it’s also a stunning building, and one that many tourists don’t visit on account of its being slightly outside the city centre. We were lucky enough to go there after hours with friends who were bell-ringers there and watched the sun setting from its bell tower. I’d highly recommend a visit – it’s grand, elegant and everything a great cathedral should be, separation of church and state aside!

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The National Cathedral at night, flanked by cherry blossom

So, if you’re looking for a long weekend somewhere, or a week somewhere, I cannot recommend D.C. enough.

And if you’re looking to get into West Wing, it’s better late than never! Hey, why not combine the two? My recommendation for some great images of Washington, and possibly the finest episode they ever made (it rightly won several awards) see In Excelsis Deo.


Everyone Has The Right To Idle

Of all the things we saw in Vilnius – the remaining Baltic capital that was still on my list – this stood out the most. In the midst of yet another beautiful city with a tumultuous, often somber history stands the self-proclaimed Republic of Uzupis, on the banks of the river Vilnia River. It’s a community of artists and Bohemians – the type who in Britain would by now have opened their own backyard gin distillery and would be stroking their goatee beards and soaking their cashew nuts ready for the next Macaroni cheese whilst simultaneously trying to save the whales – and they have transformed what used to be a run-down, no-go area into a little corner of quirky solace from an increasingly unstable and negative world. Their constitution – translated into over 20 languages on a series of mirrors along it’s outer wall, is one of the most joyous, uplifting things I have ever read.

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Everyone should have the right, as they would say, to read this every day, and realise, maybe, that life has the potential to be bright after all, if only we choose to make that happen.

To the Republic of Uzupis: I hope you last forever.

All 28

It occurred to me the other day, while plotting a holiday in Croatia, that I have travelled, over the years, to almost every EU country. And then this became a challenge: could I to all of them before we leave?

Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon

I make no secret of the fact that I am very sad that we are leaving the EU. I am sad not because of the economic or geopolitical arguments (though those I have heard only serve to strengthen my resolve on my position) but simply because I don’t understand, in an age where the word is becoming smaller and more accessible, a country would choose to cast itself adrift from its neighbours. It isn’t that I don’t recognise that we can now “make our own laws” or “take back control” (whatever that means), it’s that I don’t see why we would want to. Many of the aims of an organisation such as the EU – for all its flaws (and of course there are many) – are positive ones: unity, solidarity, and ensuring that the turmoil of the 20th century is never repeated. What the UK is saying is “we can do better.” But what is “better”? And what a shame, if it turns out to be true, that we care only for ourselves and not for those around us.

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Duomo, Milan

I have always felt far more at home in much of Europe than I have in the USA, a country that we would most likely seek to emulate in the future. Though we do not share a common language with the rest of Europe, our histories are so intertwined – the good and the bad; our interests and cultures similar. And while I realise that it’s likely we will be able to travel there after much as before (with those blue passports we are so proud of – you know, the ones imposed upon us by the League of Nations in the 20s and that the EU never actually “forced” us to give up) somehow it just isn’t quite the same.

Coastal path, Brittany

Anyway, I have so far travelled to Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden…and I live, increasingly reluctantly, in the UK.

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Grand Place, Brussels

Cruising Into Middle Age

I’d never been on a cruise before. Having browsed quite a few online I never seemed to fit the demographic. They seemed to all be geared towards either wealthy retirees, bright young things that wanted to drink themselves into oblivion against a Mama Mia backdrop while looking beautiful, and families with young children (the very idea of a Disney cruise is the stuff of nightmares – adrift with huge, lumbering, fully-dressed rodents from whom you cannot escape.) Then we were over in the US so thought we could tag a short cruise onto the end of our trip, just to see if we liked it. And we did.

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The pool deck

Cruises are a contradiction, managing to be simultaneously tacky and classy while seamlessly linking the two. We’d booked a 4-day cruise to the Bahamas that included food and drink, and when we arrived we momentarily thought this was a mistake. We went straight up to the pool deck, mainly because the idea of a swimming pool on a boat was a source of great excitement to me, only to find this was also the location of the 24-hour buffet. It was packed with hoards of stampeding, salivating, sweating passengers trying to get their money’s worth, falling over each other for just one more chicken leg or one more bread roll. We saw one guy come out with three desserts on a plate and an ice cream cone in his hand, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t with anyone. Then, after a shaky start and a wander up and down nine decks, we found our spiritual home in the Captain Cook, or what my husband accurately referred to as “the old men’s bar”. The CC was the home of Barry the Piano Man and a thrice-daily bar trivia. Suddenly, cruising was for me after all.

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We find our spiritual home: a deserted library

So what are the up and down sides of cruising? The up sides are being able to see several places in a very short time without having to plan your own travel between them. Island hopping, or, on longer cruises, country hopping, can be a little complicated if you have to negotiate airports, and even train travel, at which we are adept, requires forward planning. Travelling between islands at night simply required being on board at the specified time, then watching the shore drift gradually further away before saying, “oh look, it’s time for Tunes with Barry in the Captain Cook”. The food was another upside – this boat had SIX restaurants, some free and others that involved paying a supplement, and absolutely everything we ate was amazing (though we studiously avoided the aforementioned buffet.) The other upside, or downside, depending on how you look at it, are the passengers. We encountered several types of passenger on the cruise.

  1. The retirees (see paragraph 1). We quickly made friends with a couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, who turned out to be from Northern Ireland. We met when they came second in the bar trivia, and we won, leading to a conversation of mutual amazement at the lack of knowledge displayed by some of…
  2. …The Americans. As the ship left from Miami it was largely populated with Americans, a significant proportion of whom looked and sounded like the Golden Girls. There was a table of them next to us at the bar trivia, a group who looked as though they had just stepped off a 1980s golf course, who nursed pretty cocktails with little paper umbrellas and squabbled over the quiz questions. “What is the capital of Canada?” came the question. “No, no, it’s NOT Toronto,” the one I’m going to call Betty White hissed urgently “it’s somewhere you really wouldn’t expect.” They ended up putting Detroit, which, to be fair, is one of the last places you’d expect, on account of being in Michigan.
  3. The Hardworking Professional Men: this group, also Americans, seem to have mistaken a cruise ship for a conference suite in a Sheraton outside Dallas, or a pale imitation of the weekend trip they all intended to have in Deliverance. Gloriously unfettered by womenfolk, they hire out bars on the evening for private functions whose content will remain forever secret, engage in a lot of back-slapping and general camaraderie, and drink a lot. They can often be found in the gym (weights area) or on the running deck, at least just for long enough to make sure they’re seen there.
  4. The seasoned cruiser. We came across a few people for whom this was a familiar experience, so the point that they seemed so bored you wondered why they didn’t just take up something new, like bungee jumping. One such couple sat at the table next to us at dinner and invited themselves into the conversation of a neighbouring honeymoon couple with that ominous phrase “I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t help overhearing…” He proceeded to educate the couple as to how to make the most of a cruise. “I NEVER go on organised trips,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand, as though rebuking the trips in person. “No, no, no. You don’t see anything that way. Goodness, no. What I do is I just go to the shore and I go up to a local and I say “Take me you where YOU go at the weekend.”” He is of course assuming that everyone else around the world spends their free time doing exciting, exotic things, whereas in reality I wonder how many cruises he’s spent in IKEA, or putting up shelves?
  5. The Once In A Lifetimers: we met a few of these, including the honeymoon and anniversary couples. These are generally well-rounded people, as baffled by the frenzy in the buffet and as unimpressed by the increasingly-reddening sunseekers who remained stretched out on the pool deck even when there was a new island to explore as we were. Like us, these were often “give it a go” cruisers, who leapt at every tour and tried to attend every on-board event, except the towel folding. (Yes. Towel folding. Twice a day. Every day.) The Once In A Lifetimers seemed a little more worldly than some of the other groups, and looked as disbelieving as us when, at the trivia, on being told Hercule Poirot was Belgian, one of the older Americans shook her head incredulously and uttered, “Well I ain’t never heard of that.”
  6. The Singleton: It beats me why you would come on a cruise to meet the love of your life, but people must do, as there were several events each day for “single cruisers” that were apparently well-attended, including a bridge night and a karaoke night, suggesting an optimistically broad target audience. No further comment can be made, on account of our not being single and therefore not attending.
  7. The Get-Your-Money’s-Worth – see earlier paragraphs.
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Another benefit is the excursions, or rather the fact you can choose to go on them if you want, or ignore them if you don’t. Reluctant to put ourselves in the hands of some unfortunate local who was hoping to use his Saturday getting his dry cleaning done before being foiled by some idiot wanting to know what he did at the weekend, we joined one in Nassau, which was probably the best way to see as much as possible in a small space of term – conversely the down side of a cruise is that, just when you’re starting to like a place, it’s time to move on.



One of my concerns about cruising was that it did seem awfully expensive, but on reflection this wasn’t the case. We had a double room with a window, access to a pool, gym, multiple bars and restaurants and all the food and drink we could consume, plus all our travel from Miami to three different islands and back was included, and we didn’t have to pay extortionate sums for a night in a Bahamas resort hotel that could just as easily have been in Dubai anyway. We also saw a couple of surprisingly good shows, at no extra cost. And when you think of it like that, it’s really not too bad.

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Towel folding. And I know. Those eyes terrify me too.

So, yes, we’d definitely do it again, for longer, if we have time. But still not a Disney cruise. Floating in the middle of the ocean with a six foot duck in questionable clothing is still a step too far for me.

The Rise of “Dark Tourism”

A part of my (somewhat muddled) heritage takes me to the Channel Island of Guernsey. It’s a tiny island off the coast of France, beloved by cruise companies for its picturesque little cobbled town and the fact it’s as French as you can get without having to speak the language, and loathed by all teenagers who live there for its complete isolation in anything but the most clement of weather conditions, when the planes stop flying and the boats stop sailing.

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What amazes me is how many people are completely unaware of the island’s dark past, and the fact that a part of Britain was actually occupied during the Second World War after the rest of the UK took a strategic decision to bugger off. Take a closer look and it’s not hidden – all the islands are scattered with German fortifications, still intact, concrete and grim amidst beautiful cliffs and greeny-blue seas that could almost be the Mediterranean. On this little piece of loveliness, 70 years ago, people were starving.

There’s a bitter debate currently going on in neighbouring Alderney about how its dark past should be relayed to tourists – or if it should be even mentioned at all. Alderney’s history is altogether more destructive and disturbing than Guernsey’s: after almost all the tiny island’s population was evacuated, it became home to four labour camps, housing Jews and political prisoners from across Europe. It’s not known how many died there, but some estimates are as high as 70,000.

The argument centres around whether the camps should be commemorated in the form of a memorial, or whether they should be – for want of a better phrase – a “tourist attraction”. On the one hand, there’s a recognition that there is a lot of historical interest in such sites, but on the other, “it is not, unless you are a ghoul, a heritage issue that needs promoting, except as part of the overall occupation story.”

And yet such sites, in my opinion, are of huge importance – a memorial alone cannot teach us anything but numbers, which are often too abstract for us to take in.

Reconstruction of a Japanese PoW camp, Thailand

At 17 I visited Auschwitz as part of a school trip. I maintain that it is somewhere that every teenager should visit. We can all sit in a classroom and learn that 1.1 million died there, and be aware this is a number so huge that we cannot visualise that number. However, those people become real, tangible, when we see their shoes, their hair, their suitcases. Ghoulish it may be, but it is also true. It is history. Human beings did this to other human beings. Whatever a person’s motives for going to such sites – ghoulish or otherwise – sanitising our history, brushing it under the carpet, is not the path to preventing it from never happening again. After the war many sites were destroyed, either by perpetrators destroying the evidence or liberators horrified by what they found. In an age where the far right are on the rise again in pockets across Europe, in a time where one of my Jewish friends is considering moving to Israel because of a notable rise in antisemitism in her city, we need reminders more than ever. Of all places, the authorities that curated and opened the Auschwitz-Birkenau sites to the public had to be deeply sensitive and careful. They succeeded. When I went there I was supposed to write a piece for the school newspaper. I did, but it didn’t say what people expected. It simply said that there were no words, that there is a level at which your brain cannot process the enormity, the cruelty, the utter depravity. In a society so prone to hyperbole, when you stand at the end of that railway track and look around you all your brain can say is: This is Auschwitz.

Over the years I have visited a number of sites that centre around uncomfortable history, and where none can match the horrors at Auchswitz, each was presented in its own unique way and faced the same challenges around sensitivity, and sometimes the thorny issue of local complicity. On a recent trip to Vilnius we visited an old KGB prison. It was fascinating. Just as I suspect many people don’t know that Alderney was occupied in the Second World War , I know shockingly little about how the KGB operated within individual territories of the Soviet Union, beyond knowing that they existed, and that they interrogated people, bugged hotels, and all those other things you learn from James Bond. The museum was amazing – chilling, informative, interesting.

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KGB prison, Vilnius

Personally, we went there because we’re interested in history. My husband studied history of Eastern Europe to Masters level. Perhaps there is also an element to which humans are drawn to the macabre, fascinated by the grisly, and perhaps that is therefore “ghoulish”. But surely this is a lesser evil than being oblivious to the existence of such things, to consider them ancient history, done and dusted, when they are anything but, when genocides have happened since elsewhere in the world. Sites of historical importance, developed well, have their place. We can erase the sites, but we should not erase history.

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KGB prison cell from the 1960s, Vilnius

I don’t live on Alderney. A tiny island, physically adrift from its neighbours, it makes Guernsey look like New York. So, I don’t have any right to an opinion on the matter. I’m not sure I would even go. But many would, for, like other “attractions” (which is not really the right word) for a myriad of reasons. So I will follow the story with interest.


Virginia Is For Lovers

The somewhat unlikely slogan for the state of Virginia apparently came about not as some reference to the sexual revolution or the array of particularly romantic locations that may or may not be available there, but as the lazy result of a misguided 1960s ad campaign that started out as “Virginia is for history lovers”, “Virginia is for nature lovers” etc., which the Virginia State Travel Company deemed to be too complicated. So, it was abbreviated to its somewhat far-fetched current form, and now adorns t-shirts, baseball caps and all the other sorts of things visitors buy there.

While, travelling as a couple, we saw a disappointing lack of evidence of Virginia being for lovers, we were nonetheless pleasantly surprised by the range of things to do there. Being so close to D.C., and being one of the original states, giving it, in US terms at least, a considerable amount of history, Virginia is dotted with the type of attractions where you need to fight past school parties to get in, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and numerous Civil War and War of Independence Battle Fields. It’s also home to several national parks, museums, and, of course, the Arlington National Cemetery. So, let’s start there.

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The Great (not so Dismal) Swamp

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery seems to appear in almost every Top 10 Things to Do In DC list, even though it isn’t technically in D.C. We walked to it from the Watergate Hotel in Georgetown (arguably the best place we have ever stayed, but that’s for another day) – a 30-minute or so walk along and across the Potomac. Being a national memorial it’s free to visit, and well worth the effort. It’s one of the most impressive and sensitively designed such cemeteries I have visited. Having travelled extensively in the US and worked with many Americans, I expected, to my shame, that it would have maybe a  more triumphalist feel, perhaps be a little grander, even potentially jingoistic. But it isn’t. And it’s the very simplicity of the place that makes it awesome and sobering and yet somehow humbly peaceful all at the same time. It’s incredibly moving – a vast swathe of mainly plain memorials, culminating in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded 24 hours a day by a member of the National Guard and accompanied by an interesting museum that will tell you, amongst other things, that the third tomb – where a casualty of the Vietnam War was originally buried – is now empty on account of his having later been identified. Elsewhere you can also see John F Kennedy’s eternal flame – a sad and beautiful memorial to a murdered president. If you are in Washington, Arlington is an absolute must.

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The Great Dismal Swamp

OK, I admit it – we went here solely for the name. As we were staying relatively close by, somewhere with such literal and vivid nomenclature could not be ignored. To our disappointment it was neither great (not in US terms anyway) nor dismal, though there were some corners of it that could conceivably have been the inspiration for Dagobah (if you are not a Star Wars fan please skip over this comment!) It culminates in a large lake in the centre, which looked particularly magnificent under a clear blue winter sky. There are walking trails throughout the park, and it was pleasingly devoid of other visitors when we went (though later in our journey we met a man who visited regularly to go, as he put it “a-huntin’ and a shootin'” and claimed there were many bears there – I’m pretty sure he wasn’t real, but rather was another brainchild of the Virginia State Travel Company.)

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Virginia…or Dagobah?


The purpose of our visit to Virginia in the first place was to visit family currently living in Norfolk, VA. Where it isn’t necessarily top of the list for foreign visitors, it is nonetheless a tourist destination of sorts for other Americans, with a number of historical attractions including the USS Wisconsin and the utterly fabulous Macarthur Memorial, a free and informative museum dedicated to the famous general about whom I knew shockingly little (though the key piece of information I took from it was that both his father and son were named Arthur Macarthur, which suggests that, what the family had in military prowess, it lacked in imagination.)

USS Wisconsin

The city itself is well worth a wander, with its impressive waterside, array of bars and restaurants and other attractions including a Botanical Gardens (a little way out of town) and the beautiful Chrysler Museum of Art.

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Chrysler Museum of Art

Virginia Beach

I’m going to be controversial – I wasn’t all that taken with Virginia Beach. It felt to me like every seaside resort I have ever visited, be it in the US or UK: miles of forgettable, sometimes run-down hotels each following a recognisable format of square, light grey, chain-owned, lining a boardwalk that wasn’t even made of board, but was instead a concrete path along a plain beach. Perhaps visiting in November didn’t help, but I can imagine it would be further impaired, rather than improved, if besieged by sunbeds. All in all it just felt a little sad – a town from another era that couldn’t keep up with change, filled with thrift stores and kitsch souvenir shops and bargain-basement, plastic mini golf. Even the Christmas lights looked a little desperate. While the sea is probably inviting in the hot Virginia summers, aside from that there was little to draw me there.

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Virginia Beach, giving every customer what they really need

So, my conclusion? As with other places we’ve visited in the US primarily for the people rather than the surroundings, Virginia, loving aside, came as a pleasant surprise. A short hop from Washington (via plane, or trains if you are feeling masochistic), it is the perfect complement to a trip to the USA’s capital – you can even squeeze in a trip to Kitty Hawk and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, just a drive away, while you’re there.