Most Brits under the age of 65 would rather eat their own feet than choose a coach holiday. Here’s the deal: you travel en masse on the world’s least sexy mode of transport (camels excepting), confined with a load of randoms for extended periods of time, and follow someone else’s agenda – no ta. So when I found myself eagerly hopping back aboard the bus on Insight Vacation’s tour of America’s Deep South, I began to worry.
Designed as a music-themed trip through the Deep South’s most iconic sights from Nashville to New Orleans, the Southern Grace tour belongs to the Luxury Gold collection, which offers superior levels of comfort both on and off the 40-seater coach such as wi-fi, an amplified itinerary, and swanky hotels. The only thing that the company can’t guarantee is the quality of your fellow passengers, but I struck it lucky.
Establishing boundaries is all part of working as a team, something that my crew really took to heart. After a heavy first night in Nashville hitting up the Grand Ole Opry for a live show of country hits followed by the whip-crackin’ honky-tonks, the agreed 8am departure came and went like a version of Dolly Parton’s face (who by the way once entered a Dolly-alike Drag contest here and lost).
One by one the stragglers line danced bleary-eyed on to the bus, while I managed to go AWOL in the XL hotel: considering it had some 3000 rooms, I’m surprised anyone makes it out of there alive.
Keeping us on the straight and narrow was never going to be easy but tour director Ann Harness was born for the role. An elegant former schoolteacher, Wyoming native Ann is the kind of woman who changes her nail polish daily to match her outfit and manages to make rhinestone-studded merchandise look chic. Armed with a unique blend of Dorling Kindersley handouts (did you know that during the American Civil War more men died from infection and disease than fighting?), destination appropriate sing-a-longs, and a never-ending supply of GooGoos (Nashville’s famous peanut and chocolate clusters), Ann had us whipped into shape in two shakes of a sheep’s tail.
After a heavy first night in Nashville, the agreed 8am departure came and went like a version of Dolly Parton’s face (who, by the way, once entered a Dolly-alike Drag contest here and lost).
Music fans will know Memphis as the home of the blues and birthplace of the King. It’s also where the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, on a balcony of The Lorraine motel. Today the motel forms part of the moving National Civil Rights Museum, covering the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through to the seminal events of the late 20th century that inspired the world to stand up for equality. Conveniently, the famous Central BBQ is right next door, where we pigged out on Memphis’ famous dry rub meats before a visit to the legendary Sun Studios. Echoing with the ghosts of the blues and built on the bones of rock n’ roll, everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Johnny Cash recorded here – I even got to snog a mic once used by Elvis.
The legacy of these legends is brought to life on Beale Street where we hung out in neon-lit juke joints heavy with the smell of sweat and bourbon, surrounded by the sounds of throaty singers and hungry bands singing the Delta blues.
Sadly the years have not been kind to Memphis; “white flight” to the ‘burbs has left the inner city depressed and suffering from one of the highest crime rates in the U.S – the main reason we stayed at a plain corporate hotel within relative safe walking distance to the action rather than the fabulous Peabody Hotel in downtown, with its famous daily march of the ducks.
Obviously Graceland is the big ticket and thanks to Insight Vacations we saw it in style, with Elvis’ old chum George Klein as a private guide, a man who seems to have made a career out of being Elvis’ best mate.
“He was dangerous but not too dangerous,” said George, something that just about sums up the mass appeal of the King.
We even ate dinner in Elvis’ garage, alongside a pink ‘55 Cadillac Fleetwood Sedan that he gifted his momma when he hit the big time, a ‘56 Eldorado convertible and a couple of Stutz Blackhawks – the kind of cars that would make me trade 21st century freedoms for the life of a ‘50s housewife in a flash.
Graceland is extraordinary but Elvis’ private jet the ‘Lisa-Marie’ is even more outrageous, complete with electric blue carpets, 24-carat gold sinks and a massive velour bed that probably played host to the inaugural meeting of the Mile High Club. If the King had designed our coach we might never have got off. That said, there’s still no escaping the fact that I spent a lot of time sitting on a bus. But entertained by Ann and the crew, the road-trip was the scene of endless laughs, lots of snacking and some serious gossip; coaches are not cool but they sure are a good place to make friends.
Over miles of flat, grey highway, in roadside diners decorated with twerking pigs and at open-air malls full of Trump supporters, we met a slice of America that you just don’t see in the movies.
This is a place where you can wear a cap emblazoned with “God, Guns, & Guts” without any trace of irony, and the standard measure of a redneck is “whether or not you go to family reunions to pick up chicks.” Say what you like about Southerners, they’ve got a cracking sense of humour.
Compelling as it was uncomfortable, the contrast of these different faces of American history – and the legacy it has left on the nation – was a lesson I won’t forget, something which at at times still felt painfully close to home.
Much of the area remains dirt poor, but in Natchez, Mississippi, eerie former plantation mansions provided a snapshot into the wealthy antebellum era, made rich from the exploitation of slaves. We saw this for ourselves at the Frogmore Plantation, a working cotton farm, with an authentic recreation of slave life in the 1800s, complete with original quarters, and insights into slave customs, music, and their relationships with the master, mistress, and overseer.
Compelling as it was uncomfortable, the contrast of these different faces of American history – and the legacy it has left on the nation – was a lesson I won’t forget, something which at at times still felt painfully close to home. When asked whether or not I “dated out of race”, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s fair to say that none of us slept very well in our palatial Monmouth House digs that night – even after buckets of icy mint julep.
The story in New Orleans is also complicated, but the message simple – laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll). The perfect last hurrah, this party town famously ‘votes dry and drinks wet’, offering debauched excess every night of the week on Bourbon Street and beyond.
We stayed at the Hotel Monteleone, a chic grand-dame bang in the French Quarter, got jazzy on Frenchmen Street, and made merry on a paddle steamer down the Mississippi, intoxicated by Southern Gothic charm and the Voodoo spirits that call N’Awlins home.
At the New Orleans School of Cooking larger than life chef Kevin Belton gave us a hilarious crash course in Southern food and confidence. “Around the world they call this fat”, he said rubbing his massive belly while whipping up a storm of gumbo and pralines, “but in Louisiana this is credibility.” Inspired by chef, I decided to eat everything. From Oysters at Mr Ed’s and Mike Cerio’s po’boys, to mufuletta from Central Grocery, beignets at Café du Monde, and bread pudding at Mr.B’s, Mr Belton had me busy. And potentially off to an early grave, although New Orleans’ St Louis Cemetery was so impressive I actually wouldn’t have minded.
To quote our delightfully acerbic NOLA guide Jim Besse, the Deep South is “like a stomach ulcer – it’ll get you in the end.”