North Carolina was our unexpected last stop in the US, simply because the container ship to Europe left from a place called Wilmington. It was meant to be straight forward to get there too, an overnight train from Miami to Raleigh in North Carolina which we would explore for a few hours before catching a short bus. Little did we know…
There are two trains from Miami to New York with routes differing in the Carolinas, they are known together as the Silver Service. It took us a bus and a metrorail train from South Beach to the Amtrak station on the Miami-Hialeah border via downtown Miami. This included a 10 minute walk to the Amtrak station through an area I wouldn’t have wanted to walk at night. We boarded the single decker train at around midday and relaxed into the easy journey with $2 cups of tea and all the delicious snacks and pre-made meals we brought with us.
The delights of Amtrak travel came early. A couple of hours after starting the train was held up waiting for the delayed southbound Silver Star to pass us because some parts of the line are still single tracks. After it eventually passed, a freight company also wanted to send a train south so this meant more waiting. The freight companies own the tracks in the US, meaning the passenger trains do not have priority. The trick is to enjoy the journey as part of the holiday and not to use the trains here to commute. This means when you spot the conductors jumping off the train to stop the traffic in person, you won’t get annoyed at how dated the system is. Instead, you enjoy the novelty and quaintness of it all.
The Silver Star took us to Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital city. We were only an hour late in the end, but despite having reclining chairs and foot rests which are infinitely more comfortable than a night on the bus, we were still shattered at 9am.
Sir Walter Raleigh’s town
Ed’s Country Diner was our first stop in Raleigh. It was a real diner serving american breakfast foods all day including free coffee refills. With wacky signs and farming equipment on display, Mischa ate grits and eggs and I had extremely rich and syrupy french toast. We quickly picked up the different accent. The Carolinas are not the south but come with a softer southern accent. The land is generally red but the cities are occasionally blue. The town itself is named after the explorer who settled Roanoke Colony on the nearby coast in 1587. Three years later it was discovered abandoned and the 115 people were missing under unknown circumstances.
Other than another cafe with funky graffiti of the town’s namesake, we took it easy here and saw only one sight. The State Capitol building was built in 1840 and is currently being used by the governor of the state. In front was a monument to three different presidents including Andrew Johnson (1865-69) who was born in Raleigh.
One last Greyhound
After an easy 15 minute bus ride at $1.25 each to the Greyhound station, we had about an hour to wait before our 3 hour journey began. At 4pm when the bus was due to leave, five of us got up to queue. Nothing happened. Buses left around us yet nobody said anything about ours. Something we had learnt about customer service in the US, in some occasions it is severely lacking. This is not always surprising given how little they are paid. We continually had to ask for an update, feeling like pestering customers, and instead of telling us that the bus driver hadn’t turned up, “the bus will be leaving soon” was continually repeated. Eventually they admitted the driver was sick but hadn’t told them, so an hour after our bus was due to leave they called for another driver. She had to get a taxi from nearby Fayetteville and for 45 mins she was due “in a few minutes”. The situation is unavoidable, but the lying from the staff was appalling and stressful. There is nothing wrong with saying I don’t know whats happened to the driver or I don’t know when the replacement driver will turn up, yet we had many doses of hope then being let down when it was obvious we were going to wait a long time.
In the end, when the friendly replacement driver turned up, we left 3 hours late, at the time we were due to arrive into Wilmington. But the stress didn’t stop there. An hour into the journey, it turned out the new driver had never driven this route before. She couldn’t find the first stop, decided to miss the second and head straight to the third given one of us wanted to get off there. Mischa had to spend most of the journey sitting up front with her giving directions, because what she had been given was terrible. It involved instructions like “after 7 traffic lights turn right” and “after Wendy’s turn left” instead of road names.
We finally made it to Wilmington at around 10pm, a long time after the last public bus had left for the downtown area. We grabbed an Uber and to our surprise was greeted by a South Korean man from near Busan who had spent many years living in Germany.
The gateway to Cape Fear
Wilmington was a secret gem we’d never heard of, a fantastic discovery just like in China when leaving from Xiamen. It is the closest big town to the coast and seaside, popular destinations for domestic tourists. unfortunately, possibly due to the sweetest, most unhealthiest breakfast from the day before, I couldn’t enjoy the town to the full due to a stomach ache. We squeezed in the river front walk, spotted the battleship USS North Carolina and explored the downtown area with its wonderfully old houses on Front Street. In the post office, sending our last US postcards, one friendly worker said “cheers” as a thanks to us. It turned out he’d spent 11 years living in the UK, he was there before the M25 if you can believe that.
The hostel we chose, because it was the only hostel in Wilmington, was amazing. It’s rare to find decent hostels in the US, some cities (like Memphis and Tucson) don’t even have one, and the bigger ones we stayed at in the larger cities were more functional than good meeting places. This house turned hostel where a super friendly and welcoming couple lived and managed was a wonderful end to our American trip. We spent a lot of time there chatting with them and the guests, learning more about North Carolina and Americans’ views on hostels – some generally believe the film Hostel is true.
After using the library in town to print off copies of our passports and the ticket for the cargo ship, we felt ready to leave the United States. Mixed feelings always come to mind for me with the US, it is a country of extremes. You can find some of the worst and best food here, the double decker Amtrak trains in the west are my favourite trains in the world yet you desperately need a car to get around in most places, and it’s the land of the free until you try to cross the road. As always, the wonderful people we have met along the way are the best part of the journey and will be sorely missed.