SOUTH AND NORTH, early this summer, less indeed has been more: Less traffic and less people mean those who do venture forth on voyages by automobile have more room, more choice of where to stay or dine, and receive more attention and service. During visits to North Carolina at the end of June and New Hampshire early this month, we could explore the country without being caught in the midst of a swarm of city folk.
Be it a question of obtaining soft drinks and ice cream quickly for overheated children in Williamsburg on a Saturday, or being able to start the climb to an "Alpine Slide" almost immediately, the absence of long lines saves any touring family some of its most severe potential headaches.
Are people nice? It's hard to say because both the Wilmington-Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina and the Laconia area of New Hampshire were virgin territory to us. But the people at Hine's fish market in Wrightsville Beach had time to process and pack fresh shrimp in ice and newspaper so they would survive the eight-hour trip back to Washington. A woman at the New England Alpine Slide had time to carefully explain the ticket options as we polled and repolled our group of adults and children so we could get the most rides for our money.
In fact, I can't remember a single incident, hassle or show of temper involving service personnel. That, in itself, was enough to make a memorable vacation.
New Hampshire was intended as a visit with friends, so most of our sightseeing was done from the car driving to and from Boston. (Flying into Boston on July 4, then driving north, we observed more congestion among sailboats on the bay than on Interstate 93.) Away from the metropolitan areas, both north and south, there was no difficulty in obtaining gas. In North Carolina more than one gas station attendant expressed disbelief that the gas "crisis" was real.
The New Hampshire scenery - green trees, blue water and a backdrop of distant mountains - was stunning, and vintage mill towns such as Franklin on the Winnipesaukee River, which last year celebrated its "150th year of progress," seemed in the calm of this early summer to be ready to put Sinclair Lewis back on the best-seller list. Crises, energy and others, were far away. Rather than study astrological charts or tea leaves, one was content to look for animal forms in the cloud configurations that passed across a hazeless, unpolluted sky.
Anyone from the Washington area who goes there to camp or travels with a trailer will be delighted at the food prices. The variety of vegetables and seafood available in a Star Market I visited was impressive as well. Finding "native" fare in restaurants is more difficult. It's disappointing that shrimp and lobster tails (frozen and from far away) should be favored so often as menu items over fresh, regional fish. As is the case elswhere, fast food chain restaurants line the highways to assuage those seeking absolute dining security.
The small towns of North Carolina, most of them with well-tended lawns, speak of an earlier era, too. Sunday morning driving is a cinch in this region. Many of the cars that might be on the road are pulled up around churches. The pine trees that have contributed so much to the state's economy are increasingly in evidence as one drives toward the sea on Route 17.
New Bern is a town I have wanted to visit since reading several of Inglis Fletcher's novels of colonial North Carolina as a boy. Architecturally, it is a royal treat. Preserved and restored houses of the 18th and 19th centuries are well signed and represent a surprising variety of style and inspiration. But plan your time carefully.
The gem is the red brick governor's mansion or palace built for Gov. Tryon in 1770. The beauty of the exterior rivals Christopher Wren's edifice at William & Mary in Williamsburg. As to the interior, I don't know. We arrived too late to see it on a Saturday and it didn't open on Sunday until 1 p.m. The Sunday afternoon hours are 1 to 4:30 p.m. and it is closed Monday. Tuesday through Saturday one can visit from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Full tour admission for adults is $4, for children $1.50. One of the restored houses, called Henderson House, contains a restaurant. David and Alyce Faye Grant, transplanted from Illinois, present local shrimp, broiled crabmeat toast, good prime ribs and an excellent seafood supreme for dinner. They sell wine, but those brown paper bags knowing local customers bring in contain bottles of liquor for cocktails. The restaurant provides the set-ups. The hours are odd here, too: lunch Tuesday through Saturday and dinner only on Friday and Saturday.
Wilmington, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is another town filled with history. It played a part in the Revolution, was fought over in the Civil War and is the current home of the World War II battleship North Carolina. A snow-flurry of markers indicates the residences of important native sons, and one can easily make an eight-block walking tour through an area of historic homes near the river.
In the days of sailing ships, the city provided the world's shipbuilders with pine, tar and pitch. A fascinating tribute to the city's nautical history has recently been fashioned on the waterfront at Chandler's Wharf. A small complex of shops and restaurants in period buildings surrounds a museum. After browsing by its paintings, charts and memorabilia, the visitor steps into a boatyard and can board and investigate several period vessels.
Miss Santa, a shrimp boat; the Annie B, a 1926-tugboat; and the Harry W. Adams, a 147-foot, two-masted cargo sailing ship, represented baby bear, momma bear and poppa bear to one enthralled 6-year-old. Nearby is moored the John Taxis, the nation's oldest existing tug. It was built in 1869 and is operational still. Chandler's Wharf is open year-round, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer and until 5 p.m. in winter. Adults pay $1 to vist the museum and boats. Children under 12 are charged 50 cents. A 30-minute harbor tour by excursion boat from the wharf costs $1.50 or $1.
Just across the river, the battleship North Carolina, maintained by the state, is open to inspection from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer months. The cost is $1.25 for adults and 50 cents for children 6 to 11 years. A walking tour above and below decks is well directed with push-button, recorded briefings available along the way. A museum space traces the ship's progress through the major naval engagements of World War II, and the opportunity to actually turn gun mountings will please teenagers. The giant warship is a Goliath compared with the ships at Chandler's Wharf and a stem-to-stern, top-to-bottom exploration can easily take an hour and a half or more. A warning: The ladders are steep and narrow and may prove difficult for young children or the elderly. Also, claustrophobia may strike below decks even without rolling seas or the threat of kamikaze attack.
A few miles farther is Orton Plantation with its celebrated gardens. On the Wilmington side of the river, toward the sea, one can visit the Confederate fortress Fort Fisher and a Blockade Runner Museum. Nearby, between Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, the Central Pier restaurant offers local fish competently cooked at reasonable prices. It's a good place for northerns to discover that "hush puppies" aren't always bedroom footwear.