Living the American Dream in North Carolina on a jaw-dropping US road trip
THE adrenaline rises as I wait for the lights to go from red to green.
Accelerating, pedal to the floor, I'm pushed back in my seat for a few seconds - a straight quarter mile - before slowing to a stop, foot off the gas.
The smell of burned fuel and rubber hangs in the air.
We're in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the four-lane drag racing strip. I'm not the driver - today's one-hour tour involves a spin in a people carrier around the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR track, strapped in our seats on the 24-degree banked, high-speed asphalt.
The track hosted a major movie premiere - Disney Pixar's Cars - in 2006. Motorsport is huge in this state. At the NASCAR Hall of Fame we learn about the bootleg whiskey makers who tried to outrun the law during the week and then raced each other at weekends.
Today's drivers, like Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, are the
poster boys of modern NASCAR and we watch pit-stop practice sessions
and workshop engine rebuilds at their nearby race team HQ.
If you're in the market for a bizarre souvenir you can spend £19 on a used race tyre or £750 on a car panel - good luck getting that in your suitcase!
Dining all-American from the start of our trip, we have great burgers, pink lemonade and brownies at Pinky's restaurant.
The long Carolina summers mean life is sweet in the great outdoors. Waterrock Knob is one of the best vistas inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - the cloud-covered peaks gave this part of the Appalachian range its name.
It's the most visited of America's parks, free to use and is a great opportunity to get out to the wideopen spaces the USA is famous for.
Earlier that morning we'd seen a gang of elk close up, the male "bugling" commands to his group as he directed them to feeding areas and up into the cool hills.
Outside our log cabin at Cataloochee Ranch, we sit by the lake in rocking chairs, watching the frogs jump off the jetty before we trail-ride horses in the sun. It's the ultimate peaceful hideaway.
There is more petrol power as Harley-Davidsons stream into Waynesville town. Eleven miles of perfect-camber curves - a total of 318 bends - on the Tail of the Dragon road attracts hundreds of bikers.
Visitors are also drawn to the Wheels Through Time Museum, a private collection of Harleys, Indians and historic machines including possibly the only 1916 Traub motorcycle in the world.
Brit museum guide Andy explains it was found walled up in a Chicago apartment in 1967, bought by Steve McQueen's Great Escape stunt double Bud Ekins, before being sold to the museum owner. This town was also used for the trailer park location scenes in the comedy heist movie Masterminds.
We stay at the historic Morgan & Wells B&B in nearby Shelby. The 1910 family home was relocated by low-loader 200 yards from its original street position. The new owners then restored it with original polished oak.
Across the road is Celebrity Consignments. Run by the late Whitney Houston's sister-in-law Pat, the store sells second-hand clothing from celebs like Oprah and Alicia Keys (and possibly the Kardashians, I'm told).
There are racks of designer bespoke dresses, coats, shoes and accessories at a fraction of their original cost. Proceeds go to the Teen Summit charity.
Within easy reach of the Blue Ridge Parkway scenic roadway is Sylva with its pretty courthouse and farmers' market.
For fans of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this
place is a must-see.
The locals and shop owners on the main street love to give tourists the lowdown on what happened when Hollywood came calling to transform their town into the fictional Ebbing.
There's also Dillsboro where folk go to taste peach pie moonshine and learn about mountain distilling during Prohibition.
Here, our balcony at the Best Western River Escape offers a fantastic view of the flowing Tuckasegee River and Maggie Valley. At Asheville, the main attraction is the Biltmore mansion, where we tour the showcase of Vanderbilt family wealth.
Next we stay in a converted train carriage at Buffalo Creek in the heart of the Great Smokies and ride the old railroad from Bryson City, rafting back along the white water rapids to Nantahala.
Overnighting at Calhoun Suites, a 1920s privately-owned hotel with four themed suites and a communal veranda, we socialize with fellow travelers and watch the fireflies. Rooms are decorated with photos from the 20th century golden age of movies and hosts Ed and Shirley give us directions to local hikes.
Next we stop off to see the Miracle on The Hudson plane that glided on to the New York river in 2009. It's now at Charlotte Aviation Museum together with artefacts from crew and passengers, all of whom survived the emergency landing.
We toast the end of our trip with a sunset soak in a huge bath for two at a secluded wooden lodge high above Lake Fontana.
road trip took us on near-empty free-ways and quiet back roads to the
vast outdoor parks, forests, waterfalls and lakes the US is famous for.
To us, it was a week of living the American dream.