Biff (let's call him Biff, shall we?) is chuckling out loud as the boarding gate staff warn us to wear a mask for the duration of our flight to West Virginia. There's pure contempt in his eyes; he's overweight, tattooed and he's using a free neck warmer he got from John Deere Tractors in a half-hearted attempt to keep his COVID breath to himself.
I'm not even in The South yet and I'm scared. But I'd booked a 10-day trip through West Virginia and North and South Carolina before Omicron began its assault on the world. I'm heading into the lion's cage - if you believe everything you read - 'cause apparently no-one gives a hoot about COVID where I'm going.
I land at a tiny airport beside a resort called The Greenbrier, tucked within mountain ranges in West Virginia's south-east corner. Odd, everyone's wearing masks round here: every one of the resort staff, guests in its obscenely large lobby, even the local bloke who drove us here in a van. Is this really West Virginia? Biff sure wasn't on this transfer from the airport.
They call The Greenbrier… "America's Resort". It's been an historic landmark since 1778 and has housed 28 of America's 45 presidents. There's pictures on the walls of the dignitaries who've come before me; everyone from JFK to Sinatra to Queen Elizabeth.
Tucked away on 5000 hectares of private reserve, The Greenbrier was considered such a safe, isolated retreat that it was chosen as the location for a Cold War Bunker designed to accommodate the American president and his entire cabinet in the event of a nuclear war. Built in 1961, it can house 1100 people and was kept in a constant state of readiness by government employees disguised as hotel workers till The Washington Post exposed its location in 1992 (meaning tourists like me can now see it on a tour).
Is this why I feel safe here? Or perhaps it's just that I feel so isolated from the rest of America out here amongst these finely dressed Southern folk with their funny accents ("How y'all tonight?") and the crystal chandeliers they dine beneath.
My wife's from Chicago, but here she tells me: "I don't know this country". This is like nothing I've seen, Christmas lights sparkle on literally every tree outside, while generations of travellers make themselves home within its ridiculously extravagant walls.
Famous mid-Century decorator Dorothy Draper oversaw all The Greenbrier's interiors: imagine a home with six-metre-high ceilings, burning log fire pits and a colour scheme of red, green, pink and white. It's intoxicating, like an Old Fashioned (cocktail) that kicks you in the teeth.
"We've been the benefactors of COVID," the resort's CEO, Elmer Coppoolse, tells me next morning at breakfast taken in a grand old room built a century ago, served by staff in bow ties. "Everyone's been getting out of the cities and coming to places like this. Here they've got social distancing, fresh air, and staff in masks. People seem to be looking for refuges from COVID, and that's what we are. There's plenty of refuges all over The South."
There's logic to his reason. In statistics just published by the New York Times - as Omicron rages across the planet , West Virginia's COVID cases are at just 78 percent of last winter's peak. Meanwhile, North and South Carolina are at 48 and 36 percent respectively - yet Washington DC's COVID rates are at a staggering 368 percent of last winter's peak rates, and New York City's are at 231 percent.
The Greenbrier is hardly the only refuge in West Virginia. Just 15 minutes drive west, the town of Lewisburg is another that's been drawing in those seeking wide open spaces, from all over the US. Voted America's "coolest small town' in a poll by one of America's largest travel guides, it's a magnet for artists, chefs and artisans. In between mountains chock-full of hillbillies, there's as many performing arts venues as you'd see in a small city in the North.
"Don't discount The South," Arthur Forgette, co-owner of the state's best fine dining restaurant, The French Goat (in Lewisburg), tells me. "The South is a big place to define and there's so many pockets that are like nothing you'd ever expect."
I take an hour's drive west through farming and mining communities (I stop for 'gas' in one, and decide not to discuss politics with the bloke perusing the magazine, Guns and Ammo, in line beside me), but find a genuine alternative lifestyle village they call 'granola towns' in this part of America. There's Reiki on offer, rainbow flags in store windows, yoga studios in the main street and the best green tea matcha latte on coconut milk you'll find west of New York City in the tiny town of Fayetteville, right beside America's newest national park (New River Gorge).
Here shops warn I better mask up, and locals have come from all over America to play on one of the oldest rivers on Earth (despite its name, New River Gorge is believed to be part of the planet's second oldest river system). This is a rafting, kayaking, rock climbing and hiking Mecca, Eve West, the park's Chief Of Interpretation, tells me. It's just that the word's only just getting out.
"There's a lot of similarities with this place and Colorado and Utah, just without the crowds," she says.
I take a 300-metre-high walk along a narrow platform spanning one of the planet's largest suspension bridges. I elect to stand nowhere near the tourist in a t-shirt proclaiming his grand-daddy fought to protect his right not to wear a mask. There's a lot of fresh oxygen to breathe in West Virginia if you don't trust the carbon dioxide around you.
I keep driving, this time bearing south-east to North Carolina. Some folk had warned me about North Carolina.
"They'll mask-shame you there," someone says. "Even outside they'll expect you to wear one."
Oh, I'm ready for that, thanks; as COVID rages across the USA, I'm seeking all the protection I can find.
North Carolina have been the pioneers of safe COVID measures in The South. Their award-winning Count On Me NC campaign is a mutual pledge between businesses and customers to stick to strict health and safety guidelines. In its capital, Raleigh, I find a city of staunch mask-wearers, where houses display Black Lives Matter banners and where signs for Biden/ Harris 2020 are still wedged into the green lawns of so many front yards. Vaccination rates are amongst the highest anywhere south of Washington DC.
"We didn't want any COVID outbreaks blamed on tourism," Wit Tuttell, Director of Visit North Carolina tells me over a traditional barbecue lunch in the city.
"We only have small cities here, and a warmer climate, so everybody's outdoors, social distancing is easy."
There's also a coastline stacked with off-shore islands and 3000 shipwrecks, where I travel 100 kilometres barely seeing another car.
I feel safe here, so safe in fact my immune-compromised father-in-law flies and joins me for a golfing road trip to The South's most hallowed address, Pinehurst. An hour's drive south of Raleigh, there's nine of the planet's best-loved golf courses, built around what should be voted America's coolest small town. Staff at my hotel wear masks, as do guests; besides: each day I spend all but a few hours out in the 20 degree sunshine.
The pines around here make everything smell like air freshener, squirrels dart about the main street where everyone's eating al fresco, even in mid-December. Original landscape architect Frederick Law designed Pinehurst as a retreat for those suffering tuberculosis ("a village in the trees", he called it), fitting really that it's my favourite escape then in this new era of breathing difficulties.
And on I drive… to South Carolina, in Charleston I find a city with T-shirt weather, even in the height of winter, where everyone eats outside, or on rooftops, escaping the confines of trapped breath. What's more, there's over 120 parks spread across the city – an easy escape is around every corner.
Ten days later, I still don't bear the tell-tale cough, or runny nose, or headache of Omicron. I'm not suggesting you're guaranteed to stay COVID-free here (look at our own country for how prolific the spread of Omicron has been). But hit the road and you'll find yourself a haven of your own, hopefully far away from Biff and his kin.
There's 55 activities and eight dining options at The Greenbrier Resort, greenbrier.com, stay in a beautifully restored bank in the middle of Fayetteville, lafayetteflats.com, sleep in a restored Civil War-era mansion in Raleigh, heightshousenc.com, and enjoy the heritage of Pinehurst Resort, pinehurst.com/accommodations/
Fly Delta daily to LA from Australia with onward connections to airports in North and South Carolina and West Virginia, delta.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Travel South USA