A Travellerspoint blog

Florida's Eastern Coast

Crossing the border into Florida it suddenly hits me: it’s warm enough to camp! But it turns out I’m the last to get the memo; the campgrounds are packed. Fortunately my fellow campers are 90% retirees in RV’s so the place is quiet all day and dead by 9 pm. Just how I like it.

I worry, as I always do, about finding a place to stay for the night, especially during the weekends. This is “the” tourist season in Florida and the campgrounds are booked and the hotels are more expensive than I’m willing to pay. So it’s foolish of me, but I’m counting on last minute cancellations at campgrounds - and so far, I’ve been lucky. At Sebastian Inlet State Park I get a spot just a short walk away from the beach. I spend as long as I can lying on the beach reading and walking down the sandy shore, almost stepping on dead puffer fish. It’s always extremely jarring when I realize that had I not left I would be in a cubicle, working until past sunset, never seeing the light of day. How can I go back? Maybe I can sell dried puffer fish for a living.

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The next day I’m at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. I spend the day hanging out at the beach again [insert your own jealous comment here]. And I also take a tour of Jupiter Lighthouse: a very pretty one with a great view. For dinner I eat blackened shrimp and key lime pie for dessert.

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Each of the beach towns I’ve driven through have their own vibe. Some are more resort-orientated, some cater to surfer-type casual tourists. It’s funny how quickly you can tell what kind of beach you've come across. And all you have to do is keep driving to find a place more to your liking.

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Further south, I drive straight through Palm Beach and Boca Raton. Too many topiaries and badly done garden sculptures. The mansions are in the drug lord architectural style: opulent arrogance at the peak of gaudiness. When I get to South Beach I can’t find a place to park - there are already lots of events here for Super Bowl week. So instead I follow my guidebook inland into Little Havana to a Cuban restaurant called Versailles. It's a huge place with a constant influx of new customers waiting to be seated. I get the Cuban sandwich, which I had always thought was pulled pork, but turns out to be ham. It’s good - but I was expecting something worthy of the reputation that preceeds this sandwich - it’s pretty much just ham with pickle and cheese. But I've stuck with my plan of eating as much regional food as I can. I even do so at the grocery store: stocking up on plaintain chips, guava filled pastries, gumbo soup and canned okra.

Posted by Velora 13:57 Comments (2)

Savannah

Savannah is a gorgeous city to walk around. Somebody centuries ago had the brilliant idea to place small park squares every other block on many of the east to west streets so that you encounter a beautiful and shady park every couple blocks no matter which way you’re walking. They create this cool and welcoming breathing space between the blocks of city houses and apartments. Each park is unique, but the same, with a gurgling fountain at the center and 300-year-old oaks shading the lush grass.

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I realize as I walk around that this place seems kind of familiar. I know it’s the other way around but, it reminds me of Disneyland (except without all the kids and characters in costume and rides). In Disneyland it's called New Orleans Square (and without having been to New Orleans yet I can’t compare the two) but I wonder if Savannah inspired Walt Disney more than New Orleans. Or maybe back in the 40’s, New Orleans was more like what Savannah is today.

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But don't get the idea that Savannah has any of the plastic fakeness that Disneyland has. There are lots of tourists here for sure, but it is also a very active town. People are out walking their dogs and washing their cars and eating on restaurant patios. Workers are scraping paint chips off porticos and art students are sketching in the parks. Oh yes, and did I mention that this time of year Savannah has just about perfect weather? People in shorts and flip flops. It makes me fear what it would be like here in summer. Maybe it’s not so bad. But something tells me (maybe it’s the number of tourists here now) that the summer is too much heat and humidity for most people - atleast people who aren't used to it.

Savannah still has its bad neighborhoods, like most towns, but the historic area (which is large at 2 ½ square miles) is excellent for walking. It's so peaceful and breezy. The houses are saturated with character and interesting details. Many of the streets within the historic area are cobblestone, creating an instant old world kind of charm and tourist filled horse drawn carriages clop down the road under canopies of shade.

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Posted by Velora 08:06 Comments (0)

Charleston, South Carolina

Out of the many things to do in Charleston I chose to go to the South Carolina Aquarium and Boone Hall Plantation, and I wish I could go back in time and not see either one. They were expensive - at $18 a piece - and that wouldn’t have been a problem if either one of them had been worth it, but they weren’t. The aquarium was advertised to make you think that it was much bigger than it was. They did have a giant sea turtle and penguins, but that was about it. So I left after less than an hour and drove on to Boone Hall Plantation. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you probably recognize the iconic drive lined with ancient oaks. And while you need to pay the entry fee in order to see that scene, nothing else is worth seeing on the plantation. I probably would have regretted it if I hadn't gone, but I wish I would have picked a different plantation.

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So after those two disappointments I felt so ripped off by Charleston that I wanted to keep driving and leave everything behind me and just move on. But I swerved off the freeway and drove downtown. As I drive south on the peninsula that is Charleston, the scenery and architecture just keep getting better and better and I park my car and I start to walk. I ended up walking around for hours. Just strolling and taking pictures and wandering in a semi-dazed beauty induced trance. It reminded me of walking through Venice. Every corner I turned around revealed a view more beautiful than the one before. And I just seemed to know what streets to turn down and what paths to follow.

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There were so many uniquely southern details. The street lamps were lit with gas, hissing and flickering flames that wafted a soothing kerosene scent through the air. Every house had a long side porch with ceiling fans and rocking chairs. And behind wrought iron gates lush manicured gardens flourished even in winter.

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Then that night I caved in and decided to return to The Hominy Grill. This time I ordered the sesame-crusted catfish with sautéed okra, deep fried cheese grits & geechee peanut sauce. I figured I couldn’t possibly find anything that sounded more Southern. It was beautifully presented and tasty, but the flavor was more reserved and smoother than I expected. Strange, it actually reminded me of chicken parmesan. But I’ve realized, these days you can get just about every type of food in grocery stores and restaurants in the smallest of towns, but it’s easier to find an Indian restaurant or a lamb gyro than it is to find real Southern food in anywhere else but the South. So I've got to take it all in an enjoy it while I’m here because I won’t be able to experience this back home.

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Posted by Velora 18:06 Comments (1)

The Carolinas

Somewhere after I cross into North Carolina I reach that unmarked border where Carl’s Jr.s morph into Hardee’s and there are suddenly more KFC’s than McDonald’s. I’ve entered into The South. It starts to sink in when I drive for hours and hours through hundreds of miles of marshy wetlands off the coast. Then I start to see stores called Piggly Wiggly and can only guess that they are supermarkets. But I finally accept it when I pass by swamps and Spanish moss covered tree-lined streets looking more like a movie set to me than real life.

Mostly though, I’ve stuck to the coast, which is regrettably devoid of any real Southern character. At first the weather is incredibly nice: I used the air conditioner in my car for the first time since… Wyoming. But the next day a rain storm has moved in. Driving through Myrtle Beach in the rain feels all wrong. The shoreline highway is packed with businesses that fight for space to display their signs and ads as close to the road as possible so that you can‘t avoid reading every one. I notice a trend that leads me to the conclusion that all a vacationing family needs to be happy are pancake houses, fireworks, mini-golf, ice cream and stores selling beach attire for under $5.99. Who knew it was so easy? The beaches further north had been less tacky at least. And even in the winter you can’t deny that these Southern Beaches are pristine with pale sand, tropical shells and dunes with those cute little fences.

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I make it into Charleston with a nice sense of excitement. Finally I’ll have something entertaining to do! After checking into the local hostel I decide to treat myself to dinner at a place within walking distance: The Hominy Grill. It is gorgeous inside with dim lighting reflecting off the shiny wood floors and white stamped tin ceiling. In lieu of a bread basket they bring out boiled peanuts. I had a real bad experience with some boiled peanuts I got from a gas station driving through Florida with my family about a decade ago. Now thank goodness I know what I had before is not what they are supposed to taste like. I think those gas station peanuts were burnt. Anyway it serves me right for getting food at a gas station. Everything I ate was really good. I should have gotten the grits though. I’ve never had them and gosh darn it I should, but I did have okra for the first time. But the best thing was the chocolate stout cake. I’m so sick of all the restaurants serving the same desserts and a dense and dry chocolate layer cake seems to be a requirement on every menu these days. But this cake was so light and moist - thanks to Guinness. And the icing was that lovely fondant type chocolate that creates a chewy shell of lusciousness. And they served it warm so that the icing melted around the edges. So… I’m glad I didn’t fill up on a dinner of grits.

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It’s amazing how much of a difference a lovely meal can make. I’m excited now for more experiences here in Charleston and I might stay for a couple days.

Posted by Velora 19:12 Comments (1)

Virginia

I’ve had some disappointments these past couple days. First I drove down to Assateague Island, but didn’t make it there until it was dark. I barely had time to take some blurry dark photographs and step in wild horse manure before I had to speed back inland to find a larger town with a hotel. By the time I found one, I was too far inland to head back the next day, which is what I should have done anyway, but instead I drove on into Virginia. On an impulse I decide to go out of my way and head up to Shenandoah National Park. But when I get there I discover that the only road through the park is closed for winter weather, which can only mean they didn’t bother to plow when the last storm came through almost a month ago. So I have to content myself with driving beside the mountains and taking a walk in a park instead of a hike through the woods. I was so pumped up by the thought of being in the snowy mountains again, hiking and getting my shoes wet - it really was a big disappointment. Then the next day I decide to stop by the fine art museum in Richmond, but when I drive past it I see a large banner proclaiming happily that the museum will reopen in May. Grrr.... so I drive on.

After all those letdowns I’m glad that I really enjoyed Colonial Williamsburg. I didn’t think I was going to. I went there once when I was about ten. I thought it was neat, but not authentic at all and crowded with too many people in those tiny gift shops. This time the place was pleasantly deserted. There were still a good amount of tourists, but there were also lots of people jogging or walking dogs (obviously locals) and there were also the handful of costumed guides. It felt more like a real town, an oddly clean and quiet little town with strange residents, but a town nonetheless. I think what I enjoyed most was that I had full access to just walk around the houses and gardens and take as many pictures as I wanted. I didn’t feel like I was trespassing or being weird because that was what I was supposed to do. It was expected. Also I know I enjoyed it all the more because it was free. If I had wanted to tour the insides of the buildings I would have had to pay, but access to the grounds is always free.

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I take a good long stroll all around Williamsburg until I get my fill and my feet get tired. Then I drive on to Virginia Beach. I end up staying at one of those trashy kind of hotels near the highway, but it was also a block from the beach. So I head on over for a walk down the shore at dusk. The water is glowing. The beach is in the shadows of the huge hotel buildings along the boardwalk. The weather is so warm and sunny. It’s a great end to the day.

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Posted by Velora 16:35 Comments (1)

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