Trip report

The coast of the Southeast US

May 22 - June 6th 2004

This is a text-only trip report. The pictures aren't up yet.

The point of this trip was to wander north from Orlando to Washington, DC in two weeks. Each bold faced section is one day and any header in italics is just an observation. I have a few dedicated friends who at least attempt to read these things but most of the feedback I get is from people doing trip planning so I try to write it for that audience.

I hadn’t been to the South much at all and my wife not much more so we were just sort of taking a sampling of the area - I’m sure we’ll be back to explore some of the areas we enjoyed the most in a little more detail.

Our single most useful guidebook was Road Trip USA which covers a lot of smaller routes - what to do if you're not on the main highway. We constantly had it open as we drove along the coast in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Getting there: This was fairly uneventful. We flew. The one high point was seeing the area around New Orleans from the air, which is an interesting mess of water and land all not sure which is which. We changed planes there, and proceeded to Orlando. We picked up our rental car and drove to Cocoa Beach on the coast. We had decided to stay there instead of Orlando because it’s a pleasant area, it’s very close to the Space Center, and it’s not too bad of a drive back to Orlando for Disney World. It was off season so the room was less than a third of rack rate, and we were more concerned about being able to get to the Space Center early than Disney World because of its more limited hours and because we had a tour reserved for a particular time.

Disney World: We went ahead and spent a a day at Disney World - specifically the Magic Kingdom which is a pretty close clone of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA and Euro Disney in Paris France. In most regards we found we thought most of the differences were in favor of the other two parks but they were pretty minor and of course if you want a multi day experience Disney World wins because there are a number of other parks in the same huge Disney owned area. It was fun and it’s good to spend any day after changing time zones outside to really drill into your body what the new schedule is.

One surprise was the cool birds. We knew that Florida has a lot of shorebirds, including kinds we don’t get at home, but we were unprepared for the sheer numbers - in drainage ditches along the road, and all through the Disney property. There were a number of ibises (which are unusual at home) hanging out in Splash Mountain watching the tourists recover from the big drop. Since we didn’t recognize a lot of the species we decided to pick up the east coast version of the Peterson’s guide (the most useful field guide for birds).

Driving tip: For the whole trip almost nobody used their turn signals, especially when changing lanes on the freeway. Since lots of folks felt free to cut each other off this was extra obnoxious. Also, if there’s a highway with two lanes they don’t do the thing where you hang out in the right lane and only go to the left to pass. They’ll just sit there in the left lane wondering why everybody’s blowing past them on the right. On the other hand, when we got home we were shocked at how fast everybody drove and while they did signal before changing lanes they did it way too quick. So I guess it's just a question of what you're used to.

Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center: This was wonderful. Apparently it’s changed a lot since September 11th - you have to book on the “Up Close and Personal” tour to see a lot of what used to be easy to get to and at some locations there was quite a lot of visible security keeping an eye on us. I highly recommend paying extra for this tour which gets you into some interesting areas as well as fairly close to various launch facilities and so forth although a decent pair of binoculars is worth bringing if you already one a pair. It drops you off at the Saturn V exhibit which is both very cool and very depressing since it embodies just the sheer magnitude of how impressive the Apollo effort was but also what a total long-term failure the space program became as the general populace lost interest and NASA lost funding.

I find it very interesting that there’s not really anything around to explain why there’s a Saturn V that wasn’t used in the first place. It’s because congress cut the funding for Apollo 18, 19, and 20 even though most of the work was done already. They did end up being able to use some lower stages to launch Skylab but there was a lot of wasted, unused hardware. The one at KSC is mostly components that were intended to fly. There’s one in Houston that’s all flight-certified components (at JSC - the Smithsonian’s trying to raise money to restore it as we speak). There’s a lower stage still at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where they assembled the things. There’s a complete unit in Alabama but it’s left over parts used for testing, not intended for flight. So even with Skylab there were enough parts already built for two-and-a-bit Apollo flights.

We also saw some cool wildlife including alligators, snapping turtles, and a variety of birds including spoonbills which you have to see to believe.

In the area (and included in the ticket price) is also the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is worth visiting. It’s also next to a Police and Firefighter hall of fame. All I know about it is there’s a sign saying they had an air conditioned shooting range which was an interesting touch. (I know tourists from places with severe firearm controls often visit shooting ranges in the US - I’m not sure if that’s the intended audience or not).

After that we found a bookstore and picked up our field guide (whew!) poked around Cocoa beach a bit - including a nice nature trail we found and a walk on the beach (complete with sanderlings, which are these insane fast little birds that zip in and out of the wave line looking for food - sometimes I call them “zip zip birds”)

The Florida Coast: We worked our way up the Florida coast. There are basically 3 parallel highways - the 95 which is new and fast and boring, the A1A which is right on the coast and slow and interesting, and the 1 which is in between. It’s a bit like deciding to drive from San Francisco to LA on the 5, the 101, or the 1 except in this case they’re almost on top of each other so you can go back and forth without much trouble. We mostly went up the A1A.

We saw a bunch of osprey nests with babies in them (osprey are big attractive hawks that are excellent at catching fish) and spent a little time at a river overlook where there were supposed to be manatee and sure enough we saw one surface a couple of times. In the water they look a lot like seals but with flatter faces and big broad tails. They’re endangered and it’s always a bittersweet moment to have managed to see an endangered animal in the wild - because there might not be a chance to do it in the future. Anyway, we try to do it when we can.

It’s a pretty nice chunk of coastline. There’s miles and miles of beach in the Daytona Beach area. We made a little detour to get some maps from the AAA in Daytona Beach which brought us alongside the speedway (where NASCAR was invented or somesuch) and there’s an enormous Hooters directly across the street. This strikes me as being excellent demographic and location research on the part of the Hooters Corporation.

In St. Augustine we stopped for a while and wandered around. In addition to some interesting old hotels downtown it has an old Spanish fort (which is worth walking all the way around on the outside even if you don’t want to pay the $5 to go in) and a nice pedestrian area with the usual tourist shops but of a higher quality than normal.

We eventually made our way up to a suburb of Jacksonville, FL to spend the night. We got lucky and found an excellent Italian place - Santioni’s 3535 Highway 17 #`15, Orange Park (904) 264-1331. The bill was way less than I would have thought, too, which is always nice. If you’re coming down the 17 from Georgia maybe you’ll find that useful information.

Up the coast to Savannah: We left the coast a bit to swing by the Okefenokee swamp. We had a bit of misinformation and thought we were headed to a nature center with a 1.5 mile nature walk. Well, it was actually more of a tourist trap, but they have a license from the park folks to operate so there were some regular brown park service signs pointing to them. It turns out that it’s probably a good place to visit if you have enough time for a boat tour but I’m not sure even then because we were on a bank watching an alligator when a boat came upriver and just as they were noticing the alligator it submerged. They were very excited by the alligator, like somehow they got to the end of the tour without seeing many, and we’d been watching them swim around for a bit, so maybe the best thing to do is just pull over somewhere there’s a channel and wait. Anyway, I’d suggest doing more research than we did - we basically went there on a whim (yes, because of Pogo). Please note that the warnings about evil biting flies aren’t just there to sell bug juice - they mean it.

We meandered back to the 95 where the 82, 17, and 95 all come together. We got a nice pork BBQ sandwich at the GA Pig in Brunswick. There was just a line in a book we had saying it was good BBQ and sure enough we liked it. I did a web search after the fact and a number of people seem to think it’s exceptional. I don’t know about that, but it was very good and probably the best random roadside lunch I’ve ever had.

BBQ Tip: Don’t be concerned if the BBQ place looks like it’s a shack that’s about to fall down - as long as there are a bunch of cars parked outside and people eating there, it’s probably good (at least by the standards of the local style, which you may or may not prefer). If nobody’s there, well, take that as a hint. Good BBQ places seem to always be busy even if they are in the middle of nowhere. Also, if you’re driving through the South keep eating it every couple of days. It changes. I won’t claim to be any expert so I won’t pontificate about “major styles” and “minor styles” of BBQ but basically every state it’s different. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but all different.

Meandering north, we detoured to go to Fort King George outside of Darien. It’s an old fort dating back to when the British and the Spanish colonies were starting to run into each other and the British wanted a bit of a buffer zone. It’s interesting, and will probably be more interesting once they finish building their new visitors center, but it’s not the sort of thing you would take a major detour for. But if you’re close enough to see a sign for it, go for it. And oh yes, more evil biting flies.

We finally made it to Savannah and spent the rest of the day meandering around in the historic district. It’s a very pleasant place to walk around, good historical content, pleasant little park-like squares every couple of blocks, lots of interesting stores more than t-shirt places. You could spend quite a bit of time there if you really like to settle down and explore a place. There are also an absurd number of competing tours, including nighttime ghost tours. We ended up chatting a bit with the gals at a deli on River Street - I think it’s called the River Street Deli but couldn’t swear to it - it’s near the waving lady statue. Very pleasant folks and good sandwiches.

Driving tip: You see that grassy area between the two parts of the highway? The real tall grass, with the low area in the middle for drainage. You see how there’s just about an inch of plastic sticking out of the grass? That’s the light rack of the local sheriff. Surprise!

More Savannah and parts north: We spent the morning at the Savannah History museum which was excellent. Then we continued north. There’s a series of wildlife refuges along the coast, and just north of Savannah there’s a turnoff for a 4 mile loop through the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. It’s just a dirt road on a high point wandering through the wetlands. This was actually exactly what we’d been hoping for at our okefenokee swamp adventure and didn’t get. We saw a variety of birds and quite a few alligators.

We passed through Charleston and just made one quick stop - to the Aquarium. It’s part of a trend we’ve noticed of new, high quality aquariums focusing on the local area. In this case lots of turtles, frogs, gators, a nice aviary with shorebirds and so forth. There’s a very tall 32,000 gallon tank with a turtle that’s so large it boggles the mind. We live close to what’s arguably the best aquarium in the world (the Monterey Bay Aquarium) but still a good local aquarium can be very interesting if they focus on what’s unique to the area and don’t just try to have the usual tropical fish hodgepodge.

There was also a beautiful girl out front who sold me a mango ice. Hey, in that heat that’s a big deal!

Charleston is another nice walking town with an interesting downtown, but we had just come from Savannah and had miles to go yet so we pressed on to Surfside Beach, were we spent the night, simply because it’s close to. . .

Brookgreen Gardens: Basically the story here is that the Huntingtons (same family as the Huntington library in LA) bought up four defunct plantations and renovated it into an amazing place. One big chunk is all gardens with amazing sculpture. One big chunk is kind of a zoo - they have some gators and some nice aviaries including a raptor area (all raptors which had broken wings or whatever and couldn’t be in the wild). The area across the freeway they lease to the state. And a big chunk is what rice farms revert to, which is basically swamp. They have boat tours and so forth. It’s clearly a pretty interesting ecosystem - we saw alligators just in the water while walking between sections.

We spent most of the day there - it’s just an amazing place if you like either art or gardens or animals and since we like all three, that’s a pretty special place. Our one negative comment is that the 10 minute film in the Welcome Center talked about the collapse of the plantation system because of the sudden lack of forced labor in a way that made it seem like they thought the end of slavery was a real shame. I will say that materials elsewhere were more what I would have expected - explaining about the 2 year life expectancy you had if you were converting cypress swamp to rice field - it was just the welcome film set a very odd tone.

We then spent the evening driving up to Jacksonville, NC stopping only to sample some North Carolina style BBQ in Holly Bridge. Jacksonville, NC is not a tourist area, it’s just a convenient place to stay while repositioning us a couple of hours closer to the outer banks, which is where we needed to be eventually. There’s a big marine base nearby which is where the 250 marines that were killed in Beruit were from, so there’s a memorial, but other than that it’s just your basic town - although apparently without grocery stores. I’ve never had to drive so far to find one. Usually you just look for some kind of commercial area, and there they are. This place had every possible fast food franchise but no groceries to be seen anywhere.

The Outer Banks: The Outer Banks are a thin strip of islands out past the Carolinas that are largely connected by a mixture of road and ferries. We had been debating exactly how to do the outer banks. If you’re that far south, you can start at the very end, but that involves two ferries and realistically you have to spend a night in the outer banks somewhere and since it was now memorial day weekend, every place had a 3 day minimum. The fastest way is to go north on the highway, and then cut over near Kitty Hawk. The problem is now you’re on the north end and by the time you’re done with the Kitty Hawk monument you can’t get that far south. So we took kind of an intermediate route, the 64, that puts you in the middle of the outer banks region by way of Roanoke Island. The downside of this compromise is that we’d probably have to backtrack the next day, but at least we would be able to hit the southern items today and leave the northern items for the next day.

I know some of the folks who read these things the closest are from other counties and I don’t know if anybody outside the US knows about Roanoke, so I’ll give the short form. It was the first attempt by the English to colonize the Americas (1580s). It was a failure. It was such a failure that the people just vanished. As in they never found the bodies, never found anything saying they’d relocated, nothing. There’s not a huge amount to see, and I wouldn’t recommend a huge detour, but if you’re in the area there’s a nice visitors center and in particular there’s an interesting walk through the area which is a nature trail with an emphasis on plants that are useful natural resources, not that the colonists figured much of that out. Since the area sees a certain amount of a certain type of tourist from this there are the kinds of fairs, theater, etc. you would expect in an area like this. It turned out to be nice when we visited Jamestown, which was basically the next attempt, and they'd learned a few things by then.

We then entered the outer banks proper, and proceeded south to the Hatteras Lighthouse. It’s a lovely old lighthouse which was recently moved further inland because the sandy island is getting washed away. They spent $12 million on this. It’s worth the climb to the top - it’s a lovely area in theory but the dunes make it hard to see from the road just how thin the strip of land is so a little height really helps.

Working our way north we visited the Bodie lighthouse, which is 2 years younger, a little shorter, very slightly less pretty and generally not as famous. The park service acquired it fairly recently and it hasn’t been renovated. They’re still in some kind of planning stage, but you just know they’re thinking if they had the $12 million they spent to move the other lighthouse they could gold plate theirs.

By then Kitty Hawk was long since closed, so we made our way to our hotel room in nearby Elizabeth City. Actually, not that nearby but it was the closest town where we could stay only one night.

Kitty Hawk: We made our way back down the road to Kitty Hawk (that’s OK, it’s a pretty drive). When I say “Kitty Hawk” I really mean the site nearby where the Wright brothers flew the first powered airplane. In a sense it’s just a big field with a hill at one end where they launched the gliders they used to get the basics down before trying the powered part. They were from Ohio but had been coming out here once a year because there were soft sand dunes to land in and tons of wind so their ground speed didn’t have to be so high.

There are interesting exhibits and various monuments including a clever set of numbered monuments marking the various landing spots of the first four flights. The whole thing is very well documented - they actually had a photographer so there’s a picture of the first flight that you’ll see all over town. We ate in a pizza place that had at least six copies hanging on the wall. If you wander around and really check everything out it takes a couple of hours. It’s kind of overwhelming walking around and realizing what happened there and that 66 years later we were on the moon - especially since just a week before we were at Cape Canaveral and in some sense had come full circle.

We then drove on up to Williamsburg via the scenic route - the Dismal Swamp. If you take route 17 through it, it parallels an old canal (as in George Washington was on of the investors) and there are some nice pullouts with picnic tables, historical markers, and a lovely view.

Williamsburg: This area requires a little explaining if you haven’t been there before. There’s the “Historic Triangle” of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown which are all colonial towns. Jamestown was founded not long after Roanoke, as an example. Yorktown is where the British surrendered. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia for a while, and is where William and Mary College is.

In each town is a variety of battlefields, archeological sites, exhibit areas, and complete rebuilt towns. Each is owned by a hodgepodge of people from the National Park Service to private entities. There are combination passes for some areas but not others. In addition there are other tourist activities, including Busch Gardens, a major amusement park.

Our first day was spent in “Colonial Williamsburg” which has been restored and rebuilt on the site of the original town, starting in the 1920s. The area had kind of fallen into disuse for a long time so they were able to basically take the place over, find original foundations and so forth, and rebuild as necessary. In some cases you get things like the building is rebuilt but it’s the original foundation more or less intact. You can wander around the area for free, but to enter various buildings you need a ticket, and there are guided tours and so forth. Many original taverns still are taverns. Interpreters wear period clothing and act out various roles. There are crafts people doing various crafts.

So basically it’s kind of a weird educational Disneyland, but it works.

If you have the right ticket you can also get into some nearby (like across the street) museums. We only had time to go to one and it was superb (the museum of decorative arts).

Dinner was at Peking 757/229-2288 20 J. Waller Mill Rd. which is a very odd mix Mongolian BBQ, Chinese buffet, and Japanese/Sushi buffet with Chinese dim sum mixed into that area. But even that doesn’t cover it because they also had pizza, friend chicken, and gravy. I think they keep expanding and keep adding new food items while they’re at it but it’s gotten a little random. Good food though.

Jamestown/Yorktown: The Yorktown Battlefield is very interesting - if you buy a CD in the visitors center gift shop it helps, since a lot of what you do is a driving tour to look at various earthworks and there’s some information on the CD that isn’t on the signs that help figure out what it all really means. It’s run by the park service.

The Yorktown victory center is a museum with an outdoors section with “living history” people. It’s interesting. It’s run by the same people as the Jamestown Settlement (or at least there’s a combination ticket), which is again a combination museum and living history section, although it works better here because they have craftsmen who weren’t pretending to be original, they were just explaining the crafts and talking about what it was like back then. This is well worth going to - they have a recreated Indian village, reconstructed original fort (interesting having them next to each other to compare the standard of living which wasn’t that different) and recreated ships. The ships are very cool to explore.

The park service runs the actual original settlement - interesting if you’re into archeology and also they have both the remains of a glassblowers work area as well as a modern glass blower which is fun to watch. He wasn’t pretending to be authentic - it was a modern furnace - but it’s not like the technique’s any different. Once you have molten glass, it doesn’t matter what melted it.

We had some very nice Italian food at a casual place in kind of a little mall - Village Shops at Kings Mill, Doraldo Restaurant - (757) 220-0795 . The “mall” is at 1915 Pocahontas Trail, aka Highway 60, midway between Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.

Richmond: We needed to get over to Charlottesville and the road goes through Richmond so we spent the morning there. The White House of the Confederacy (Jefferson Davis’ house during the war after they moved from Alabama, where there’s another White House of the Confederacy from that period) and associated Museum of the Confederacy are excellent. Our guide for the house tour (Amanda Powers I think her name was) was as charming and knowledgeable as could be. Park in the hospital parking lot that kind of surrounds the place. The museum validates.

Then walk down the street a couple of blocks to the Valentine Museum which is the city museum and there’s a cool old house (the Wickham House) associated with it you can tour as well. Both are well worth doing if you’re in the area. There’s actually a lot of history in Richmond and other things to do (Richmond seems to have more than its fair share of excellent museums) but frankly we found the downtown rather unpleasant and difficult to deal with (every road seemed to have big chunks closed off and under construction so it may not always be like this).

We were also very tired and basically declared the rest of the day a recuperation day so we continued to Charlottesville and just kind of hung out the rest of the day. I find that I’m good for about a week and a half at the pace we usually set. On a 3 week trip we’d plan an explicit goof-off day in the midpoint, for this 2-week trip I thought we could fake it but just taking a half day and resting, catching up on laundry and the news (this hotel had an Internet connection in the room), and napping a bit was necessary at this point. It actually turned out that I was coming down with a cold, so it was just as well.

Monticello/Air and Space: In the morning we went to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. It’s a very interesting place including the grounds. The people running the place don’t shy away from the complexities of a man who advanced freedom for so many but yet on a person level kept slaves.

We then swung by the new Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, outside of Dulles. It’s everything the one on the Mall isn’t - big, well labeled, with lots of airplanes. It’s actually not quite done yet - they have a bunch of planes in storage that have to be restored, the food court isn’t done yet so they have a temporary one in a corner of the main hanger. But they wanted to open for the centennial of flight in December 2003, so they just went for it. You can tell they’re having to shuffle things around as they slowly move in planes - all the signs and so forth are set up in such a way that they can be easily moved. This museum was made all with private funds, too, so it’s not like you took a hit on your taxes for it.

We ended up in a hotel room in Alexandria, VA. Basically you really don’t want to bring a car into DC and the Metro extends out into the suburbs. I noticed there’s a big Hilton across the street from the King Street station - if you flew into National Airport you could easily do without a car for as long as you were in DC.

Mt. Vernon/Mall Day One: In the morning we went to Mt. Vernon - George Washington’s house and the associated grounds. The more period houses we saw the more we wanted to see to compare and contrast - Washington’s place is a lot more practical than Jefferson’s. The one downside here was that we were in the last few days of the school year and traditionally you do a lot of field trips in that period. Luckily the place is big enough that even enormous quantities of kids didn't overwhelm the place.

We then took the Metro to the Mall. I should explain for people that don’t know DC - the Mall isn’t a shopping center, it’s a big grassy area. Along it you’ll find the capitol, the White House, a ton of world class museums, assorted government buildings, the various memorials like the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials, etc. Whenever you see some big demonstration in DC, that’s where they are. Oh - and the Washington Monument is sticking up out of the middle of it which makes it pretty easy to keep oriented.

If you take the Metro and get off at the Smithsonian station (on the blue line), look carefully - there are two exits. Using the Mall Exit will make your life much easier.

We were lucky in that after Memorial Day some of the museums have summer hours and are open pretty late. We were able to bop into Air and Space (it’s not as nice as a number of other Air and Space museums but it does have a half dozen items nobody else can match) and Natural History. When we were at Natural History last time (8 years ago) the Rocks and Minerals were being redone, and they’re just amazing. Any museum as big as these can be uneven or dated - some of the exhibits are older than I am - but when it’s good, it’s the best.

Mall Day Two: We spent about 5 hours in the amazing American History museum, and only got done that fast because we’d been there before. It has a high turnover so a good chunk of the museum was either new or closed for remodeling.

These guys have everything from Archie Bunker’s chair to the hat Lincoln was wearing when he went to the theater for the last time. Particularly moving was the temporary “So Proudly We Hail” exhibit, which they’d just opened on Memorial Day (also in conjunction with the WW II monument; more on that later). Keep in mind that the first thing you see when entering the building is the giant flag that was on the side of the Pentagon after September 11th. Then you turn left, and you go by this collection of historic American flags including the Star Spangled Banner, as it undergoes conservation. This is the specific flag referenced in the National Anthem. This is followed by the flag raised in Iwo Jima - the one in the photograph and the monument - and a succession of other historic flags.

It has been pouring rain but it wasn’t so bad just then, so we headed on down to the memorial area. Just a couple of days prior, the WW II memorial had been dedicated and I wanted to see it. It’s absolutely amazing - very well done - and with lots of people even though it was raining. I’m so glad they finally did this while there are still WW II vets alive to thank. There were a number of them there and they clearly appreciated it. And watching some tough old guy standing for a photo next to a quote about Pearl Harbor was quite moving - everybody else backed off very respectfully so they could get the shot undisturbed.

By then it was raining pretty hard so we didn’t check out the rest of the memorials (which we’d visited before). We swung back by the National Archives, which is open pretty late with summer hours, and then headed on home.

Heading Home: Again, we flew. This time out of Baltimore. I wouldn't particularly recommend for or against it - it was just a question of a free ticket we had.

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