Words: Lucy Connors
From Tampa to Atlanta, Helen, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Savannah, St Augustine, Cocoa Beach, and Miami, before cutting back home across Florida, the conception of this mammoth trip started out as a weekend trip to Atlanta for a concert and rapidly became an expedition of what South-East America had to offer.
Tampa to Atlanta is an eight-hour drive, and as I took over the driving for my first stretch, and my first experience driving an automatic car, on the right side of the road, down a highway, I was greeted by perhaps the worst storm and most torrential rain I have ever experienced, let alone driven through. It was certainly an eventful start! An honourable mention must be given to the first stop of the entire trip. En route to Atlanta, we stopped at ‘Buc-ee’s’ an extravagant rest stop, branded by a cap-wearing beaver, providing incredible Southern barbeque food. Only in America.
After arriving in Atlanta, we found a city that was an eclectic treasure trove and at any intersection, hundreds of telephone wires crossed the skyline, offering a picture of connection and the intertwining of lives across the city. You turned one corner and were in the business district: mirrored walls, glass and skyscrapers. You turned another, and you were in midtown; food, arts, culture and street festivals erupting from nowhere. Then you were suddenly surrounded by leafy trees, wildflowers and carefully cultivated homes - multi-million-dollar ones at that.
Every neighbourhood, every turn, held a different charm and a different character to marvel. Atlanta is definitely not short on fantastic dining options either and a trip to the Atlanta Fish Market would be wise. It is an upmarket seafood restaurant in an urban loft setting, with a constantly changing menu. Labelled ‘Atlanta’s best-kept secret’ it is not hard to see why, so hush, keep this one to yourself…
Atlanta has played a significant role in a variety of pivotal historical events, and this is a major reason for its attraction. In 1864 during the Civil War, the entire city was burnt down when Union forces ransacked the Confederate city and left a smouldering wreck. The city’s sporting history is also immortalised due to Atlanta hosting the 1996 Olympics, with its legacy and memorabilia found both in the downtown Olympic Park as well as at sporadic intervals throughout the city. Similarly, Atlanta played a crucial part in the Civil Rights Movement as the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. This is memorialised with the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site situated across from the First Ebenezer Baptist Church. A visit there is a must, and we found the experience both humbling and moving.
"Made me feel like I discovered the endless southern summer that I previously thought was only reserved for fiction books..."
After visiting the site, we happened upon the Sweet Auburn Springfest: a street festival with live rap music, southern food, and hundreds of vendors lining the roads. That night, we stayed in the cheapest motel we could find. A movie cliché I know, but more ironically the motel we found was used in the film ‘Identity Thief’. I think that exemplifies how Atlanta felt: a collage of culture and history, bringing together the best parts of almost every city I have ever been to, and connecting hundreds of thousands of individuals through its vitality and energy.
An hour north on the I-985 took us somewhere completely different. Venturing out of the city to stay with family we arrived at Gainesville, a very small town in the rolling hills and forests of rural Georgia, situated on Lake Lanier. Lake Lanier is an old reservoir that was used to host Olympic rowing events due to its gorgeous still waters and a must-visit there is the Jaemore farm shop; authentic, local and the best peach ice cream I have ever tried. One of southern America’s favourites is a bag of boiled peanuts, and there is no denying I was sceptical at first, but they were salty, moreish, and basking in the sunshine on the end of a dock, eating them made me feel like I discovered the endless southern summer that I previously thought was only reserved for fiction books.
From there we ventured north into the Blue Ridge Mountains to see Helen. The Bavarian Alpine style town was like crossing continents and stepping back in time all at once. Upon leaving Helen, we headed to North Carolina. Driving down the rural interstates made this an exceedingly picturesque drive and taking only three hours to cross state borders meant it was one of the shorter distances. The true destination was Charlotte, but we stopped outside of the city at the National Whitewater Center. An incredible facility boasting 1300 acres and offering man-made white-water rafting, ropes courses, climbing, and mountain biking, it is an absolute feast for adventure lovers. We got the day pass that allows access to all activities with the highlight being the white-water rafting in grade four rapids.
Heading into Charlotte for the evening, we walked through the University of North Carolina campus, with its all-red brick buildings. After hopping around Downtown for a bit, testing different beer gardens, we ended up in a local dive bar-type pub named The Greystone. It was not the most obvious choice, but it was a fantastic find and a real spot for locals. They loved the Brits, and our experience of Charlotte was one of a lively, entertaining city.
You cannot keep Floridians away from the beach for too long, and so the second half of our road trip took us back to the coast to Myrtle Beach, or as it is affectionately nicknamed: Dirty Myrtle. It was home to gorgeous white sand beaches lined with pastel houses. Murrell’s Inlet, a historic fishing village just south of the beach, once hosted pirates and now boasts the title ‘seafood capital of South Carolina’. The heart of the inlet is situated down a natural saltwater estuary with a half-mile long ‘Marsh Walk’, offering spectacular waterfront dining with views of the marsh, the ocean, and dreamy sunsets. We stumbled across Wicked Tuna which was so close to the waterfront it was practically in it, and with a plethora of freshly caught seafood every day and fantastic service, Wicked Tuna is not one to miss. Another favourite was The Claw House, which featured an outdoor deck, oyster bar, and beer garden that hosted live country music and turned into a festival of dancing as the evening wore on. Murrells Inlet also boasts the name of the place that perfected hushpuppies – another iteration of America’s favourite fried doughs that is a delicious local delicacy.
The next stretch of the road trip itinerary took us all the way back into Florida, hugging the east coast the whole way down. Myrtle Beach SC to Cocoa Beach FL, is an eight-hour drive in itself but takes you through Charleston SC, Savannah GA, and St Augustine FL. Buckle up and settle in, because we added whistle-stop tours of each city, and arrived 14 hours after we set off.
As we ate up the miles and passed through Charleston and Savannah, we discovered the rich tapestry of European influence that has bled into both cities. While settled by the British, Charleston was also home to a large population of French Huguenots, and French culture has permeated across the city. Within the ‘French Quarter’, you will find streets lined by perfectly maintained and repurposed antebellum pastel houses, or the old red brick that is still painted with advertisements. Meanwhile in Savannah, the European cultural impact is still evident, but due to the city being more industrial than the mercantile Charleston, you will find renovated manufacturing and trade buildings, that now play host to a whole range of shops, restaurants and cafes, with the ‘Riverside District’, a particular haven.
After leaving Savannah, we sped onto St Augustine, a city that lays claim to being the oldest in the United States. Having originally been a Spanish settlement, the city contrasts with Charleston and Savannah, and feels far more Mediterranean in its architecture, culture and atmosphere. During our brief stop there, we managed to catch the sunset over the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument: the seventeenth-century stone fortress that still surrounds the city. It offered a magnificent vista of the harbour, and our only regret was that we could not stay longer to explore the charming city to a greater extent.
"By releasing yourself from the constraints of flight times, transfers and train departures, the road trip gives you the ultimate travel experience..."
Our departure from St Augustine ushered in a new destination that offered a stark difference to the time-capsule cities we had just passed through. Cocoa Beach was our last stop, and it is Florida personified. Known for its beaches and surfing, this spot on the Space Coast is a picture postcard of Florida. Full of old school diners, you will find a variety of Florida staples which include Biscuits and Gravy, and Key Lime Pie. After combing the streets for a diner that caught our eye, we fell upon Southern Comfort Café; here you will not be short of the aforementioned Floridian classics.
Furthermore, due to Cocoa Beach’s close proximity to the Kennedy Space Centre, there is opportunity to see the USA’s space programme in full flow. Whilst reclining on the beach, we were lucky enough to see the launch of a rocket carrying an Elon Musk Star X satellite, which was a truly spectacular sight.
On discovering Cocoa Beach is a short distance to Miami, a day trip was rapidly organised, as no trip through Florida would be complete without visiting the hedonistic metropolis. Miami is a city driven by its inhabitants insatiable desire for high energy living and with a raucous nightlife, and pristine city beaches, Miami certainly lived up to its reputation, although it would wise to note that you may not leave with the same vim and vigour your arrived with! Having said that, we still managed to squeeze in a ball game (baseball for non-natives) and watched Milwaukee Brewers vs Miami Marlins at LoanDepot Park, before making headway and leaving for home.
On reflection, the road trip is an unsurpassed method for exploring the USA. The country’s enormity means that the variety in culture, landscape and demographic you witness over the course of a few hundred miles is mind-blowing. Traversing the highways offers the most authentic and candid picture of the USA possible, and whilst this particular road trip is not the most obvious route, the journey through Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina will expose you to hundreds of years of history and culture, as well as offering an experience of vibrant city life that dominates the likes of Atlanta and Miami. You would be hard tasked to find a more complete approach to travel, and with the freedom, and flexibility afforded to you through exploring by car, the possibilities are endless. By releasing yourself from the constraints of flight times, transfers and train departures, the road trip gives you the ultimate travel experience.