When we were children, road trips seemed endless. As adults, tweeting and Googling and giggling as we go, we love the adventure.
In Magnolia Springs, Ala., once a destination for Chicagoans in search of cures (Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad trains shot from the Windy City down to the Gulf), we stop at Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast in a renovated 1898 former hotel that sits on a street where oaks form an arch, and azalea and other shrubs bloom. We don’t exactly need an English-to-English translator to understand delightful innkeepers David Worthington and Eric Bigelow, but boy do they have unforgettable Alabama accents. This is indeed the Old South. Mail is still delivered by boat on the Magnolia River in this former turpentine and lumber settlement.
It’s late and we head for the closest eatery, Jesse’s Restaurant & The Cold Hole, where grits come with big Gulf shrimp, smoked Gouda, and local hickory-smoked Conecuh sausage, and the bartender, who isn’t Southern, is brusque, bordering on unfriendly. She didn’t get the Old South memo.
Worthington, who is bossy in the nicest way, practically orders us to stay on coastal Route 98 to Apalachicola. The road is often two lanes, sometimes painfully slow, with stop lights in every town. As he warned, you have to endure miles of high-rise development, interspersed with houses built on stilts right near the water. Headed to the Gulf Islands National Seashore trails for a walk, we twice end up at the Naval Air Station Pensacola (our GPS was off). A 2-mile walk in the nature reserve is a lovely respite and the helpful National Park Service volunteer sends us to Peg Leg Pete’s on Pensacola Beach for lunch. It’s lively and fun, full of spring breakers, with a good grilled grouper sandwich. This is the Emerald Coast, known for its white sand beaches. College kids in packs of 10 are everywhere. We flee.
Then comes the night in Apalachicola, and after that, for about 70 miles, more Old South: Deal’s Famous Oyster House in Perry, Fla., located in what looks like a makeshift motor home, signs for RV hookups, spruce forests, prisoners doing roadwork, cement churches with service times mounted on portable signs. At lunch, a guy nearby tells me he spent the morning “putting in 150 tomato plants, 50 pounds of potatoes, bunch of onions, and other stuff, on half an acre.”
Approaching Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, the landscape changes. Horse farms on either side of the road are interspersed with gated communities. Names like “South Pointe,” “Fletcher’s Mill,” “Broadmoor,” affect Britishness. Then 1950s ranch houses, bungalows, and in the town center, on this day, a huge farmers’ market. A dozen Hare Krishnas sing (we always wondered where they went after they left Logan Airport), Humble Pie Gourmet Pizza turns out wood-fired rounds, and a vendor from The Wild Woodstead sells smoked fish. All this becomes a picnic in our hotel that night. We overhear a conversation between a young man walking briskly to catch up with a pretty woman.
He: Can I buy you a beer?
She laughs and rushes off.
Later that day, we reach the Atlantic and St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country (Ponce de Leon landed here in 1513), with narrow streets and single-file sidewalks. A pedestrian-only historic section is, unfortunately, full of candy shops and trinkets with reminders of pirate history. Unlike New Orleans, anyone with a guitar and vocal cords can get a job at a bar here. The magnificent harbor ends at the huge stone 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos fort, which protected the city from invaders.
En route to Savannah, we stop at Jekyll Island, Ga., one of the state’s Golden Isles, set off from the mainland by a long causeway with marshes on either side. Once home to some of the country’s wealthiest families, who built “cottages” in the late 19th century, the island’s grandest place is Jekyll Island Club Hotel, which looks like something out of “The Great Gatsby.”
Fins on the Beach, near Great Dunes Park, is a pretty place with a big patio on the water. We eat shrimp po’boy sandwiches because the fish of the day, the waiter says, comes from the Far East.
Savannah could give the course on the Old South. The manicured squares that divide the city are surrounded by historic homes, some grand, some smaller. Horse-drawn carriages take you around. The city is walkable for miles along the waterfront, but more interesting is the historic district, once an open market. Continued...