Being somewhere as you go there
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Years ago in college, trips to Florida on spring vacation were endurance tests of NoDoz driving. The goal was to get there as fast as possible, no stopping or sightseeing allowed. By alternating driver-sleeper positions and eating in the car, it was possible to make the trip in a nonstop 30-hour blur. That, however, was then.
Now we're older and wiser (okay, older), and operate at a slower pace. Planning a vacation, we wondered whether there was anything to see between Boston and Florida. What had we missed on those races to the sun?
For one thing, we missed the Civil War.
For another, we missed wandering through the gracious old towns of the Deep South.
And we missed the exquisite golf courses that lie along the route -- though who cared about golf in those days?
Eager to pursue these new, dare we say mature, interests, we set out in our little green Subaru station wagon, packed to the roof with golf clubs, tennis rackets, bathing suits, American history books, cameras, maps, a laptop computer, and a cardboard box filled with books on tape. The tapes included Michael Shaara's ''The Killer Angels," a classic account of the War Between the States.
Popping the first cassette into the player, we veered west/southwest toward Pennsylvania and Gettysburg, the focus of Shaara's book. Seven hours later, we pulled into the site of General Robert E. Lee's Gettysburg headquarters, which, as it turned out, was also ours for the night. Today, it's a Quality Inn, thankfully one of the few Civil War sites in this historic town that has been touched by the 21st century. Almost everywhere in the 25-square-mile area where the bloodiest battle of American history was fought, the land has been preserved to look exactly the way it did on those three fateful days July 1-3, 1863. Thus, from the front door of our motel, we looked out, just as Lee had done, onto McPherson Ridge, where the Confederate troops overpowered the Union forces on the first day of the battle and drove them back to Cemetery Hill.
The rolling countryside that was transformed from farming community into a town known around the world is beautifully preserved. You can drive from one key landmark to the next -- from Little Round Top, to the Peach Orchard, to the Wheatfield, to the National Cemetery where President Lincoln gave his famous address -- with a private guide in your car, or with a map on a self-guided tour, or alone, with just your thoughts.
Step out anywhere along the route and see just how far the Rebel troops had to walk across the fields to assault the Union line. See how the hills played a part in allowing Union forces to place their cannons to advantage in the final battle on Cemetery Ridge.
On a cold, wintry day, alone on these battlefields except for the 1,300 monuments to battalions from all the states involved, the silence was profound. Our imaginations took over. We could almost hear the terrible noise of the 152,455 men and 550 cannons engaged in the fight that left more than 51,000 casualties, 5,000 dead horses, and wheat fields stained red from the blood.
A must-see at Gettysburg is the Cyclorama that displays the 400-foot-long Paul Philippoteaux panorama of Pickett's Charge, the climax of the battle on July 3. The painting originally was housed in the Boston Cyclorama, now the Boston Center for the Arts, in the South End. It was acquired by the National Park Service in 1942 and eventually moved to its permanent home at Gettysburg.
Next stopover on our drive south was Washington, where the sightseeing possibilities are endless. We decided to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the memorials honoring those who fought and died in Vietnam, World War II, and the Korean War. It was a sobering day, but one in keeping with the awe and respect inspired by Gettysburg.
Then it was on to Sharpsburg, Md., to tour the battlefield at Antietam, where, on Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, Union losses were 12,410 and Confederate losses 10,700. Here, as at many of the national parks around the important battlefields, we watched a short film at the visitors center, an excellent way to orient oneself to the history of each site. We also purchased an auto-tour cassette. Listening to it in the car, we followed a map that indicated all the key sites, among them Sunken Road, renamed ''Bloody Lane" because it changed hands so many times during a four-hour battle that resulted in more than 5,000 casualties .
By the time we reached Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia -- both of which played key roles in the Civil War -- we realized that many of these historic towns and sites deserve more than hours or even days to truly understand what happened there.
We inspected the preserved bullet holes in the door of a house on Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg, where Confederate forces took positions behind a stone wall and beat back an assault of Union troops. At Chancellorsville, we saw the spot where Thomas J. ''Stonewall" Jackson, one of the South's great generals, was killed by friendly fire.
We vowed to return another year and spend more time learning about the soldiers, the generals, the tactics, the destruction, and the courage behind that war, which left traces of death and valor from Pennsylvania to Georgia and beyond.
But we had had enough of war. We decided to indulge ourselves with some lavish living, and we knew just the place to do it: The Willcox, one of the nation's top inns, in the little town of Aiken, S.C. What Hilton Head is to golf, Aiken is to horse breeding and equestrian sports. Fox hunts (using dragged scents to lead the dogs on the chase, not live foxes) take place regularly on weekends here, and polo is more popular than baseball.
The Willcox is a boutique hotel owned and operated by the same folks who have made The Point in the Adirondacks and Lake Placid Lodge famous for their special character and attention to a guest's every whim. At the Willcox, a concierge rushes outside to greet expected guests by name, even when they drive up in a mud-spattered Subaru. It has not one, but two fireplaces in the bedroom suites, and they're both burning brightly against a sudden winter chill when you arrive. It has a menu offering fresh Beau Soleil oysters flown in from Nova Scotia.
We pampered ourselves for two days there.
Then we had one more stop to make. On television, the husband had watched the World Cup golf championship played on Kiawah Island, S.C., at the Ocean Course, and thought it the prettiest course he had ever seen.
A surprise birthday present followed, and we were on our way to enjoy a round of golf there. It was, indeed, the prettiest course either of us had ever seen, every hole exquisitely situated at the edge of the Atlantic. (It also turned out to be the hardest course we had ever played.)
Two days (and numerous golf balls) later, we arrived in Florida, ready to start our vacation. The funny thing was, thanks to our leisurely route south, we felt we'd already had one.
Julie Hatfield and Tim Leland are freelance writers in Boston.