Luxuriate in a palm-tree-flanked beachfront kitchenette for $21 or less. Eat all the barbeque you want for $3.95. Have a 19th-century carriage house to yourself. Talk to a Civil War "soldier" as he keeps vigil at a Union fort 800 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Sit on the dock of a rice plantation and watch for the Robert E. Lee.
The southbound traveler who strays from I-95 to the Southeast Coast will find these and other economical and offbeat experiences. If you want to seek the sun and more temperate weather, but spend less time and money than a southern Florida getaway takes, many treats await you in the coastal regions of the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida. This part of the country is undervisited and underrated for spring -- and even winter -- leisure travel. As a consequence it is uncrowded and not overpriced. There is much to see, whether you seek ocean vistas or historic houses. And in a coastal drive south from northern South Carolina to northern Florida, there are any number of choice destinations, among them:
Myrtle Beach, S.C. To some the name suggests a woman in curlers married to someone named Sidney Beach -- not a wide sweep of palm-tree-studded beach (and a few myrtles, which are small scruffy bushes) lined with dozens of well-kempt motels. Myrtle Beach is a real off-season find. Though mobbed with tens of thousands of visitors in the summer, Myrtle (as the natives call it) in the off season is quiet but not starkly deserted. It's warmer than Washington and is part of a pretty 55-mile-long beach known as the Grand Strand.
As developed as the town is, there somehow has been restraint. The high-rise motels on the beach side are spaced so that public access and a sea view are always available. Myrtle in spring is a place to stroll on wide beaches, watch the surf, fish, ride bicycles (the sand is firm enough for biking) and eat homemade doughnuts while watching the sea at a little coffee shop (open year-round) across from the Beachside Motel. Myrtle Beach has also become a major golf resort. The area is replete with courses, and many of the hotels offer golf packages.
Myrtle Beach is a moderate day's drive from Washington -- nine hours or less. And except for those allergic to barbeque, the trip includes one of the best meal stops anywhere. That's Gardner's Barbeque, on Business Rte. 95, a few miles past the Rocky Mount, N.C., I-95 exit (about halfway between Washington and Myrtle). This bustling eatery with red-checkered tablecloths offers an all-you-can eat menu for $3.95, including pork barbeque, chicken barbeque, collard greens, yams, black-eyed peas, corn, fried apples, soup and iced tea in a canning jar. The food is top quality and the ambiance is simple and clean.
(The Petersburg National Battlefield in Petersburg, Va., probably the most visually impressive of all the Civil War battlefields, also lies en route. It undoubtedly has been passed up by more travelers hurrying to vacation spots than any other major National Park Service site.)
Immediately south of Myrtle Beach on Rte. 17, the coastal road to Charleston, you can discover what the area looked like before the credit card was invented. Myrtle Beach State Park has a beautiful mile-long strip of underdeveloped beach flanked by myrtles. The road then rolls into South Carolina's marshy "low country," once the rice basket of North America. Brookgreen Gardens, 18 miles from Myrtle, are on the site of a mid-1700s plantation. They display 400 modern and 19th-century sculptures and include a cypress swamp, wildlife preserve and -- in early spring -- explosions of dogwood and azaleas.
After Georgetown (less than an hour south of Myrtle), a modest sign directs you to a modest and rather special place called Hopsewee. At one time a 1,400-acre rice plantation, Hopsewee remains a private residence, though open to visitors. Unlike most competitors on the tour circuit, Hopsewee has no carefully paved driveways or bus parking lots or gift shop. And its main house is relatively small. A gravel road takes you under moss-draped live oak trees to a clearing and a parking space for a few cars.
Inside an original kitchen outbuilding (kitchens were invariably separate from main plantation houses because of fire danger and the lack of fire-fighting facilities), Hopsewee visitors pay a $1 per car honor-system registration fee and are free to walk the grounds. The main house can be visited (open "by chance or by appointment" in winter, Tuesday through Friday other times) for an additional $3.
It's not hard to put yourself back in time at Hopsewee. Walk the trail along the North Santee River, where ships once came to claim Hopsewee's harvest. Follow the posted suggestion to sit on the dock, a perennial plantation pastime. Look up at the old house of black cypress, changed little since it was built 240 years ago by Thomas Lynch, and at the small forest of ancient live oaks draping it. And swat the ever-present mosquitoes. This is a timeless setting of the fabled Old South.
Charleston. A 45-minute drive past Hopsewee will take you through a sharp transition. After the very rural low country, where along the highway local women sell hand-woven baskets of marsh grass, comes the city of Charleston, a grand dame of the South that lives -- and thrives in -- its antebellum history.
Charleston is part poor, part rich and part sprawl. Its unique center of attraction is the Battery, a lush area of handsomely restored houses, churches and commercial buildings. The Battery occupies the lower half of the finger of land between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, which come together to form Charleston Harbor. The walk along the Battery Park promenade is one of the loveliest of any city. On one side is the magnificent harbor. In the distance, five miles from shore, is the tiny man-made island where the Civil War began -- Fort Sumter (Fort Sumter National Monument is reachable by a twice-daily ferry). On the land side are the kinds of mansions that give the word "stately" meaning.
Further inland Charleston's old center is a cross between New Orleans and Georgetown -- palm-tree-filled streets with closely spaced buildings or row houses, and tropical courtyards abounding. Charleston's new order -- its yuppies -- are increasingly calling this part of town home. The old market sheds, which stretch for blocks, are now arts and crafts bazaars. French bakeries, cafes that serve cappucino and trendy-looking restaurants dot the old city.
Savannah, Ga. Savannah, 100 miles south of Charleston, is a city for squares -- or, rather, of squares. Twenty-four lovely ones, to be precise, within the compact old city. Gen. James E. Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony, and Col. William Bull, an aide, laid out Savannah.
The legacy of this very early city planning effort is an exhilarating one -- a city organized around beautiful parks, or what Savannahians call squares. These urban oases, filled with moss-draped trees and edged by a multitude of styles of ornate 19th-century structures, are ideal for strolling and gazing.
For example: Johnson Square, with its banks, law offices and Christ Episcopal Church, home of the colony's first religious congregation and also believed to be the first Protestant Sunday school in the New World. Chippewa Square, with its trendy boutiques and restaurants. Wright Square, whose west end is brought up by the classic WPA-style Main Post Office. Oglethorpe Square, site of the Owens-Thomas House, where Lafayette was once a guest.
Like Charleston, Savannah has the aura of a living museum. But the museum seems much bigger and the contrasts between the proverbial right and wrong sides of the tracks less pronounced.
The riverfront is the center for restaurants and night life, as well as tourism. River Street, on the old industrial waterfront, is a full three levels below Bay Street, the through boulevard paralleling the Savannah River. Bay Street is lined with old cotton warehouses and shipping buildings that are being converted to high-priced condominiums and commercial establishments. A most unusual series of foot bridges, resembling moat crossings, leads from Bay Street into the upper levels of these buildings. One of these bridges takes you to the Chart House, a restaurant in the lower level of an 18th-century warehouse and ship chandlery. It features an outdoor terrace that is a perfect place for a cocktail in Savannah's mild winter and spring weather.
A solid and massive Hyatt Regency is the focal point of River Street. River excursions and carriage tours of the city start at the Hyatt.
Savannah offers comfortable bed-and-breakfast accommodations on many of its squares. Savannah Bed and Breakfast at Chatham Square has rooms in its 1850-vintage main house, as well as in two-story carriage houses, complete with garden and private entrances, in back.
Georgia Sea Islands. The Sea Islands, also called the Golden Isles, lie about two hours beyond Savannah. The best known are St. Simons and Jekyll, each of which can be reached by road. They are legendary playgrounds for the affluent and formerly were producers of high-quality cotton. James Bond always specified Sea Island cotton shirts, and today he would feel at home in the country-club setting of these islands.
Sea Island, on the ocean side of St. Simons, is a lush, pretentious place, not unlike those that Bond has had to infiltrate to get to the head man. It is open to the public -- for the price of its grand hotel, the Cloister. Sea Island guests can wander through lush grounds and white sand beaches, play golf, ride horses and dine sumptuously at the hotel.
St. Simons gives the appearance of a growing suburb of Brunswick, Ga. There is limited public access to the water here, but Jekyll Island has a seven-mile white sand beach and a number of hotels that offer attractive off-season rates.
Fernandina Beach, Fla. The lack of easy access can do wonders for preservation. Amelia Island, Fla., an hour and a half from the Sea Islands, is a 20-mile-long sliver of land jutting into Georgia that requires back-tracking from I-95 to reach. Its relative isolation, and the fact that it is 400 miles north of Miami, has until recently made it a sleepy beach community where unpretentious bungalows line the beach. In the words of a promotional brochure, it is "still the way other Florida beaches used to be." It is the old coastal Florida, one that is now mostly history, although the condominiums and high rises are gradually encroaching.
Fernandina Beach, the town at the inland tip of Amelia Island, has a charming center and small harbor. As the first Florida port for southbound vessels, it boasts the state's only Marine Welcome Center, perched on the edge of the town dock. The old railroad station is now the Chamber of Commerce and its shopping district contains attractive, but not overly trendy, shops and restaurants. Some of the town's Victorian-style houses have bed-and-breakfast accommodations.
Beachside accommodations are limited. Amelia Island Lodging Systems, however, rents out unoccupied beach condominiums, rooms in an old inn and even apartments in a condo built in the form of a lighthouse. And there is the better-known, and higher-priced, Amelia Island Plantation.
At the far tip of the beach side of the island is an unusual find: Fort Clinch State Park. This preserve has adventurous swamp trails that take you right into alligator country. The park is one-third public beach, one-third swamp and one-third historical site. Bobcats and raccoons ply the forest and even the beach, which is protected by a series of dunes -- mountains by Florida standards.
At the very edge of the park sits Fort Clinch. This pentagonal garrison was started before the Civil War, never finished and never saw action. It was a Union-held outpost throughout the Civil War, and the men assigned to hold it endured no end of misery as Yankees surrounded by Confederates.
You can find out for yourself just what conditions were like by asking the two "soldiers" on duty. As you walk into the fort a placard tells you to pretend it is 1864. And that is what you have to do, for the sergeant and his private, dressed meticulously in Civil War garb, will speak to you only in the roles they are playing -- 1864 federal troops. Ask them about life at the fort, what they think of Lincoln or when the war will end. Talk politics or war strategies. But don't ask them how to get back to Washington -- they'll tell you no road has been built yet.
Washington is, in fact, 720 miles from Fernandina Beach on a straight inland return via I-95, or about 850 miles by the coastal route. And it seems many light years away from the worlds that are found along the Southeast Coast.