I-95′s Southern Beginnings: Savannah, Charleston and the Outer Banks
We made a special effort to take a picture as we left the Florida Keys and drove our first few miles on I-95 in Miami. We had driven on this particular interstate often when we lived in the northeast. Occasionally we would imagine what it would be like to impetuously disregard our current destination and keep driving until the interstate ended. We imagined that a road which was lined by factories in Rhode Island would be bordered by fields in South Carolina, golf courses in Georgia and palm trees in Florida. Perhaps it would run close to an antebellum mansion or pass near roadside stands filled with boxes of Georgia peaches and Florida citrus. We had imagined the trip often, but the moment to do it had come once we reached Miami.
The beginnings of the interstate were a network of tightly congested lanes passing through Miami, Fort Worth and their surrounding suburbs. We found ourselves driving during a fierce rainstorm just prior to a Friday rush hour and we spent hours traveling slow, stressful miles. That afternoon we stopped much sooner than we expected, staying at a motel in West Palm Beach.
It took two days to recover from the stormy south Florida driving. We took the time to explore the area and experience the county that was responsible for so much controversy during the 2000 elections. As we looked around we were amazed at the older, moneyed retirees, many of whom we found to be loud, flashy and inconsiderate. We also noticed that aside from the retirees, there was a distinct absence of ugly people. Everyone appeared to be under the age of 35 and able to model in an ad for Gap clothes so that at times Deb felt as if she needed a face peel and plastic surgery just to fit in. It also didn’t surprise us at dinner we sat along side of the former CEO of the Progresso soup company and the head of the garbage industry in the New Jersey/New York area.
What we saw in West Palm Beach is best expressed by describing an upscale mall complex we found. Located near an arts theater and an outdoor park, this mall showcased a miniature version of the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas that dance every half hour. Aside from the expected shops in an upper-crust mall – a wine bar, a movie theater and several restaurants – this mall featured its own adjacent apartment and condominium complex. We supposed that if you’re a Palm Beach resident you can live at the mall and bring Las Vegas, or anything else you want, directly to your neighborhood.
Following West Palm Beach, we didn’t make any more stops in Florida. Disney World was too overwhelming and we were too discouraged by our stop in Houston mission control to visit the Kennedy space center. Instead of stopping, we drove through Florida and went directly to southern Georgia where it was clear that we were in the neighborhood of world-class golf courses. Signs for the women’s PGA hall of fame were interspaced between ads marketing resort hotels to golfers. We even passed Bill Murray’s Caddyshack restaurant, the successful eatery he bought and named after his hit movie.
In central Georgia, we deviated from our I-95 route to visit the city of Savannah. We had plenty of preconceptions of what the city would be like, most of them taken directly from the pages of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We expected to find larger than life, eccentric Southern characters walking slowly down streets lined with lush, old oak trees. We also expected gardens with flowering vines draped over fountains and public parks with moss-crusted iron statues that seemed almost alive and ready to roll their eyes when we weren’t looking. We found all of these, but not in the gothic setting we expected.
Savannah had a small town, sticky-summer 1940′s feel with beautiful colonial houses and well-manicured city blocks. As we first entered town there was a wedding outside of a church and we saw a bride and groom who were posing for pictures. Later on in the day, an old-fashioned Ford pickup drove slowly down a residential street in front of the house we were staying at. It seemed well placed inside a city that seemed to have taken a step back in time. As we walked around a bit more, we noticed that the streets were quiet and we guessed that in the middle of a southern summer day people had the good sense to stay inside. We escaped the heat by heading to the docks for dinner and relaxing at an Irish pub for entertainment.
Our next stop was Charleston, South Carolina where we looked out at Fort Sumter, strolled through more rows of colonial houses and visited our first plantation home. We were surprised to find a lot of excellent restaurants here and were thrilled by an inexpensive brunch at a restaurant called Magnolia. We had expected to have a cheaper, sit down lunch but for the same price were treated to five-star service at one of the city’s best dining rooms. We spent our meal people watching, imagining that we were seeing some of Charleston’s finest Southern families at the tables next to us. After eating, we finished the afternoon by walking the city blocks past beautiful mansions and adjoining gardens.
Following Charleston we drove through the Carolinas, seeing some pretty Southern back roads and quaint small towns. Passing quickly through Virginia Beach, with its spring-break-like atmosphere, we headed for the natural beaches and seashell collecting of North Carolina. We stopped for a night at Cape Fear but enjoyed the area most as we relaxed on a ferry moving between some of the larger islands in the Outer Banks. Here we found ourselves sailing past a fleet of shrimp boats and flocks of pelicans in waters near to the spot where Blackbeard the Pirate was captured. That night we stayed at a youth hostel in Kitty Hawk, site of the famous Wright Brothers flight, following a seafood meal and time spent watching the groups of people who gathered on tall sand dunes at sunset.
Overall, the first part of our trip up I-95 took about a week and exposed us to a different South than we had seen when in New Orleans. This driving was more gentle with a summertime feel and the relaxed peace of knowing that strings of natural beaches were always close at hand. As with many other parts of our trip, we knew we’d need to return when we had more time to explore the area.