The Other East Coast

19th February 2010

Road trips bring the USA to life in a way no other holiday can. The arid southern state lines… the western coast… the Eastern seaboard. Instead of taking the well-trodden route from New York to Boston, though, the plan was to start in the Deep South, taking in the wonders of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Ultimate goal: Philadelphia.

Rowena Carr-Allinson went with an open mind. And a good thing too. Who could have predicted the surprises that would lie between Florida’s party capital and the home of the constitution? Rowena discovered an eclectic combination of old-fashioned gas stations and A-list movie star holiday hideaways; haunting streets and endless beaches; crab cakes, oyster stew competitions and innumerable fast food drive-throughs…

Taking off from sultry Miami, after a week of luxury hotel hopping, it was a thrill to watch the countryside roll by, leaving behind the crazy beach parties, stylish spas and five star service. With the Floridian sunshine accompanying us all the way as we headed North, it didn’t matter that we were stuck with the most basic rental car available… possibly the only car in the United States without such conveniences as electric windows and working air-con. By the time we arrived in Philly, heating would have been nice, but that’s another story…

Driving up Florida’s I-95 is an exercise in self discipline. Each turn off is tempting: Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Daytona Beach – each a postcard in your mind’s eye. But, with a lot of ground to cover, we stuck to the plan and headed up to Georgia.

We’d been on the road for what seemed like forever, and the petrol gauge agreed. Suddenly, finding a gas station was a real priority. We turned off into the green fields, past trailer homes and the odd church. Not a human being to be seen, and no petrol pump either. We’d found the proverbial ‘sticks’. Back at the main intersection we asked for advice and, none the wiser, tried to follow an incomprehensible local. Freewheeling as we were, a Stop sign ahead spelled trouble. About to give up, our saviour turned into a very well hidden – and distinctly old-style – gas station. Rolling onto the forecourt, we came to a stop in front of the pump. The handwritten sign read “if your drawers are showing, keep out. Have some respect for others and for yourself!”

Gas stations were to become a feature of this trip… Stacye Jarrell, my contact on Tybee Island, gave us directions: “pull into the BP station, we’ll be having dinner there.” It seemed a curious comment, although after the long drive I would have been happy to feast on Doritos, so we went along with it. Little did I know that the tiny strip mall home to BP was also home to the finest restaurant on the island: The Sundae Café.

Quaint tables, a friendly waitress and a very warm welcome had us enjoying our fabulous crab cakes and stuffed calamari in no time. And, when there was no more space for the famous chocolate cake, it was boxed for us to take home. That’s southern hospitality.

Arriving somewhere after dark is always confusing, impossible to get your bearings. Luckily, the next day everything became clear as we took a Tybee tour for the lowdown on this 3-mile long island, via Sandra Bullock’s place and the back lanes.

Tybee, once ‘Savannah Beach,’ is where well-to-do southerners come to holiday, renting dreamy seaside villas with Elle Deco-style interiors and stunning views over the endless Atlantic sandy beaches. On the river side, hauntingly beautiful marshlands with romantic wooden piers that went on forever had me instantly charmed. I could easily imagine spending lazy, sunny days biking past the lighthouse or just contemplating life sat in the beautiful Adirondack chairs. The island seemed quaint and fresh, deliciously unpretentious.

The Cotton Exchange, Savannah

A whirlwind tour of Savannah reveals one of the USA’s most beautiful historic cities. Red brick mansions, cobblestone streets, original gas lights and giant oak trees draped with ‘Spanish Beard’ moss give the place a natural grandeur. British, French and more exotic influences are omnipresent in the architecture and detailing on each street corner.

Today Savannah, born in 1733, is a vibrant city, thanks to the Savannah College of Art and Design which has been credited with giving it a new lease of life. Renovating entire neighborhoods with a certain savoir faire, it’s given the city a welcome edgy touch. There’s plenty to do too, from golf courses to museums, shopping or enjoying the many Irish pubs!

We gawped at colonial buildings and squares, like snapshots from Gone with the Wind, each more resplendent than the next. Stacey explains – in her mesmerising Southern drawl – why Savannah is such a rarity: a southern town left untouched. She grins “At the end of the Civil War we surrendered, rather than burning the place down” – and I, for one, am so very glad they did.

Back on the I-95, having promised to be back soon, we set off for North Carolina. Our first stop: Wilmington, dubbed ‘Wilmywood’ by locals. This charming coastal town is a favourite with film makers, and has been the backdrop for hundreds of films from classics like Blue Velvet and The Colour Purple to blockbusters like The Jackal and the hit TV series Dawson’s Creek which made its picturesque wooden docks famous all over the world.

Wilmington from the Cape Fear River

Wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River’s mouth, Wilmington is as quaint and pretty as its past is dark and shady. Cape Fear, named by early settlers to warn of the river’s vicious tides, soon became home to pirates and brigands which makes for plenty of eerie ghost stories!

Walking down the all-American Main Street, everything seems familiar, from the historical facades and grand buildings to the palm fringed promenade. Even our historic B&B, the lovely Graystone Inn, has had its moments in the limelight, most recently as the White House in an episode of Little Britain USA. It’s also where visiting celebrities, including Goldie Hawn and Tom Cruise, stay, while around the corner the motel style Wilmingtonian has movie star themed rooms.

Staying a few days in town, we have ample time to check out the endless sandy beaches in nearby Wrightsville, take a tour of the EUE Screen Gems Studios and stop for sushi at the cool Yo Sake. We also meet local barman extraordinaire Josef Finsel at Caffe Phoenix (one of Katie Holmes’s favourites) who mixes a mean ‘Lolita’ cocktail and tells us why Wilmington is the perfect social mix of students from the University of North Carolina, celebrities like John Travolta and those in search of something different.

Before heading North through yet another state line, we make one more detour, to Shalotte’s Oyster Festival. The plan is to sample the goods, and witness the annual Oyster Stew Cook-off when local restaurants compete for the best recipe. Ocean Isle Beach is the perfect beachside setting despite the freezing wind to try the warming tasty broth. Then came dessert: funnel cake. Dough is poured, via a funnel, into a vat of boiling oil. Dubious at first, I’m amazed at the light doughnut-style swirl covered in icing sugar. A real delight, and a good surprise. Simple recipes are often the finest.

More culinary surprises lay in store as we made our way to Calabash, famous for its seafood. Forget oysters the European way, Calabash is synonymous with deep fried. Sitting down at Ella’s, a simple diner serving fine seafood since 1950, it dawned upon us that everything – oysters, clams, prawns or squid – came in batter.

The other option? Ordering a ‘roast’ or roasting pan full of steamed oysters. Although it seems like cheating, the steamed shells were easy to pry open and offered up something akin to mussels, with melted butter sauce. A million miles away from the raw oysters I’d been expecting. But then again, this trip has been full of surprises…

This time, though, there was no boxing the leftovers. There were no leftovers.

Rowena Carr-Allinson travelled to Miami with Virgin Holidays and Hip Hotels: www.vhiphotels.co.uk • 0844 573 2451

staying at The Tides, Miami: www.tidessouthbeach.com • 001 305 604 5070

Oceanfront Cottage Rentals: www.oceanfrontcottage.com • 001 800 786 5889

Graystone Inn ($159 to $379): www.graystoneinn.com • 001 910 763 2000

The Wilmingtonian ($79 to $325.00): www.thewilmingtonian.com • 001 910 343 1800

Ocean Isle Inn ($79-$209): www.oceanisleinn.com • 001 910 579 0750

For more information visit www.uk.visitnc.com or call 020 7367 0937.

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