See the sights on the way to Florida
Almost as soon as temperatures drop and the winds pick up in Chester County, we begin to think of escaping.
Many of us will make the long drive to Florida. Some talk of driving straight through and reaching the Sunshine State in less than 20 hours.
What’s the rush? Alas, there’s more between here and there than rest stops, gas stations and fast food joints.
I usually take the “back way” through Harrisburg, along I-81, traveling amongst the beautiful mountains of Virginia. This route is about 100 miles longer, but I promise, by traveling along the Shenandoah Valley, you’ll not get stuck in Baltimore and Washington traffic.
What follows is a list of stops along the way to break up the trip. Some, like South of the Border, are located at an exit, while others, including Kitty Hawk will add many miles to the odometer.
Highlights along the back way:
• Staunton, Va.: Take a quick cruise around town. A beautiful little place left mostly untouched by the Civil War. Much distinctive 19thcentury architecture remains. Site of Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace, early home and his presidential library and museum.
• Luray Caverns: Take a guided tour deep underground. Catch a concert on the Stalacpipe Organ, possibly the world’s largest musical instrument. Hammers strike cave outcroppings to produce beautiful music.
• Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway: The parkway parallels the interstate. The road bobs and weaves along high mountain ridges for 469 miles. Try detouring from fourlane I-81 to two-lane roadway for 50, 100 or more miles and then cut back to the major highway. There is an admission fee for Shenandoah National Park to the north but on the scenic highway to the south it’s free.
• Columbia, S.C.: Take either a free self-guided or guided tour of the state capitol. They don’t fix everything here or gloss it over with stucco. It’s hard to miss six cannon ball holes on the building’s exterior from the Civil War, which are marked with tough to miss stars. The guide will also point out some statues never repaired after they were damaged.
• Mount Airy, N.C.: The town where Andy Griffith grew up and formed many of his ideas for Mayberry RFD. You can ride in a vintage police car like Barney did, with a cutout of Andy, or eat a pork chop sandwich at Snappy’s.
• Charlotte, N.C.: A big city with a nice smalltown vibe. The city hosts many museums, including the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts. The façade startles, while resembling textile patterns created by West African weavers. Stop at least long enough to sample some southern fried chicken.
• Congaree National Park: Much of the park regularly floods, nourishing some the largest trees you’ll ever see. A boardwalk trail network keeps you high and dry at the largest intact tract of oldgrowth bottom land forest in North America. It’s easy walking here in the lowlands since there are no hills. No admission fee.
• Cotton Fields: Cotton grows along two-lane roads southeast of Congaree and Columbia. Machines now do much of the work but it’s still pretty to take an autumn or early winter drive along rural roads while viewing huge SUV-sized cotton balls wrapped for shipping. With excess cotton blowing everywhere, the roadside can look a lot like the day after a snowfall in Chester County.
Sights along the more conventional drive along I-95:
• South of the Border,
S.C.: With all those billboards, South of the Border, or what’s fondly referred to as good ole SOB, is a magnet for both kids and adults. A 97-foot tall mascot named “Pedro” towers over the complex. You can even grab a shopping cart in a supermarket-sized fireworks store.
• Kitty Hawk, N.C.: Although it’s a long side trip,
who can pass on at least once jumping at the exact spot where the Wright Brothers first flew?
• Charlestown, S.C. and Savannah, Ga.: Beautiful southern towns packed with charm, history and great eats. No need to leave the car; 22 squares or pocket parks surrounded by gorgeous homes are arranged in an easy to navigate grid pattern in Savannah.
• Okefenokee Swamp and Suwannee River, Ga.: Another side trip that’s a bit out of the way. They don’t usually make swamps in population centers. You only end up here if you choose to come. Rent a small motorboat in the swamp, walk on a boardwalk or visit the river made famous by Stephen Foster, although he never visited.
• Pull over at the first Florida rest stop after crossing the border: Free orange and grapefruit
juice on tap is served. Don’t be shy, it’s alright to ask for seconds.
• Daytona Beach, Fla.: It’s your chance to drive on the beach. Don’t run over the sunbathers; follow the marked lanes. There are even sandy parking lots.
• St. Augustine, Fla.: The oldest city in the U.S. You can search for the Fountain of Youth, visit an historic stone fort or shop ‘til you drop amongst touristy gift shops and attractions.
I shouldn’t use tired old clichés, but I’ll write it anyway. There’s no need to rush. Florida will still be there a couple hours later.
Slow down and smell the roses - the journey is the destination.
Take the Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia on the way to Florida.
Although it’s only a cardboard cutout, Mayberry RFD exists in Mount Airy, N.C.