Southern Road Trip

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More than a year ago, Jeff and I started talking about a Southern road trip. The idea had several inspirations. First of all, for years we’ve chatted about the fact that neither of us has spent any time in the real South. Oklahoma and Texas are very culturally southern, but they aren’t the South. Then there was the three-part Southern Living travel series last summer that outlined a state-hopping ramble laced with grits, cocktails and Spanish moss. Finally, there was A Chef’s Life, a PBS show that has been making us hungry and homesick ever since Jeff discovered it on our Apple TV last year. It’s a powerhouse of Southern cultural preservation, and it made us want to go South.

So that’s what we did. We flew into Savannah, rented a car, and embarked on a fast-paced, six-day tour of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The trip’s itinerary went through many different incarnations (at one point, we were going to drive all the way back to Brooklyn), and our final route was shaped in part by people we wanted to visit along the way. To pack it all in, we signed ourselves up for more than 18 hours of driving. Here’s my quick rundown of where we went and what we loved:

Savannah

Our arrival in Savannah was one of the single best travel experiences I’ve ever had. Every now and then, there are things in life that are way, way better than you imagined. That was our first day in Savannah. When a place has a reputation for being beautiful, I always assume it has a few amazing streets or that you have to stand in just the right place to get the full effect. Not Savannah. Every tree is dripping with Spanish moss and almost every street in the historic district has a park-like public square. The  squares were pleasantly quiet, almost sleepy. We mostly stayed away from the river, which was touristy; everything else was divine. We were even treated to a massive thunderstorm while walking thorough Forsyth Park, only a couple hours after arriving in town. If that sounds like a bad thing, you aren’t a storm-starved Oklahoman: New York gets rain, but not storms.

 

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Eliza Thompson House—Savannah, Georgia
Our whole impression of Savannah was probably swayed by how much we loved this B&B. I think Southern hospitality can be a bit of a cliche, but it was on full display here and very genuine. I got my money’s worth out of the wine reception, too, not by getting drunk by by consuming about four deviled eggs and fistfuls of those tortilla pinwheel things.

Upper Bull Street—Savannah, Georgia
I suspect this neighborhood has a name, but I don’t know what it is, so I’ll just call this block “Upper Bull Street.” We discovered it because Jeff wanted to explore Graveface Records, thanks to a tip from a friend. I have sub-zero interest in record stores, so I took a stroll and discovered several gems including the adorable Back in the Day Bakery (winner of my personal “best biscuit of the trip” award) and Starlandia, purveyor of reclaimed creative supplies (Isn’t that about the best idea you’ve ever heard?).

 

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Deeper into Georgia

Cornbread Cafe—Wrightsville, Georgia
I’m almost convinced that our Garmin can read minds. She always knows the right thing to do in every situation without any additional input from me (I don’t know how to use her interface well enough to give her any guidance aside from an address.) When we set out to drive from Savannah to Athens, I was really hoping to get off the main highway and drive through the countryside, and that’s exactly what Garmin told us to do. We ended up on two-lane country highways for hours (mostly Highway 15, I think). At  lunchtime, we stopped for gas in Wrightsville, and I asked the clerk if there was anywhere we should eat. She sent us across the street to the Cornbread Cafe, a very unassuming establishment in what looked a bit like a re-purposed Hardy’s with a sign out front that said “farm picked veggies.” It was one of the gems of the trip—easily the best fried chicken I’ve had in years. What really impressed me was the long list of side items (I live for sides) including field peas, rutabaga and a very legit mac and cheese.

Athens, Georgia
Jeff was conducting an interview in Athens for a  project he’s working on, so I had a couple hours to explore by myself. I wandered into just about every store on Clayton Street before stopping for a happy hour prosecco, oysters and a watermelon salad at the Branded Butcher. I was looking at their menu and debating going in when a sweet, older farmer in overalls shuffled past me carrying a delivery of grain for the kitchen. Talk about targeted advertising—they couldn’t have scheduled him any better.

 

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The Carolinas

Brothers Farm and Chef and the Farmer—eastern North Carolina
After swinging through Asheville, North Carolina for breakfast with old friends and Durham for lunch with even older friends, we arrived in eastern North Carolina. Despite the fact that Chef and the Farmer (and more specifically, A Chef’s Life, the TV show) helped inspire our trip, we almost cut it from the itinerary because it was just so far out of the way, a real outlier. But in the eleventh hour of planning, Jeff found a link to Brothers Farm on Air B&B, and with the prospect of staying in a farmhouse instead of a Quality Inn, it suddenly felt very much worth the drive. Brothers Farm and its star occupant, Warren Brothers, are featured regularly on A Chef’s Life, so there was definitely an appeal to sleeping in a house we had seen on PBS. But more than that, I was excited to spend a night in the country. I had been  concerned that our Southern road trip wouldn’t feel truly Southern to me unless I saw a yard heavy with fireflies and woke up to the sound of cicadas. While we loved getting to visit the restaurant, we really loved getting to stay at the farm. Warren and his wife Jane were warm and casual, and their home is a version of my dream house it has, like, four porches. Warren and his right-hand, fellow farmer, Lillie, showed us around the farm and broke out some pickled beets to share. We could have stayed all day, even if (especially if) that meant helping harvest collards.

 

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Charleston, South Carolina
We were both a bit “eh” about Charleston. It felt like a cheaper, more touristy Savannah, but I’m sure our experience would have improved significantly if we had made the time to explore outside of downtown. We met up with local friends at a beautiful oyster bar called The Ordinary. Afterwards they showed us the lovely streets around the College of Charleston and recommended the City Market (on aptly-named Market Street). They also recommended Hominy Grill,  the biggest food home-run of the trip, complete with boiled peanuts. I tried she-crab soup and got a veggie plate, which was basically my dream meal: all Southern side dishes.

 

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Middleton Place—Charleston, South Carolina
I came across Middleton Place randomly on Expedia, and it was one of the luckiest finds of the trip. This old plantation has been preserved as a resort with a modern inn (all wood paneling and windows—go look at the pictures), a restaurant, and 65 acres of landscaped gardens (the oldest in America). Despite the fact that it was July 3, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. Even the pool was empty, and we swam for an hour or more, watching the light move across the water and birds land on the nearby Ashley River. After cleaning up, we walked through the gardens to the restaurant. Some of their food is grown on-site, and when I asked about the name of a scallop-edged tomato on my place, the enthusiastic young waiter admitted that he didn’t know, but said he might be able to call their resident farmer and ask. He came back later declaring it a “Genovese.” A massive thunderstorm rolled in while we ate, and we had to beg a ride back to our room from a local who was drinking at the bar. The next day, while touring the gardens, we saw an alligator on the path we would have crossed had we attempted to reach our rooms by foot in the dark. I say this by way of recommendation—the whole experience was dreamy. But take a flashlight.

 

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 ***

This was one of those “come-home-and-google-real-estate” trips. We sucked up the sound of cicadas like divers coming up for air, and my only regret is that I should have eaten more tomatoes. But that’s okay, because I’ll go back.

 

 

 

 

 

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