Southeastern USA Trip

    This was a lengthy sojourn designed to follow up our 1993 Cross Country trip and to visit places not included then.  Our first stop was Baltimore, MD, to spend some time at its famous Inner Harbor. It is truly a wonderful example of urban renewal — the harbor area bustles with locals and tourists at all times of the day or night.  Water taxis were a great way to get around, taking us to various neighborhoods along the harbor and eventually out to Fort McHenry, which guards the entrance to the harbor and which was the site of the British bombing which sparked Francis Scott Key to write our National Anthem.   
    That evening we went to Camden Yard, not to see an Oriole game, although one was in progress, but just to see the ballpark and its environs — it certainly is a great concept — a very pleasant atmosphere to watch a game and nicely incorporated into the "new" Baltimore.
    The next day we made an excursion to Annapolis, once a capital of the United States, now capital of Maryland and home to the US Naval Academy. The city is delightful, great for walking and extremely historic. We had lunch at Buddy’s, on the waterfront.  Lee had great Maryland Crabcakes!  After lunch we visited the grounds of the Naval Academy (don’t miss the Tomb of John Paul Jones, one of America’s greatest naval heroes).
    We left Baltimore and headed south along the eastern shore of Maryland in order to take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel to Virginia. The 17 mile long bridge with 2 tunnels is a significant engineering achievement and very pleasant to drive. It provides convenient access to the Hampton Roads section of Virginia, including Williamsburg, which was our next destination.
    Our first stop in Virginia was at Yorktown National Historic Site, the location of the British surrender at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Visitor Center provides a film which describes Yorktown in 1781, then we strolled through the village. It was a nice prelude to Williamsburg. From Yorktown we drove along the scenic Colonial Parkway past Williamsburg and on to Jamestown, site of the first European settlement in the New World (1607). Nothing remains of the original village, but archaeologists are currently excavating and discovering more about the reasons for the settlement not surviving.
    We then returned to Williamsburg and checked into our hotel. The following morning we went to the Visitor Center at Colonial Williamsburg. Williamsburg is the quintessential open-air museum. It is an authentic recreation of an 18th century city, frozen in time. Employees in the town are dressed in period costume, speak in the language of the time, and demonstrate the skills of artisan of colonial America. It is all fascinating! In addition, there are various events throughout the day (be sure to get a schedule at the Visitor Center and plan accordingly).
    Our first stop was the Peyton Randolph House where several ladies were having "tea".  The most interesting event of our day was "A Conversation With Patrick Henry", the famous American patriot. The actor was excellent, always in role and very informative about the life and times of this American hero. There was a parade, with fife and drum corps, and opportunities to visit many restored buildings, including the courthouse, jail, etc. The most important building was the Governor’s Palace with its huge display of weapons. We even had an authentic lunch at the King’s Arms Tavern.   
     The next part of our journey was southeast to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This area is isolated from the mainland with the only actual land access at the northern end of what is a series of barrier beaches. Our chosen base of operations was Nags Head. Sandy beaches stretch for miles and behind the beaches are several areas of dunes — it is an unusual landscape. Our major destination here was the Wright Brothers Memorial, set on the site (Kittyhawk) where they made history in 1903 with the first powered flight. The museum was very interesting and we walked up to the memorial monolith, at the top of the hill from which they launched their attempts.
     That evening we attended a very unusual and interesting theater presentation, called "The Lost Colony".  It was a dramatization of the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, started by Sir Walter Raleigh.  History buffs will remember that this was the colony where the first child was born to Europeans in the New World — her name was Virginia Dare. She and the remainder of the colony all mysteriously disappeared the following year. No one knows what became of them. The setting for this theater is glorious — in a specially constructed outdoor amphitheater next to the water.  It turned out to be a beautiful night, weatherwise, which could have been a problem. If you want to see a performance, reservations must be made well in advance.  
    We left the Outer Banks by driving south and taking the ferry from Okracoke (be sure to make advance reservations during the summer) and headed for Charleston, South Carolina, one of the last true vestiges of the Old South. The city is great for walking (the Visitor Center has maps and an orientation video). The architecture is distinctive, with the houses having narrow frontages and great depth (because people were taxed based on frontage), and beautiful flowered courtyards. Favorite places include Rainbow Row, a line of pastel-colored homes along the waterfront, and the Battery, now a park which houses fortifications from the Civil War.
    We also took a boat ride to Fort Sumter, famous as the sight of the first conflict of the Civil War. The fort was designed just like Fort McHenry and is situated at the head of Charleston harbor. Another excursion we took from Charleston was to Magnolia Plantation, a delightful remnant of a Southern estate. The grounds were lovely with several walking trails and an old plantation house with pillars and large porch. The Spanish Moss draping the oak trees provided the final touch.
    Continuing south, we stopped for a few hours at Savannah, another beautiful throwback to an earlier era. This city is famous for its squares, part of a grid-like system designed by Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia. The squares are now public parks and provide little clusters of green within the city. Our favorite was Forsythe Square.  The waterfront is also worth a visit, since there is much going on and there are lots of shops and restaurants.
    Next we checked out the Sea Islands of Georgia — not worth the time in my estimation — where there are numerous mansions since this area has long been a playground of the rich. Then we proceeded on to St Augustine, one of the highlights of our trip. This city has a well-preserved old town which is delightful to stroll. Flagler College, which was the former estate of the railroad magnate, Henry Flagler, offers a nice tour of their facilities, showcasing some of its ornate and intricate woodwork and design.
   Also of special note is the fortress, Castillo San Marco, which is a typical Spanish fort and was designed to provide protection from enemy navies and several churches, particularly the Flagler Memorial Church.
   Miami was next on our itinerary. Our hotel, right on South Beach was a great disappointment. However, we were only staying for two nights so we decided to "guts" it out. South Beach is a lovely stretch of sand, overpopulated by the "beautiful people" with muscular and curvaceous bodies and perfect tans. We certainly felt out of place.  The Art Deco buildings were very interesting (we went on a walking tour of the area to check them out) and their "over-the-top" neon lighting turned out to be quite attractive.
   We found a very moving and somber attraction not far from our hotel, called the Miami Holocaust Memorial. Pictures on the walls depict depressing scenes from the holocaust and, in the center of a large pool of water is an intriguing and symbolic sculpture of a large green arm and open hand rising from the water strewn with people hanging on.
    The following day we went to Everglades National Park, not a wonderful place to visit in the summertime. The mosquitoes are everywhere and attack immediately when you are exposed, so we had to basically stay in the car to look around. This might be a good place to return to in the winter. In the afternoon, we visited Vizcaya, the neo-classic mansion which belonged to the Deere family (of International Harvester fame). Admission is expensive, so we were disappointed, especially in the way it was maintained.  The setting, however, is lovely and the attraction has potential.
    Our next stop was Key West, the irreverent, happy-go-lucky place which brags that it is the southernmost point in the continental United States. We absolutely loved it! The Conch Train Tour provides an excellent orientation. After that, we simply walked everywhere. Mallory Square is a great gathering place, especially at sunset. Sloppy Joe’s has to be one of the best people-watching locales in the world (very strange individuals frequent the place).  We loved the Hemingway House with its polydactyl cats and walked every inch of Duval Street.  We were even impressed with the Southernmost House, a very attractive chateau. But it was the fun-loving life style that we truly enjoyed.
    We then headed to Fort Myers to beach it for a few days at Sanibel Island. It was designed to be rest and recuperation in preparation for the second half of our trip, and it was. We felt rejuvenated and ready to tackle Disney World.
    On the way to Orlando, we stopped at Cypress Gardens, Florida’s first theme park. It was certainly focused around water, in particular, the Cypress Swamp and associated lake. This park is famous for its water-skiing show — very entertaining. We also took a boat tour of the Botanical Gardens, very attractive and relaxing on the boat. We then walked back to several locations within the gardens to take pictures and get a closer look.  
    Disney World is the number one attraction in Florida and also the entire USA. We spent several days in the park, especially in places that were new to us, such as Animal World, a wonderful venue, a Disney version of a zoo (the Tree of Life is a spectacular achievement), and Disney-MGM, entirely focused on the film industry. We also made obligatory stops at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Summer is probably the best time to visit, despite the crowds, since the park is open late at night and there are special evening shows.  We felt like kids again.
    On our way to Atlanta, we stopped at Calloway Gardens, in Pine Mountain, GA, and drove through the lovely grounds. Once in Atlanta, we stopped first at attractive Centennial Park, a remnant of the 1996 Summer Olympics, then arrived at CNN Studios for our pre-arranged tour (the VIP Tour is well worth the extra money). It was a fascinating behind the scenes look at a modern broadcasting studio.
    Later, we headed for the World of Coca-Cola, which depicts the history and evolution of America’s favorite drink from its early days to the present.  There is even a tasting room!  Nearby is an entrance to Underground Atlanta, loaded with shops and restaurants.
   Our next stop was several miles outside the city — Stone Mountain is a huge boulder, five miles in circumference and over 800 feet tall. On one side of the mountain is a huge carving of the three central figures of the Confederacy, Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson, all on horseback. The sculptures are the height of a nine-story building yet seem dwarfed by the mountain. A very impressive sight!
    We left Atlanta and headed northwest into the hills, finally entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park and taking Newfound Gap Road, the major north-south route through the park to our hotel in Gatlinburg, TN. We spent several marvelous days exploring this park, the most visited in the US. Highlights included Cades Cove Road, a great place to spot wildlife and also rich in history, Newfound Gap Road which accesses Clingman’s Dome and other mountainous features of the park, several waterfall walks which were invigorating and serene, and the very interesting Roaring Fork Auto Tour.
    Our last major destination was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. On the way we stopped the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington, a very interesting museum and entertainment venue devoted to one of man’s most important animal companions. We enjoyed the Parade of Breeds which showcased the differences among the types of horses. Also of interest to us was the Man o’ War Memorial, a statue commemorating one of the greatest of all thoroughbreds, and a stop at the barn where we actually petted the famous horse, Cigar.
    Mammoth Cave claims to be the largest cave system in the world. We took our pre-arranged Travertine Tour where we were amazed at the "drapes", stalagmites and stalactites, as well as Crystal Lake. It was great but not as impressive as Carlsbad.
    Before returning home, we made some family stops and our lengthy adventure came to a close, 27 days after we started.
Lessons learned:
    1. It is always a good idea to make advance reservations for popular tourist attractions, so as not to be disappointed. We saw a number of people turned away at Mammoth Cave and others who had to wait till much later in the day because the did not make plans ahead. Similar things happened at the Okracoke Ferry and at CNN Studios. The down side of this strategy is that the trip has little flexibility.
    2. The "no-see-ums" at Sanibel Island and the mosquitoes at the Everglades were very annoying.  We learned to pack insect repellent on subsequent trips.


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