American Road Trip: Coastal Georgia & South Carolina

I sensed I was entering Georgia because the landscape quickly changed and things got a whole lot quieter than they had been on the Florida coast.

As usual I had no idea how far I was from the state line but sure enough it was there just a few minutes later. Traveling through Florida up until that day had been somewhat of an ordeal for various reasons so I breathed a huge sigh of relief and let the tension drain out of me.   The best part was that for the next several days I would be in territory I had never visited and had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like.  In fact, other than some basic geography I was positively ignorant about this part of the world.

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Some travellers will balk at that because they will wonder how a person can truly explore a region without knowing where to go or what to explore in the first place.  Whilst there is truth in that I generally feel the opposite.  One of my most memorable trips was accidentally visiting Bosnia and Montenegro because we hadn’t bothered to look at a map before embarking on a scenic drive around Dubrovnik in Croatia.  Many fun times and tense border crossings ensued.

I am also guilty of harboring romantic notions about the early explorers discovering things as they went along.  They were either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid to just sail over an unknown ocean then disembark in an unknown place with only their wits to survive on and no means of rescue.    I can’t recreate that today so the closest I can get is to just head off in some direction in total ignorance then see what transpires.  To me that is something that gives a true sense of adventure and freedom so as I sped into Georgia I felt that my trip had once again become an open book with many blank pages to be filled in.  It was a good feeling.

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I was traveling on US Route 17 otherwise known as the Coastal Highway or the Old Coastal Highway.  This road has been around since the 1920’s and runs all the way from Florida to Virginia in a general north-south direction.  In this southern part of Georgia most of the route is a quiet single lane road but it is often the main artery through or around larger centres like Brunswick and Savannah.  In the Carolina’s it is the primary highway for getting up and down coastal areas so is mostly two or more lanes and busy.  I was to stay mostly on this highway for pretty much it’s entire length for better or worse.

I was heading for Brunswick first but a sign for Jekyll Island caught my eye so I started driving there instead.  As I approached the turnoff I noticed the first of many huge and stunning bridges I was to cross as I headed north.  This entire coastal region from roughly south of Washington DC is characterised by wide rivers and huge estuaries or sounds that lead to the Atlantic Ocean.  These rivers and estuaries contain multiple islands of various sizes, many of which have been settled by fisherman over the years and are now also used for recreation.    This makes for some lovely scenery, interesting wildlife and for a multitude massive bridges and causeways, each brilliantly engineered to connect the coast and islands to the mainland.  Many are low with drawbridges yet the most stunning are incredibly high to allow marine traffic to pass underneath like the one pictured below.

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As I drove to Jekyll Island it started to resemble something that required money to get into and sure enough as I got to the perfectly manicured entrance I saw I would have to fork out an entry fee.  I didn’t have the time or the inclination to make the stop, even though I later found out it is a pretty cool place to visit, so I did a U-turn and instead used this brief diversion as an opportunity to photograph the lovely bridge I was about to cross.  As I’ve covered before, in the US they don’t create a lot of laybys or scenic viewpoints on the side of the road close to something people want to photograph and enjoy.  It is endlessly frustrating and means that despite already traversing probably a dozen stunning bridges accross the US, this was the only place I found to safely pull over and take a photo.  I also managed to snap a turtle crossing at the same time.

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I’d lost a bit of time in Florida and wanted to catch up so I skirted around Brunswick and kept heading North.  Soon the traffic died down and I entered the charming if not slightly decaying town of Darien.  In this region the beautiful trees dripping with moss began to appear more frequently and would stay an enchanting feature of the landscape all the way into North Carolina.  From Darien until the approach to Savannah the road was deathly quiet and took me through dense swampy forest and past many roadside markers depicting historical sites relating to the American Revolution, the Civil War and the awful history of plantation slavery in the South.

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I arrived in Savannah a lot sooner than I expected and too early for me to spend the night as I had originally planned, so I spent some time driving around the center of this city that is often referred to as Charleston’s poor cousin.  I would agree with that sentiment in many respects but I still want to go back to Savannah.  It was charming and graceful but not snobby, plus it seemed to have a proper city vibe about it so in many ways it was also a little gritty.  People were out and about on the streets, I saw lots of restaurants, bars and shops and the grand old southern architecture was pretty much everywhere I looked.  I thought it had a nice feel about it and I will return if I can.

I continued north on US 17 and was surprised to find myself crossing into South Carolina so quickly.  I think I actually said ‘whoops’ out loud as I had fully intended to spend a night in Georgia.  Whilst trying to figure that out I suddenly got tired and knew that for the safety of others on the road I had to stop.  After a quick search on my phone I found a cheap motel in Port Royal so headed that way for a rest.  I’d been driving for over 8 hours so I was in no mood to explore the area however it is right by Parris Island, a big US Marine Corps training camp and it is clear that the local economy is based around the military, something I was familiar with from living so close to the massive US Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas.  For that reason I felt pretty much at home and managed to get a good rest.

I was up refreshed and ready to explore South Carolina early the next morning.  I knew I wanted to hit Charleston which was relatively close by so I did a quick web search for scenic routes and wound up heading for Edisto Beach.   That turned out to be a fascinating and beautiful drive that wound through more thick swampy forest, tiny communities tucked into the woods and an unbelievable amount of churches.  If you consider that I’d been traveling through the church-lined American South for a few weeks by now, then you will get an idea of just how many churches there are on this route if this place still managed to surprise me.  It was crazy because it seemed like hardly anyone lived there.  I had visions of Sunday mornings where each of these churches had two people in it, or maybe everyone did a church crawl.

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I soon found myself at Edisto Beach where the collapsing cottages, trailer homes and rusty pick-up trucks were replaced by massive beach houses and fancy cars.  I think it is true in many coastal regions of the world that the line between the haves and the have-nots generally starts about a mile from the beach and this was very apparent here.  One thing I find extremely annoying about many of these well-to-do Atlantic Coast communities is that it is hard to find beach access letalone a view of the coastline.  The wealthy folks have bought up the shoreline and protect it fiercely with all kinds of signs rudely reminding you that they have access to the beach and you don’t.  Whilst there are usually designated areas for public access, at this time of year they are pretty crowded and they often involve a short hike through the dunes.  So I parked illegally and spent about 5 seconds on the actual beach before deciding that it was just yet another pretty beach and I’d much prefer to go back and explore the inland areas I’d just driven through where communities were a little more welcoming.

To get back on the main highway to Charleston I had to backtrack on the same route but took some side roads on a whim to try to find places to photograph the beautiful forest.  After a few encounters with curious locals I got some good shots and managed to enjoy the area without worrying about intruding on anyone’s closely guarded real estate before continuing to Charleston.

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Charleston is stunning, historic and full of culture.  It must be one of the prettiest cities I have ever seen.  The waterfront is lovely but I was taken with the historic centre of town because cities like this that are jam packed with lovely old buildings and narrow streets are extremely hard to come by in the United States.  I decided to head for the Old Slave Market Museum first which meant I had to walk through the charming French quarter.  As I did this it became apparent to me that Charleston was too amazing to do on this trip.  That sounds counter-intuitive as I was already there but the fact is that some places have to be slowly devoured, you can’t just do a tasting menu and Charleston was one of those places.  I simply did not have time to spend a few days there and it was another place I’d want to do with someone else who I could explore the cuisine and history with.  So I decided that I would just do the museum then push this charming place back to the top of my bucket list.

The museum was a stark reminder that these beautiful grand houses were built on the terror and hardship of others.  It is a small museum with very little in the way of artifacts, instead focussing on telling the story of slavery and what it was like to be owned and traded.  And after all you are standing in probably the most important artifact of all because the museum is housed in an original slave market building.  The museum dates from the 1930’s and the original founders had made sure they captured the memories of former slaves that were still alive during that time.  This is what made the place special beacause although it explained the horrific concepts of how the slave trade worked, the main focus was on the human stories.   Very few first hand accounts have been recorded due to the fact that it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write so not much was written by the slaves themselves and very few white people took the time to record their observations.

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I think anybody visiting Charleston needs to come to this museum.  It is important to remember what the city thrived on in those times and to face up to why there is still such a long road to equality.  My other takeaway was to remember that slavery still exists around the world.  As I type humans are being traded like cattle in the sex industry, in this very country no less.  One of my saddest travel memories is observing construction ‘workers’ in Dubai wistfully yet hopelessly gazing from an overcrowded bus at aircraft taking off from the airport, no doubt longing to get on any one of those planes and find a way home.  Make no mistake; Dubai is built on slavery just as much as Charleston.  So whilst this particular murky chapter in America’s past might be closed, the consequences still reverberate in society today and slavery still exists in other equally tragic forms.

Once again time had passed more slowly than I expected.  It was too early to find a motel in Charleston so I continued north and soon realised I could easily make it to Myrtle Beach for the night.  I found a cheap resort online and for $80 got a room with a balcony and an awesome view of the Atlantic.   I got to the hotel very tired from the long drive and as I entered the lobby I noticed it was full of bikers and that there was something heavy banging against my hip.  It was one of those moments where you know everyone is staring at you and as I approached the reception desk I heard a few sniggers.  I reached down to find out what was on my hip only to pull off a Windex spray bottle that had somehow snagged itself to me as I got out of the car.  I keep it in the car to clean bugs off the windows in between gas stations and now I was packing it like a weapon on my hip.  In front of bikers no less.  I probably should have been more humiliated but I was too tired to care all that much.

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Whilst enjoying the ocean breeze on my balcony I began to research where I would go the next day and as usual drama was about to ensue because a trio of events was bearing down on me; Memorial Day Weekend, the Atlantic Beach Bikefest and Tropical Storm Bonnie.  I’ll let you know how that all went down in my next update.

Highlights:  US Route 17 in Georgia between Brunswick & Savannah  |  Savannah  |  South Carolina Low Country | Edisto Island Scenic Byway  |  Charleston

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2 thoughts on “American Road Trip: Coastal Georgia & South Carolina

  1. Kev

    Montenegro – I remember not knowing where we were and crapping it on how we would pay some random toll! Always so much more fun without a map! Weane yourself off the windex – you are far too reliant on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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