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After three and a half years of exploring the world, it’s time for me to explore my own country.
Exploring the US on a road trip has long been on my list of travel priorities, and the time was finally right. There are so many places to explore in the US, from the forests and beaches of the northwest to the national parks of the mountainous states. I especially love the southwest and its colorful deserts.
For this trip, however, there was one region I was dying to visit above all: the South.
Exploring the South
The South is a region of the US that has intrigued me for years. As a native New Englander, the South was never on my radar as a vacation destination. Well, not beyond Florida, which for New Englanders is visited for one of three reasons: Disney, retirement, or Red Sox spring training.
Of course, some New Englanders do visit the South — I’d wager New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston or maybe Myrtle Beach are the most popular non-Florida destinations — but when was the last time you heard a New Englander, or New Yorker for that matter, planning a trip to the Mississippi coast?
The South is a region of great beauty — but also great hardship. After the region was devastated first by Hurricane Katrina and then the BP oil spill, tourism is back, but it hasn’t returned to its previous levels, I’ve been hearing again and again from various tourism industry workers here in New Orleans. “Tell your friends to come back,” one guide told my group. “We sure do miss ’em.”
I want to show off this region. I want to do what I can to bring people back.
And I also want to see enormous oak trees leading up to antebellum-era mansions. I want to see Spanish moss draped over wrought-iron balconies as fountains dominate squares in the distance. I want to submerge my toes in the fine white sands in front of bright teal ocean. I want to spend endless conversations talking to countless friendly Southerners, the people who made Southern hospitality internationally famous.
But I can’t lie — above all, I’m looking forward to the food. REAL Southern food. Not Paula Deen abominations. Crawfish etoufee, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, gumbo, shrimp and grits, pecan pie, caramel cake, all washed down with teeth-numbingly sweet tea.
I’m happy to be working with two quality companies over the course of this trip. For the lodging, I will be partnering with Country Inns and Suites by Carlson (SM), who will be providing me with lodging for 12 nights of the trip. I chose Country Inns because they are focusing on road trips this year — check out some of their itinerary ideas — and they’re conveniently located throughout the South.
But I mostly chose Country Inns because their focus is on being a home environment away from home. In other words, that means great amenities on top of a comfortable room — hot breakfasts with new dishes every day, a Read It And Return It Lending Library (SM) from which you can borrow books, and, most importantly, free unlimited wifi.
For the car rental, I will be partnering with Holiday Autos. They are covering the cost of a 10-day car rental with a pickup in New Orleans and drop-off in Charleston, which ordinarily costs in the neighborhood of $500.
One-way car rentals are almost always much more expensive than picking up the car and dropping it off in the same location. If you wanted to do this trip from New Orleans to Charleston and back or vice versa, you’d spend a lot more on gas, but the rental cost would be roughly $250.
#SouthUSA: The Itinerary
When I tell people about the itinerary, most of them are surprised that the driving distances are so short. Indeed, most of the daily drives are three hours or less, and some are just 90 minutes.
But who says you need to drive massive distances each day in order for it to be a genuine road trip? I love to stop in random places, and this trip’s short journeys will give me the incentive to stop and linger in any little town that looks interesting.
Here’s where I’ll be going:
March 3-4: New Orleans, Louisiana. Mardi Gras is currently in full swing, and I’ll be staying at the Country Inn right in the French Quarter! Easily the best time to visit New Orleans.
March 5: Louisiana and Mississippi. First up is exploring Louisiana’s countryside mansions before heading to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, spending the night in the Country Inn in Ocean Springs, which is close to destinations like Gulfport and Biloxi.
March 6-7: Mississippi, Alabama, Florida panhandle. I’ll be checking out the Alabama Gulf Coast before staying at the Country Inn in Pensacola West for two nights, using it as a base to explore the Florida panhandle and beyond. This region is known for its white sand beaches.
March 8-9: Florida. The longest driving day of the trip will take me down the Forgotten Coast to oyster haven Apalachicola and across to Jacksonville, which I hear is a surprisingly fun city with easy access to St. Augustine and Amelia Island. I’ll be there, staying in the Country Inn right in Jacksonville, for two nights.
March 10-12: Savannah, Georgia. I allotted three nights in Savannah because this is a city that everyone seems to love and I’m sure I’ll be no exception. I’ll be staying at the Country Inn right in the Historical District. (Now I need to just start and finish Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil before I get there…)
March 13-14: Charleston, South Carolina. A short drive will take me across the South Carolina to Charleston, where I will finish and celebrate the end of the trip with some coca-cola cake. I’ll be staying about 30 minutes away from Charleston at the Country Inn in the town of Summerville.
From Charleston, I’ll be taking part in Amtrak’s new campaign providing long train rides to writers, taking the Palmetto train to Washington, DC. More on that later.
The trip starts today! From now through March 15, I’ll be tweeting and Instagramming under the hashtag #SouthUSA. Do follow along, as I’ll be sharing lots of pictures and anecdotes along the way.
I can’t wait to see what this beguiling region has in store for me — sweet tea and all.
Many thanks to Country Inn and Suites and Holiday Autos for their support of the #SouthUSA trip. All opinions, as always, are my own.