A Travellerspoint blog

Deep South

Roadtrippin' through South Carolina and Georgia


I traveled down south with a number of assumptions in mind, and the first one that shattered was the climate. Let me say this loud and clear: the deep south is not perpetual summer. We arrived April first in Atlanta and like some cruel April Fool's Day prank, it felt colder than Toronto. Sadly, I didn't have a parka but fortunately our Thrifty rental car (a Jeep) had heated seats. Our car was fine, but the parking situation in Atlanta was not. We ended up parking outside of the city core and walking or taking an Uber everywhere. Fortunately, the walk to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Park was long but interesting because we got to explore his old neighbourhood. The best thing about Atlanta was learning about Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, including his theological training and the context that he grew up in. We complemented the civil rights learning with corporate propaganda through visits to Coca Cola World and CNN World. The one benefit of Coca Cola World was the sugar high that came through taste tasting soda pop from all over the world. In so doing, I discovered that Italy's beverage Beverly by far had the most disturbing taste while South Africa's pinenut and Sweden's lingonberry colas were the tastiest.


Anyone who's been to Georgia or South Carolina knows that you'll find fantastic BBQ. My absolute favourite BBQ dish is brisket, which is also my favourite Jewish dish so it made sense that we found a Jewish deli called General Muir in Emory Village - a very nice area of Atlanta. The delicious dishes here were just an indication of tasty times ahead as we drove through Savannah and smaller towns. In fact, our next stop after Atlanta was Savannah. We used Google Maps to navigate our road trip and every day mapped out where we would be. We were so spontaneous that even though we had initially included North Carolina in the itinerary we fell in love with Savannah and decided to backtrack there.


As with any good road trip, part of the fun came from the detours and the stops. Our first stop was at a gas station between Atlanta and Savannah. This is where I was greeted by a display of grenades, knives and toy guns for sale. I promptly returned to the car and waited for my boyfriend (away from all possible weapons and NRA propaganda). From my front-row seat I was able to watch a man in a cowboy hat and boots leave the gas station with a brown bag full of alcohol (some of which was sticking out), and walk into the woods. This man had somehow appeared at a gas station in the middle of nowhere without a vehicle and promptly retreated to the woods to continue his drunken cowboy'ing in peace.


Reading "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" may provide insight into the south and particularly Savannah's quirks, but being there really wakes you up to its unique identity. I've never seen an American city that's so pedestrian-friendly. Rather than relying on cars, the city is built around green squares/plazas full of beautiful Spanish-moss covered oak trees and warm benches. The design of Savannah can be attributed to James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia. He was the one who decided to create a ward-based system in Savannah (centered around squares/plazas). We learned a lot about Oglethorpe through a free walking tour led by Chuck Norras (yes, he pronounced it like the legend himself). Chuck taught us about the original rules of Georgia: no Jewish people, no Catholic people, no lawyers, and no slavery. We learned about how each of those rules was then broken, and even walked by a former burial plot that had been given to Jewish people in Savannah (although it's now a highway).


We also did a haunted walking tour with Cobblestone Tours. Our guide, Jason, was animated and tried to keep to the script, but I feel it may have been challenging given that we were a group of... two! It turned out no one else had signed up for the walking tour aside from my boyfriend and I. We had a private tour of the city, including Colonial Park Cemetery (where we learned about Button Gwinnett and the Civil War); Old Sorrel Weed House which is featured on various paranormal TV programs; Johnson Square, where we saw Tomo Chi Chi's grave; and Marshall House, which was built in 1851 and turned into a hospital toward the end of the Civil War where amputated limbs were stored in the basement and later unearthed in the 1990s as renovations for a new luxury hotel occurred. After I found out the history of Marshall House I was relieved that we hadn't decided to stay there! The world is scary enough, I don't need to stay in a haunted hotel.


Instead, my boyfriend and I booked the Hamilton-Turner Inn (or HTI as I affectionately started calling it), with our own private entry taking us to Lafayette Square. The room was fairly small, but it was the gorgeous decor of this converted historic home and the perks that really won both of us over. We arrived just in time for the 5-6 pm wine and cheese welcome for guests, which is where I learned that Georgia is famous for its nuts. This revelation led me to purchase a pack of roasted pecans at "Nuts about Savannah", a very sweet little boutique nuts store with a lovely owner. The hotel also provided us with fresh cookies and port from 8-10 pm. We complemented these treats with the most delicious ice cream I've ever had at Leopold's downtown. I can't speak highly enough about the breakfast at HTI either! We woke up to a full breakfast with a fresh fruit loaf, lemon curd, fresh fruit and juice, red velvet pancakes and all the fixings of bacon and scrambled eggs. After our meal, the realization that we'd have to leave hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to stay at HTI for a week (or a year, or forever), but that wasn't in the cards. The staff were kind enough to provide us with recommendations for more sites to see, and also store our luggage there while we did our final tour of the town. We couldn't leave town before having lunch at Mrs. Wilke's Dining Room - one of the most famous southern restaurants. Our visit was complete with family dining (with a family we didn't know), and endless grits, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and meats. It was well worth the hour-long wait.


Savannah is living history. From Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Guides, to Savannah's spunky response to prohibition, I learned how fascinating this city is. In fact, it turns out that Savannah didn't want to go dry while the rest of the state of Georgia did, to the point where they considered seceding. Ultimately, when the Volstead Act passed it prohibited alcohol across the whole country so Savannah had no choice but to acquiesce. I felt like the city of Savannah fighting a losing battle when I realized it was our time to leave. Savannah is stunning, and the people were truly friendly - from the antiques dealers to the dog walkers at Forsyth Park. That being said, the cities felt tainted with the understanding that the whole region dealt in the slave trade. In fact, when we got to Charleston we found out that roughly 40 to 60% of Africans brought to America as slaves passed through the port of Charleston. Reading the history and learning the facts about slavery in the region left me wondering why we didn't see more African American voices represented in the tours we did through Savannah. The lack of representation felt intentional, and wrong.


Driving through Tybee Island and then later Hilton Head Island in South Carolina felt a lot less historical and a lot more commercial - especially Hilton Head. In fact, even the restaurant we ate dinner at (Coast) was located in a private gated community with an entry fee. I would recommend it if you like shellfish though! After staying at an Airbnb in Bluffton with a nautical theme, we were excited to head to the beach at Hilton Head. Unfortunately, it was far too cold to actually swim; however, we enjoyed our long walk on the beach. Aside from the dead jelly fish, it also felt safer than the beach stroll on Tybee Island where we were confronted with a sign warning us about venomous snakes. We chose not to stay long at the beaches because of the weather and instead focused on the historical elements of the south.


Our next stop after the South Carolina islands was Magnolia Plantation just outside of Charleston. We arrived slightly too late to wander the whole site because a number of the tours stop at 4 pm. That being said, we were able to do the 4:30 pm house tour where we learned about the Drayton family who founded the plantation in 1676. The family used slave labour, which was apparently a point of contention for some family members who ended up moving up north to join the abolitionist movement. We were able to see the slave cabins as we left the property, but we weren't allowed to wander through that area like the rest of the plantation. Similar to my feeling in Savannah, I wondered why there wasn't more of a discussion about the history of the slaves on the tour of the house. I understand that the focus was on the family, but it felt like it would be an important part of history to discuss - even outside of the tour that's devoted exclusively to the history of the slaves and their cabins, every tour (in my opinion) should discuss the slaves who were forced to toil those lands. In fact, anyone visiting a plantation should be educated about America's dark social past, not just the beauty of the current land. It's particularly crucial given that the past informs the current inequities within America.


The Magnolia Plantation gave us a taste of South Carolina's swampy scenery and its worrying wildlife. In fact, while strolling the grounds we saw a number of alligators! As we were walking through the azalea garden and later the maze, I kept worrying that at any moment a snake was going to dart out in front of me or that an alligator was going to nip at my heels. Part of my paranoia probably stemmed from a close-call I had with a rattlesnake near Georgian Bay in southern Ontario - he was rattling my way, and I made sure to retreat the other way. After visiting the plantation, we checked in at a motel nearby called the Creekside Inn. It had been a last-minute decision, which my boyfriend had made on the beach at Hilton Head. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it was across the highway from a restaurant called Southern Roots. This restaurant had the most amazing BBQ we had on our entire trip. From the brisket to the macaroni and cheese I savoured absolutely every bite. The mood at the restaurant/bar was excellent too because it was an open mic night with some genuine talent. I would happily have performed my own rendition of Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy but sadly no one wanted to hear my pitchy performance.

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Charleston was really crucial to my understanding of the south. We visited the Old Slave Mart Museum and the Old Exchange Museum where we learned about the millions of people who were trafficked to America from Africa, and how the slave trade worked locally - including the government's participation, as they used slaves for projects and profited on slave taxes. The Old Slave Mart Museum didn't allow photography, likely because of the sensitive subject matter. The museum appeared self-reflective in that it openly acknowledged how its original owner had downplayed Charleston's role in the slave trade (and she had also spoken about the benefits of slavery), whereas now it focused instead on the resilience of the slaves and their cultures. The Old Exchange Mart also spoke about the history of slavery given that some of the auctions also occurred there. The more you learn, the more disturbing it is. That being said, it's incumbent upon any traveller to learn about racism, discrimination, and these atrocities if they want to act in more reflective and anti-racist ways.


Traveling through the south gave me a greater understanding of the U.S. overall. Both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War have been crucial to the identity formed down south given how many of the battles were waged down there. One of the locals told me that some people may have an ongoing aversion to perceived northern rule because they've felt like their local context is secondary to federalism generated based on northern culture. Of course, there are still many different identities down south, including the people who are descendants of the African slaves, white residents of varying origins, Native Americans, and many other peoples. On our drives, we passed signs to "African Villages" and also celebrations of Gullah culture. Speaking of signs, one of the strangest ones we saw was on the lawn of a private home: "Socialism is one step from communism idiots". The message would have seemed more legitimate with some additional punctuation. The beauty of our road trip was that it allowed us insight into how locals live (and write), especially in the smaller towns. We passed through one town called The Rock, which had at least 7 churches for very few homes. As one of the locals said, "you can't swing a dead cat down here without hitting a church". It may be a stereotype about the south, but it's true - southerners are devout folks.


Our drive was a study in contrasts: seeing striking poverty, but also mansions behind gated communities; red soil and swamps; people in camo and people in the finest silks. This juxtaposition was really evident when we stayed at the Edenfield House in Swainsboro, Georgia. We had found it while browsing for accommodation on our drive out of Charleston. The reviews were phenomenal and the historic home looked hauntingly beautiful. The house itself was built in 1895, but expanded since to accommodate more guests. I felt like a queen in our room because we needed a stool to get onto the bed, which had 4 posts and drapes. We were warned though not to turn right upon leaving the property because some people "may be looking for drama". Of course, I spent time Googling afterwards and learned that there have been a number of shootings down the street in recent months - this was surprising for a town of 7 000 people.


After a delicious breakfast (where we finally tried grits!), we headed to Macon, Georgia. We had heard about this town from a couple we met while at the Magnolia Plantation. They had moved there from the northern US and spoke highly about the city. Unfortunately, we didn't feel as excited about it after detouring there. The one thing I really appreciated was our visit to the Harriet Tubman Museum of African American History where we learned more about African American women who took leadership roles in education, and also progress of African Americans in various industries like science and the arts. There was, of course, information about Harriet Tubman herself too. She's a legend for a reason. It was incredible reading about her courage and resilience in the face of oppression and violence. We finished off our visit by looking through a photo exhibit about African American war veterans. I'm left wondering where these stories were in our high school history textbooks...


Before leaving Macon, we stopped for a stroll at the Amerson River Park and a meal at a Mexican restaurant (located in a parking lot). Surprisingly, some of the best food we had was from restaurants beside highways: from Southern Roots outside of Charleston to Guitarra's restaurant in Macon. The waiter was kind enough to give us a free dessert because we were so vocal about how much we loved the food. This was the last delicious meal we had on our trip in fact. We stayed at Ms. Annie's historic bed and breakfast in Thomaston that night but didn't end up buying dinner, and then the next day our only meal was a late lunch at JR's Log House Restaurant in Atlanta - an incredible disappointment! Suffice it to say that they were resting on their laurels as an older restaurant rather than admitting that salsa is not BBQ sauce, and canned beans should not be passed as fresh vegetables. In any case, we didn't starve as our last day was spent at an Atlanta Braves baseball game (v. Miami Marlins) where I had plenty of snacks.

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Aside from the food and the friendly faces, our trip down south was incredibly important for my understanding of American identity. Coming from a northern city, it can be hard to picture life in a small town down south and all of the issues that they may face. Similarly, now that I've learned more about African American history in the US, especially the south, I have a better understanding of how deep-rooted the current systemic oppression is. The transition away from slavery, that came with the end of the Civil War, was not seamless. And the ongoing inequities make the messages of people like Harriet Tubman incredibly relevant. In fact, given our current climate it's important for us to all be aware of what we can do to leave a better world than the one we joined. In that way, I'll end with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy".

Posted by madrugada 17:34 Archived in USA Tagged baseball history bbq savannah georgia snakes american_history south_carolina atlanta historic_homes alligators plantations charleston hilton_head tybee_island civil_rights hamilton_turner_inn

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