At this point in the road trip we had planned to do something like my birthday roadtrip in reverse. Travelling from the historic triangle area we drive down to Newport News and took the amazing bridges to gain the Eastern shore. This peninsula, east of the Chesapeake, is split between Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, which meant we drove through three states in just a few hours. The Eastern Shore is the main holiday destination for people living in DC and the surrounding area, and lots of people have holiday homes there; apparently in high season there are queues hours long on the bridge from Annapolis. Though we had visited Ocean City before, we had visited in the winter, and we were now keen to experience this area in the summer.
Unfortunately, May in 2016 was not very warm, and the bad weather we had experienced in Shenandoah continued as we drove up to Chincoteague island… We stopped here briefly for a snack of oysters, but then drove straight through to our destination – Bethany Beach – as it really wasn’t the weather for sightseeing.
Happily the next morning dawned bright and sunny, and a sighting of dolphins made for an exciting first day at the beach. Though none too warm, it was certainly a day for windy walks on the beach and playing in the waves. We relaxed in Bethany that day, enjoying our beach-side hotel, the short but sweet boardwalk and the holiday-feel of the place. We drove up to Rehoboth, just to see what we might be missing, but on balance decided we preferred Bethany – and we definitely preferred both to the rather soulless strip that is Ocean City.
Our full day of relaxing by the sea, the sea-air and an excellent meal of seafood combined to make sure we woke the next morning refreshed and rested, ready for the (relatively) short drive home.
We’re quite old hands at visiting craft breweries now, so had an idea what to expect when we visited Dogfish Head brewery at Milton, DE. This is the brewery that makes a couple of my favourite beers out here – their 60 minute IPA and Indian brown ale are perfect after a long walk.
The brewery was surprisingly busy, so the first tour we could get on was rather later than we’d hoped. However, it was close to lunch time, so we figured we could enjoy a few tastings and grab some lunch before the tour. The brewery has a ‘beer-centric’ food menu available from ‘Bunyan’s Lunchbox’ – a sort of stationary food truck – just outside. Here they serve beer-dosed bratwursts, hop pickles (totally weird and amazing), and bowls of ‘hard-tack’ clam chowder, made with dark beer. You can also get a lot of this food at Dogfish’s brew pub ‘Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats’ in Rehoboth Beach. And they apparently stock the chowder and brats in some branches of Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.
This wide availability of Dogfish Head’s non-beer produce might give rise to a suspicion that the brewery is not quite as ‘off-centred’ as its slogan suggests. In fact, the brewery has a very established commercial arm, and its on-site shop was overflowing with merchandise.
The story of its founder was also slightly different from what we were used to – a graduate of a liberal arts college borrowed money from his parents to start this brewery. The story’s main tension revolves around the founder screwing up the courage to tell his father: thanks for all that expensive college education, but I think I want to brew beer for a living. The conversation happened while father and son were out jogging, and ended with the father suggesting the brewery’s name.
There was another obstacle to the founding of Dogfish Head. Thinking he saw a gap in the market in the fact that Delaware had no craft breweries, the founder happily went ahead with his plans, only to discover that the reason there were no craft breweries in Delaware was that it was illegal. He was undaunted though – for a very good reason: his wife was the daughter of one of the main guys who ran the state. So husband and wife lobbied for a change in the law and even got to help with drafting the legislation that made the enterprise possible.
Now I don’t want to suggest that any other craft brewery foundation story is that of a working class hero making good, but there is something a little more endearing about the story of the New Belgium founders making their start-up money through their jobs in industry, becoming successful and then handing over ownership of the brewery to their employees.
Despite all this, we still enjoyed our time at the brewery – and we still enjoy the beer.
One of the main highlights of the day though was the drive out across the Chesapeake Bridge. We saw it stretching out across the water before I drove out onto it…
… and I think I grinned for the entire time I was driving across it!
One of our ambitions since watching the Danish/Swedish detective series The Bridge has been to drive across the bridge between Denmark and Sweden. While the Chesapeake Bridge isn’t as long as that bridge, it did give us the feeling we’d imagined of being in the middle of the ocean, driving towards the horizon, part of a great feat of engineering. More than this, the sun came out, and we enjoyed flying across the water with the seabirds.
Finally we made it to our destination for the night – we were staying in a large hotel in off-season Ocean City. We weren’t alone – the hotel was pretty full of people avoiding Christmas – but the deserted, wind- and rain-swept beach certainly lived up to my standards of bleakness.
Last year we made the sensible decision to spend late July/early August in Maine. DC in July and August can be unbearably humid (see my previous post: Living on a Swamp), so the idea of heading north and hanging out by the water was very appealing.
The next decisions involved where on the Maine coast we wanted to stay, and what sort of accommodation we were looking for. Maine’s tourist information website was very helpful in outlining the state’s different areas. Most famous is probably the southern part of the coast with its big sandy beaches, like Kennebunk, and beachside communities. But there are also lakes and mountains inland, and there’s the wild north coast from Penobscot Bay to New Brunswick, which includes Arcadia National Park. And then there’s the MidCoast area that we chose. An easy drive from the airport in Portland (ME, not Oregon – that’s much further away), the MidCoast is characterized by rocky peninsulas and long inlets, lighthouses, and lobster fishing. Wild in a gentle way (at least in the summer) it’s a beautiful place.
We decided we should experience an American resort, so we booked a room in Spruce Point Inn just outside Boothbay Harbour. Many of the resorts we looked at were rather far away from bigger towns – there’s one down by the tip of a peninsula – so the fact that we would have access to the shops and restaurants of Boothbay Harbour helped us make this decision.
As soon as we drew up at the main inn building we knew we’d made the right decision. It was the perfect American inn, of white wood with long verandahs and a lawn that sloped down to the sea. A saltwater pool area – with hottub could be seen down by the inn’s dock, and Adirondack chairs were dotted about the lawn. Our room was in one of the little two-story cottages, with a verandah and a view of the gardens plus a sliver of sea.
One of the first things we did was get down to the pool and enjoy the hot tub. It was by now evening and the sun was struggling through the clouds. My main memory of this place is the silvery light of the late evening sun on the sea, seen as I lounged warm and content by this pool.
Not that we did that much lounging. The resort had tennis courts which we made great use of, and we spent quite a bit of time driving around the area, sightseeing.
One of our drives took us to Wiscasset, an old town just north of Boothbay – so on the mainland rather than the peninsula. We did the walking tour of the town, up and down its hills to the old Victorian mansions, the old prison and one of the first ever public schools. Sadly most things were shut in the morning, and the Musical Wonder House, with its collection of music boxes, had closed, it seemed, for good. Luckily Red’s Eats, with its famous ‘more than a lobster’ roll was open and made us forget our disappointments. A true lobster shack, we ate at tables set up outside in the sun with a view of the water and a sea breeze keeping us cool.
That afternoon we headed over to Pemaquid Point, to see a lighthouse and enjoy the rocky shoreline. It turned out that entry to the lighthouse also included entry to the historical site of Colonial Pemaquid – a really old fishing settlement that dated from when the English probably established seasonal fishing settlements there in the 1610s. Nothing really remains, save some old foundations, but it was still interesting, and a lovely spot in the summer. Nearby is the site of what has been various forts since 1677. Its earliest incarnation was made of wood and fell to Indian attack in 1689. Next came Fort William Henry in 1692, built by Massachusetts, which governed the area at that time. This was destroyed in 1696 by combined French and Indian forces. The final fort – Fort Frederick – was more successful but was dismantled when it came to the war of Independence, to avoid it being used by the British. Part of the second fort – William Henry – has been reconstructed so you can go up the tower, which gives great views.
It also houses an exhibition about the area between 1677 and 1761, the archaeological finds, and the complex relationships between English, French and Indian traders. Although this is not the Fort at which Paul Revere fought as an artillery officer, there was a mention of him and what they saw as his disreputable behaviour there (see my article on regional versions of American history here).
We learnt more about Maine’s part in American history when we visited Bath and Portland on our way back to the airport our final day. Bath has an excellent Maritime museum, where you can see where they built America’s first ships – and how they got them into the water after building them (harder than you might think). And in Portland we saw Longfellow’s House – the poet who immortalized Paul Revere in his (pretty awful) poem Revere’s Ride.
Mostly though, what I enjoyed about Maine was being on the water, the seafood, and the casual nature of things. One of the best things we did was to take a boat trip around the Boothbay area. When we started the morning mist hadn’t quite lifted – even further out at sea – but we still saw plenty of lighthouses, islands and wildlife. I’m a fan of birdlife, so passing close by herons and nesting ospreys was fantastic. Most excitingly, while we were looking at some seals, an American bald eagle turned up!
I’ll write about the seafood in another post, but I can’t end this blog without mentioning at least the lobster shacks. As well as the one we enjoyed in Wiscasset, we also found two around Boothbay that we loved. There’s just something about spending the whole day enjoying the sun and the water and then walking, slightly sand and salt-crusted, to a lobster dock, where you’re welcomed with beer, shellfish and plenty of paper napkins. It’s casual, relaxed, and utterly unselfconscious, and I think eating that way in the sea air can’t help but make the lobster taste even better.
Having hated the interstate between Nashville and Atlanta, we decided to take a less direct route from Atlanta to the coast. The plan had been to drive to Charleston but, just as we were realizing how far this was and how late it would be when we got there, a friend invited us to her family’s beach house where she was spending the Memorial Day weekend – and we jumped at the opportunity. I was sad not to see Charleston or experience the seafood there but hopefully there will be other opportunities in the future, when we’ll have more time to dedicate to the city.
So we set a course from Atlanta (GA) to Pawley’s Island (SC), with an aim to avoid the interstate. Travelling on the smaller roads meant that the trip would take longer, but we figured it might be more interesting and picturesque.
So I think we saw the ‘real’ Georgia. We saw a lot of productive farmland – that rich red earth mentioned in Gone with the Wind – and people selling produce on the side of the road. Though Georgia is known as the peach state, I didn’t see many peaches on offer. Apparently they grow more peanuts than peaches, but naming them after that would mean being known as the Goober State. We saw plenty of signs for boiled peanuts, a southern delicacy that my friend had told us about. Apparently you suck the nuts out of their salty, soft-boiled shells, a bit as you do with edamame – though that’s probably not a comparison the peanut farmers would appreciate.
We also saw a lot of poverty, both on the outskirts of Atlanta and in the countryside: homes that were really just falling down old shacks, and towns where we drove along abandoned high streets of boarded up buildings. Many of the little towns had been designed to show their best fronts to the railways and, while run down, these streets retained some of that charm. Once we got into South Carolina though, we were mainly driving through empty countryside – it was only when we got closer to the coast that the land improved and the towns grew more prosperous.
Our route took us around Athens (GA) and over to the Savannah River – which was incredibly beautiful. Just outside Athens we were able to stop for breakfast at a Chik fil A (I described this here), and we stopped for lunch in Saluda (SC). This was a very small town with a nice old courthouse on a pretty square, an active historical society and a few nice-looking cafes, which were unfortunately closed because it was Memorial Day weekend.
We had a quick look around and a Subway lunch at the gas station, where the very polite but baffled-to-see-us server kindly charged my iphone for me. Then we ‘made the skwaya’ and rejoined the 178 toward Orangeburg. We skirted Lake Marion and Lake Moultree, and drove along the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest. It was all very beautiful and peaceful. And then we reached Route 17 and Pawleys Island.
Suddenly we were back in civilization. There were billboards, restaurants, hotels, and shopping centers, as well as mini-golf and fishing supply stores. The local radio advertised grocery stores where you could stock up for your beach trip, or just pop along if you’d forgotten an essential ingredient. We stopped at a liquor store for some beer. It really was the height of convenience. Further up Route 17 is even more of a contrast to the interior: there you find the well-known Myrtle Beach area with its huge hotel and golf complexes.
For us though, we were at the end of our day’s drive. We said hello, drank a beer, and then hit the beach. We had driven for over ten hours, and we had reached the ocean.
Read about the rest of our Southern Road Trip and our adventures with Southern food: