Saturday, May 30, 2015

Road Trip Tips

A week on the road, and I'm happy to be back in TN. I think this post will come as a surprise to most people, but I thought many of you would like to know my true thoughts about this week.

Places visited: 4 major; several minor
Accommodations: booked through AirBnB (total cost was over $200 less than hotel listings)
Time elapsed: (including drive days): 8
Geography: Southeast coast
Transportation: personal car (2005 Nissan Altima)
Miles Driven: just under 1800
Total cost: (including tips, activities, accommodations, gas, food, souvenirs): under $1000

Wilmington, NC:
I. Love. Wilmington, or as the locals often refer to it, Filmington. Hollywood East is known for numerous television shows and movies, and the locals really eat up the tourism in a good way. The people are friendly, humble, and gracious, and they love out of towners strolling down the river walk. I stayed 1.5 miles from downtown, and it was an easy walk to get to local coffee shops, cafes, and the downtown area. After dark, it's not super safe to walk out of downtown, but the city itself is really safe. An Uber or regular taxi is only about $5 bucks if you're staying nearby; traffic isn't all that heavy at any time of day. Humid days and cool, breezy nights define the city's temperament, and the city itself is easy to navigate.

Wrightsville beach is closest to Wilmington, but Kure and Carolina beaches offer some unique amenities not available at Wrightsville. A return trip will see me visiting those beaches, as parking on WB was horrendous and saw me donating 10 bucks to a mission trip for some church just to get a day spot without being charged out the butt. The walk to the beach was easy but long, but I'll say the bridge I had to cross into the beach area was gorgeous and offered great views of docked and moving sailboats. It was like something I'd seen in a movie...oh wait, I probably have seen it in a movie!

A few good eats: Folks' Cafe on Princess St., Port City Java, Blue Surf Cafe, Shuckin' Shack, Elwin's, Tar Heel Creamery, Front Street Brewery

Things to do: River Walk, Wrightsville Beach (a little crowded but nice), UNC Wilmington, riverboat tour (only 10 bucks, but 9 if you visit the Information Hut for a coupon)

Goose Creek, SC (North of Charleston):
Goose Creek is a great little community very similar to Hendersonville, TN but smaller. It's fairly easy to navigate and is as close to Charleston as Hendersonville is to Nashville, but because they only have one interstate from GC into Charleston, it takes FOREVER to get to the city, especially during busy times.

Charleston itself leaves a lot to be desired if you ask me. I didn't really care for the city, although I did find The Battery and the pier extremely nice and relaxing. The city itself is crowded and smells like pee. The people were friendly, and The Market was neat, but it was so crowded and overrun with tourists that it was almost impossible to stop to look at anything. I did have a great experience at a boutique called Palmettos, where I had the opportunity to be part of a PBS News Hour filming about rising water levels in the low country. The shop owner is originally from Ontario, and she and I had a nice chat and some fun fake shopping interaction for the cameras. My conclusion: I'm not a city girl, but I thoroughly enjoyed kayaking the low country off the coast of Folly Beach with Charleston Outdoor Adventures. The eco system and salt marshes are interesting if you enjoy the outdoors, and the low country is full of cool creatures; I saw bottle nosed dolphins right beside my boat. A picture couldn't have done them justice, so I just enjoyed the moment.

In the future, I'd like to go back to explore some of the islands and beaches near Charleston. People only associate Charleston with the city, but it's a big place that branches out.

A few good eats: Gilligan's (a handful of locations only in SC; I ate in Goose Creek), Charleston Crab House, St. James Place (Goose Creek)

Things to do: Charleston Outdoor Adventures (kayak, paddle board, boat tours), The Battery, the pier (there's italian ice!), The Market, Mt. Pleasant, (several islands and beaches that I didn't get to tour: Isle of Palms, Daniel Island, Sullivan's Island, Folly Beach)

*parking is a bit expensive in Charleston, but a garage is the only way to go. For 11 bucks, your car is safe, and you won't be assaulted by the very active and job conscious meter maids. The beaches and islands have strict rules for street parking; you might want to Google all of that if you plan to forgo the garages.

Bluffton, SC (Hilton Head Island)
Bluffton is a fun little community that's the diving board for HH Island. I didn't have near enough time in this locale, and since it's only 8 flat hours from home, I'll be going back soon to explore the island more throughly. Bluffton is booming with tons of retail spaces, grocery stores, and high-end residences, along with a more middle class population like myself. Hilton Head beaches, parks, and other amenities are just a few miles up the road, and the best part is that many places offer free parking -- and, it's not a fight for the spaces. Nature preserves, hiking/biking trails, beaches, cafes, name it: Hilton Head has it. I will be going back to HH and Bluffton, hopefully this year, and I'll know this time to book my bike rental 24-hours in advance. The beaches are gorgeous, and oddly enough, the parks that offer free parking are near the least populated parts of the beach. Waters are cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough for comfort; sand is super fine and gets hot easily but in places is super saturated and will soak your towel and other belongings (but this wet, packed sand is easy to ride bikes on); waters are also relatively calm but have the relaxing sounds of crashing waves; the constant breeze is refreshing and quells excessive sweat so common in humid areas (hello, South!), but be careful because that breeze will fool you into thinking your sun tan isn't happening (trust me, you're a french fry). The final thought on Bluffton and Hilton Head is that I love both places and am excited about going back to spend more time on the island. There's so much to do, and I didn't even put a dent in it.

A few good eats: Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe, Island Bagels and Deli, Kelly's Tavern

Things to do: bike/hike HH Island and beaches, explore downtown Bluffton (very old and cute and free parking! with lots of restaurants and shops), visit a nature preserve or beach, shop at one of the million Tanger Outlet Malls nearby (there are so many, they're numbered), kayak or boat tours with various companies around the island

Savannah, GA
During my stay in Bluffton/Hilton Head, I ventured 40 minutes south to Savannah, GA. I've been before, but honestly, my previous experience ruined this go round. The moment I stepped onto River St. in the Historic District, I got a sinking feeling that I couldn't shake. The city isn't easy to navigate, and honestly, I think I need to read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil if I really want to appreciate what the city has to offer by way of monuments, houses, and history. I ate on the river front at One-eyed Lizzy's (the gator quesadilla was delicious but rich), and after strolling the city, I cut out after only two hours. The perk of Savannah is if you can wait until 6pm, street parking is free (and impossible to find), and any one of the 5 city parking garages charges a flat overnight rate of 2-3 bucks. Beware, close to the riverfront is a parking garage that isn't associated with the city, and they price gouge. I was almost had but politely asked the parking attendant to let me leave free of charge since I hadn't parked yet. She was nice but perturbed. Make sure to look up Savannah city parking garages before you go. If you can't wait until 6pm, you're looking to pay about $16 to park for the day. Oh, and don't be alarmed as you walk around the city and see people carrying around alcoholic drinks; Savannah is known for having an "open container" policy, so the riverfront shops and restaurants actually sell "to-go" alcohol.  Surprisingly, only a few fools abuse the privilege and stumble into crosswalks; most folks have sense.

If you're interested in the beach while in Savannah, Tybee Island is about 45 minutes east, and it's a nice little place with quiet sands and only one busy street at the far end of the island. I've stayed in Tybee Lights condos before, and they are good for people who don't need upscale rooming and who only want to chill on the beach for the week. Biking the island is fun, but it's super expensive, so budget in advance.
So, this doesn't cover everything but it does the job for now. AirBnB is the only way to book accommodations, especially if you're interested in meeting locals, experiencing a homey feel, and saving money. Driving (within reason, obviously) is a great way to learn yourself (make sure to have your car travel checked and keep up with all routine maintenance; Car Care in Hendersonville did my travel check, and they were honest and helpful. I got out for 39 bucks total!).

My favorites were definitely Wilmington, NC and Bluffton/Hilton Head. I'm only interested in exploring Charleston's surrounding islands, and if I never went to Savannah again, I wouldn't cry about it. Solo travel is fun, and it really gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Heath, Vicki, Sabrina, and Sean were the best hosts I could have had for my journey, and I certainly hope to cross paths with them again. So, I hope you're asking yourself, "Where am I going to travel" not "Who wants to travel with me." If you wait for people to get on board, you'll never live your life. I'm already asking myself where the next adventure will take me. My 8-day excursion for under $1000 shows you that with some planning and courage, you can go on a great journey without breaking the bank.

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