Jacksonville Beach: DeusXFlorida on Flickr Creative Commons
This is a road trip story from the wonderful Akila of The Road Forks blog – follow her on Twitter @theroadforks
In the spaces between airports, the road stretches into long thin stretches of gray asphalt, floating in and out of the ceaseless hills of the Southeastern United States. There are four of us: my husband, me, and our two dogs, but I doubt that they care for the historical sights of the Dirty South. No, my dogs remind me at regular intervals that their stomachs need replenishing. A few hours pass and we pull off at another destination, another dive, another place to pack our bodies with good, rich Southern food.
It’s a trip that I recommend to all newcomers to the South, because it encompasses some of the most historic cities in the Southeast in a nice long weekend itinerary. There are the requisite plantations, cemeteries, rivers, and beaches that have made the South famous as a destination for tourists. And, there are also some of the best chefs in the country turning out food that makes my stomach sing, including restaurateurs who challenge the definition of Southern cuisine and an emerging body of fabulous international fare.
Day 1: Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville is a great place to start because flights into the city are cheap and convenient. Rent a car and head into the center of the city. Jacksonville has a bad reputation, largely because of gang and drug-related violence, but it’s a beautiful place. The St. Johns River separates the downtown area from the adorable San Marco neighborhood and numerous highways will take visitors into the suburbs and down to the beach.
If you arrive in Jacksonville on a weekday, hightail it to The French Pantry. This unassuming bakery serves up some of the best food in the country. Expect a long wait outside a random green doorway on a nondescript street surrounded by other steel gray warehouses. Inside, the décor doesn’t do much to impress, with its motley collection of communal tables and fluorescent lighting under drop ceilings. But, the food . . . oh, the food! The fresh components of their stunning bruschettas are piled high on French bread that rivals any produced in Paris. Their cheesecakes are what I dream of when I dream of cheesecake: fluffy, light, creamy, smooth, and lusciously sweet, with a hint of lemon and topped with fresh strawberries.
Jekyll Island Driftwood Beach: Jillian Meridith on Flickr Creative Commons
After gorging at The French Pantry, head down to Jacksonville Beach to enjoy one of Florida’s least crowded beaches. Or, pop over to Ponte Vedra, where golf enthusiasts will find one of the country’s most challenging golf course at TPC Sawgrass.
Day 2: Jekyll Island, Georgia
Wind your way up I-95 and in a quick hour and a half, you’ll be in Jekyll Island, Georgia. Part of the Sea Islands, a string of islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, Jekyll Island is cheaper and less popular than nearby Hilton Head. The Sea Islands in South Carolina were named by National Geographic as one of the top 20 places to visit in 2015, but I’d argue that Jekyll Island is more deserving on that list than Hilton Head. Yes, Hilton Head is gorgeous, but Jekyll Island has an indefinable Southern charm that has not been marred by the expansion of major hotel chains.
In Jekyll Island, try some Low Country cuisine at Driftwood Bistro. Start with fried green tomatoes and then delve into a bowl of creamy grits with blackened shrimp. Or, try their yellow squash casserole with stuffed flounder. Vegetarians and gluten-free diners are also well accommodated at this restaurant.
Day 3: Savannah, Georgia
Leave early on your third day to reach Savannah, Georgia by noon. Spanish moss dangles from trees across the wide lanes in one of the few Southern cities untouched by Union General Sherman’s devastating Civil War march. Colonial residents’ tombstones dot the city’s ubiquitous cemeteries and Victorian townhomes cram together in the picturesque streets.
Savannah Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room: Britt Reints on Flickr Creative Commons
While months would be needed to explore all of Savannah’s dining options, there are a few essentials. First, Southern fare and plenty of it: my top choice is Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, where diners sit at communal tables and nosh on huge platters of mouthwatering fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, buttered peas, rutabaga, and collard greens. Lines are huge and the dining room is only on Mondays to Fridays. If you arrive in Savannah on a Saturday, head to Sweet Potatoes Café, which is located in a strip mall away from the picturesque downtown, but serves delicious Southern fare and an outstanding banana pudding.
Though you might be waddling out of the restaurant, make some time to head down Savannah’s River Street. Tourist shops, restaurants, and toy stores line this picturesque pedestrian avenue. Lines form outside River Street Sweets where candymakers pour hot caramel over pecans, to make Southern pralines, served plain or topped with chocolate. We while away the end of our delicious Southern weekend by watching riverboats glide down the Savannah River as sticky sweet pralines melt in our mouths.