by Carmel L. Mooney
Upon arriving in Sulphur, Louisiana we toured the Lake Charles area known as the Festival Capital of Louisiana where we enjoyed the locals’ favorite eatery Steamboat Bills for crawfish pistolettes, stuffed shrimp and crab, catfish, and slaw. Talk about a fun, boisterous, and packed local joint. The next day we discovered the thrill of crabbing on the bayous of the Blue Crab Rec. Area. We caught a generous lot of crab using chicken necks on a string – easy tackle set up!! We sampled the famous local boudin and the flavors were amazing.
We then visited the Wetlands Walkway in the Sabine Refuge and went shelling at Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, finally taking a ferry to Cameron. There we went along the Cameron Prairie Refuge and Pintail Wildlife Drive where we saw lots of alligators in the wild, sitting in the bayous. We saw lots of turtles and beautiful birds in the wetlands as well.
We drove a huge portion of the Creole Nature Trail which encompasses about 180 miles of spectacular world-famous wildlife habitats and estuaries. This “Last Great Wilderness” and National Scenic Byway has been named an All American Road and offers an amazing chance to journey through a uniquely wild Louisiana terrain. After seeing our lots of wild alligators, we were ready for a mess of crawfish at Hollier’s Cajun Kitchen – the happening local spot. Leaving Sulphur we crossed the Mississippi and continued into Baton Rouge and finally into New Orleans. We stayed with friends there and the next day we indulged in a sumptuous breakfast at the world-famous Brennan’s Restaurant in the French Quarter, for a four-course breakfast. My turtle soup was excellent as was my entrée and the desserts like crepes and bananas foster.
Leaving New Orleans, we crossed through Mississippi, and Alabama, finally arriving in Navarre, Florida is known for its wonderful beaches and coastal eateries. After spending a few days with friends in Navarre we drove on to St. Augustine, the country’s oldest and perhaps most charming city founded in 1564.
After resting up at the gorgeous historic Hilton looking out at the bay, we headed off to the oldest street in the USA, to a 300+-year-old Spanish hospital, and to climb the St. Augustine Lighthouse – all 219+ steps up and down! What a view from the top though!
St. Augustine has transportation down to a science with Old Town Trolley tours, beach buses, and various other modes included.
We loved the 100+-year-old Alligator Farm with dozens of gator species and nesting exotic birds. As a media guest, I was allowed inside the pen (closed to the public) to pet an 80+-year-old alligator… I’m not sure why I did this, looking back but since I survived, I’m glad I did. After I visited the pen, we watched them feed the gators huge frozen rats. In hindsight, I have to wonder why I was put in the pen, BEFORE lunch.
Later we went to the Wax Museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the oldest schoolhouse in the USA, and finally, we ate alligator (go figure), pasta, and award-winning conch chowder on the beach at a fabulous restaurant called South Beach Grill.
A drive to Anastasia Island on A1A South to Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center proved fabulous and we had an amazing dolphin experience where the trainers let us feed and play with Nellie, a 56-year-old dolphin and the oldest ever in captivity. She was simply wonderful. We went swimming at the nearby beaches afterward.
St. Augustine was absolutely spectacular and we thoroughly enjoyed our wonderful dinner at the amazing Columbia restaurant, a long-time favorite for exquisite Spanish food with tantalizing flavors and presentations. Afterward, we went to an amazing dessert bistro owned by 5th generation French Chef Jean Stephane Poinard and his talented wife Valerie. Bistro De Leon serves truly phenomenal desserts beyond explanation.
On our last day in St. Augustine, we visited some nature reserves and swam at Anastasia State Park. We hunted for fossilized shark teeth at local beaches and then took a scenic cruise around the bay looking back from the water, at both our hotel and the lighthouse we had climbed just days before. Our only regret about St. Augustine was the lack of time. With countless museums, historical points of interest, tours, golf, shopping, coastal water sports, and activities, it has so much to offer that less than a week does not do justice.
A quick jaunt over to nearby Jacksonville was to pick up my husband from the Jacksonville airport to prepare for our cruise together to the Bahamas the next day. Fortunately, we had time to walk around the city at night as a family and show my husband some of the highlights before our departure the next day.
The next morning we enjoyed some fun pirate pancakes at the Pirate Haus in St. Augustine, a unique pirate-themed hostel downtown.
Arriving in Jacksonville we left our car at the beautifully renovated Holliday Inn Jacksonville which offers wonderful cruise packages for folks combining visits to Jacksonville with a cruise as we did. Their excellent shuttle service dropped us off at the port of Jacksonville for our cruise to the Bahamas on the Carnival Fascination.
Carnival Cruise Line continues to offer the safest, most comprehensive, and best children’s program at sea, Camp Carnival. With endless activities, all day and night Carnival still offers the best family vacation value of any cruise line.
We enjoyed an art auction and my husband won the golf contest and got the famous “24 kt. ship on a stick”, and “vessel on a trestle” to add to our growing collection. It was great sailing and we enjoyed shows, parties, fine dining, fine wines, swimming, games, and of course the Bahamas. We enjoyed Cabbage Beach on Nassau one day where I got my hair braided “Bahama style”; by Olivia, a Nassau local, and we went to an all-inclusive resort in Freeport where we kayaked, sailed a Hobbie Cat, and snorkeled all day. It was a wonderful itinerary, terrific ship, and outstanding staff. I even judged the “hairy chest contest” on board!
After our cruise, we visited the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens which was truly the best zoo we’ve ever been to, anywhere. Then it was time to say goodbye as we took my husband to the airport and headed on to Georgia for the next leg of our Mother-Daughter 80-day cross-country adventure.
Arriving in the beautiful Golden Isles of Georgia in the mid-afternoon afforded us time to enjoy the gorgeous grounds and the beautiful several-hundred-year-old majestic oaks covered with Spanish Moss surrounding the pool at our hotel, the Plantation Village Best Western. Nestled on the Georgia coast between Savannah and Jacksonville, Brunswick and four barrier islands make up the magnificent Golden Isles.
The next day we visited the lighthouse on St. Simons Island and walked numerous gorgeous nature trails viewing historic churches and monuments from the 1700-to 1800s. We had the best crab cake sandwiches ever, at Sea Jay’s waterfront café at the Jekyll Harbor Marina on Jekyll Island. We toured the Georgia Sea Turtle Center/Hospital where we watched actual surgery being done to save sea turtles and saw all kinds of turtles, some huge and others very old.
The highlight of our visit was a Shrimpin’ trip/charter on the Lady Jane Shrimp Boat. We caught lots of fascinating creatures in our nets including bonnethead sharks, horseshoe crabs, silver eels, pufferfish, squid, rays, and skates, and of course lots of white shrimp we cooked up and ate on the boat. The kids and adults enjoyed holding and learning about the sharks and other marine life the nets pulled up. It was an amazingly fun and educational excursion.
Onward to beautiful Palm Key, a place that’s both magical and peaceful looking out at the wetlands and islands of South Carolina, with huge majestic oaks and Spanish Moss everywhere. We had a spectacular view from the deck of our gorgeous private rental home. There were even a few resident alligators in the pond.
The owners are multi-talented folks and cooked us a fabulous dinner after we went crabbing to collect the daily catch from the crab pots. We steamed them right up – cannot get any fresher than that! Guests kayak to see the dolphins, egrets, and other wildlife, right from the very cottages and homes when it is high tide – it’s a sight to see. Palm Key is such a serene place and the hospitality is unparalleled. It truly is a hidden gem, like none other.
From Palm Key’s wonderful central location we took a spectacular tour of the South Carolina Lowcountry – all marshes and beaches and islands of South Carolina. We ate lunch in Beaufort, SC at a wonderful restaurant called Panini Café – which had the best Panini and fabulous Pasta salad with a creamy mustardy-sweet dressing… delicious! We visited the lighthouse at Hunting Island State Park, the Beaufort waterfront, the Old Sheldon Church ruins from 1745, the Chapel of Ease from 1740, several beaches and plantations, and the grave of Thomas Heyward, Jr. who signed the Declaration of Independence. The history and the beauty were unique and captivating. What a wonderful place, so peaceful, so breathtakingly pretty.
So sad to leave such a beautiful place and such lovely people, we drove to Santee State Park where we took a morning Fisheagle pontoon tour boat of the swamps and Lake Marion. We saw ospreys feeding their young in huge nests, egrets, herons, alligators, hyacinth, water lilies, Jesus birds (they walk on water), snake birds, and other fascinating things like a dead alligator rotting on the banks of the swamp. (talk about the stench from a 14-foot dead alligator in that heat)!!
We met the family at our cabin in the afternoon and we all went out to a wonderful authentic VERY Southern dinner at Lone Star BBQ just outside the park. Here BBQ is a NOUN, not a verb! We had grits and tomato pie, hush puppies, ribs, chicken, bread pudding, collard greens, hash… and so much more, truly the best southern cooking.
The next day, we drove to Columbia, the capital of SC and we enjoyed the EdVenture Children’s Museum and the South Carolina State Museum. Afterward, we checked into the Inn at USC, a beautiful hotel with exceptional service staffed by students who are learning hospitality and hotel studies. We sampled yet another local BBQ called Little Pig’s BBQ, a must while in Columbia.
Columbia’s Zoo was another outstanding zoo and an unusual highlight of the area was a boat trip out of Lake Murray where thousands of purple martin birds congregate every night on “Bomb Island”. It was spectacular to see!
Our next stop was famous Myrtle Beach and its outlying areas. The Marina Grand Dunes provided us with a great location from which to enjoy the area’s attractions and beaches.
We enjoyed Ripley’s Aquarium, Broadway at the Beach, Brookgreen Gardens, Freestyle Music Park, and Huntington Beach State Park (affiliated with Huntington Beach in California) where we saw alligators in the marsh there and we also body surfed on the beach. So glad the gators stayed in the marsh and did not join us on the beach…I always say “it’s better to eat lunch than be lunch!”
We drove to Carowinds, a unique Carolinas theme park, open year-round, whereas half the park lies in North Carolina and half lies in South Carolina. Our cabin at Camp Wilderness on the edge of the Carowinds property was the perfect place to stay while enjoying the park and the outlying areas.
In the morning we enjoyed a tour of S. Carolina’s Old English Country and Historic Brattonsville (a colonial settlement) where Patriot was filmed with Mel Gibson. It was fabulous and the history was gripping. A fascinating woman whose ancestors were the real slaves there on the actual plantation gave us a period tour as well. They have heirloom chickens and goats and pigs there that are endangered and are no longer farmed. It is an actual working plantation still after 300 years.
We went to historic York for lunch afterward at The Brandon House. The chef trained at the Cordon Bleu in France.
As we left Carowinds we visited the most eastern portion of our 11, 600-mile trip – join us in the next issue of this story as we head westward and homeward while visiting the best family-friendly destinations in the country!
Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist and the editor of Road Trips for Couples.