I like the northeastern cold. I live in Jersey City, but there is nothing like escaping it for some warmth in the winter. I decided to spend Christmas in sunny-shiny Florida. When the rest of the world flocked over to witness the Rockefeller Christmas tree and the ball-drop at Times Square, I planned to drive down south. A road trip across ten states from New Jersey to Key West and all the way back in crisp December air.

It was the end of the year and I had worked up quite a travel appetite. My itinerary included Miami- Key West-St Augustine- Savannah- Charleston. On the way to Miami, the plan was long days of driving and quick night hauls to recharge. It was on the return journey that I had planned to slow things, relax, and look around.

Miami

Miami doesn’t disappoint, it was warm but perhaps not the warmest. There was sun, lots of sand on the south beach and the comfort of our oceanfront hotel, Kimpton Surfcomber. I kept mostly to it, except an excursion to the Miami Seaquarium. The highlight of the visit was a ‘meet a dolphin session’ that can be booked online, a few days in advance. They have other animal encounters, including swimming with the dolphin. I suggest, crave out time for these wonderful shows with performing dolphins and sea lions, and you have my words you won’t be disappointed. Miami was a treat for mind, body, and taste buds. Christmas dinner at the Jaya, at the Setai, where I had delectable prawns and Santirini where I gorged on Greek and Mediterranean delights stood out.

Drive to Key West needs to be planned to see the sunset on the Seven Mile Bridge across open waters. The sky glowed in brilliant orange as I drove into it. The thing with places once inhabited with famous people is that tourism industry tends to overkill the association with countless tourist traps under that name. For example, Sherlock Holmes at Baker’s street in London or Nessie in Loch Ness. Hemmingway is like that to Key West and no less mythical in persona. However, few traps are worthy catches to check out, especially if they serve Tapas like Santiago’s Bodega. I had dinner there. The place inspired by Hemmingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’ has great food and ambience. I especially recommend shrimp and chorizo pan-grilled and Portobello mushroom filled puff pastry.

Hemmingway fan

As all Hemmingway fan’s do, I headed for a pilgrim to his house in Key West which is now a museum. The tickets are available on the spot and include a guided tour that happens every half hour. I tried seeking inspiration at his imposing study which was once connected to his first-floor bedroom with a bridge that no longer exists. I was told that no matter how late the night went on (i.e., They often went on till the wee hours of the morning) he would turn up at his study at daybreak and write at least 600 words. Impressive and inspirational, however, not the most notable feature of the house, that he shared for a decade with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. That distinction goes to the fifty plus polydactyl cats that roam around its premises. They are said to have descended from a cat that was gifted to Hemmingway by a ship captain who he met at his favorite haunt, Sloppy Joe’s Bar. There are more stories about his maverick life and eccentric personality, but I will leave them for you to hear in person, when you visit this place.

The Southernmost tip at Key West is landmarked on the island. Cuba is ninety miles by sea from it, but you don’t have to go there to get to see Cuban culture. The influences show up in Key West’s architecture and food. Legend goes that even the omnipresent roosters of Key West came from Cuba. They were brought in for cockfights, but once the sport was outlawed, they became permanent residents of its streets.

Cigar is another cultural export. At a time, there were ninety cigar factories here supplying the famous Havana cigars. Relics of the time remain as reminders of the bygone era. A good way to see all these distinct areas is to head to Mallory Square and take a conch train to get around the island. Also spend time at Duval Street and perhaps get a drink at Sloppy Joe’s. It used to be Hemingway’s favorite pub. If you are lucky, you might meet a sailor or two.

St. Augustine

After Key West I was homewards bound but not in a rush. At the historic St. Augustine, I took a ‘Nights of Lights’ tour to see the old walled city, all lit up. St. Augustine claims to be the oldest continuous European Settlement in the US. Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, it has a rich and complicated history. The city’s Monson Motor Lodge stood witness to Dr. King’s arrest on June 11, 1964. The events that followed made national headlines and eventually led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront, which now stands on the site, embraces history and preserves the steps where Dr. King was arrested. The other must-see attractions here, include Castillo de San Marcos which preserves the oldest masonry fortification in the US, Flagner College and St Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.

St. George Street, which also serves as the historic downtown to the city, was packed with tourists like me. I stood in line for forty-five minutes to grab the second-best pizza slice in America according to TripAdvisor. Better known as Pizza Time, the place is very popular and serves New York style pizzas. Getting to eat one, 973 miles away from NYC wasn’t on my bucket list but I check marked it none the less.

Before Charleston we stopped at Savannah’s Wormsloe historic site. While driving through a live oak avenue, created by 400 oak trees that form a 1.5-mile-long canopy driveway, you get to witness the magnanimity of nature. Spanish Moss hangs from its branches like forgotten Christmas decorations. Ironically Spanish Moss is neither a moss nor from Spain. It’s an epiphyte or air plant, native to central and South America, that drapes over the oaks. Amidst all its beauty, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Wormsloe is also a former plantation.

I stopped at Chippewa Square; it was the shooting location of the famous bench scene in Forrest Gump. The bench was a shooting prop now on display at Savannah History Museum, but the location remains a popular spot. After a quick caffeine refill at River Street, Savannah I headed further north.

Charleston

At Charleston I chose a horse drawn carriage ride into the French Quarters. French Quarters got its name after the restoration work started here in the 70’s and because the area historically had a concentration of French merchants. It’s home to the Pink House Tavern, built around 1712. French Quarters also have the Dock Street Theatre, arguably the first site of theatrical productions in the United States. Also, the Old Slave Mart, built in 1859, reminder of its dark past.

I learnt about the Sabal palm that technically is not even a tree, but once helped fortify South Carolina against British cannons! Deservingly, it gets featured on the state flag. Pineapple is another favorite symbol that adorns the southern city. Its most famous rendering at the Pineapple Fountain, focal point of the Charleston Waterfront Park. Many famous writers have called Charleston their home, including the likes of Pat Conroy and Edgar Allan Poe but its most famous literary reference comes from a George A. Trenholm, a blockade runner during the Civil War, who is said to have inspired Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

The south has great food. No matter what cuisine it was served with dollops of Southern Hospitality. One of my most enjoyable dinners was the Lebanese restaurant in Kings Street called Leyla that serves melt in your mouth Lamb Shank with Turkish coffee and another one with croquettes and tapas at Basra tapas lounge bar. For breakfast I stuck to good olde Waffle house.

The areas around Charleston and Savannah are also home to many famous plantations. Plantation tours are easily available and popular. However, these exquisite places stand as a somber testament to the disturbing history of plantations. That included forced labor, terrible living conditions and torture that was endured by slaves daily. It is important to not lose that context if you decide to visit on of these places.

By the time we reached Washington DC, the weather opened to clearer skies and pleasanter days. We might have missed out on the best weather, but nothing can take away from the warmth I experienced in the American South. I got a taste of history and walked on lanes that have borne witness to crucial chapters in the making of The United States.

Written by: Supriya Pant

 Supriya Pant picture
Supriya is a writer and novelist, currently living in Jersey City and likes to travel devoid of any heavy luggage or lengthy itineraries. She has earlier published travel pieces in Outpost (Canada) outpostmagazine.com/london-characters-come-alive and GoNomad gonomad.com/157309-manhattan-without-uber-or-subway

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