In search of the Old South from New Orleans to Charleston, S.C.
APALACHICOLA, Fla. — The back porch of Boss Oyster restaurant, with tables covered in worn-out plastic cloths, is deserted. But the menu seems to have what we’re after: fish, more fish, and cold beer. Out it comes on old Melmac plates: a giant griddled crabcake that has so little filler it falls into large, deliciously sweet flakes with the touch of a fork; grilled redfish with a hint of rosemary; smooth, cheesy, delicious grits; and golden balls of hush puppies.
We drove a long way for this simple, perfect meal. Boss was hard to find. Not geographically difficult, but hard because you would think a place like this exists at every curve of the Gulf Coast. We are in search of the Old South and though it’s here, you really have to dig to get to it. We’re on a road trip from New Orleans to Charleston, S.C., driving from Louisiana, through Mississippi, Alabama, then across the Panhandle to this stop in Apalachicola, a region Florida calls its Forgotten Coast, going east to Gainesville, then St. Augustine to Florida’s First Coast (yes, they’ve named them all), Savannah, Ga., and finally Charleston for the flight home. One thousand miles in one week. We should have taken one month.
Ever since we left New Orleans two days ago, we have started to wonder if the combination of aggressive developers, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill had put the little mom-and-pops out of business. Roadside shacks and country stores are replaced in many areas by high-rise apartments in pastel shades, bearing such names as “Sands,” “Marseille,” and “Eden.” In New Orleans we had to venture far from the French Quarter to find places where tourists don’t go (that included Bacchanal Wine, in the Ninth Ward, where you sit outdoors with great music and exceptional food, and a $35 taxi ride to Ba Mien, a terrific Vietnamese restaurant in the ravaged east end of the city).
After miles and miles of pawn shops, tattoo parlors, Waffle House and Chick-fil-A locations, homes on stilts, casinos, fishing boats, sweet little towns that might have been set in New England, old oaks so tall you want to sit and stare at them, we come away satisfied. Some of it looks like Everyplace, USA, with too many chains of all sorts, other parts are untouched. The key to a Southern road trip, as one innkeeper tells us, is to “drive through the ugly parts without looking, and slow down where it’s pretty.”
Every innkeeper, every cabbie, every bartender along the coast mentions Katrina and what was before; the storm had a devastating effect. Sea walls are still going up, as are boardwalks, piers, and other construction on the water. Along the way, we tweet, using a “gulfroadtrip” hashtag, and when we’re no longer there, “former gulfroadtrip,” writing observations, counting the fast food locations, commenting when the seafood is tops, wondering how badly places called Payday Loans gouge the people who need them.
Apalachicola, established in 1831 and once the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, might be the city that time forgot. We imagine that aside from the pristine waterfront and a few chic shops, including Grady Market for clothing and housewares, this is the Old South. At the historic Gibson Inn, a little down at the heels, the front desk attendant is waiting on the porch. We’d called because we were lost and she makes us hustle so we won’t miss dinner. We use her map to find Boss, and the following morning settle in at Caroline’s River Dining, on the sunny water, watching fishing boats go by, eating eggs and more cheesy grits (on the best days we ate them at every meal).
Back in New Orleans, when we rented the car at a hotel, the concierge had told us, “Y’all headed to Charleston? Take Route 10 till you hit water, then turn left.” We have every intention of never getting on Interstate 10 if we can help it. That means driving so close to the water’s edge at times we’re puzzled why road engineers ever did this. And after Katrina, rebuilt this.
Approaching Gulfport, Mississippi, we see white-sand beaches, neoclassical mansions under live oaks, fishing fleets. Midday in Biloxi, Miss., lost in a maze of seaside casinos, we note The Hook Up Bar & Restaurant, which serves a decent po’boy with shrimp and oysters. “There used to be lots of little seafood shacks and now no one wants to reinvest in them,” our waitress tells us.
We pass through Ocean Springs, Miss., on Biloxi Bay where the homes are grand, little bungalows are charming, and massive trees, which must be a godsend in summer, loom. A sign reads: “David Krause: Lawdog.” We Google him. The site says, “When you need a lawyer, get a dog . . . ”
When we were children, road trips seemed endless. As adults, tweeting and Googling and giggling as we go, we love the adventure.
In Magnolia Springs, Ala., once a destination for Chicagoans in search of cures (Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad trains shot from the Windy City down to the Gulf), we stop at Magnolia Springs Bed & Breakfast in a renovated 1898 former hotel that sits on a street where oaks form an arch, and azalea and other shrubs bloom. We don’t exactly need an English-to-English translator to understand delightful innkeepers David Worthington and Eric Bigelow, but boy do they have unforgettable Alabama accents. This is indeed the Old South. Mail is still delivered by boat on the Magnolia River in this former turpentine and lumber settlement.
It’s late and we head for the closest eatery, Jesse’s Restaurant & The Cold Hole, where grits come with big Gulf shrimp, smoked Gouda, and local hickory-smoked Conecuh sausage, and the bartender, who isn’t Southern, is brusque, bordering on unfriendly. She didn’t get the Old South memo.
Worthington, who is bossy in the nicest way, practically orders us to stay on coastal Route 98 to Apalachicola. The road is often two lanes, sometimes painfully slow, with stop lights in every town. As he warned, you have to endure miles of high-rise development, interspersed with houses built on stilts right near the water. Headed to the Gulf Islands National Seashore trails for a walk, we twice end up at the Naval Air Station Pensacola (our GPS was off). A 2-mile walk in the nature reserve is a lovely respite and the helpful National Park Service volunteer sends us to Peg Leg Pete’s on Pensacola Beach for lunch. It’s lively and fun, full of spring breakers, with a good grilled grouper sandwich. This is the Emerald Coast, known for its white sand beaches. College kids in packs of 10 are everywhere. We flee.
Then comes the night in Apalachicola, and after that, for about 70 miles, more Old South: Deal’s Famous Oyster House in Perry, Fla., located in what looks like a makeshift motor home, signs for RV hookups, spruce forests, prisoners doing roadwork, cement churches with service times mounted on portable signs. At lunch, a guy nearby tells me he spent the morning “putting in 150 tomato plants, 50 pounds of potatoes, bunch of onions, and other stuff, on half an acre.”
Approaching Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, the landscape changes. Horse farms on either side of the road are interspersed with gated communities. Names like “South Pointe,” “Fletcher’s Mill,” “Broadmoor,” affect Britishness. Then 1950s ranch houses, bungalows, and in the town center, on this day, a huge farmers’ market. A dozen Hare Krishnas sing (we always wondered where they went after they left Logan Airport), Humble Pie Gourmet Pizza turns out wood-fired rounds, and a vendor from The Wild Woodstead sells smoked fish. All this becomes a picnic in our hotel that night. We overhear a conversation between a young man walking briskly to catch up with a pretty woman.
He: Can I buy you a beer?
She laughs and rushes off.
Later that day, we reach the Atlantic and St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country (Ponce de Leon landed here in 1513), with narrow streets and single-file sidewalks. A pedestrian-only historic section is, unfortunately, full of candy shops and trinkets with reminders of pirate history. Unlike New Orleans, anyone with a guitar and vocal cords can get a job at a bar here. The magnificent harbor ends at the huge stone 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos fort, which protected the city from invaders.
En route to Savannah, we stop at Jekyll Island, Ga., one of the state’s Golden Isles, set off from the mainland by a long causeway with marshes on either side. Once home to some of the country’s wealthiest families, who built “cottages” in the late 19th century, the island’s grandest place is Jekyll Island Club Hotel, which looks like something out of “The Great Gatsby.”
Fins on the Beach, near Great Dunes Park, is a pretty place with a big patio on the water. We eat shrimp po’boy sandwiches because the fish of the day, the waiter says, comes from the Far East.
Savannah could give the course on the Old South. The manicured squares that divide the city are surrounded by historic homes, some grand, some smaller. Horse-drawn carriages take you around. The city is walkable for miles along the waterfront, but more interesting is the historic district, once an open market.
The Gastonian Inn, where we stay, is the nicest place on our trip. The gracious staff hosts a cocktail hour before dinner and then dessert and coffee after. In the morning, cooks make eggs to order, and there are plenty of good grits.
We’ve done a lot of drive-bys in the last five days, and it’s almost time to head to Charleston, a night on the town, and the flight home the next morning. Heading up Interstate 95, we pass turnoffs for Hilton Head Island, then Beaufort, and stop at Edisto Island for lunch.
Years ago, I spent a lot of time in Edisto but hadn’t returned. It used to be a place where there was nothing but a couple gas stations and a few stores for basic provisions. Edisto has managed to stave off developers and for the first dozen miles along Highway 174, over a massive bridge, through a canopy of oaks with dried moss, some wetlands, more tree canopy, we see a bank, a fish market, and not much else. Down a side road along Edisto Beach, we stumble on Whaley’s Restaurant & Bar, established in 1948.
After 1,000 miles, in this little eatery, built in a defunct gas station, is the Old South in all its glory: picnic tables outside, a waitress both friendly and delightfully sassy, a big basket of boiled peanuts (the menu reads, “Caution remove shells”), “raw” fries (homemade potato chips), and a grilled flounder sandwich so fresh, the fillet is practically still flipping.
Should we just stay and forget the flight home? The thought occurs to us several times that afternoon.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version referred to Gulfport, Mississippi as Gulfport, La.