Road Trip South

So a few weeks ago, I was told that I had to take 7 days off before April 1st (fiscal year end) or lose them. I happily got approval to take off March break with my kids.

But finances and planning time is tight, so ROAD TRIP, here we come.

I have been busy getting all my ducks in a row for the trip (new passport, confirm health insurance, car in for tuneup, snow tires off, etc) and have done virtually NO planning.

Can dopers help me out? Here is my current plan, can you suggest some “do not miss” stops on my general itinerary. We are very flexible, but low on $$.

Start location: Ottawa Ont, Can
Destination: South, preferably with at least some time near the ocean.
Travellers: Mum + 3 boys: 16, 13, 9. Only one driver. We know the trip to North Carolina well (we used to go windsurfing in Cape Hatteras every spring), but kids have never been further south, and I have only had a couple of of short visits in Florida.
Plan: Drive south down I-81, Pennsylvania turnpike, I-95 to points south. Stopping when there are interesting things to see and do. (Note: approx 24hr drive time to get to Orlando area)
Dates: Leaving early Sat morning (10th March) returning by following Sunday

Thoughts on weather: Atlantic seaboard has a couple of days of stormy weather forecast (timing changes depending how far south you are) Inland and gulf Florida forecasted to be in low-mid 80s all next week with only sunny/cloudy periods all week.

We have done these sorts of road-trips before. I tend to stop regularly and talk to the locals: “We are on a road-trip, what should we not miss around here?”. People love to talk about where they live and want to show it off to outsiders. I find it works great!

We will be bringing a tent & sleeping bags and are all experienced campers (although this is really just a cheapness trick this trip, not bringing much equipment) (State & Nat’l parks look to have lots of space still and are very reasonable pricewise) We will both camp & motel.

So dopers, tell me, “Where should I go?” " Where should I stay?" “What should I not miss?” “Am I crazy?” “Anything these naive Canadians should be careful about?”

A few possibilities:

  1. Further south on the Atlantic: Myrtle Beach, SC
  2. Gulf Coast: Gulf Shores, AL
  3. Inland: Great Smoky Mountains

I agree with an inland route that gets you in the Smoky Mountains. Camping could be tricky in March, many of the campgrounds in the area don’t open till May. But you could find one, I’m sure.

As a Floridian in the panhandle, I suggest veering east or west when you hit Florida (assuming you went inland instead of I-95) instead of doing Orlando. Keep in mind that you will hit spring breakers here, which may not be an environment you want. I have discovered that many state parks are filled up for next week (I plan on camping near Lake City the 12th-15th myself). Spring breakers would be, to me, a huge consideration if you want to be in popular beach areas. I would imagine this holds true for Myrtle Beach, too.

I doubt that many spring breakers go to Cedar Key, which is an island town on the Gulf approximately west of Gainesville (north of Orlando). Rent kayaks and paddle with dolphins.

St. George Island (back up in the panhandle) has been voted one of the 10 best beaches, and deserves it. While the state park might be full that week, you could probably stay in or near Apalachicola and drive across the bridge. If you do end up in Apalachicola, be sure to go to Boss Oyster for lunch or dinner (and get a t-shirt).

Good luck on your trip!

Ugh, no. Skip Myrtle Beach and go to the nice places! Pawley’s Island, Charleston if you don’t hate Charleston, etc.

If you go into Florida, stop at Fernandina Beach first. It’s the first exit past the state line and is lovely, historic, and has a state park (Fort Clinch) that’s very nice for you to camp at.

Make sure Florida isn’t closed. Could you imagine if you had driven all the way to Florida and it was closed?

Yeah…at the risk of being redundant…Spring. Break. Fort Clinch campground is full. Fernandina Beach is indeed a nice place, but its proximity to Jacksonville and Amelia Island will make it a spring break nightmare in March. You indicated that you like to ask locals for advice on where to go or what to do. I’m a local. Avoid the large beach city areas.

Thanks for the input so far.

Yes, it is march break, and we are primo demographics for being March Breakers. But really, we don’t want to do lots of the touristy stuff. But we do want to play in some warm salt water waves (remember … we are from Canada. Warm = your feet don’t go numb in under a minute) We would rather see natural sights than Mickey.

It sounds like a more inland route south might be a great idea. Any more details as to a good route? I also like the idea of the panhandle rather than the more touristy spots. I have spent time in Tallahassee and really liked the area and the people (wasn’t a vacation though so I didnt do much sighseeing) I think we will do the “head west” when we hit Florida as suggested. A vague plan is starting to form!

Thanks for the ideas! Keep them coming!

Two notes: if you’re taking 95 south to Florida, Savannah Georgia is nice, but if you stop, plan to do so on the way down, not going back. The weather is warm and the azaleas are blooming (bring Claritin) but the city will be overrun with drunken revellers for St. Patrick’s Day - not very kid-friendly. (And for an overnight stop, there are several decent hotels off the interstate with better prices than downtown or the beach, some with indoor pools and continental breakfast included - cheaper than camping plus feeding 3 boys and yourself. Let me know if you’d like recommendations.)

A bit farther south but still off 95: St. Simons Island is beautiful, or Cumberland Island. Cumberland is worth a stop, but is only accessible via a daily ferry. It’s an all-day stopover, but there are decent and inexpensive hotels just off the interstate again.

If you decide on the inland route and the Gulf rather than I-95, I suggest getting yourself down to Hwy 98 no farther west than below Tallahassee (which would get you to it in the vicinity of Medart). Going west on 98 will give you lots of options. It’s a 2-lane road; once you get to around Panacea, it follows the Gulf (eventually to Panama City…not good) and is very scenic, with small towns if you find a place you want to stop.

If you are coming down I-75, you can cut a lot of miles off if you get off 75 in Adel, GA and route yourself through Morvin and Quitman and then down 221 to Greenville, FL, and to I-10 and then south to 98 via one of the exits before Tallahassee or in Tallahassee. I have made countless drives from the Tallahassee area to Cleveland, Ohio and back, and that seems fastest if you are on 75 anyway.

Some advice on the north end of the trip:

  1. The Grist Mill, Parish NY (40 mi s of Watertown, 30 n of Syracuse). Not the most exceptional cuisine in the world, but it’s everything that a just-off-the-interstate country restaurant ought to be. It’s literally 20 feet from the northbound access ramp; getting to it from southbound means following the northbound onramp signs over to it, but it’s perfectly positioned for your first snack-and-bathroom break. Good food reasonably priced. We’ve hit it nearly every trip involving I-81 since 1971.

  2. Do not take the Turnpike out of Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, but do gas up, make potty stops, etc., prior to the Wilkes-Barre-to-Harrisburg run; there are vanishingly few gas stations/eateries between Hazleton and Lebanon.

As you approach Harrisburg, several alternatives present themselves:
a. Just before getting to Harrisburg, take I-83 to I-95 at the Baltimore Beltway.
b. Go about 5 mi past Harrisburg and pick up PA-522, the Harrisburg Expressway. Talke this to US-15 south. Warning: this gives you several miles of urban highway before becoming limited access expressway. At Frederick MD this feeds you directly onto I-270, which takes you to the Washington Beltway.
c. Stay on I-81 to Hagerstown MD, where you take I-70 se to Frederick, picking up I-270 to finish as above.
d. Stay on I-81 to just south of Winchester VA. I-66 east to US-17 southbound, all but the first few miles of which are four-or-greater-lane divided highway (though not limited access). This connects to I-95 at Fredericksburg VA, completely avoiding the Baltimore and especially the Washington Beltways.

3, During the day, the I-295 bypass around Richmond and Petersburg is advisable, since I-95 goes through the heart of Richmond. At night, it’s rarely if ever a problem to travel.