“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” ~Lao Tzu
As much as I have traveled, there are some places I’ve never been: Disney World, Disneyland, Six Flags, Busch Gardens….I don’t go to theme parks or amusement parks. But I do enjoy walking, simple outdoor pastimes like golfing, going out for fresh air, driving, and traveling—I love the sea—because it helps me readjust my center, tone up mentally and physically, regain perspective, and sometimes teaches me something I didn’t know before. My usual points of interest, because they are educational, are natural and historical sites.
Everglades Parkway, Alligator Alley (Florida)
The best way to do this drive is certainly not the way I did it: in the dark. We had visited Fort Myers, looked at the adjoining homes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, then Naples, where, sweltering from the heat, we had walked down to the beach—I know: you’re not supposed to do this kind of trip in high summer—we did—and had failed to leave in time to do the Everglades Parkway (I-75) justice. Of course, you’ll be smarter. You’ll do it right—probably in winter. I’ve heard January is good, but be forewarned: there are many scary, non-English-speaking, illegal-looking persons behind the cash registers, and except in upscale (normal) cities, all the gas pumps want your zip code, a clear sign for me that this is some place I don’t want to hang out. (I finally got gas in Naples without a zip code.)
Well, along Alligator Alley there are state parks, state forests, National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) and Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), an Indian Reservation (Miccosukee), and National Preserves: Fakahatchee Strand (“the Amazon of North America”) and Big Cypress—if you’re into that sort of thing.
Even in the dark I could see it was swamp country, or wetlands, with sawgrass. Wonder why they call it Alligator Alley? This is crocodile country—the only place in the USA where you can see crocodiles in their native habitat. Crocodiles have V-shaped mouths; when the mouth is closed, both upper and lower jaws are visible. Alligators have U-shaped mouths; when closed, the upper jaw hides the lower jaw. One “up close and personal” place to see alligators is the Okefenokee Swamp, in Georgia. When we took the trail to the lookout tower—on foot—no guardrail or protective barrier—alligators came right up to the boardwalk.
Overseas Highway (Florida)
The 128-mile road that goes from the Florida mainland to Key West is US 1, the Overseas Highway, south of Miami. En route from Miami, you’ll pass Coral Gables, dubbed “The City Beautiful,” home of the University of Miami and one of the prettiest cities you’ll ever see anywhere. You might want to take a minute (if you have one) to check out Coral Way, a wide boulevard flanked with palm trees. At Homestead you’ll find Coral Castle Museum—something of a sculpture garden.
After crossing the sound to the barrier islands, if you turn north, you’ll find the Crocodile Lake NWR. Nearby is Biscayne National Park (“a watery wonderland”); though family-friendly, it is accessible only by boat.
If you head south, the first stop is Key Largo. In the neighborhood you’ll find the Key largo Underseas Park and, at the marina, the original African Queen, from the 1951 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. The boat is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can see it free. Resting next to today’s much large boats, it looks so tiny—and humble. One can hardly believe that the British actually used it 1912-1968 to carry passengers across Lake Albert.
Continuing south, you’ll come to several state parks, the Dolphin Research Center, eventually the 7-mile bridge (pictured above), the National Key Deer Refuge, and, out at sea, the Great White Heron NWR. Key deer are interesting because they are so small.
At Key West, a good-sized island with a good-sized town, you’ll find the Key West lighthouse, the homes of John James Audubon and Ernest Hemingway, the Little White House used by President Harry S Truman, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, and the Flagler Station Overseas Railway Historeum—before there was a highway, there was a railway; it was destroyed in the hurricane of 1935. If you’re up to it, you can get someone to ferry you, about 70 miles, to the Dry Tortugas National Park, which is open to the public. Most important for someone like me, you’ll find a Starbucks, perhaps inside a local hotel—that’s where I found one. In the heat and humidity, I wanted only two things: an iced cold bottled water and/or a $5 Venti Frappucino. Fortunately, in Florida, metered parking is dirt cheap.
Now, while Key West may be relatively spacious, that road, the Overseas Highway, is not. It is only a thin ribbon of road across a lot of water (Atlantic Ocean on one side, Gulf of Mexico on the other) and a little land: islands called “keys.” There are many places where there is no side street or alternate route—you’re doing good to find terra firma.
On our way back to the mainland, just fresh out of Key West, we found the traffic backed up. An accident. My thought was, How are we going to get out of here? That road might as well have been a tunnel. Fortunately, however, this was Boca Chica Key, home to the Naval Air Station for Key West, and the island was wide enough to have side streets. Soon there were uniformed military directing us around the accident…. So, if you do get caught in a mishap, pray it’s a wide place in the road.
Gulf Islands National Seashore Drive (Florida, Mississippi)
I-10 runs east and west between the Atlantic and the Pacific. That is the easy route; but if you want a closeup of the Gulf of Mexico, then you might want to try US 98, which rises in central Florida. If you’re in Palm Beach, you’re in the right place to visit a couple of America’s Castles: Mar-A-Lago (once home to Marjorie Merriweather Post) and Whitehall (home of Henry Morrison Flagler).
US 98 (“Ole 98”) doesn’t begin to touch water until south of Tallahassee. Headed west, you’ll come to Panama City, Choctawhatchee Bay, and the famous white sandy beaches of Destin, an area known for deep sea fishing. Nearby are state forests, state parks, several bays and sounds, and the Choctawhatchee Water Management Area. Farther west are Fort Walton Beach, Gulf Breeze, and Pensacola. The protected waters of Santa Rosa Sound, lying between the mainland and Santa Rosa Island, provide gentle surf, good for children and for fishing. Overlooking Pensacola Bay is Fort San Carlos de Barrancas, an 18th-century fort dating back to the days of Spanish occupation.
Where the Gulf of Mexico cuts into Alabama, you will round land and swing north by Fairhope. US 98A is the scenic route. You can stay on US 98/US 90 Battleship Parkway or cross Mobile Bay via the I-10 causeway. On the western side of the bay, you will notice the USS Battleship Alabama—you may want to stop and tour. The ship was commissioned in World War II, brought to Mobile in the 1960s, made into a museum, named a National Historic Landmark (1986), and featured in War and Remembrance (1988) and Under Siege (1992). Mobile itself is a lovely example of the Old South, with wide boulevards and stately homes. To showcase the city, business signs (gas stations, fast food) are dwarfed well below the height of streetlamps.
Afterward, lose US 98 and follow US 90. However, for a short distance, I-10 actually runs closer to the water than US 90—until you reach Tillmans Corner. There you can go south to Bellingrath Home and Gardens, one of those lovely, flowery places with costumed interpreters, and afterward resume US 90 or swing due east to Route 193, Dauphin Island Parkway (DIP). DIP goes to Dauphin Island, where you can enjoy one of the local parks or tour historic Fort Gaines.
Back on US 90, after Grand Bay, you’ll cross the Alabama-Mississippi border, where you may notice signs for NWRs, then Moss Point, Pascagoula, and Ocean Springs. Near Ocean Springs is the Davis Bayou Visitor Center for Gulf Shores National Seashore/Mississippi; in town is the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Continuing west, you’ll pass through Biloxi and Gulfport, where, at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, you can see—and touch—dolphins. Farther on, there’s Long Beach, Bay St Louis, and Waveland … places where you’ll be tempted to stop and sunbathe, or at least take snapshots. It may be that you’ll notice still, as I did my last visit, damage from Hurricane Katrina. The Gulf Coast is still rebuilding, and much of the old landscape as I knew it years ago is gone. I was fascinated to see tiny cottages, as one would see on Martha’s Vineyard. Near the Mississippi-Louisiana border is the John C Stennis Space Center, accessible by Shuttle Parkway.
If you cross the Pearl River, you will be in Louisiana. On US 90 you’ll come to the Fort Pike State Historic Site. Afterward you’ll have the option to stay on US 90, take I-10 to New Orleans, or take I-12 to Baton Rouge. Of course, you can’t be that close and not see New Orleans. Be prepared: the city is not what it used to be. Even the traffic across Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is heavy compared with years ago and the lake is not the same color. But it still has a mesmerizing appeal, if for no other reason than its lush semi-tropical vegetation, including live oaks with Spanish moss. The French Quarter is handy to visitors coming from Mississippi. The Audubon Zoo, one of the Top Ten zoos in the country, is a favorite, besides many historical sites, NWRs, and WMAs, not to mention the above-ground crypts.
Route 1 south goes to Grand Isle; Route 23 to Boothville-Venice; US 90 crosses the wetlands to Morgan City. On your journey south you may notice small fishing boats, houses up on stilts, or even mobile homes attached to the uppermost reaches of telephone poles. When I saw even a concrete, masonry church building jacked up in the air, I wondered, How do the congregation enter? Sometimes you see stairsteps, sometimes you don’t.
Besides jambalaya and gumbo, one dinner the Louisiana people like to eat is crawfish, which they cook outdoors in boiling water, to which has been added a special seasoning. When the critters are boiled, the chef lifts the crawfish, pours them onto newspaper spread on the table, then throw potatoes and/or corn on the cob into the still boiling, seasoned water. I’ve seen Northerners too finicky to try it; but if you get a chance, dig in. It’s not lobster, but it’s pretty good food.
At New Iberia is Shadows-on-the-Teche antebellum home. Beyond there, to the south, is Avery Island Road (Route 329), which will take you to the factory where they make Tabasco sauce. There is a $1 toll to get onto Avery Island; the factory tour is free. Afterward, you’ll want to return to US 90 New Iberia and resume your journey to St Martinsville, where you’ll find the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site. Besides being a state park where you can picnic, the site will provide a history of the migration of Acadian exiles from the Canadian Maritimes to Louisiana, where the French-speaking Canadians became known as “Cajuns.”
At Lafayette, US 90 crosses I-10; you’ll want to take it. If you go west, you’ll come to Lake Charles; farther west, if you cross the Sabine River, you’ll be in Texas.
Natchez Trace Parkway (Tennessee, Mississippi)
Natchez Trace Parkway, a National Scenic Byway, is a near 450-mile-long, limited-access, two-way highway running between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi. My family and I had sampled a stretch of the parkway on an earlier trip, and wanted to do the whole length sometime, so, thinking to beat the heat, we went in winter. It was lonesome—hardly another car on the road, though the weather was almost springlike.
If you start near Nashville, you may want to take the time to visit the Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the ancient site in Athens, Greece, and the centerpiece of Nashville’s Centennial Park. Besides being a grand, beautiful building, it serves as the local Art Museum and houses a huge reproduction of the goddess Athena. The grounds are also a good place to walk.
One of the few historical sites on the Tennessee leg of the Trace was the Meriwether Lewis Monument, marking the place where Lewis (1774-1809), of Lewis and Clark fame, experienced an untimely death. Soon the parkway cuts through a tiny northwest corner of Alabama, crosses the Tennessee River, then goes into Mississippi. Inside the Mississippi line you’ll begin to find Indian mounds, some dating back to the time of Christ or earlier. At one time this land had belonged to the Chickasaw; it was ceded to the USA about the time of Lewis and Clark, and the Natchez Trace became the boundary line. You’ll also come across Sunken Traces; Old Traces; state parks, like the Tishomingo State Park; recreational sites, such as the Ross R Barnett Reservoir; and places for biking, camping, fishing, hiking, and hunting. You may even spy some waterfalls.
Outside Tupelo is the Parkway Visitor Center and Park Headquarters. Tupelo itself is the birthplace of Elvis Presley, if you’re interested. Nearby are two Civil War National Battlefields (NB): Brices Cross Roads NB and Tupelo NB. Tupelo is also a good place to overnight, as doing the full length of the parkway, with or without major time-consuming stops, can take a couple of days. We found an inexpensive hotel, not up to our usual standards. To compensate, the desk clerk was telling me they had a nice breakfast. I’ve seen hotel breakfasts. But she was right: it was a big, hot breakfast with eggs, meat, grits, gravy, biscuits, and all the trimmings. Maybe you’ll do as well as we did.
Jackson, the state capital and the most populous city in the state, offers a zoo, gardens, museums, colleges, fairgrounds, Old Capital, and governor’s mansion. I also happened across the Tudor Revival home of the late Eudora Welty, if you like historical sites as I do.
Near the terminus of the parkway, you’ll come to Mount Locust, a restored 18th-century inn and plantation; Natchez Trace National Historic Park Visitors Center; and the Grand Village Natchez, ancient home of the Natchez Indians. At Natchez is the antebellum Longwood Plantation, the largest octagonal house in America.
The changing seasons on the parkway:
Great River Road (Missouri-Louisiana)
The Great River Road is a collection of highways that follow the Mississippi River through ten states. Some routes are designated part of the National Scenic Byway; some are not. The Mississippi, of course, flows from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, but, thanks to William Faulkner and Samuel Clemens, takes on a more romantic view in the South. So, let’s log on midpoint at Scenic Route 79 in Missouri.
Hannibal is the boyhood home of Mark Twain. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, it still has the untouched aura of small town 19th-century life. You can walk through Clemens’ house and go down to the wharf and watch the barges as he must’ve done as a boy.
Where the Mississippi rounds St Louis, you’ll see the Gateway Arch, the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memoral. The arch is the tallest man-made monument in the USA and the state’s tallest acccessible building. Unfortunately, there is no good parking place. So be prepared to circle or pay, if you can find a vacancy.
Ever heard of Grant’s Farm bread? It comes from Grant’s Farm, outside St Louis, now owned by Anheuser-Busch. You can park at the Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site—the family home of Colonel Frederick Dent, Grant’s father-in-law—administered by park rangers. Also on the property is the couple’s first house, Hardscrabble, which you pass via the shuttle to Grant’s Farm zoo.
North of Cape Girardeau you’ll cross the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which passes through nine states. It commemorates the 1830 relocation of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek from their native land to Indian territory. Along the way many died. Nearby is the Trail of Tears State Park.
The river meanders and winds, so that, following the signs for the Great River Road, if you cross a bridge or two, you may find yourself sometimes on the east side, sometimes on the west side. At New Madrid, Missouri, which calls itself the oldest US city west of the Mississippi, you’ll have opportunity to learn about the great earthquake of 1811-12, which remains the most powerful quake ever to hit the Eastern US. As a side trip, you may want to explore Reelfoot Lake, in Tennessee, a lake formed by the quake, when the Mississippi flowed backward for up to 24 hours.
Continuing south, you’ll come to Memphis, Tennessee, the home of Elvis Presley. If you’re in Arkansas, you can cross the Mississippi and head east to see his mansion, Graceland, and his airplane, the Lisa Marie. Memphis is also known for Beale Street and BBQ. A famous dining experience is the Peabody Memphis, where the Peabody Ducks march to and from the Grand Lobby at 11:00 am and 5:00 pm daily.
South of Memphis, on the east side of the river, follow the Levee Road to Old River Road. About midway down the state, on Route 1, you’ll come to the Winterville Mounds, Greenville, Mississippi. Then, just before you cross I-20, you’ll have opportunity to take an aside to Vicksburg National Military Park (NMP). Grant laid a 47-day siege at Vicksburg, and the city surrendered 4 July 1863, roughly the same time that Northern forces were claiming a victory at Gettysburg, even though at Gettysburg they had suffered the largest number of casualties in the Civil War. Besides the usual monuments, cannons, earthworks, etc, Vicksburg also includes two antebellum homes and the restored gunboat the USS Cairo, the first ship in history to be sunk by a torpedo.
By the time you get to Natchez, you’ll be near the Natchez Trace Parkway. You may want to take the bridge to the west bank of the Mississippi, Vidalia, Louisiana, where, as you travel south, you can visit some of the antebellum homes mentioned on America’s Castles (TV 1994-99). Notable are Madewood Plantation (Napoleonville, Louisiana), Nottoway Plantation (White Castle, Louisiana), Oak Alley (Vacherie, Louisiana), and Parlange Plantation (New Roads, Louisiana). Somewhere along your journey, you may even find Sunshine Bridge.
“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” ~Lin Yutang
Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Edward Ball in Wakulla Springs, Florida