16th April – 2nd May So it’s goodbye to Florida’s beautiful ‘Forgotten Coast’ around the Gulf of Mexico. How lucky we have been to share its stunning, deserted beaches, fantastic wildlife and great State Parks that provided us with excellent camping.
We take the scenic route instead of staying on Interstate 95 and head towards Savannah, oldest city in the U.S. State of Georgia and famous for its Historic Downtown District. This is an area of the city to be walked around to appreciate some of the beautiful and elegant homes that line many of its streets, shaded by rows of huge live oak trees, their massive branches draped with Spanish moss that thrives in this humid, subtropical climate. Surprisingly, we learn that despite its name, Spanish moss is neither a moss, nor of Spanish origin but a member of the Bromeliad family, native to the Americas.
Situated on the Savannah River and today an important seaport, this city has been in danger from hurricanes and flooding and we remember seeing signs on our journey for evacuation routes. The river front area is lined with a row of towering brick warehouses which have now been converted into accommodation, shops, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and even a brewery. Paddle boats, such as the Georgia Queen, ply the river offering riverboat cruises and a chance to view the city from a different perspective.
Said to be alive with spirited experiences Savannah is a great city with a relaxed atmosphere, where people dance to the street musicians who entertain with pop, rap and country and western, enjoy outdoor eating, browsing the shops or relaxing in one of the many squares.
We end our first day here with a lovely meal in the River House Seafood Restaurant….char-grilled Mahe fish topped with crabmeat chunks on roasted, red-skinned potatoes with asparagus. A great meal and just in time to celebrate my birthday, as most of this day has been spent driving the miles between leaving Florida and arriving in Savannah.
Thunderstorms and torrential rain seem to be a daily occurrence however, and today is no exception as the darkened sky and strong wind sweep a curtain of rain over the bridge as we cross the Savannah River leaving Georgia behind and continuing into South Carolina.
Our first campsite here is at Santee State Park by Lake Marion, created along with Lake Moultrie by the damming of major waterways flowing out to the Atlantic at Charleston. It’s an eerie feeling to think of the farms, houses, roads and forests that lay under Lake Marion’s waters. As always, this State Park is very good value with water and electricity at each site plus a restroom amongst the trees with wonderful, hot showers. This evening I share one with a pale green tree frog. There is a sudden splat at my feet and I look down to what I think is a mushy bird dropping. I look up into the roof rafters for the bird, when all of a sudden, the green ‘mush’ jumps up on to the tiled wall, transformed into a pale green frog with yellow feet! I can only presume that when he jumped from such a height, he flattened himself out to land in a jelly-like lump for protection…..amazing!
We notice a few fishermen still out on the water hoping to catch a striped bass or a big catfish perhaps, whilst trees on the opposite side of the lake are turning a pale, golden green, as the late sun suddenly appears from behind stormy clouds.
Our National Park Pass expires at the end of April, so we still have time for free entry to Congaree National Park and then on to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Congaree is known for its diverse plant and animal life and its forest of towering trees…….giant loblolly pines, hickories and bald cypress, their growth depending upon the rich soils deposited by the floodwaters of the Congaree and Wateree rivers when they overflow. Many of the boardwalks were under water on our visit due to unusually late flooding from the recent, heavy rains but it’s a tranquil walk through these forests with a heavy silence as the waters rise, dappled by sunlight filtering through the canopy.
From Congaree we head to the beautifully kept 1,000 acre Poinsett State Park for camping, where the lake is presently full of enormous tadpoles. Our secluded corner with immaculate bathrooms and hot showers nearby, quickly becomes one of our favourites.
Dreher Island State Park in the Midlands area provides our next night’s camping. Covering 348 acres and spanning 3 islands, it also provides 12 miles of Lake Murray shoreline and is therefore a big attraction for boating enthusiasts and fishermen.
Stopping at Chapin the next day, we are putting away our shopping when a vehicle pulls up alongside having recognised our English number plates. “You’re a long way from home,” a voice exclaims with a very strong English accent, and we meet Pete and Jean with their little dog Dodger. A kind invite for coffee and we follow them to their lovely home with a garden that sweeps down to the edge of Lake Murray. Sitting on their balcony in the sun sharing stories, we are also treated to an unexpected lunch. Once again, our Land Rover has brought us in touch with an unexpected meeting and another kind gesture from strangers. A big thank you for such an interesting and relaxing afternoon.
Today we depart for White Oaks Campground in Table Rock State Park, set amongst densely forested hills and close to the border with North Carolina. Our camping neighbours are John and wife Chris with their 1969 GMC pickup that’s been converted into a hard top camper. Canoe and windsurfer are on the roof and bicycles on the back, it looks a great vehicle, full of character and gets John away into the wilds. Whilst he disappears, Chris organises her own disappearing act with her 2 horses, truck and trailer, trail riding through southern Utah for maybe a week or more. Great lives both of them and whilst the men talk vehicles and mechanics, I enjoy talking horses with Chris!
Table Rock State Park provides over 11 miles of hiking trails with various difficulty ratings, distances and estimated times of travel, making registration at the Trail Head a necessity before setting out on one. We decide to try the 7.2 mile (there and back) Table Rock Trail, with a strenuous rating. It’s a tough climb due to numerous, steep stone and log staircases, exposed roots, boulders and rock outcrops, not forgetting the two black rat snakes that decide to cross our path (not poisonous apparently) but if we run out of steam we can stop at the half way trailside shelter.
Time for a rest at Governor’s Rock and to admire the view……….
……….and of course everyone tells us that we have not far to go now and that the views are worth making that final effort to get to the top. So on we go, still a challenging climb, another snake and watching constantly all the things on the trail that are just waiting to trip us up…..that alone is tiring. However the view at the summit (3124 feet) of lakes and forested hills stretching to the horizon from a huge rocky outcrop, is spectacular……
………..but the descent, as is often the way, was even harder! Revived by a hot shower once back at camp, but I think we will sleep well tonight!
Heading for the KOA Campground just east of Asheville in North Carolina today, where we have had a parcel delivered containing some Land Rover parts from the UK. The camping areas are in a lovely, peaceful setting amongst 3 lakes and a river with an assortment of geese and ducks who have learned to come running whenever they hear the rustle of a paper bag! Spring is in the air with the Dogwood trees covered in white blossom and a pair of proud and very protective geese with their five baby goslings.
Asheville……playground of the rich and famous in the 1920s. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts were among those that came here for relaxation. Today, Asheville is a mecca for arts and crafts and the Downtown Art District is filled with galleries, museums and artist’s studios. We enjoy a pavement lunch in the sun outside the very impressive Grove Arcade, full of locally owned shops with interesting names such as ‘Appalachian Strings’, ‘Enter the Earth’ and ‘4 Corners Home,’ featuring natural products, jewellery and much more amongst its marble halls.
The Folk Art Centre, home of the Southern Highland Craft Guild is also worth a visit. Membership of the Guild stands at more than 900 artisans, selected by a jury for the high quality of design and craftsmanship reflected in their work. The exhibits included beautiful paintings and prints, jewellery, glass and pottery, furniture, clothes and accessories.
And of course, Asheville is home to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the famous Blue RIdge Mountain Parkway, a scenic mountain drive that runs between the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks.
This is where we will head for next, but first we must back-track to Hendersonville to visit Brenton and Shannon and their new 3 month old little girl Emileen who is like a little doll and absolutely gorgeous. Great to see them both after our first meeting with them in Bolivia and briefly at the Overland Expo in Arizona last year. Also met Shannon’s mum and dad who very kindly lent Bill their fantastic garage/workshop to do a bit of maintenance on Moby…….Bill’s dream to have something like this one day! Thank you all for the invite and kind hospitality, for the great meal Shannon and the luxury of a bed and ensuite for the night!
Before heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we spend a couple of nights camping at the Smoky Mountain Meadows Campground just outside of Bryson City, a small town that borders the southern side of the park. This campground is a real gem in a huge green meadow with running streams and shady trees. Very spacious and peaceful as only a handful of people here. We are invited for drinks around the campfire by a couple of guys with an RV parked not far from us but we eat late and then everyone is in bed. As we missed their invitation, they arrive the next morning with a large slice of home made key lime pie and an aerosol can of whipped cream!
Before we leave for the Smoky Mountains, we make a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, once one of the largest tribes in the southeastern United States. Here they lived peacefully alongside the land in the Great Smoky Mountains and the lowlands of the Southern Appalachians until Europeans arrived and the Cherokees were forced to fight fierce battles as their land began to be taken from them. In 1835, 16,000 Cherokees were forced to leave what was left of their homeland and made to walk 1,200 miles west to Oklahoma, a harrowing journey during which thousands died from hunger, disease, exposure and exhaustion. Their journey became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. Some however, managed to return to their homeland to establish the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians and now, this band lives on its reservation next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Across the road from the museum is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual which represents the work of more than 300 artists, with many beautiful examples of Cherokee traditional art for sale and well worth a visit. We will have to find a safe place in Moby for the small pot that we bought!
We leave the town of Cherokee and head into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of America’s few National Parks where there is no charge to enter. We have the whole of the Smokies to look forward to, followed by the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park!