Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Travelogue: from real blizzard to fake snow

Okay, since I've gone and committed myself to a $10/day charge for internet access here in the land of Disney (what, no free wi-fi?), I might as well get my money's worth and tap out a brief recap of our journey thus far.

So ever since we got it into our heads to visit my father in Florida for Christmas this year, we had always assumed that we would drive. Not that we have anything against flying -- and surely Andriana would have gotten a kick out of what would be her first time in a plane -- but hopping in a car and driving south was one of the first things my wife and I did as a couple, way back when.

At that time we were trying to meet up with my brother and his Georgetown friends as they celebrated Spring Break in the Orlando area, but our efforts were thwarted by foul weather at the Florida/Georgia border. But we enjoyed our drive immensely nevertheless, avoiding the interstates and hugging the coast from Jersey all the way down to Savannah, discovering the joys of two-lane highway travel in the form of unexpected vistas and roadside culinary delights. Never mind that my poor wife (then fiancee) would have had to contend with a condo full of goofy college kids had we actually managed to make it all the way down to Orlando on that trip...

Flash forward to about a year ago when we said to my dad, who spends his winters in Florida: why don't we come see you for the holidays next year? We had in mind a nice peaceful week on the Gulf Coast scampering about on a sandy beach instead of freezing our buns off in New England, but little did we know that he had immediately begun planning a 5-day Disney extravaganza as soon as we'd told him we were definitely coming down. So now the plan was to drive from Gloucester to Orlando, hang out with Mickey and Company through Christmas, then spend a few days on the Florida Panhandle before shlepping back up to Boston sometime after New Year's. Sounds like a plan, right?

The only trouble was that at the time, gas prices were up over the $4 mark, but we were determined to make the slog by land, and were immensely gratified to see our stubborn persistence in this respect pay off as gas decided to take a nose dive over the Fall, such that not only were we going to break even when compared to flying, but we'd actually come out ahead even after figuring in gas, tolls, hotels, and extra meals along the way! So with at least that worry laid to rest, we started to plan the drive in earnest. With a little over 1400 miles to cover, we had to decide whether we wanted to attempt the drive in three or four days. Four would give us more flexbility and less stress on the road, but we'd have less time to pack and prepare ourselves for the trip; whereas three days made for something more a breakneck pace, but at least we'd be ready and well-rested for the journey.

In the end the weather made the decision for us -- with a winter storm dumping more than a foot of snow on us on Friday and another poised to do the same again on Sunday, leaving on Saturday and making it a four-day trip was our only real option. So we packed in an awful hurry on Saturday morning and set out late in the day fighting the fading light and road conditions that were still blizzard-like even several hours after the main thrust of the winter storm had supposedly abated. The roads were a sloppy, slippery mess until well after Connecticut, but fortunately as we approached New Jersey and our stopping point for the evening the highways were much improved, although there was more snow and ice on the way.

Getting to my mom's house at about 11:30 at night wasn't ideal, but at least we wouldn't have to face the next storm starting on Cape Ann. By noon the next day we were already far enough south that rain was our only concern, and even that had abated by midafternoon. Nevertheless the day proved to be a long and thankless drive down I-95 through Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and finally North Carolina. We were hoping to hole up for the night in Wilmington, a town that we had drive through years ago and were quite enamored with, but as night fell around 5:30pm and we were still a hundred miles out from our destination we began to rethink our original plan. Although our daughter had been quite the trooper throughout the day's driving and that of the previous night, by sunset she was beginning to fray. We had promised her a nice relaxing evening in a hotel pool, and now faced with the prospect of pushing on and denying her that or stopping early for the night and falling behind in our driving schedule we thought the latter option was looking nicer and nicer for all concerned parties.

Just one problem, though: we couldn't find a hotel with an indoor pool! As we blundered about from possibility to possibility, we realized that not only were we not relaxing but we weren't getting any closer to Wilmington, either. Finally it was our bedraggled, teary-eyed daughter who (very graciously) suggested that we give up on looking for a pool, so instead we put the pedal to the metal and finished our trek to Wilmington, where we found that the Hilton was advertising affordable room rates with stunning views of the Cape Fear River and the battleship USS North Carolina. They even had a decent restaurant serving Lowcountry cuisine! Even though the Wilmington Hilton only had an outdoor swimming pool, Andriana enjoyed staying there so much that she suggested we come back on the return visit.

After a day of hard driving we felt due for something a little more relaxed in pace, so the next morning after a leisurely breakfast at a local Waffle House we traded I-95 for coastal Route 17 and made our way down from Wilmington through Myrtle Beach and Charleston to Savannah. It was nice to slow things down, and we made a scenic pit stop at Huntington Beach State Park, where sculptor Anna Huntington and her husband lived in a Moorish-influenced castle named Atalaya. Maria and I had previously visited Brookgreen Gardens, where many of Anna Huntingtons's sculptures are on display in a carefully-kept outdoor setting, so we were keen on visiting this place that had served as Anna's studio for several decades. It was definitely worth the stop, and we spent an hour or two roaming the now-uninhabited compound. The park rangers give out maps with numbered sections corresponding to numbered locations, so Andriana had great fun leading us in numerical order through the building.

Our next stop was a required culinary touchstone for any journey through this region: the See Wee Cafe, located outside of Charleston on Route 17. Not only have Maria and I stopped here on every trip we'd made through the South, but now my dad can't pass this place by when going or coming for the winter months. The she-crab soup was divine as always, and the hush puppies were a hit with the little one. As for the entrees, you can't go wrong no matter what you choose, so let that be the least of your concerns if you go. And be sure to order the banana pudding for dessert!

Alas, although our leisurely drive should have allowed for arriving in Savannah around sunset, giving us time to poke about that lovely city's waterfront and many squares by night, a couple of unforseeable traffic snarls had pushed our actual arrival at the Georgia border back by an hour and a half, so there would be no evening wanderings for us around Savannah on this trip. There was, however, a nice pool in the hotel, so our daughter was pleased.

This morning we did make our way to the Savannah waterfront -- how could we not? -- but with the clock ticking we knew we wouldn't be able to linger for longer than an hour or so, however wrong it feels to give such a beautiful city such short shrift. So by noon we were back on the Mother Road I-95, averaging between 90 and 100 miles per hour with the snowbirds and meth heads as we roared along the Georgia coast and into the Sunshine State, where we stopped at the official Welcoming Center just long enough to claim and quaff our complimentary orange juice. After this the driving was a blur: I-95 to I-4, just beating the rush hour traffic through Orlando to make our way to the outskirts of Walt Disney World and the Pop Century Resort, where we'll be hanging our mouse-eared hats for the next five days or so. A quick check-in and a short shuttle bus ride later and we're on Main Street, USA, watching an electric light parade and marvelling at the fake snow being piped in from on high.

At least we didn't have to shovel any of this snow!

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