Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Southbound (It Begins)

Savannah Fared Us Well

As the darkness swallowed Tennessee in the rearview mirror, Betsy and I chatted enthusiastically about what lay ahead for us. We had less of a plan, and more of a general direction (go south, stop when we got tired). Our car was modestly packed. A few changes of clothes, sunscreen, a couple of fly-rods, a bottle or two of wine, a bag o’ snacks and a Fodor’s guide to Southern Florida.

The general idea was to wind up in Islamorada, Florida. What happened between here and there was up to us. We had three days to play with before our summit push to the purple islands, and our first planned camp was near Savannah, Ga.

A cold, northwest tailwind pushed us toward hopefully warmer climes as we cruised over Monteagle, past Lookout Mountain and Chattaboogie and through the amoebic reaches of the megalopolis of Atlanta. Our march to the sea would eventually end at Savannah, Ga., at nearly 2 a.m. Exhausted, yet relieved the first leg was done, we gathered some Hilton honor points, dialed up a softer bed and dreamt of cerulean skies, emerald waters and tarpon. Ok, maybe Betsy didn’t have tarpon in her dreams. She should’ve, but she probably didn’t.

A few hours later, we woke to grey skies, misting rain and cool temperatures, as the cold front had finally caught up to us while we slept. After a couple cups of plastic-tasting hotel room coffee, we drove to the historic downtown area of Savannah. Mid-day in the garden of good and evil, we milled around the classic southern architecture and the hordes of tourists, trying to soak in the history and the gothic goodness of the city while snapping dozens of photos. Eventually, we grew hungry and plopped into the wonderful corner spot of Belford’s.
After an evening of fast-food and Fritos in the car ride down, it was extremely good fortune to stumble into a place like this. We sat outside on the covered patio, seated next to a group of locals gathered around the famous Lady Chablis, the city’s flamboyant legend, who was cross-dressed to the nines and taking routine smoke breaks nearby on a bench below an enormous Spanish moss-covered live oak. On the opposite corner, a pizzeria welcomed a growing lunch crowd as we watched a couple of shaggy-haired 'Spread Heads tossing pizza dough in the kitchen’s large picture window. It was weird. And, kind of perfect.

Fried bait

We greedily devoured an appetizer of fried calamari, claiming it the best we’ve ever eaten. I sipped on a local brew and waited on our main course – Belford’s award-winning crab cakes. They were incredible, and well worth the two-beer wait. Nine days later, when we recounted the various meals we enjoyed along our journey, our lunch at Belford’s topped the impressive list.

On the phone at Belford's; staring down a Red Wings fan across the street.

On the way out of the old town, we stopped by a few galleries, then hopped in our car, drove past the tourist traps down by the river and eventually merged on I-95 and headed south to the next stop: St. Augustine.

We drove through the vanishing daylight, wipers occasionally clearing the annoying mist from our windshield. Eventually, we cruised through the blue-lights of downtown Jacksonville, as Betsy fussed at me for repeatedly checking my smart phone for directions to the proper exit. A short time later, we turned on to Highway A1A and found a hotel in south St. Augie. I informed Betsy that St. Augustine was the oldest city in the nation. I would repeat this tidbit of information several dozen times over the next nine days. Eventually, she found this funny.

The front-desk clerk told us about a nearby restaurant that had gathered positive reviews from a few guests, so we gave it a shot for a quality late-night bite. The grouper entrees far exceeded our modest expectations for the place, and we enjoyed the second outstanding meal of the day.

Exhausted, full of seafood and just a little road weary, we literally fell into our bed and the pillows we brought from home (you can't beat your "home pillow"). The first stage of the trip was over. Tomorrow brought all kinds of expectations, but we were too pleasantly tired to consider our options for the next day. Hell, we’d figure it out when we woke up.

To be continued ...

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