It’s just a four-and-a-half hour ride on I-95 from St. Augustine, FL, to Charleston, SC, but we’d want at least a week to take our fantasy road trip through the Southeast U.S. Visions of historic cities, the Atlantic Coast and classic family attractions have had us yearning to hit the road soon.
For starters, fly in to Jacksonville, FL, rent a car and head south to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. We love that there’s a good old-fashioned historic tourist district filled with cobblestone streets, cafés, bars and shops. Within walking distance is the Casa Monica Resort & Spa, part of the Kessler Collection and Marriott’s Autograph Collection. We’ve stayed here several times and always enjoy a cocktail in the lobby lounge, where locals come in after work for happy hour and the martini menu. The formal restaurant, Costa Brava, has a tapas menu and Mediterranean-style entrées. We’ve got great dining memories of sitting back and watching horse-and-carriage buggies go by toward the old town just as dusk was falling.
In the morning, take time to visit St. Augustine’s gorgeous beaches, which are an incredibly short drive away.
When it’s time to hit the road, stop off at the Castillo de San Marcos fort on your way out of town, which is part of the National Park Service.
Head back up north on I-95 toward Jacksonville and stop off at Amelia Island. We love the Ritz-Carlton here and could easily stay for a few days in this luxury setting. The resort has beautiful wide beaches and has it all when it comes to spa, pool and fine dining. We enjoy Coast for its seafood; the restaurant partners with local fishermen and farmers for its ingredients.
Good to know: The Omni Amelia Island Plantation is right nearby; it’s a full-fledged resort that underwent an $85 million renovation a few years ago. We say it’s definitely worth considering, especially if you’re into golf and tennis.
You can see how this trip could already take up the better part of a week, but it’s time to head north across the Georgia border — en route to Savannah, one of our all-time favorite cities. We know many intrepid travelers who have not yet made it here, but we say go, especially now that JetBlue is flying there from the Northeast. The two-hour drive from Amelia Island is quite scenic and you’ll pass Sea Island Resort along the way. Plan a dramatic arrival in Savannah by driving over the beautiful Talmadge Memorial Bridge, which carries you over the Savannah River and delivers you into the historic district, which is filled with 22 squares, all dotted with beautiful homes and shops.
Savannah doesn’t have a New Orleans party vibe, but it does evoke a similar ethos to the calmer parts of the French Quarter. Whenever we get to town, we hand the keys to our rental car to the hotel valet and do not retrieve them until we’re leaving. That’s because this is a true walking city filled with oak trees dripping with moss, sultry air and a few haunted establishments along the way.
Where to stay? We’re partial to the Mansion on Forsyth Park, another Kessler and Autograph Collection hotel, which also has a great lobby bar and a fine-dining restaurant, 700 Drayton. Love hidden bars? When you’re in 700 Drayton, go up the grand staircase and you’ll find a sleek little lounge that sophisticated locals frequent. There’s often live music and we love the balcony that overlooks Forsyth Park, which personifies Savannah with its stately trees and famous fountain.
Note: We’ve also stayed at the Andaz Savannah, which is at the other end of the town and close to the famous Riverwalk. It’s in a very active location on Ellis Square and close to City Market and plenty of great restaurants. You can even visit the statue of Johnny Mercer on the square, the famous songwriter and the city's favorite son (think “Moon River,” “One for My Baby,” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and The Santa Fe,” to name but a few tunes).
With so much to do in Savannah, we haven’t even mentioned the cemeteries or Mercer House, made famous by the book and the film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” We recommend taking an Old Town Trolley Tour when you arrive to get the lay of the land. It may seem touristy, but it’s a great way to let the city unfold before you. We’ve taken the tour several times and always discover something new.
Time to head for Charleston, SC, and so it’s back on to I-95 for another two-hour drive. Here’s another classic southern city with a slightly different vibe. Dining here is low-country cuisine and there are plenty of historic inns, beach-area resorts and hotels. New in town is yet another Kessler hotel, the Grand Bohemian Charleston, which we haven’t visited but are quite certain offers the same successful elements of his properties in St. Augustine and Savannah. Also new is The Beach Club at Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, which opened last September.
It’s easy to fly out of Charleston, so we’ll bid our rental car adieu and hop on a flight home. Truth be told, if we had another week we’d keep driving. We’ve always been curious about Beaufort and Kiawah Island in South Carolina, and we’d love to take a jaunt further north to Myrtle Beach and then on-ward to Wilmington, NC. That’s an often overlooked history-rich city with a beautiful beachfront, a historic old town and a beautiful Riverwalk that wraps around the Cape Fear River. Time for another road trip!