Everyone dreams of the classic US road trip – a Mustang convertible with the top down, sun shining, wind in your hair, music blaring, all your worries and cares left behind. But not everyone dreams of manoeuvring a 30ft RV 2,500kms across highways bridges and ferries. Turns out, it’s more fun than you think. Our editor and resident travel guru Derek Green jumps up into the hot seat for this Atlantic Coast adventure.
The Atlantic Coast is considered one of America’s 10 great road trips, featuring famous beaches, quaint towns and landmarks from key moments in history. It’s been on our radar for a few years, and finally here we are. It is possible to take a quicker, inland route avoiding many of the complications found along our chosen route, but where would the fun be in that?
Orlando FL – St Augustine FL
As we roll along, carefully winding away from the El Monte RV hire depot, we’re warmed by the sight of ‘Holy Land’ on our left. No, we’re not trying to negotiate the cobblestones of old Jerusalem in a plus-sized recreational vehicle, but we do still consider the open, welcoming arms of the pure white Jesus before us as a good sign as we head up the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New York.
If you hadn’t guessed, there’s a theme park for everything in Orlando – 471 at last count, and the ‘Holy Land Experience’ isn’t even the strangest – ‘Gatorland’ gets that dubious honour. As if the massive alligator jaw entrance isn’t enough of a warning, apparently all activities involve running the so called “gator gauntlet” – feeding the gators, swimming with the gators, gator racing and more. Few visitors survive. (I’m kidding of course, many people survive. Well the fast ones anyway.)
Once again my family is putting their trust in a man behind the wheel of an RV ‘beast’, 4 feet shorter than the ‘big’ beast from a previous trip, so we dub this chariot the ‘LB’ (Little Beast), although in reality, it is still big in every way – big wheels, big turning circle, and a big ol’ thirst for gas.
RV rental companies don’t like one way rentals, and apart from charging a substantial one way fee, they also prefer not to supply you with extra items such as a GPS, which are often owned by the local franchisee (they also like to insist you pay for additional insurance cover which you don’t need). So with my wallet a little lighter, the map in my head and my internal GPS hopefully pointing in the right direction, we make haste towards the historical Spanish fort town of St Augustine, our first stop.
It’s mighty hot as we pull into our RV campground, and I fear most of our energy might be taken up in cooling off in the pool and becoming familiar with the machinations of LB, rather than exploring the 16th century Castillo and drinking from the world famous Fountain of Youth. My fears turn out to be well founded. Levelling, working out the power and sewage connections, all the switches and levers, slide-outs and fold outs takes an eternity. What a great way to travel though – we have a fridge, stove and microwave, dining space, bedroom with a door, toilet and shower – not to mention tables, chairs and pretty much anything else you could need.
Claiming to be the oldest continuously inhabited site in the mainland USA, the town does have several ‘must sees’, including the Colonial Quarter and Lightner Museum of antiquities, which are easily reached via a free trolley which circles the nearby areas.
St Augustine FL – Savannah GA
Hitting the road early, we get a further opportunity to complete several scenic laps of old town St Augustine – apparently my internal GPS has failed to wake up with the rest of us! As we approach a familiar “right hand turn only” sign for the third time, I decide to do what everyone has done at some time in their life – it is a fairly quiet Sunday morning after all – and, well kinda break the road rules. Not the only time it will happen on this trip I might add, but more of that later.
With our circuitous tour behind us, and a hot latte (there’s another kind?) and Dunkin’ Donuts in front of us, we start the trek to Savannah, Georgia.
We had been counting on the heat gradually easing off as we headed up the coast, but as we set up LB in the scorching sun of an open field in the Red Gate Farm RV and Campground – it’s 100 degrees and rising – clearly this theory is flawed.
Strangely there’s no greeting, staff or information forthcoming, so we take a taxi to downtown Savannah in search of cooling activities.
With the sun radiating off every surface, and the tar on the roads seemingly melting underfoot, we make a mandatory stop at the famous Leopold’s Ice Cream, and concede the only enjoyment to be had on a day like today is to be had on a bar stool, with a cool beverage and blast of good ol’ southern A/C.
Savannah’s riverfront offers a selection of establishments that will provide a solution to our needs, and after wandering in and out of a couple of dodgy looking taverns, we settle against the cool marble of the bar at the famous Bohemian Hotel. Having sampled beers with names like Blue Moon Harvest and Sweet Water, we adjourn to the restaurant and enjoy some local delicacies – Cornbread, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Shrimp on Grits. Meals like this can seriously go either way, but it thankfully ends well for all.
After a wander around the old town streets at dusk, we grab a taxi back to our RV, each of us hoping the others have left the A/C running. Thankfully we have (no blame game here), but it doesn’t seem to be making any difference.
Detecting a slight rise in the wind outside, I step out for a moment to check the sky. A sharp line separates the deep yellow of a distant sunset with the onset of a dark, brooding storm. “Hmm, we might need to bunker down” I inform the girls. Within minutes the RV starts to sway like a small boat in heavy seas and rain rattles the roof. I have visions of the destruction you see in those ‘storm’ TV shows, specifically an RV riding the cusp of a massive twister, but I don’t share that thought with my family.
Through the haze of minor panic, a light bulb suddenly illuminates my brain. The campground’s ‘club house’ building on the other side of the field could provide us safe shelter through the swiftly escalating storm, and we decide to make a run for it. Outside the RV, it’s clear this isn’t your everyday storm, well, not where we’re from anyway. With rain and wind pelting our faces and backs, we quickly abandon our initially calm retreat and make a wild dash for safety.
The sky is now black as pitch, and the single campground light reveals bushes and trees lopsided in the blast. We finally reach the dark clubhouse and my heart sinks as I see the door has a code lock. We still haven’t seen anyone who works in this place, but I had bumped into a helpful family from Florida earlier in the day, who’d told me the Wi-Fi password, and… 135791. Somehow the number has stuck in my head, and we’re in, and safe. We wait out the storm, and watch the updates and warnings on a TV bigger than the clubhouse pool table. A few minutes later our concerns about the storm are validated when the family from Florida blow in to join us. Living down south they see plenty of storms like this and know when to get out of a stationary RV. We exchange travel and storm stories, and watch a guy called Mike lose 400 pounds on a show called ‘My Mighty Redneck Make-over’ or something.
With the storm passed we cautiously return to our RV, noting branches, deck chairs and other loose debris strewn around the park.
None of it seems such a big deal now, in fact in hindsight watching ‘Mike’ go in for laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery was the scariest moment of the night.
Savanna GA – Myrtle Beach SC
Heading towards Georgetown, South Carolina I’m reminded of the James Taylor song that goes “In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina”. Which when you think about it is kind of a dumb link to make really, considering there’s no actual place called Carolina – its either North or South Carolina, or the collective “Carolinas”. Plus he was going there in his mind, and we’re going for real. Ah whatever, hippy.
We need a cool stop along the way and pause to stroll out on Garris Landing, over the mud flats near Awendaw. A family from Pennsylvania are crabbing, which turns out to be a great spectator sport – the crabs are big and plentiful, and we learn about this part of the coast and the surrounds from people who’ve been coming here for years. Soon the tide rolls in and covers the marshy flats and the thousands of mud oysters. We’re surprised scores of people aren’t squelching through the mud, picking the flats dry but we’re told the oysters aren’t ready – they have salmonella and are still three months from starting to ‘ripen’.
Considering it’s summer, and taking into account that many Americans only get 2 or 3 weeks annual leave, we’ve booked all our RV stops ahead to avoid being turned away. The only problem with this is that, occasionally the RV campground we saw set in lush, rolling hills surrounded by waterfalls and daisies on a website actually sucks in real life. Or maybe they just don’t have the right power connection.
And so it is we drive up and back a mile down a road masquerading as sand dunes along which we shan’t return. It was a shame Johnson’s Campground and Marina had to be added to the growing list of parks with no meet and greet, because in the 3/4 of an hour we were there – spent working on the power issue and trying not to melt in the sun – I met two helpful fellow campers with whom I would have liked to discuss all things travel. Mo, a real no nonsense, ‘short back and no sides’ military type, and Randy, who was travelling in a yacht moored at the campground’s marina on the river. Randy in particular was well worth a yarn over a margarita or two, his boat rocking gently in the sunset, hearing more about his admiration for the great Australian adventurer Alby Mangles, and his plans to sail to Panama with his own version of Sale of the Century model-turned-adventurer’s companion, Judy Green. I didn’t meet his wife but with an name like Claudia, coupled with Randy’s permanent grin, I could only assume the boat, the trip and Claudia were all straight out of the World Safari handbook. Well there you go.
Moving on from the equally pretty and unfriendly Georgetown, we have no choice but to take a chance on finding an RV park with a vacancy along the Myrtle Beach strip, which apart from being the frozen yoghurt and mini golf capital of the world, is one of the busiest beach resort regions in the USA. All this on, wait for it – the night before the Fourth of July. Luck was with us and we soon came across the biggest RV campground ‘resort’ any of us ever seen. ‘Lakewood’ is like a city in its own right, with more than a thousand sites, cafes, pools, lakes, an auditorium, and transportation system – hundreds of golf buggies. The only spare site is 20 metres from the beachfront, and we can’t believe our luck. The beach itself seems pretty reasonable to an Australian, and sensational to any of the millions of Americans who visit each year who don’t live within easy access of the coast, something we surely take for granted.
After a wander and quick dip in the Atlantic, we listen to the family karaoke in the auditorium, and watch the endless procession of buggies looping the Lakewood circuit, each with its own kitsch combination of fairy lights and ‘80s rock anthems – an enjoyable (if voyeuristic) slice of Americana before we continue our trek.
Myrtle Beach SC – Sea Level NC
Day four, and we’re on the road nice and early, crappy coffee and awesome donuts in hand as has become tradition on this trip. The Dunkin Donuts logo has quickly become our unofficial mascot – the coffee may not be great but as an experience, wedging our massive chariot into their car park and harassing the poor staff over their coffee making techniques is synonymous with everything about our great American road trip – wide spaces, endless expanses of pine and coastline, and fingers sticky with glazed donut frosting.
Wilmington, Surf City, Emerald Isle and Jacksonville fly by, and by mid-afternoon we arrive at Cedar Creek campground, in the out of the way and interestingly named North Carolina coastal town of Sea Level. Once satisfied our RV is actually above sea level, we wander off along the small marina and inlet, having a laugh about my attempt earlier in the day to drive through the military installation at Camp Lejeune. To his credit, the well-armed sentry had taken my broad smile and dumb question at face value, though I’m sure he doesn’t get asked “hey can I drive my RV through here?” very often. If only he could have known how much time that private 20 mile stretch of highway 172 would have saved us. He would have still said a firm “No” I’m sure.
Sea Level NC – Roanoke Island NC
North Carolina boasts some of the most beautiful and isolated coastline in the country, much of it accessible only by bridge or ferry. Sir Walter Raleigh sent several boatloads of settlers to these parts in the late 16th century on a failed attempt to colonise the new world. Life was harsh by any standards, and survival reliant on whatever food could be produced in the marshy foreshores, or dredged from the rough seas. They would return to England after only two years, decimated and starving.
In our own twisted, privileged 21st century way we identify with these poor people as we head to the Cedar Island ferry terminal – it’s 6 am, our stomachs are rumbling and we haven’t seen a Dunkin Donuts in more than 24 hours.
As we marvel at the punctuality and cleanliness of our ferry, and its effortless ability to transport cars, trucks and RVs, we wonder what awaits us through the famous Outer Banks and beyond.
As the Little Beast rolls off the Cedar Island ferry we can see that this part of North Carolina is buckling under the weight of Trump-fuelled patriotism, and the island sea town of Ocracoke is bearing the full brunt. It’s the fourth of July, and we’re wondering aloud about the extent of tonight’s fireworks display when a local leans into our conversation and informs us that there will be no fireworks this year, or any year soon.
We tentatively enquire as to what could possibly prevent fireworks on America’s biggest day of the year, and in a hushed tone that Americans prefer when delivering bad news or discussing poor hygiene, we’re informed that several years ago the fireworks delivery truck exploded, causing injury and death.
Feeling like we’ve somehow wandered onto scene from The Simpsons, we listen as the rest of the story unfolds. It turns out this tragedy couldn’t have been scripted better (or worse) than Matt Groening himself.
On July 4th 2009, the delivery truck arrived by ferry and parked at the Ocracoke terminal. This day provided the perfect storm for disaster – forty degree heat, subpar transport and storage systems, and lack of attention to duty of care. A few minutes later came the critical moment – boom! Up it went, taking lives, and a few limbs with it. The results of the investigation affected regulations regarding fireworks on the island, and there have (officially) been none since that day.
With this not so happy thought fresh in our minds, we wander off into the heart of quaint Ocracoke and find a town that is, in fact, happily going about its business.
There’s fun for all the family at the festive little marina, which among other activities, offers us the once in a lifetime chance to make a T-shirt imprinted with a freshly caught fish dipped in paint, watch crabs devour a massive tuna carcass, and drink mint and lime iced tea. Each is disgusting in its own way, but we take the memories away with us like little trinkets on a shelly holiday bracelet.
Curving up and away from its only settlement, the 15 mile island is as thin and straight as the crusts cut off an all American PB and J sandwich. Heading north to the Hatteras Island ferry, our line of sight barely extends beyond a swampy coast on our left and wind beaten sand dunes to our right, in all only a couple of hundred metres across at any point. Natural isolation and a simple rustic charm makes the island an appealing prospect for an extended visit.
Roanoke Island is our destination, though I’m yet to tell the girls the story of the early settlers who vanished without a trace more than 400 years ago. If those poor souls were lucky, the mystery can be explained away as a combination of hunger, homesickness and bad timing. Or there’s Seth Grahame–Smith’s version, in which a cunning vampire eats them one by one.
Fireworks in stereo, thanks to the nearby town of Manteo and the popular Jeanette’s Pier, is a great way to end the day as an eerily unnerving bronze full moon slides in and out of wispy clouds. Without the young Abe Lincoln to protect us, we’re at the mercy of any creatures of the night. A strange rustling in the reeds near our viewing platform turns out to be a fellow RV-er’s poodle, but it gives us all a fright nonetheless. I note in the dim light that it does have a pretty mean set of teeth on it.
Roanoke Island NC – Chincoteague Island VI
The morning after Fourth of July celebrations is the wrong time to head off on a pancake mission, and every greasy spoon on the Nags Head strip is packed with bleary eyed revellers looking to hook up with a plate of fried varmint, bacon and a strong coffee. We settle for take-away scones, and steer our chariot of steel and laminate towards our next stop. Unless frozen yogurt and cheap t-shirts are your number one priority in life, the Wright Brothers Memorial is the prize attraction of this region.
Kill Devil Hills sounds like the birthplace of heavy metal, not the site of man’s first powered flight, but a friendly National Park volunteer assures us we are in the right place as she waves us through the boom gate. In the excellent museum we trace the story of the brothers, from their early beginnings in Ohio and their fascination with aerodynamics, through years of trial and error, legal and patent headaches, and struggle for recognition as the founders of flight.
The Chesapeake Bay crossing is one of man’s great engineering achievements, spanning almost 30kms of connecting bridges and tunnels that allow us to stay on the coast, saving days of driving and unwanted urban encounters with Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The heat persists, making traditional sight-seeing difficult, so we admire much of Virginia’s Delmarva Peninsula and Eastern Shores from the air conditioned comfort of the Little Beast, as pines trees are gradually replaced by oak and elms. We’ve left the South and have arrived in the North.
Chincoteague Island VI – New York NY
After a quiet night in our campground, we stick with our plan to stay on the coastal route, driving through the kitsch ‘60s resort strip of Ocean City, with it’s rows of art deco high rises, Ferris wheels and boardwalks.
From Lewes we have our last encounter with the sea, our third ferry ride is a pleasant hour and a fifteen minutes across Delaware Bay to Cape May at the tip of New Jersey, accompanied by playful dolphins and a welcome breeze.
Our New York apartment and all the wonders of the Upper West Side await, so we push ahead, skipping the Atlantic City strip and Jersey Shore, which, if anything like the 4 seconds I saw of the TV show of the same name, is a tactic that will keep our respective IQs at, or near their current levels.
Working our way through the labyrinth of New Jersey’s freeway system, the pressure mounts as we must find a) the RV drop off office, and b) more importantly, fuel. Finally, as we near our final destination I see a gas station, and tear up rubber and asphalt crossing seven lanes and leaving a 12 car pile up in my wake…
Well not quite, but as I jump down from the RV cab and inspect the fuel pumps, I notice that a New Jersey highway patrol vehicle has pulled into the station and positioned itself across our starboard bow. It’s clear soon after that the officer within was none too impressed with my manoeuvre. The ensuing conversation goes like this:
“Licence and registration.” (He’s all business)
“Oh hi, yeah, well what happened was…” (I try to lighten the mood.)
“LICENCE AND REGISTRATION.” (OK so he’s not in the mood for chit chat.)
He radios in our RV’s registration, checks over my Victorian drivers licence and eventually seems satisfied we are not wanted for any other crimes against humanity. Just this one.
Finally he lets out a large sigh, and says, “So your from Australia? Look do you realise how dangerous that was.” (He’s going to let me off!)
“Officer in hindsight I agree, in fact in 1641 miles – with less than one lousy mile to go – it’s the only remotely stupid thing I’ve done on our entire trip” (There it is, I’m going to hell – I’ve lied to a Policeman.)
“OK look, can you just be careful please – take it easy.” (Phew).
The RV drop off point is just around the corner, but it’s enough time for us to see sign posts mentioning that we’re actually in some kind of designated ‘Safety Lane Zone’ and that not only are regular fines doubled, serious driving offences attract a penalty of $2,000 fine or ’30 days’.
The thought of 30 days free accommodation is tempting, but I think of the leafy green of Central Park, the hustle of Broadway and the decadence of Zabars Deli – plus I’m pretty sure they don’t have EJ’s Crunchy French Toast in prison, so on this occasion I must graciously decline.
Maybe next time.