Once again we took the AutoTrain, this time on our way to a wedding in New Jersey near Philadelphia. Planning far in advance, we thought it would be nice to have the Jeep if there was snow. As it turned out, the chilly air and overcast skies were a reminder of the benefits of living in Florida, but we saw no snow.
Having some time on our hands the day after the wedding, we took a drive through the Pine Barrens and even found a dirt road to follow for a while. The pine forests were much as we expected, but we were also intrigued by field after field of blueberry plants and cranberry bogs.
The “Garden State” has some 9800 farms. Domesticated blueberries were developed in New Jersey, now the leading producer in the nation. New Jersey is also the third largest producer of cranberries. Both berries grew wild in the Pine Barrens.
An occasional plane disturbed our otherwise perfect peace when we took a short walk on part of the forty-nine and a half mile-long Batona Trail. Batona stands for “back to nature.” The trail was started by a hiking club in 1960.
Leaving New Jersey, we took I-95 in order to get south quickly to meet some friends for dinner in Charleston. Traffic was relatively light for 95 (we weren’t surrounded by trucks and bumper to bumper cars), but the rain through southern Virginia was very hard. Finally, I had enough and decided to return to back roads, our preferred routes.
We went out to the water to New Bern, N.C. Swiss immigrants under the leadership of Baron de Graffenried founded the town in 1710. It was the home of the British Royal Governor and later the first state capital of North Carolina. Captured by Union forces early in the Civil War, it escaped much of the destruction suffered by other Southern cities, and there are still many antebellum buildings and houses. Because it was in Union hands, many escaped slaves headed there, some subsequently fought for the North, and they later elected African-American Congressmen until disenfranchised by 1899 discriminatory legislation.
Like many communities, they have painted animal statues around town, presumably part of a fund raiser. Chicago has cows. New Bern’s mascot is the bear, the symbol of old Bern. My best memory of our one-night stay, however, will be dinner at Morgan’s Tavern & Grill. I thought I would just grab a burger and ended up having the best crab cakes I have ever had in my life. They were almost pure crab meat held together with a little parmesan cheese and a few light spices. More crab meat was piled on the two fried paddies and hollandaise sauce was dribbled over the whole. Just fantastic!
The next day took us down route 17 to Charleston, not a road with a lot to recommend it. But when we arrived, we had a great meal with friends of over forty years.
We rushed through Charleston many years ago and only had two days this year, but it was well worth the visit. We were blessed with seventy-degree days and blue skies as we wandered through the old historic district looking at the distinct architecture, parks and gardens.
We visited the now restored original South Carolina Statehouse constructed in 1790. Then we walked across the Street to St. Michaels, the oldest church building in the city, started in 1752. Their bells have traveled across the Atlantic more than most people. Imported from England, they were seized by the British and taken back after the Revolution. A London merchant returned them, but they were destroyed when they were sent to Columbia for “safe keeping” during the Civil War. The metal was salvaged and resent to England to be recast by the original founders in the original molds.
St. Michaels was built by a congregation from St. Philip’s a few blocks away, when that group grew too big, and a new church was authorized. The present St. Phillip’s building was constructed later. I felt a peculiar connection to it, however. A fellow I knew in college (I dated his sister) was a popular rector at St. Phillips when one Sunday he announced from the pulpit that he had been cursed by a witch while a student and was resigning from the priesthood.
We took a tour of the “Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.” It was the customs house, the most important building in any Colonial port. We intellectually knew of the sacrifices made by the early patriots, but a tour of the dungeon brought home how terrible those sacrifices were.
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site is where the first colonists settled in 1670. Unlike their northern neighbors, they were coming for commercial gain, not to escape religious persecution. From the very beginning, the economy was based on Indian and African slaves. There is not much left of the original community because the site was chosen for defensive purposes. After ten years, they moved to the less secure present Charleston which offered a much better port. But the state has built a very good museum, and a three-mile trail wanders through the area past interesting archeological exhibits and reconstructions of a house, the waterside fortification and a ketch like those used by the settlers for trade with Barbados and the northern colonies. A subsequent plantation house is not open to the public, but the grounds are lovely, lined with old oaks (one 700 years old) and camellias. The flowers, confused by the unusually warm weather, were out and beautiful.
When we went to visit Fort Moultrie, we thought it would be a reconstruction of the a Revolutionary War fort because it was the site of the first major American victory. Now part of the Fort Sumter National Monument, it was used for coastal defenses continuously through World War II. As a result, the museum and fort now give one a glimpse of all that almost two hundred years of history. There are cannons from each era and parts of the fort date from each period.
As we finished our tour of Fort Moultrie, a weather front with a cold rain moved in. We retired to Kaminsky’s, a famous Charleston bakery – life is uncertain, eat dessert first – and then to the Mad River Bar & Grille for dinner. The latter is in a former sailor’s chapel, and there is still a stained glass window with an anchor in it.
St. Augustine was our last stop on the way home. We found a motel not far from the first permanent Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. While we weren’t interested in that, it was also close to the historic district. St. Augustine is America’s oldest city (1565). While much of it has the flavor of a tourist trap, it is still interesting to see the nation’s oldest fort, the “Castillo de San Marco,” the oldest wooden schoolhouse, the oldest drug store, etc. etc.
We have visited several times, so we chose just to enjoy walking along the streets and in and out of shops and galleries.
We had a fine lunch in the Bistro de Leon, a little restaurant that seemed to have been transported right from France. Then we wandered into the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine first built in 1793 (the nations “first parish.” A volunteer docent told us about the history, paintings, altars and architecture. It was renovated in 1965, and those in charge did a wonderful job creating a light but distinctive feel, neither modern nor trying to reproduce some historical time.
After a full day, we thought we would just have a slice of pizza, so we went into Pizza Time, a place that styles itself a Brooklyn, NY pizza bakery. The slices were the size of many whole “personal” pizzas, and they were delicious — a great final dinner for our winter wandering.