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May 28, 2007

Travel Anticipations and Realities

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

I just returned from a trip to places in the U.S. I had never visited before.

That's getting to be unusual for me because I'd already been in 48 states and know the West Coast, the Northeast and parts of the Great Lakes area fairly well. This trip's route was from Key West to Philadelphia via Miami. St. Augustine, FL, Savannah, GA, Charleston, NC, New Bern, NC, Kitty Hawk, NC, Virginia Beach and Washington, D.C. Every bit of it south of Richmond, VA was new to me. Seeing all that new territory was great fun.

But what I saw wasn't really new to me. I had "seen" many of those places while reading books, newspaper stories, magazine articles, watching television news and entertainment programs and, when I was a kid, viewing those short travelogues movie houses used along with newsreels and cartoons to pad the feature film.

I'll sometimes spend time researching trips, but that's mostly when I'm going to Europe and plan to drive and book lodging before departing. Otherwise, I could seriously botch my time-budget, and I hate misusing time.

I didn't do that for the last trip. I asked Nancy (who'd been there) how many days she thought southern Florida would be worth. We negotiated the Washington stay. Otherwise, we targeted St. Augustine, Savannah, Charleston and the Virginia Tidewater area as places to spend at least half a day in, and that pretty well defined the itinerary.

I bought a few guidebook that we used to supplement AAA tour books, but I didn't do much more than flip through them before we left, preferring to save research for evening-before-visiting.

What this boils down to is that my anticipations regarding various places were a random jumble of filtered impressions. How well did these match the "reality" I actually experienced?

It turns out that I liked the coastal-Altantic south a lot better than expected. I'm old enough that the former Confederate states were seen by me as either "enemy territory" (one of my great-grandfathers wore Union blue in 1862-63), or as an economic and sociocultural backwater (as it might well have been, pre-1960). The place seems reasonably prosperous, given its history -- not that different from most other parts of the country -- and the people were polite and friendly.

One nice change from Seattle is that few cars were sporting political bumper stickers. (Oddly, I saw not a single car with Washington license plates. I spotted two Oregon cars and three from Alaska!)

I found Savannah to be quite interesting in city-planning and architectural terms, counteracting my "what the hell am I doing here" attitude as I was driving into town from I-95. Charleston had a reputation as a nice place to visit, and it struck be as being about as advertised. Perhaps I'll post some photos of each place later if they turn out okay.

Florida also met expectations, but they weren't very high. Coming from Seattle, with water and high mountains to the east and west, flat Florida was an expected change. However, I got used to it quickly and found the heavily-populated coastal strip seemingly pretty livable (though probably not for me). What mostly surprised me were certain details.

Consider the Florida Keys. Probably the most common scene in publicity material is the Seven-Mile Bridge, a highway on concrete pilings near tiny, seemingly uninhabited islands. So I assumed that all the Keys were like that. And that Key West was a cramped little place -- a five-street sort of town. In reality, some of the islands are fairly large and well-populated. Key West was much larger than anticipated. Besides the touristy area I found a normal-looking city with room enough for two airports.

My image of Miami Beach was of a jumble of apartment houses and condos filled with expatriate New Yorkers and peppered with Art Deco style buildings from the Thirties. Turns out Miami Beach (the South Beach part, anyway) is pretty much a tourist town where many of the visitors are the type you see in Las Vegas: acting and believing that they're Hot Stuff simply because they are there.

Moreover, the Art Deco buildings weren't "peppered," but were instead concentrated on the beachfront road and the next street inland. (I might post pictures of some of them later.) As for elderly ex-New Yorkers, I suppose they live in other parts of town.

I expected Coral Gables to be fancier and the architecture more Spanish than what I found in the limited part of town I drove through.

St. Augustine has some interesting former hotels, but otherwise the old part of town struck Nancy as being much too touristy. I had no preconceptions.

Yet another surprise was the site of the Wright Brothers' December 17, 1903 flights. The famous photograph of the first take-off shows what looks to be an empty, sandy beach. In fact, it took place on the inland side of the sandspit. And today the ground is grassy and trees are in the background. That's because they were planted by the government to stabilize the setting which otherwise would have been greatly altered over time due to the sand base and strong, persistent winds. Oh, the nearby area is jammed with houses, shops and restaurants.

For some reason I always assumed that the Colonial Williamsburg (in Virgina) restoration was a walled-off Disney-like theme park. Turns out it's a (greatly cleaned-up and rearranged) part of Williamsburg that one can walk into at will; William and Mary College lies at the end of the main street of the restored area. What visitors' tickets get is entry to selected buildings.

We also toured the battleship North Carolina, berthed as a memorial in Wilmington, NC. I was on the deck of Missouri once when it was mothballed in Bremerton, WA and toured parts of Indiana in Seattle not long after World War 2. But the North Carolina tour took us to most of the interesting parts of the ship, much as the tour of Midway, the aircraft carrier in San Diego, did. I was motivated to tour North Carolina because it's the sister ship of Washington (scrapped in the early 60s), the battleship with arguably the best combat record of any U.S. battleship in the war.

This post is getting too lengthy, so I'll halt here in the hope that some of you can toss your own experiences into Comments.



posted by Donald at May 28, 2007



Based on my own experience (I've been to most of the places you mention), you and Nancy did a good job of selecting the high spots.

I'd only differ with you a bit on Coral Gables. If you missed the Spanish influence you were expecting, you must not have seen the fantastic Spanish-Moorish Biltmore Hotel (no one minds if you go in to walk around the public areas), or driven through the older residential neighborhoods. (Yeah, the downtown is kind of disappointing.) For my money -- not that I'll ever have enough of same to live there -- Coral Gables is the most atmospheric town in the Miami area. It also has a university with a decent art museum.

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 28, 2007 4:37 PM

Rick -- Actually, we did visit the Biltmore. And we had lunch by that immense pool. Very civilized place. Plus, we saw the picturesque Venetian Pool a few blocks away. I was mostly characterizing the city as a whole.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 28, 2007 6:18 PM

My first trip to Miami Beach was in 1985, for an American Chemical Society convention. At that point, it hadn't become fashionable again, and elderly New Yorkers were everywhere, just as I'd imagined, too. The ACS met there again in 1989, and I could already see the changes.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 29, 2007 6:41 AM

I see. It's a good thing I didn't go to Miami, saved myself some disappointment.

Posted by: Tat on May 29, 2007 8:41 AM

Wait... how could you have "been in 48 states" and simultaneously have every bit of the country south of Richmond be new to you? That's at least 4 states. Did somebody slap 2 more onto the country while my attention was elsewhere?

Re: old people: When I was living in the area back in the 1980's, the real old people enclaves were further north, from Hallandale up to West Palm Beach.

Posted by: David Fleck on May 29, 2007 9:04 AM

David -- Let me clarify. Yes, I've been in Virginia, the Carolinas, etc. (but not ever in Florida). However, I hadn't been to the coastal/tidewater/lowlands parts of those states. So on the route we took, Richmond was the first familiar sight.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 29, 2007 11:29 AM

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