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Kevin Benefield

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Savor the views on a road trip through eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina

Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina are home to some of the highest elevations in the eastern United States, rising more than 6,000 feet above sea level in some parts. The region’s relative inaccessibility long discouraged large-scale development, protecting both the pristine landscape and the handful of tiny towns that took root here in the nineteenth century. Today, the area attracts lovers of history, who come to ride the vintage railways, experience the pace and charms of small-town life, and learn about the Cherokee Indians who have called the land home for centuries. It’s a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts who hike and bike its steep trails and brave its rushing rivers. The high-altitude, heavily forested realm also beckons to adventurers of another stripe: motorcyclists and sports-car drivers looking to push the envelope on some of the nation’s most scenic and challenging roadways.

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap

Photo courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

Among the most popular drives? The forty-three-mile Cherohala Skyway, a $100 million scenic byway that took thirty years to build and traverses two national forests: the Cherokee and the Nantahala (which lend the route its name). It takes motorists from Tellico Plains in the Tennessee backcountry to Robbinsville, North Carolina, the jumping-off point for the Tail of the Dragon, an eleven-mile stretch of US 129 boasting 318 curves. From Robbinsville, drivers continue on through the towns of Bryson City and Cherokee to the southern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they can rest and refuel—or press on along a popular stretch of US 441 through the heart of the park.

While these roads—winding around ancient mountains and rivers, past glittering lakes, soaring pines, and old-growth stands of poplars—may be the main attraction, there are plenty of sights along the way worth pulling off to explore. These include Robbinsville’s Cheoah Dam, from which Harrison Ford’s character leapt in The Fugitive, and the banks of the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, where elk are often spotted fording the rolling waters.

Downtown Bryson City

Photo courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

Charles Hall Museum
Opened in 2003, this museum showcases the many collections of local historian and former Tellico Plains mayor Charles Hall. While the institution prides itself on those artifacts that tell the story of the town and illuminate the culture of the Southern Appalachians—from arrowheads to a moonshine still—it’s the seemingly random collections of Americana that will most delight visitors. In one section, Edison open-horn phonographs sit alongside 1930s cathedral radios and early transistor models from the 1950s. In another, a glass case holds hundreds of vintage Avon perfume bottles in the shapes of dogs, model cars, chess pieces. There are also dozens of typewriters and cameras, scores of toy tractors and fire engines, and—lining an entire wall—an arsenal of firearms, from muskets to machine guns. 

Historic Tapoco Lodge

Photo courtesy of Historic Tapoco Lodge

Historic Tapoco Lodge
In 1930, following the construction of dams along the Little Tennessee and Cheoah rivers, the Aluminum Company of America constructed this stately redbrick Colonial Revival lodge to house its workers and guests in the remote area outside Robbinsville. Sixty-five years later, the historic property and its seven circa-1935 hillside cabins began welcoming the public. Guests spend their days driving the nearby Tail of the Dragon or checking out the Cheoah Dam, less than a mile up the road. As evening falls, bikers and hikers congregate around bonfires to roast marshmallows or head to the expansive riverfront terrace for local brews and rainbow trout topped with caramelized onions, smoky bacon, and pecan butter.

Wehrloom Honey

Photo courtesy of Wehrloom Honey

Wehrloom Honey
A honeybee visits more than 2,000 flowers a day, and it takes 800 bees their entire lives to produce one pound of honey. Learn still more about the fascinating lives of honeybees and sample the fruits of their tireless labor at this Robbinsville bee farm and specialty grocery. Begin your visit at the hilltop hives, where you can peek through glass to see the insects’ buzzing domiciles. Then head to the shop by way of the Pollinator Path, lined by a variety of native blooming plants, and stock up on beeswax lip balm and moisturizers, as well as jars of honey (try the dark, rich Appalachian Mountain). And be sure to step inside the small on-site meadery for a pint of one of the five housemade meads on tap; the Dry County Dry (with a whopping 11.4 ABV) is the most popular.

The Hub

Photo courtesy of The Hub

The Hub
Refuel at this service station turned restaurant, a favorite rest stop for visiting road warriors. Snag a booth in the fifties-themed dining room with checkerboard floors and 45s hung from the ceiling or, for open-air dining, head to the adjacent circa-1920s barn. (You can also opt for the simple picnic tables out back overlooking Santeetlah Creek.) The not-to-miss menu item is the Peachy Cuban sandwich, a twist on the classic, featuring hickory-smoked pulled pork and peach preserves. But the meatloaf, available as a plate or a sandwich and topped with a secret ketchup-honey sauce, is a close second. Don’t leave before snapping a photo with the vintage gas pumps out front.

The Bistro at The Everett Hotel

Photo courtesy of The Everett Hotel

The Everett Hotel
Occupying the 1908 Bryson City Bank building, this plush nine-room boutique hotel began as a coffee shop, wine bar, and crepery in 2010. Three years later, the owners expanded into a full-service restaurant, and in 2015, they began welcoming overnight guests. At this beautifully restored property in the heart of Bryson City, expect to rub elbows with locals, who pack the cozy, wood-paneled dining room and bar for dishes such as cornmeal-crusted trout, bone-in pork chop, and meatloaf made with beef, bison, lamb, and pork sausage. The menu of classic cocktails with a North Carolina mountain twist includes a blackberry mojito and a honeysuckle margarita. After dinner, head up to the rooftop terrace to catch the sunset or gaze at the stars; thick throws and a purring fire pit keep the cool night air at bay.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Photo courtesy of Bryson City/Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Step inside the historic Bryson City Depot and book passage on the railroad’s Great American Rails-N-Trails Narration Car for a steam excursion across the countryside. During the two-hour trip to neighboring Dillsboro, a guide portraying Horace Kephart, an early twentieth-century travel writer considered one of the fathers of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, shares stories of life in the mountains and hollows of Western North Carolina. Upon your return to the depot, stop by the adjacent model train museum, which showcases more than 7,000 engines, cars, and accessories, as well as an enormous operating layout featuring a five-foot waterfall and six engines running on more than a mile of track.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Begin your visit to Cherokee, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, at this award-winning museum, which combines ancient artifacts and artwork with modern technology to tell the story of the Cherokee across thousands of years. See ancient myths and legends brought to life in the Story Lodge, discover the secrets of medicinal plants from a holographic medicine man, and follow the forced relocation of the tribe from these mountains in an immersive exhibit on the Trail of Tears. A new exhibit, Renewal of the Ancient: Cherokee Millennial Artists, caps the self-guided tour and presents contemporary works ranging from basketry and pottery to photography and 3D printing.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

Photo courtesy of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Destination Marketing Organization

Oconaluftee Indian Village
Situated in the forest and cut through by small streams, this village recreates life in a circa-1760 Cherokee town, with contemporary Cherokee people demonstrating the traditions of their ancestors. Follow your guide on an hour-plus walk past work areas and dwellings, stopping to talk with villagers as they weave belts and blankets, create beadwork, make tools and weapons, and craft baskets and pottery. At your final stop, the ceremonial square, the Cherokee perform a number of sacred dances—the bear, the bison, the groundhog, and the quail—regarded by the tribe as prayers to the Creator. If you’re visiting between June and August, don’t miss the nightly performance of Unto These Hills. Celebrating its seventieth season, this outdoor drama, the second-oldest in the country, tells the story of the Cherokee from the arrival of Europeans through the Trail of Tears.

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual

Photo courtesy of Visit Cherokee NC

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
Founded in 1946, Qualla is the oldest American Indian cooperative in the United States, preserving generations-old techniques and craft traditions. Its 350-plus members produce a wide range of authentic pieces, each with a tag identifying the object and its maker, as well as the materials and dyes used. Peruse white oak purse baskets and delicate vases woven with honeysuckle vines. You’ll also find cloth dolls, beaded necklaces, and a host of carved figures—cherrywood deer, buckeye squirrels, pinewood snails, and walnut bears. In addition to the large retail space, Qualla maintains a permanent gallery showcasing the finest examples of these crafts and recounting the history of tribal arts and crafts through the twentieth century.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Southbound.

Vintage Vacations: The Southeast’s most legendary and long-standing attractions

Long before a mouse named Mickey showed up in central Florida, the South was dotted with roadside attractions and family-owned amusements. Rock formations, natural springs, botanical gardens, and menageries of animals were the mainstays of vacation fun. And while some of these beloved spots live on only in memory, many continue to welcome visitors—and have even experienced a recent surge in interest and attendance. So come along as we pay a visit to some of the region’s most legendary and long-standing attractions.

Lookout Mountain, Georgia
Rock City

Photograph courtesy of Rock City

Rock City
Lookout Mountain, Georgia

Real estate developer Garnet Carter hit it big as the creator of the nation’s first miniature golf course in 1928. Set atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia, it was part of his planned community, Fairyland—the name a nod to his wife Frieda’s love of European folklore. The game caught on, and he franchised the concept nationwide as Tom Thumb Golf. But as the Depression spread gloom across the country, the venture foundered, and Carter began casting about for a new business opportunity. He didn’t have to look far: Frieda had begun planting a rock garden to end all rock gardens on a portion of their development known as Rock City. At this natural collection of massive boulders, the stones are set in such a way as to create streets and alleys in between them.

Rock City

Using string, Frieda had marked a trail that wound through the rock formations and ended at an outcropping known as Lover’s Leap, which offered stunning views of the countryside and glimpses of seven states. She’d planted wildflowers and other plants along the path and populated it with German statues of gnomes and other fairytale characters. In May 1932, the Carters opened Rock City Gardens to the paying public.

But the anticipated crowds failed to appear. Trouble was, unlike the popular roadside attractions of the day, Rock City’s mountaintop location failed to catch the attention of travelers. So Carter hatched a plan to get the word out. In 1936, he hired a young artist, Clark Byers, to travel the nation and paint three words—See Rock City—on the barns of willing farmers. (In exchange, he painted the rest of the barn for free.) The idea worked, and vacationers began ascending Lookout Mountain in droves.

Rock City

In 1947, with the Baby Boom underway, the Carters looked to add some child-friendly appeal. They put a roof over one of the rock crevices and filled the resulting cave with glowing sculptures of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Fairyland Caverns was such a hit, Rock City opened a similar fairytale-themed attraction, Mother Goose Village, in 1964.

In the ensuing decades, shops and restaurants were added to the park, but few changes were made to Frieda’s path. In fact, to this day, Rock City’s original layout remains almost entirely intact. From Fat Man’s Squeeze, a narrow fissure along the trail through which guests hold their breath and pass, to the colorful gnomes one encounters along the way, the elements that first wowed guests more than eight decades ago continue to delight those who heed the call to see Rock City. —K.B.

Fountain of Youth
Fountain of Youth

Photograph courtesy of Fountain of Youth

The Fountain of Youth
St. Augustine, Florida

A woman turns to her friend after taking a swig of water from what looks like an oversized shot glass. “Do I look younger?” she asks. Both women laugh. The drink might not have done the trick, but their smiles do.

Welcome to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, which promises eternal youth—or at least the dream of it. Today’s drinkers are the latest in a long string of hopefuls, supposedly starting with Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Legend holds that he was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he arrived in present-day St. Augustine in 1513, lured by rumors of a nearby spring with waters that erased the effects of aging.

Fountain of youth

Visitors to the park can see purported evidence of Ponce de Leon’s visit to the area, including a coquina cross fifteen stones high and thirteen stones across on display next to the fountain. A small silver container, also on display, is a replica of one that held an affidavit stating that Ponce de Leon made the cross to commemorate the year of his arrival, 1513.

(Quick side note: The historical accuracy of Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth has eroded over the years. There is, in fact, little evidence to suggest he set out to find such a mythical fount. No matter. The legend lives on, as does the spring.)

Fountain of Youth

In the late nineteenth century, the Fountain of Youth became a bona fide attraction. In fact, its guest books date to 1868, making it Florida’s oldest tourist destination. In 1900, owner Henry H. Williams sold it to Luella Day McConnell, aka Diamond Lil, who aggressively promoted “Ponce’s Famous Spring!” After she passed in 1927, the park was sold to state senator Walter B. Fraser and has remained in his family ever since.

Fountain of Youth

Over the decades, the Frasers have worked to turn the property into a manicured waterfront park filled with peacocks and plenty of exhibits on Florida’s early history. Visitors can explore a recreation of a Timucuan village, which shows what Native American life was like here before the arrival of the Spanish. They can also see a statue of Pedro Menendez, who established the first successful European settlement in North America at St. Augustine, exactly where the park is now. There’s a replica of a mission church, a blacksmith shop, and a Spanish watchtower. There’s even a planetarium that explains how explorers used the stars to navigate the sea. But the main attraction at the Fountain of Youth is—and will likely always be—the spring and its supposedly miraculous water. (Small cups are provided, but you may bring your own containers, too, if you suspect it might take more than a sip to do the trick.) True, it might not help us live forever, but it’s a good reminder to make the most of the time we have left. —D.F.

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock

Photograph courtesy of Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock
Western North Carolina

Before May 1949, the trek to the top of granite monolith Chimney Rock was a calf-burning pilgrimage. After following a staircase up 1,965 feet, visitors would have to climb a system of stairs and ladders 315 feet higher to reach the peak of an outcropping. If the day was clear, they’d be rewarded with panoramic views of the western North Carolina countryside and Hickory Nut Gorge. Then came the modern era. In 1947, eight tons of dynamite and eighteen months of hard labor bore an elevator shaft into a nearby cliff, thereby transforming the Chimney into one of the South’s most accessible sky-high destinations.

Chimney Rock

If the elevator’s twenty-six-story ascent transcends the vision of Chimney Rock’s early proprietors, then it isn’t by much—all puns aside, farsightedness has always been a driver of the Chimney’s success. The first stairs to the peak were built by owner Jerome Freeman, who’d bought the Chimney and its surrounding acres from a speculation company in the 1890s; however, Freeman’s successor, Dr. Lucius Morse, was the attraction’s true visionary. A former physician, Morse had moved to the mountains after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. To take in the area’s healthful climate, he often rode on horseback through the valley, admiring the Chimney from below. Morse eventually paid a man twenty-five cents to take him by donkey to the peak. There, atop the “Land of the Sky,” he conceived the idea for a sprawling park, a dam and lake, and a year-round resort town. In 1902, with help from his brothers, he bought the sixty-four-acre Chimney Rock Mountain for $5,000.

In the years that followed, the Morse family would continue to shepherd the park’s growth, expanding its footprint to 1,000 acres and adding paved roads and trails. The town of Lake Lure, which was named by Morse’s wife, was incorporated in 1927.

Chimney Rock

The ensuing decades brought more visitors and acclaim to the bustling valley. Beyond the Chimney itself, park-goers sought attractions like the 404-foot-tall Hickory Nut Falls (featured in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans), impressive views from the park’s aptly named Opera Box overlook, and abundant hiking. In the midst of stock car racing’s early heyday, there was even a two-mile road race that slung drivers around the mountain’s hairpin turns. The Chimney Rock Hillclimb, as it was called, was a beloved local tradition for almost forty years.

What kept people coming back year after year, though, was the view from the top of the 535-million-year-old granite landmark. When the historic elevator closed in 2012 for renovations, floods of visitors still braved the attraction’s 499 steps to share in one of the South’s natural wonders.

Chimney Rock

Today Chimney Rock, a state park since 2007, spans 5,700 acres and has six trails, including the park’s newest addition, the Skyline Trail, which opened in September 2017 and leads to the upper cascades of Hickory Nut Falls. Rock climbers, stair-running fitness fanatics, leaf peepers, even newlyweds—yes, you can get married on top of Chimney Rock—make up the 250,000 visitors the park sees each year.

As for the elevator?  It reopened in 2018 and lifts visitors to the peak in just thirty-two seconds. Although it’s not the same one from the 1940s, it’s still a straight shot to the heavens. —B.C.

Weeki Wachee Springs
Weeki Wachee Springs

Photograph courtesy of Weeki Wachee Springs

Weeki Wachee Springs
West central Florida

Alongside U.S. 19 in west central Florida, about an hour north of Tampa, visitors descend into a concrete bunker set on a cerulean spring-fed pool. They’re not here to spy on alligators or manatees; they’ve come to see something altogether different, creatures more fabulous and rare. Since October 1947, when the first show opened at the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater theater, this natural spring—the deepest in the United States—has been the home of mermaids.

Navy frogman Newton Perry was the theater’s mastermind. After returning home from World War II, he was looking for a business opportunity. When he came upon a spring at the head of a river the Seminole Indians called Weeki Wachee (meaning “little spring” or “winding river”), he bought it, clearing the rusted appliances and wrecked cars that had been abandoned there over the decades. He perfected an underwater breathing method that allowed swimmers to take in oxygen from an air hose connected to a compressor. He then went in search of attractive local girls, who would become the park’s first mermaids.

Weeki Wachee Springs

In the early days, swimmers wore one-piece bathing suits and performed aquatic ballets or enjoyed underwater picnics, eating fruit and drinking bottled sodas while turtles and fish swam by. In 1959, the small roadside attraction made it to the big leagues: ABC purchased the park, replaced Perry’s fifty-seat theater with the current 400-seat one, and began producing elaborate circus- and pirate-themed shows, as well as underwater adaptations of classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Snow White.

Weeki Wachee Springs

The crowds went wild. In the 1960s, more attractions were added to satisfy their curiosity, including glass-bottomed boats, a jungle cruise with live animals, and a tram ride to a recreated Native American camp touted as “Florida’s only authentic Seminole Indian ghost village.” Promotional literature with endorsements from the likes of Roy Rogers, Bob Hope, and even rocket scientist Wernher von Braun flooded the country. Elvis Presley visited the park. And the mermaids became international stars, with young women arriving from as far as Tokyo to audition for the coveted roles.

In the years following the 1971 opening of Walt Disney World, Weeki Wachee Springs, like many Florida roadside attractions, struggled to tread water. But the park held on, and in 2008 it became a Florida state park. In recent years, it’s seen a surge in attendance (from 151,000 guests in 2010 to almost 400,000 last year—a whopping 165 percent increase), thanks in part to the current pop culture obsession with mythical creatures. In addition to the mermaid shows—which include patriotic performances set to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA and an adaptation of (what else?) The Little Mermaid—visitors may take in wildlife demonstrations or board a pontoon boat for a twenty-five-minute cruise on the Weeki Wachee River. And should any guests find it impossible to resist the siren call to don a Lycra tail and take the plunge, the park also offers weekend mermaid camps, where participants learn underwater ballet moves and get behind-the-scenes access to the show. —K.B.

Lost Sea
The Lost Sea

Photograph courtesy of the Lost Sea

The Lost Sea
Sweetwater, Tennessee

Many have attempted to explore the depths and distance of the Lost Sea, an underground lake within Craighead Caverns, but to little avail. Divers in the seventies found several water-filled rooms deep below the surface, but the conditions were too dangerous for them to explore further. The full extent of the Lost Sea—the largest underground lake in the country and the second largest in the world—remains, well, lost to mankind.

Thanks to fossils, we do know a few things about the history of the caverns: Its earliest known inhabitant was a Pleistocene jaguar from around 20,000 years ago. Many millennia later, Cherokee Indians, led by Chief Craighead (the cave’s namesake), used the murky depths as a council chamber. Confederate soldiers mined here for saltpeter to create gunpowder. Moonshiners used parts of the spacious cave to distill their potent product. Later, the cave system housed everything from dance floors to a mushroom farm to a cockfighting ring to a fallout shelter.

Lost Sea

In 1965, the Lost Sea found a new calling as a tourist attraction. Each year, thousands navigate the mile-long path through the caves with the help of a tour guide, then step aboard glass-bottomed boats that ferry them around the clear blue lake hidden inside the cavern. Peering into the water, it’s easy to spot rainbow trout, most of them blind. The first such trout were placed in the lake in the sixties to see if they could find a way out of the Lost Sea. They didn’t—but they proved to be such an intriguing attraction in their own right, they are now restocked every few years. (They can’t naturally reproduce in the lake.)

Lost Sea

The lake and cave system is also home to significant geological structures, including anthodites—or “cave flowers”—one of the rarest cave formations in the world. The nationally registered natural landmark holds half of all known formations of the icy-looking crystals.

But besides these ever-evolving “flowers,” you’ll find only remnants of the cave’s past lives: black carbon on the cave’s roof from the smoke of the Cherokees’ fires; a leaching vat from Confederate soldiers; a moonshine still; dilapidated boxes of rations from a 1960s bomb shelter. Forget rooms of artifacts tucked neatly behind glass enclosures: At the Lost Sea Adventure, you can get up close and personal with the cave’s wonders. Dip your hand into the lake, rub a bear claw–shaped stalagmite for good luck, or get a “cave kiss” from the overhanging stalactites.

Lost Sea

Choose from several tour options: an hour-and-fifteen-minute daily tour that takes you around the cavern and lake; an overnight Wild Cave Tour, where you’ll spend the night in the cave and get dirty while crawling through nooks and crannies (groups of twelve or more only); or the Super Saturday Adventure, a three-hour daytime version of the Wild Cave Tour. While you’re there, stop by the Lost Sea Village (open spring and summer), which includes a restaurant, general store, gem mine, and glass blower.

With no identified end to the lake and the water-filled rooms beneath it, there’s still much to be discovered in Craighead Caverns. Will we ever know the full scope of the Lost Sea? Perhaps not for another millennium—a mere moment in the cave system’s long and storied lifetime. —E.H.

More to Explore

Towering Achievements
One of the South’s most beautiful towers, commonly known as Bok Tower, was built in 1929 in Lake Wales, Florida. The 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Tower (so named for the sixty-bell carillon it houses) rises over a 250-acre woodland garden designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. And while visitors may not climb to the top, the tower certainly sends spirits soaring during twice-daily live bell concerts.

Another sky-high Sunshine State structure, the Citrus Tower in Clermont, began whisking visitors 226 feet up to its observation deck in 1956. During its early days, more than half a million guests a year took in the bird’s-eye views of glittering spring-fed lakes and orange groves stretching to the horizon. Today, most of the trees have given way to strip malls and single-family homes, but the nostalgic appeal—and a small display with early renderings, archival photos, and newspaper clippings—remains intact.

Unlike the Citrus Tower, the 407-foot Space Needle in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, affords views largely unchanged since its 1970 opening. One of many towers that sprung up across the country in the sixties following the construction of Seattle’s Space Needle for the 1962 World’s Fair, the attraction continues to sell tickets to its open-air observation deck that are good for twenty-four hours after purchase, allowing guests to ride the glass elevators to the top and take in the Great Smoky Mountains by day and night.

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Sea Change
Aquatic attractions have evolved alongside our understanding of ocean life. Case in point, Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine, Florida. Some time after it opened in 1938, its namesake stars jumped through hoops; today, they delight visitors by showcasing their natural behaviors, such as blowing bubbles. Also in vogue? Interactive experiences. At Marineland, which is owned by the Georgia Aquarium, visitors can get in the water with dolphins—the same is true at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Florida. Theater of the Sea opened in 1946 and is the country’s second-oldest sea attraction, after Marineland. 

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Believe it or Not
If it’s shocking, strange, or just plain weird, it likely has a home at one of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums. The first temporary Odditorium premiered at the World’s Fair in 1933, followed by appearances at other expositions; the first permanent one opened in 1950 in St. Augustine, Florida, inside a circa-1887 Moorish-style castle that was once the home of William G. Warden, of Standard Oil Company fame. Each Odditorium (there are thirty) is housed in an unusual building (a cruise ship run aground, a toppled Empire State Building) and features between 400 and 700 exhibits showcasing everything from a six-legged cow to a shrunken human head. Ripley’s operates additional locations in Florida, as well as ones in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Nearer, My God, to Thee
Behind many a monument is man’s search for meaning. Sometimes the tribute is oversized, as it is at Fields of the Wood in Murphy, North Carolina. This biblical theme park includes a rendering of the Ten Commandments so large it can be seen from 5,000 feet in the air. Another awe-inspiring memorial, the Great Cross, can be spotted along the banks of the Matanzas River in St. Augustine, Florida. Standing 208 feet tall, it’s reportedly the country’s largest cross.

Other times, tributes are small in scale. Take, for example, the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, where visitors can see miniature replicas of the world’s great religious structures, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, made by a Benedictine monk. Using stone, concrete, and donated materials (marbles, shells, costume jewelry), Brother Joseph Zoettl created 125 tiny buildings over a nearly fifty-year period. In a similar vein, a minister in Lucedale, Mississippi, built Palestine Gardens, a scale model of the Holy Land, featuring Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the River Jordan.

Lastly, tributes may be true to size, as is the case at Christ in the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Visitors here can see more than 130 figures in fourteen life-size dioramas depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ.

Gators Galore
Is there an animal more primal, more quintessentially Southern, than the alligator? See more than 2,000 of the snapping, prehistoric-looking reptiles, including two rare leucistic, or white, alligators (there are only twelve in the world), at Orlando’s Gatorland, which opened in 1949. Also in Florida, don’t miss the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, founded in 1893. It boasts a bird rookery (alligators help keep avian predators at bay) and is the only place in the world with all twenty-four recognized species of crocodilian.

Where the Lion is King
As the nation’s first drive-through safari park, Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida, debuted the notion of a “cageless” zoo when it opened in 1967. Cruise through at eight miles an hour and spot giraffes, zebras, lions, and more. No convertibles allowed!

In Memoriam
While many of the South’s favorite attractions have stood the test of time, some live on only in snapshots, souvenirs, and memories.

Cypress Gardens: This Winter Haven attraction was once one of central Florida’s biggest tourist draws. It began life as a botanical garden in 1936, and during its heyday in the fifties and sixties, it was well-known for its water ski shows and hoop-skirted Southern belles strolling the grounds. Though it hung on for decades, adding thrill rides and a water park in the early 2000s, it was ultimately shuttered in 2009. Today, it is the site of Legoland Florida, and while the belles are gone with the wind, visitors may still stroll the historic gardens and take in a ski show performed by Lego pirates.

Frontier Land: Opened in 1965 in Cherokee, North Carolina, this Old West–themed park entertained visitors with train rides, a gondola, several carnival-type rides, and, according to a park press release, “an Indian attack on the pioneers and soldiers every hour throughout the day.” Converted into a waterpark in 1983, it was finally razed in the mid-nineties to make way for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.

Magic World: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has seen many an attraction come and go. Among the most unusual was this mashup of dinosaurs, thrill rides, UFOs, even an Arabian village complete with a magic carpet ride. The park lasted from the mid-sixties until 1995; only the volcano, which served as the park’s centerpiece, remains. (It’s now the focal point of Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf.)

Porpoise Island: Another bygone Pigeon Forge destination, this Polynesian-themed attraction offered visitors in the seventies and eighties a taste of the South Pacific in the Smokies. Today, the dolphin lagoons and hula dancers have given way to a shopping and entertainment complex dubbed The Island. Instead of the nightly luau, visitors can book a table at Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen or Margaritaville.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Southbound.

Where to Stay: Spotlight on Hotel Trundle

Hotel Trundle
Lobby

Photo courtesy of Hotel Trundle

When Rita Patel and her husband, Marcus Munse, decided to open a boutique hotel in their hometown of Columbia, they knew they wanted to bring something different, unexpected, even magical to the city’s traditional lodging scene. At the same time, they were committed to creating a property rooted in the life of the city and reflective of the community’s talents. And their selection of a unicorn—a creature at once fantastic and familiar—as the hotel mascot and logo underscored their twinned (and, some might say, unreal) aspirations.

Hotel Trundle
Brick King suite

Photo courtesy of Hotel Trundle

But dreams do come true, at least for this pair of young hoteliers: On April 9, National Unicorn Day, the couple cut the ribbon on Hotel Trundle. Occupying three historic commercial buildings dating to the early 1900s, the forty-one-room inn preserves many original details, from exposed brick to pressed-tin ceiling tiles. These elements provide the backdrop for a design scheme that is anything but aged. The spacious, light-filled lobby, painted shimmering silver and rich purple, features a mash-up of styles. Art Deco elements and midcentury-modern furniture with updated upholstery (think Great Gatsby meets Jonathan Adler) come together to create a space that is hip but homey.

The young and playful spirit is carried into the hallways, which are hung with original photography featuring Lego people “visiting” local attractions. The wallpaper displays how-to schematics of hand-puppetry; strategically lit blank spaces serve as practice areas. The sense of fun also extends to the front sidewalk, where machines send thousands of bubbles into the streets of downtown Columbia.

Hotel Trundle

But it’s not just the guests who are encouraged to enjoy themselves. The hotel is in many respects a playground for the dozens of local artists and craftspeople with whom Munse and Patel collaborate to create a one-of-a-kind experience. Craft brew experts from Columbia’s Craft and Draft curate the beer selections on tap at the front desk, and the husband-and-wife team behind Carolina Kernels provides the gourmet popcorn served at turndown. Even the beds are local pieces of art, showcasing the handiwork of furniture designer Josh Cox of Columbia’s Bricker and Beam. (Oh, and the mattress? It’s made by Columbia’s fourth-generation mattress company Best Mattress.)

With a day of play behind you and a bed built for a night of deep sleep and the dreaming of dreams, you might be inclined to tuck in early. But chances are the kid in you will be begging to stay up late and make the most of your time at this wonder-filled inn.

While You’re There

To Market, to Market
Experience more of Columbia’s creative culture at Soda City, just steps from the hotel. The Main Street market fills four city blocks, from the South Carolina State House to Taylor Street, every Saturday morning, year-round. Grab a Belgian waffle or cup of kombucha and check out performances by flamenco dancers and string quartets. Browse the booths for an antique lamp, a basket of fresh produce (or hydroponic herbs), maybe even a pet rabbit. 

Land of Giants
Known as “Redwoods of the East,” Congaree National Park, just thirty minutes outside downtown Columbia, is home to twenty-five trees that are the largest of their species in the United States, including a loblolly pine that would overtop a seventeen-story building. (Tip: Pack plenty of bug spray; the upper ranges of the park’s “Mosquito Meter” progress from severe to ruthless to war zone.)

1224 Taylor Street, Columbia, South Carolina • (803) 722-5000 • hoteltrundle.com

This article appears in our Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Southbound.

10 spots to scope out on a road trip through west central Florida

For decades, recreational boaters referred to west central Florida as the “lonesome leg.” That’s  because on their 160-mile trips from Clearwater to the Big Bend (where the panhandle meets the peninsula) they never encountered a single buoy. Today, the area is known as Florida’s Nature Coast, and it attracts adventurers eager to explore its renowned wildlife parks and nature preserves, crystal-clear springs and blackwater rivers. But this part of Florida, a magic kingdom of the truest sort, also offers travelers along U.S. Highway 19 an unexpected excursion: a journey back in time.

In Tarpon Springs, step back to the turn of the twentieth century, when the town’s sponge industry boomed and hundreds of Greek divers arrived to bring up the bounty. Up the road in Weeki Wachee and Homosassa, as Publix-anchored strip malls give way to forests of pine, palmetto, and oak, you’ll find the golden age of the American road trip lives on at midcentury roadside attractions showcasing mermaids, underwater observatories, and a hippopotamus named Lu. Hang a left in Otter Creek and follow State Road 24 back to nineteenth-century Florida and the sleepy fishing village and artists enclave of Cedar Key.

Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks

Photograph courtesy of visitstpeteclearwater.com

Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
In 1873, rich sponge beds were discovered at the mouth of the Anclote River, and by the turn of the century, nearby Tarpon Springs was the largest sponge port in the nation. The first of some 500 Greek divers arrived in 1905 to expand the sponge operation into deeper waters. So successful were these immigrants, sponging soon became Florida’s largest industry. Visitors to the historic docks and the former sponge exchange can shop for a range of varieties—both decorative and utilitarian—including yellow, finger, wire, vase, and wool. St. Nicholas Boat Lines, established in 1924, offers short river cruises aboard historic sponge-diving vessels and demonstrations of sponge harvesting by a diver in traditional gear.

Hellas Bakery & Restaurant
Hellas Bakery & Restaurant

Photograph courtesy of visitstpeteclearwater.com

Hellas Bakery & Restaurant
Thousands of Greek immigrants followed the divers to Tarpon Springs, opening grocery stores, sweets shops, and restaurants. Today, the town has the highest percentage of Greek-American residents of any city in the nation and is a must-visit destination for Greek cuisine. Snag a table at always-bustling Hellas, founded in 1970, for favorites such as gyros, moussaka, pastitsio, and dolmades served in a kitschy dining room bathed in blue neon and lined with colorful murals of Greek village life. Indulge in Greek takes on martinis, mojitos, and sangria featuring ouzo and pomegranate liqueur. After dinner, step into the adjoining bakery for a classic Greek dessert—baklava, galaktoboureko (custard pie), or kourabiedes (butter cookies)—and a wonderfully bitter cup of Greek coffee.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Dawna Moore/Alamy Stock Photo

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral
In Tarpon Springs, community life centers on this impressive neo-Byzantine structure inspired by the Hagia Sophia and rendered in yellow brick. Completed in 1943, the cathedral houses a number of treasures: crystal chandeliers imported from Czechoslovakia and an altar, Bishop’s throne, and choir stalls carved from marble donated by the Greek government (the stone was originally used for the nation’s pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair). The cathedral also displays scores of hand-painted icons; best known is the Weeping Icon of St. Nicholas, which draws pilgrims from around the world hoping to witness the miraculous formation of crystal-like drops around his eyes, first spotted in 1970.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Photograph courtesy of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Since 1947, the 74.2-degree waters of one of the world’s deepest natural springs have served as the playground of mermaids. During Weeki Wachee Springs’ heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, it was among the most popular tourist attractions in the nation, thrilling crowds with underwater productions of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Today, visitors still pack the 400-seat indoor Mermaid Theater submerged sixteen feet below the water’s surface to watch accomplished swimmers clad in Lycra tails feed fish, drink bottled Cokes, eat apples, and perform synchronized underwater acrobatics to the beat of sock-hop standards and the ethereal strains of Enya.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park

Photograph courtesy of Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
This park traces its beginnings to the early 1900s, when trains on the so-called “Mullet Express” stopped to allow passengers to take in the springs and view the native wildlife. In the 1940s, a small underwater observatory and zoo were established at the main spring, and in 1964, the park was expanded and rebranded “Nature’s Own Attraction.” The big draws were a markedly larger observatory known as the Fish Bowl and a host of trained exotic animals who resided at the park when they weren’t appearing on TV shows or working on movie sets. (These included the bear who played Gentle Ben and Judy the Chimpanzee, who appeared in a host of shows, from Lost in Space to The Beverly Hillbillies.) After the state acquired the park in 1988, the focus turned to native species, and today visitors will encounter West Indian manatees, Florida panthers, black bears, Key deer, and alligators, as well as a host of birds. Be sure to pay a visit to Lucifer “Lu” the hippo; the beloved longtime resident was granted state citizenship by former Governor Lawton Chiles so he could remain in the park he’s called home for fifty-four years. At fifty-eight, he’s the oldest hippo in North America.

Plantation on Crystal River
Plantation on Crystal River

Photograph courtesy of Plantation on Crystal River

Plantation on Crystal River
For more than half a century, this 232-acre eco-friendly resort in the town of Crystal River has served as the jumping-off point for outdoor adventures on Florida’s Nature Coast. Guests of the 196-room hotel can rent canoes, kayaks, and pontoon boats or book fishing charters at the Plantation Adventure Center and explore the surrounding labyrinth of lakes and rivers. The center is also one of the few operators that offers visitors the unforgettable opportunity to snorkel alongside West Indian manatees in Crystal River, the only place in the world where one can swim with the endangered species. After a day in the wilds of West Florida, feast on locally sourced dishes such as pan-roasted grouper and seafood pasta featuring Florida spiny lobster tail, Gulf shrimp, and sea scallops at the resort’s West 82° Grill.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Photograph courtesy of Plantation on Crystal River

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Between November and March, some 600 manatees gather at this refuge, whose spring-fed waters stay seventy-two degrees year-round. While many visitors view the gentle giants from boats or on snorkeling tours, those who wish to remain on land are afforded excellent opportunities to experience this annual homecoming from the Three Sisters Boardwalk. The refuge also operates an on-site visitors center featuring manatee exhibits and offers interpretative talks at the boardwalk throughout the winter.

Island Hotel
Sloping wood floors, well-worn furnishings, and slowly turning ceiling fans welcome guests to the 1859 building that has served as the home of this Cedar Key inn since 1946. Early patrons flocked for seafood dinners in the dining room and overnighted in the hotel’s cozy, simply furnished guest rooms; among them were author Pearl Buck, entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford, and a host of Florida politicos. Plan to spend an evening over beer and burgers in the hotel’s wood-paneled Neptune Bar. Anchored by a 1948 portrait of the Roman god of the sea, the popular watering hole was the site of many an impromptu Jimmy Buffett concert in the 1980s.

Neptune Bar
Neptune Bar, Island Hotel

James Quine/Alamy Stock Photo

Tony’s Seafood Restaurant
Patrons pack the tiny dining room of this Cedar Key restaurant for steaming bowls of clam chowder, which took the top prize at three consecutive Great Chowder Cook-offs. (The organizers of the Newport, Rhode Island–based national competition inducted Tony’s into the Great Chowder Hall of Fame in 2011 and retired the recipe from the contest.) Try snagging a table by the window for a front-row seat of the always-interesting cast of characters—artists, motorcyclists, dogs—cavorting on 2nd Street, the town’s main strip. And be sure to pick up a few cans—or a case—of the creamy, kicky chowder to take home.

Cedar Key Museum State Park
Drop by this small state park to learn about the rich history of Cedar Key, which served as a railroad center and shipping port in the nineteenth century, transporting seafood and timber to markets across the eastern United States. Some displays tell the story of the area’s once-booming pencil industry, which relied on locally harvested cedar and graphite imported from Siberia. A park highlight is the former home of St. Clair Whitman, a Cedar Key resident who turned a room in his circa-1880 house into the island’s first museum in the 1940s. Visitors are afforded a glimpse of life as it once was in rural Florida, as well as the chance to view Whitman’s impressive collections of seashells and American Indian artifacts.

This article appears in our Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Southbound.

Plan your next road trip along South Carolina’s coast

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Beginning in the early eighteenth century, exports of rice—dubbed Carolina Gold—made South Carolina rich, and the grain remained one of the Deep South’s most important crops until the Civil War. Declining soil fertility in the tidal swamps along the coast, coupled with the loss of the enormous labor force required for the planting, tending, harvesting, and threshing of rice, doomed the enterprise. Today, visitors to the area will discover vestiges of the fallen empire at former plantations and in the craftwork of the Gullah, descendants of slaves brought to the marshes centuries ago from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. Travelers along U.S. Highway 17 between Charleston and Myrtle Beach will also find the world’s largest outdoor collection of American sculpture and a population of red wolves, one of the world’s most endangered animals.

Fort Moultrie
What began as a hastily constructed palmetto-log fort built on Sullivan’s Island in 1776 to protect Charleston from British attack is today the only National Parks Service site that tells the complete two-century story of American seacoast defense. The cannon walk features artillery pieces spanning decades, and the World War II–era Harbor Entrance Control Post affords great views of Charleston and Fort Sumter. Visitors to the island will also want to swing by the Obstinate Daughter for a bowl of its acclaimed Frogmore chowder, a creamy take on the classic Lowcountry stew containing shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and corn. nps.org

Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion
Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion

Photo courtesy of Town of Mount Pleasant

Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion
The art of coiled basketry traces its origins to West Africa and first appeared in South Carolina in the late eighteenth century in the form of fanner baskets, platter-like pieces used for winnowing rice (the process of separating chaff from grain). Today, basketmakers offer a range of household items, from wine-bottle covers to tissue boxes, as well as traditional pieces, all fashioned from sweetgrass, bulrush, longleaf pine needles, and palmetto strips. Stop in at this open-air market and museum at Mount Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park (or at one of the dozens of stands along U.S. 17) to meet the crafters and purchase a handmade treasure.

Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens
Established in 1681, Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant is one of the oldest working farms in the country, continuously producing crops—from rice and cotton to pecans and strawberries—for more than three centuries. Open-air coach tours transport visitors through fields and orchards and along the Avenue of Oaks, a half-mile drive leading to the main house and flanked by 275-year-old live oak trees. Guests may also learn about the antebellum black experience and Gullah culture through a series of exhibits and live presentations staged in the plantation’s nine original brick slave cabins. boonehallplantation.com

Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens
Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens

Photo by Jeff Sagar Photography

See Wee Restaurant
From the red tin roof to the blue-check vinyl tablecloths, everything about this small roadside restaurant in Awendaw conveys a friendly, down-home feel. Built as a general store in the 1920s, the space was converted into a restaurant twenty-five years ago—though vintage coolers and old shelves lined with cans of beans remain. Start with a bowl of the much-lauded she-crab soup, served with a thimble of brandy, then order the popular lunch platter featuring flounder, shrimp, and oysters tossed in corn flour and fried golden brown. seeweerestaurantinc.com

Coastal South Carolina
Sewee Center

Photo courtesy of Sewee Center

Sewee Center
A one-mile trail behind this Awendaw education center winds past ponds and bogs to a secluded enclosure that is home to four red wolves. The critically endangered species once roamed the eastern United States; today, only 200 or so remain. Visit on Saturday mornings for feedings, then stop in at the center to check out interactive exhibits on other animals and plants that call the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest home. fws.gov/refuge/sewee_center

Rice Museum
Rice Museum

Photo courtesy of Discover South Carolina

Rice Museum
The third-oldest city in South Carolina, Georgetown flourished during the years between the Revolutionary and Civil wars. In 1840, surrounding Georgetown County produced more rice than anywhere else in the world, nearly half the country’s total crop, and boasted the highest per capita income of any county in the United States. Learn about the history of rice cultivation in the area on a one-hour guided tour of this museum situated in the town’s Old Market and Kaminski Hardware buildings, both constructed in 1842. In addition to dioramas and agricultural artifacts, the museum showcases the Browns Ferry Vessel; the fifty-foot-long, circa-1730 cargo boat is the oldest known ship built in the American colonies. ricemuseum.org

Mansfield Plantation
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this 500-acre plantation just outside Georgetown was one of the largest in South Carolina. Today, it covers almost 1,000 acres and is regarded as one of the most architecturally intact rice plantations in the state. Operated as a bed-and-breakfast by a descendant of the original owners, the estate features large guest suites situated in three brick outbuildings: the school house, kitchen house, and guesthouse. After breakfast in the main house, visitors may explore the former slave row, stroll the shores of the Black River, and check out the county’s only remaining winnowing barn. mansfieldplantation.com

Mansfield Plantation
Mansfield Plantation

Photo by Thomas Namey/Namey Design Studios

Hobcaw Barony
In 1905, financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch purchased eleven defunct rice plantations on the outskirts of Georgetown and established a 16,000-acre hunting retreat. For decades, he hosted the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill before selling the property to his daughter, Belle. Before her 1964 death, she established a trust to administer the land as a research center for state universities. A two-hour bus tour takes visitors to the main house (one highlight: the bedroom where Roosevelt recuperated from acute bronchitis for four weeks in spring 1944), as well as a restored slave village. Seasonal programming includes nature hikes, boat tours, photography classes, fishing expeditions, and more. hobcawbarony.org

Brookgreen Gardens
Brookgreen Gardens

Photo courtesy of Discover South Carolina

Hammock Shops Village
South Carolina’s rice plantation owners once flocked to Pawleys Island to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of their inland estates. Keeping cool was also on the mind of local riverboat captain Joshua John Ward when, in 1889, he created his now-famous cotton-rope hammock featuring a double-latch weave and innovative spreader bar. The hammock grew in popularity, and in 1938, Ward’s family opened the Original Hammock Shop in the resort town. Today, it serves as the anchor of a village of some two dozen standalone shops and restaurants. Be sure to stop by the weavers cottage to watch demonstrations by longtime hammock-maker Marvin Grant. thehammockshops.com

Brookgreen Gardens
Industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, purchased four former rice plantations on Murrells Inlet in 1930 with plans to construct a winter retreat. Before completing work on their sprawling Moorish-style castle named Atalaya (now part of Huntington Beach State Park), they established America’s first public sculpture garden on the property. Today, the 9,000-acre garden (across the highway from the state park) showcases the world’s largest outdoor collection of American sculpture, as well as thousands of flowers, centuries-old trees, and a zoo housing native animals from alligators and otters to foxes and owls. brookgreen.org

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Southbound.

Where to Stay: Spotlight on the Willcox Hotel

Photo courtesy of thewillcox.com

I’ve never spent more than ten minutes in a hotel lobby before this trip to the Willcox in Aiken, South Carolina. Of course, there aren’t many lobbies like it. It’s not just the way it looks—with floor-to-ceiling curly-pine paneling and exposed ceiling beams that conjure a gentleman’s study in an English manor house—it’s the way it feels. While most lobbies serve as a place for visitors to catch their breath after a day on the town, the one at the Willcox is a spot where the town wanders in to unwind.

Photo courtesy of thewillcox.com

Often referred to as Aiken’s living room, the lobby at this landmark hotel hums with activity. A trio of women in floral-print sundresses perch on a sofa, balancing small plates of lamb lollipops atop crossed knees and catching up on local happenings. A silver-haired lady seated at a window table hails a couple of fellows in polos and chinos as they step through the door. Waiters wind around the sitting areas, hoisting trays of Champagne and Sazeracs, mules and martinis. And as the denizens of this room shout greetings and gather together, I sit back and take it all in.

Frederick Willcox opened the hotel in 1900, and it quickly became the town’s social hub. Wealthy Northerners traveling to Aiken, the “Winter Colony,” to escape the cold used it as a gathering place, where they discussed the day’s polo matches or fox hunts. Over the years, it welcomed a number of notable guests, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, for whom its two premier suites are named.

Photo courtesy of thewillcox.com

But like many turn-of-the-century hotels, the Willcox also faced its share of struggles. During the second half of the twentieth century, it endured multiple closings, reopenings, sales, even a prolonged shuttering. In 2009, the hotel’s current owners went to work on a reboot. They opened a restaurant just off the lobby, reopened the spa, and retrained the staff to welcome everyone—from longtime neighbors to visiting dignitaries—warmly. Their efforts transformed the Willcox from a stuffy old-guard establishment to a clubhouse for the community.

From my lobby perch, I feel the embrace. And though a crackling fire and the softest of beds await me upstairs, I’m not ready to retire just yet. I have an old-fashioned in my hand, and the sundress-wearing ladies are within easy earshot. I think I’ll linger in the lobby a little longer and catch up on some local gossip.

100 Colleton Avenue SW, Aiken, South Carolina • (803) 648-1898 • thewillcox.com

While You’re There

Trolley Tour
Join lifelong Aiken resident and unofficial town historian Judith Burgess on a two-hour Saturday morning tour of the streets and landmarks her family has known for centuries. In addition to her girlhood memories, Burgess regales tour-goers with stories of well-known visitors and residents from Fred Astaire and Paul Newman to Minnie Pearl and the Duke of Windsor. Also included is a guided walk through Hopelands Gardens and the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. visitaikensc.com

Equestrian Events
Experience the town’s horse-centric heritage at the Aiken Spring Classic Horse Show, which welcomes competitive jumpers April 18 through May 1. Or join the Aiken Polo Club for a match at Whitney Field, the nation’s oldest polo field in continuous use (since 1882). Games take place Sunday afternoons April through mid-June. psjshows.com, aikenpolo.org

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Southbound.

Must-stop spots in the Mississippi Delta

Mississippi Delta

The Mississippi Delta encompasses some of the continent’s most productive land, its soil fed for millennia by the regular flooding of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. At the end of the Civil War, the region was largely an uninhabited frontier, which attracted freed slaves and white settlers who cleared the land of timber and established farms. At the turn of the century, two-thirds of the landowners were black, but over the course of the next few decades, most would be stripped of their land—unable to secure credit from banks, disenfranchised by a resurgent white political establishment, and crushed by the precipitous fall of the price of cotton. Reduced to sharecropping, they would give voice to their struggle in music that came to be known as the blues. This lyrical legacy would later be joined by creative endeavors tied to the region’s waters, from pottery marked with a squiggly line representing the river to a puppet inspired by the abundant frogs along its tributaries.

Delta Blues Museum
Delta Blues Museum

Photograph courtesy of Delta Blues Museum

Delta Blues Museum
Situated in Clarksdale’s 1918 train depot, the oldest music museum in Mississippi is an obvious first stop for pilgrims to the land of the Delta blues. Offering a full immersion in the history and sound of this American musical form, the museum showcases costumes, concert posters, and of course, instruments associated with legendary musicians from Robert Johnson to B.B. King. Historical films feature interviews with and performances by blues greats, and powerful black-and-white photography captures life in the Delta. Be sure to check out the remains of the cabin Muddy Waters called home when he was a sharecropper on nearby Stovall Farms. deltabluesmuseum.org

Cat Head, Mississippi Delta
Cat Head

Photograph by Chuck Lamb

Cat Head
Fifteen years ago, Roger Stolle left a career in advertising and marketing, moved from St. Louis to Clarksdale, and opened a downtown business that is equal parts record store, bookshop, folk art gallery, and visitor information center. Stop in and stock up on blues albums and books about the Delta, including Stolle’s Hidden History of Mississippi Blues. You’ll also find a wide range of reasonably priced pieces by self-taught artists, from Chris Kruse’s vibrant folk-pop portraits of blues legends to McArthur Chism’s bottle-cap crosses and birdhouses. Get the skinny on live music (performed every night in Clarksdale) from Stolle, known around town as Clarksdale’s Blues Ambassador. cathead.biz

Ground Zero Blues Club
Perhaps best described as a juke joint on steroids, this restaurant and club owned by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and former Clarksdale mayor Bill Luckett presents some of the best blues acts in Mississippi every Wednesday through Saturday night. It also serves up down-home Southern staples, including fried chicken, fried catfish, pulled pork (smoked on the club’s front porch), and Freeman’s favorites: fried green tomatoes and turnip greens, specialties of longtime cook, Ms. Myrtis. After dinner, which is served on communal tables topped with checkered vinyl tablecloths, sidle up to the long bar for a shot of honeysuckle vodka from Cathead, Mississippi’s first legal distillery. groundzerobluesclub.com

Shack Up Inn
Shack Up Inn

Shack Up Inn
Established in 1998, this B&B (that’s bed and beer) stands on the grounds of the former Hopson Plantation, just a few miles south of downtown Clarksdale. Surrounded by cotton and soybean fields, the Shack Up consists of a dozen or so former sharecropper shacks, a handful of grain bins repurposed as cottages, and the old cotton gin, which now houses the cavernous bar. At this kitschy roadside motel of sorts, expect corrugated tin roofs, weathered cypress-plank walls, sparse furnishings, and a yard filled with old appliances, rusting farm machinery, and bottle trees. Dogs are welcome; kids are not. Nightly happy hour features local musicians and a large selection of beers. shackupinn.com

McCarty Pottery
McCarty Pottery

Photograph courtesy of johnwhiteltd.com

McCarty Pottery
The story of McCarty Pottery is the stuff of Mississippi legend. In 1954, Lee and Pup McCarty set up their first kick wheel and a couple of kilns in an old mule barn in Merigold. They bunked in the barn’s loft and made their first pieces with clay dug from a ravine at their pal William Faulkner’s home. Today, art lovers and avid collectors make pilgrimages to the barn in search of McCarty platters, candlesticks, and casserole dishes, which bear the family’s trademark wavy line representing the Mississippi River (and can retail for five figures). The site is also a draw for gardeners, who come to admire the three-acre Mediterranean gardens recognized in 2012 by the Smithsonian Institution. mccartyspottery.com

Grammy Museum
Grammy Museum Mississippi

Photograph courtesy of the Grammy Museum

Grammy Museum Mississippi
Known as the Birthplace of American Music and home to more Grammy winners (and nominees) per capita than any other state, Mississippi is the site of the first Grammy museum built outside Los Angeles. Visitors to this Cleveland museum can ogle gowns worn by Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Beyonce and watch famous performances by Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner. They can also get in on the fun, writing and recording a song in the Songwriter’s Studio or practicing dance moves, from the twist to the moonwalk, on a lighted dance floor. Stop by the Mississippi Music Bar to listen to hits from artists ranging from B.B. King to Faith Hill. grammymuseumms.org

Delta Meat Market
Delta Meat Market

Photograph courtesy of Cleveland MS Chamber

Delta Meat Market
Chef Cole Ellis spent more than a decade honing his culinary skills at restaurants in Charleston and Nashville before returning home to Cleveland to open his full-service butcher shop, specialty grocery store, and hopping lunch spot. The James Beard–nominated chef offers a selection of menu items that change daily. Regulars rave about the super-fresh seafood gumbo and Asian chicken salad and load up on house-smoked bacon and vacuum-sealed packages of hot tamales. The market’s popular Friday happy hour draws townspeople and tourists alike, who get together to toast the week’s end with wine, local brews, and live music. deltameatmarket.com

Jim Henson Museum
Editor in Chief Kevin Benefield at the Jim Henson Museum

Photograph by Randy Stone

Jim Henson Museum
This tiny museum on the banks of Deer Creek, the birthplace of Kermit the Frog, celebrates the life and work of Leland’s favorite son, Jim Henson. Opened in 1991 on the heels of Henson’s death, the museum tells the story of Kermit’s origins: The beloved frog was fashioned in 1955 from a coat once worn by Henson’s mother and a halved ping-pong ball. It also recounts how Henson created a population of the beloved puppets for the 1969 Children’s Television Network production, Sesame Street. Displays showcase a wealth of plush toys, figurines, Pez dispensers, lunch boxes, and other items featuring the likes of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and their Muppet friends. birthplaceofthefrog.org

Doe’s Eat Place
Things haven’t changed much since Dominick “Doe” Signa and his wife, Mamie, opened this Greenville restaurant in 1941. Guests still enter through the front kitchen, walking past huge slabs of seasoned beef and tall stacks of plates to the dining room in the rear of the building. There’s still no menu; your waitress tells you what they’re cooking and you tell her what you’d like. Although renowned for its steak, the restaurant’s other classics include broiled shrimp and hot tamales, the first dish the Signas offered hungry diners. Several Doe’s franchises have popped up across the South, but the original location is still owned and operated by the family and was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of America’s Classics in 2007. doeseatplace.com

Belmont Plantation, Mississippi Delta
Belmont Plantation

Photograph by Byron Keith Thurman

Belmont Plantation
Built in 1857, this 9,000-square-foot home was one of the few mansions constructed in the Delta during the antebellum period and is the last one still standing along the river. Over the years, the house has served as a private residence and a hunting lodge; in 2016, following a two-year renovation (which continues in some rooms), it opened its doors as a seven-room bed and breakfast with period antiques. The house is open for tours led by a local historian and expert on the property. Visitors will be wowed by the fourteen-foot ceilings and eleven-foot doors, as well as the intricate moldings and ceiling medallions, regarded as some of the finest decorative plaster work in the state. belmontplantation1857.com

Where to Stay: Spotlight on Glen-Ella Springs Inn & Restaurant

Glen-Ella Springs Inn & Restaurant exterior

The Glen-Ella Springs experience begins with dinner. Fires crackle in the small dining room’s two stacked-stone fireplaces, the golden heart pine walls, ceiling, and floor adding to the warmth. On this night, at least, dinner is exclusively the domain of couples, who converse in hushed tones over the whisper-soft sound of jazz standards, “Autumn Leaves” and “My Funny Valentine.” Most hold hands.

While the historical inn set in the northeast Georgia mountains outside Clarkesville welcomes families—even groups for meetings and conferences—it has always seemed to me a place for couples. And indeed, the inn and its popular restaurant are favorite destinations for those celebrating anniversaries or making commitments or marking some shared milestone. Much of the credit for the destination’s continuing success goes to innkeepers Ed and Luci Kivett, who have worked to strike a balance between maintaining the property’s historical integrity and keeping it current.

When the Kivetts decided to leave their corporate life in Winston-Salem and began shopping for an inn, they quickly determined that it would be best to purchase an established property, one with a loyal clientele and a recognized name. They found it in Glen-Ella Springs. In 2008, they became the third couple to operate the bed and breakfast, following in the footsteps of Glen and Ella Davidson, who welcomed their first guests in the 1890s, and Bobby and Barrie Aycock, who restored and reopened the inn thirty years ago this fall.

Glen-Ella Springs Inn & Restaurant food

The Kivetts have made plenty of upgrades to the inn’s sixteen mountain-chic guest rooms and common areas—new rugs, linens, upholstery—and they’ve added walking trails and an outdoor fire pit to the seventeen-acre property bordering the Chattahoochee National Forest. And while they continue to update the restaurant’s menu, they’ve been careful to steer clear of a handful of longtime favorite offerings. Diners may rest assured that alongside newer rotating items (a market salad, a pasta special), they’ll find Glen-Ella Springs’ classic dishes, such as pecan-crusted rainbow trout and rack of lamb.

After dinner, guests may stroll the grounds, seek out a favorite spot to sit back and stargaze, or maybe even snuggle beside the new fire pit. After all, returning couples—who know something about finding freshness in the familiar—can appreciate the abiding appeal of Glen-Ella Springs.

1789 Bear Gap Road, Clarkesville, Georgia • (706) 754-7295 • glenella.com

While You’re There

Lake Life
Just miles from the inn, Lake Burton and Lake Rabun offer outstanding fishing and boating. Fall is a particularly lovely time to visit, as the leaves turn and the color-splashed mountains are reflected in the waters.

Falling Water
Northeast Georgia is home to a number of impressive waterfalls, including Amicalola Falls—at 729 feet, the tallest in the state—and Minnehaha Falls, a secluded series of cascades just minutes from the inn (check with the front desk for directions).

Hunting and Gathering
Make the twenty-minute drive to Clarkesville for an afternoon of antiquing in a half-dozen downtown shops (Once Upon a Time Company is a must-see). Also check out Soque Artworks for paintings, ceramics, toys, and jewelry crafted by local artisans, and stop in at the Nest for stylish home goods.

Embark on a history-filled weekend retreat in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Reynolds Building

The Cardinal Hotel

When it opened its doors in April 1929, the Reynolds Building was the tallest skyscraper in the South, and Winston-Salem the largest city between Washington D.C. and Atlanta. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company constructed the twenty-two-story Art Deco stunner as its headquarters, heralding the success of the company, which had introduced the incredibly popular Prince Albert pipe tobacco and Camel cigarettes earlier in the century. The building became a beloved local landmark, as well as the inspiration for New York’s Empire State Building.

But gradual changes in attitudes toward smoking and the subsequent downsizing of the company led R.J. Reynolds to put the iconic building on the block in 2009. Without a buyer willing to gamble on such a behemoth during the recession, it stood vacant for years. In 2015, a year after the tower was named to the National Register of Historic Places, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants announced it would repurpose it as a boutique hotel. In April 2016, on the eighty-seventh anniversary of the Reynolds’s opening, the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel welcomed its first guests.

This evolution is only the most recent example of Winston-Salem’s tobacco-to-tourism trend. A number of local attractions, from Reynolda to Graylyn, trace their beginnings to the makers of some of America’s top tobacco products. But none illustrate this on quite so grand a scale as the Cardinal.

The Cardinal Hotel’s elevator lobby

Jay Sinclair

Named after North Carolina’s state bird, the hotel occupies the building’s first six floors. Interior spaces—from the sleek, modern guest rooms to the rec room outfitted with a bowling alley, basketball court, and adult-sized spiral slide—would be unrecognizable to the Reynolds execs who once worked there, but the grand elevator lobby maintains its original splendor. Marble floors and walls, gleaming brass and nickel elevator doors, and a ceiling studded with gilded tobacco leaves evoke the building’s glorious past.

Kimpton contributes its own nods to yesteryear in notable design elements and artwork. The living room, where guests gather for complimentary coffee and tea in the mornings and local wines in the afternoon, features a framed likeness of a longleaf pine (the state tree) rendered in matchsticks. Portraits of city namesake Colonel Joseph Winston and R.J. Reynolds are woven into the mezzanine carpets.

Off the lobby, Reynolds’s wife, Katharine, is remembered in an eponymous French brasserie, which includes a polished dining room, lively bar, and large terrace. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant offers a mix of traditional brasserie items and Southern standards—croissants and biscuits, baked escargot and fried chicken.

Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Learn more about Katharine and the Reynolds family on a visit to Reynolda, the thousand-acre family estate and working farm a few miles northwest of downtown Winston-Salem. Completed in 1917, the sprawling bungalow, along with the carefully designed grounds and agricultural village, was Katharine’s passion. In addition to working with an architect to create the residence and dozens of support buildings—barns, silos, schools, a post office—she introduced new agricultural methods and livestock breeds, such as Jersey cattle, to local farmers.

Graylyn

Jay Sinclair

The estate remained in the family until 1964, when the furnished house and nineteen acres became part of a nonprofit institution dedicated to the arts and education. In 1967, that institution opened the home as the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Celebrating the estate’s centennial anniversary this year (as well as the museum’s fiftieth), Reynolda showcases a large collection of American art from 1755 to the present, plus the home’s original furniture and the family’s vintage clothing. The surrounding farm and support buildings now serve as boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants.

Across the street from Reynolda stands another grand estate, Graylyn, the former home of Bowman Gray Sr. Once president and chairman of the board of R.J. Reynolds, Gray was responsible for the construction of the Reynolds Building. He and his wife, Nathalie, followed the Reynolds family to the countryside on the outskirts of town, purchasing eighty-seven acres of land on which to build a great manor house in the Norman Revival style. Completed in 1932, the home remained in the family for only fourteen years before a widowed Mrs. Gray and her sons donated it to Wake Forest University’s medical school, which ran a psychiatric hospital on the grounds.

Art-o-mat machine

Art-o-Mat

Today, the university operates a hotel and conference center on the site and welcomes both daytime and overnight guests. Not to be missed is a butler-led tour of the property, which showcases an impressive range of European design styles and architectural elements, from the Georgian living room to the Italian Renaissance sunroom to the library featuring circa 1680 Louis XIV paneling from Paris. (Call ahead to reserve a time.) Another great way to experience Graylyn is the monthly Tour Pour Du Jour, which pairs a Sunday afternoon tour with a reception featuring the estate’s select house wines and cheeses.   

Just up the road from Graylyn looms yet another former home of an industrial titan, the English manor–style residence of James G. Hanes, president and chairman of the board of Hanes Hosiery Mills Company. Though Hanes doesn’t have ties to the city’s tobacco heyday, his old estate currently does: Now the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), it is hosting an exhibition this spring that explores cigarette machines turned art dispensers. “Art-o-mats” were developed twenty years ago by Winston-Salem artist Clark Whittington, who stocked the first such machine with small black-and-white photos mounted on blocks and installed it at local restaurant Penny University Cafe. So popular was this unusual piece of conceptual art, the restaurant’s owner asked if she could keep it. Whittington agreed and began working with other artists to create pieces for the vending machine. Today, the original Art-o-mat resides at Mary’s Gourmet Diner (the successor to Penny University), and more than 130 others have been installed at galleries, shops, and restaurants across the United States and Europe.

SECCA’s retrospective will showcase a host of the machines and the miniature works of art they dispense. It’s a wholly fitting end to your exploration of Winston-Salem, a city whose smoky past continues to burn bright.

More to Explore

Winston-Salem’s willingness to embrace new challenges is nothing new. It dates back to 1766, when Moravians founded Salem, North Carolina. The Moravians, a Protestant denomination whose members fled to America to escape persecution in what is today the Czech Republic, were known for their hard work, love of music, and devotion to church and community.

Today, 109 of the historical settlement’s buildings have been restored or reconstructed. Fifteen of the structures are operated by Old Salem Museums and Gardens, where dozens of craftspeople and re-enactors bring the village to life. Watch shoemakers, tailors, potters, and gunsmiths ply their trades as they would have two centuries ago. Stroll the numerous gardens showcasing heirloom plants and traditional horticultural practices (such as removing weeds by hand rather than using herbicides). Plan on lunch at the Tavern in Old Salem, which serves traditional favorites such as chicken pie and syllabub, a whipped dessert featuring white wine or sherry and fresh fruit.

A number of shops offer Moravian products made on-site. Pick up handmade baskets and paper ornaments at the book and gift shop. And stock up on sugar cake and cookies at the bakery.

Before leaving Old Salem, pay a visit to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). The institution displays one the nation’s finest collections of Southern furniture, ceramics, textiles, and other objects from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. oldsalem.org

Letter from the Editor: Small-town charm

Editor Kevin Benefield on the steps of Le Meridien Tampa during a recent visit to the city’s Ybor City neighborhood.

Whitney Tomasino

All things are relative, I guess. Our staff quickly discovered that this is the case when it comes to identifying small towns. I’d say I grew up in a small town. In the 1970s and eighties, Gainesville, Georgia, was home to fewer than 20,000 people—which is the ceiling we ultimately placed on towns we were considering for inclusion in our cover feature. However, I recognize that those who hail from truly tiny hamlets, where the population has never broken out of the triple digits, would argue that my hometown was anything but small.

While it’s tough to reach consensus on the question of size, there’s far less disagreement on the subject of small-town spirit. Whether a community’s population tops out around 650, like Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, or swells to almost 19,000, like Thomasville, Georgia, the standouts tend to share a handful of qualities: an embrace of local traditions; a commitment to maintaining long-standing structures and landmarks; and a genuine affection for local characters. It’s these charms, along with a slower pace, a welcoming air, and an abiding sense of familiarity that draw visitors to the storied small towns of the South. We’re pleased to present eight of our favorites, profiled by award-winning writer Tony Rehagen.

Of course, small towns don’t hold a monopoly on civic pride and respect for tradition. Freelance writer Thomas Swick visited Tampa’s historic Ybor City, where he met with a number of locals dedicated to sharing the stories and culture of this immigrant neighborhood once hailed as the “Cigar Capital of the World.” And Executive Editor Allison Entrekin discovered how the people of Chattanooga, in just a few decades, transformed their city from one of the nation’s most polluted to one of its greenest—as well as a top destination for outdoor recreation. Tag along with her as she climbs boulders in Little Rock City, kayaks on the Tennessee River, and hang glides high above Lookout Valley.

Whether you’re planning a quiet escape or plotting an adventurous getaway, I hope your warm-weather travels take you to some great new destinations—regardless of their size.

Kevin Benefield

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