We took a couple of weeks vacation to get out of cold and snowy New York, and drove down through the Carolinas and Georgia to spend a week in sunny summery Anna Maria Island, Florida. And we want to tell you all about the sights and more importantly, the food.
We take a vacation so rarely that we’re incredibly excited when we get the chance to go away. In fact, long-term readers might remember our last travel report, from the UK back in 2013. This year we made the executive decision to take all our accrued holiday time for the last five years (this is totally not how freelancing works, by the way, you guys) and it just so happened that 1) Emily’s Mom had a big birthday celebration this year and we were invited to stay with the whole family in Florida for a week, and 2) Matt’s Mum is getting married in July and so we’ll have a summer trip in the UK.
Even though these two wonderful occasions are primarily mother-focussed (that’s not a curse-word, Moms), we realize that most of you come here for the food, so we didn’t want to disappoint you. And of course we both love to experience new and interesting cuisines and recipes on our travels. So here are some of our foody highlights from the trip.
The early spring weather in New York sucked. I mean, it really sucked. It wasn’t even particularly super cold this year, but it was snowy, and miserable, and endless. When we left for the trip on March 31st, there was still snow on the ground, and it snowed at least twice while we were away. People were losing. Their. Minds. So yes, we got away at just the right time for our own sanity, and got an early taste of a serious warm and sunny climate that we’re just not used to in April.
As we’re writing this, we’re on the deck, in the sun, looking out over the garden and planning what we’d like to grow this year, knowing full well that nothing can go outside until the middle of May else we risk frost-rotted seedlings. We love where we live, we really do, but the timing of the growing season in the Northeast can be very frustrating. Even now, none of our local trees except for a very few cherries have any blossom, and our perennial rhubarb adds the only splash of green in the raised beds. So driving south was a series of literal milestones – the first burst of color from bright pink roadside azaleas in the Carolinas, the first consistently green meadow, the first eat-at-a-picnic table-outside BBQ shack (more on that below).
We knew our destination, of course, and the fastest, most efficient route from Beacon, NY to Sarasota, FL is to take route 95 basically all the way down. But the fastest route is rarely the most interesting, so we tried to spend as much time as we could on smaller, more circuitous roads. This took us to places where often we were the only people. We could stop the car in the middle of the road, open the windows, and just sit and marvel at the sights and sounds of the landscape.
We did have one other must-do on our journey. We’re huge fans of A Chef’s Life, the PBS series about North Carolinian chef Vivian Howard, her family, friends and the local farming community, and most of all, her landmark restaurant in Kinston, NC: “Chef and the Farmer“.
Its culinary mission centers on her love and respect for the traditional recipes and farm produce of the area, much of which was starting to disappear in the competing arenas of the modern food world. She’s keeping the kitchen stories of the South alive, with some ingredients you might expect (collards, okra) and others that out-of-staters like us might be surprised by. We loved everything we ate here, especially the flash-fried collards which were as crisp and salty as the best potato chips. Every dish was extremely well balanced between savory, salty, sour and sweet – as well as texture. We tried to photograph as many of them as we could so you could see for yourself!
In fact, Vivian Howard has two restaurants in Kinston, and we had so much fun on the way down that we made a special stop there on the way back up, too, to check out “Boiler Room“, an oysters-and-burgers joint with a relaxed, pubby atmosphere. We were also thrilled to get an Instagram reply from Vivian thanking us for coming by!
As much as we loved Chef & the Farmer, the Boiler Room was kind of more our speed and if we lived nearby, it would definitely be our go-to spot. The oysters were incredibly fresh (we had them 2 ways, on the half shell and a version of Rockefeller, with smoked cheese, collards, bacon and spicy tomato pickle).
Both nights, we stayed at the O’Neil, a boutique hotel converted from a bank, with lush decoration and many of the building’s original features. Our first room contained bunkbeds set into a vault (there were real beds too, but of course we had to have the Scrooge McDuck experience of sprawling where they used to store bullion). In the hotel’s lobby there’s another open vault where you can hang out and grab a beer brewed by the local Mother Earth brewery. We had an equally delightful room in the hotel on the way back up North, and if you’re looking for somewhere a bit special to stay, we can’t recommend it highly enough. We mostly stuck to generic roadside hotels for the rest of our trip, so this was our one splurge.
Our next stop along the route was Savannah, Georgia, a city that neither of us had ever visited. Even in the internet age, it’s not a simple matter to plan a trip to somewhere new, but we used a combination of Roadtrippers, Yelp, and Tripadvisor to help us find good places to eat and stay. Savannah is beautiful, historic, and just unbelievably vibrant – we were there over Easter weekend, and even on the way back from dinner late in the evening, we saw families with kids playing in the city squares. And it was one of the most dog-friendly places we’ve seen in the US – everyone with a pup would take them around walking and to outside cafe tables, and you couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a dog-treat store.
We ate at the Olde Pink House, an 18th century mansion that’s been combined with another building to create a huge, sprawling (and beautifully decorated) restaurant with a range of great options. It was just the right amount of formal to make us feel fancy. It’s a beautiful place but rather touristy, and the food was not terribly memorable – except for a delicious soft-shell crab special, fried almost tempura-style, in a light, crisp batter. It was one of those places where some people were dressed for a night at the opera (gowns, pearls, suits) and others were in sweat pants and jeans.
The next day was a short driving leg, and so we had a little time in the morning to walk around and appreciate the city in daylight. We also popped into a candy store where you can see them making praline drops in the window, and picked up a few caramel treats (circles of praline and chocolate called gophers) for our nephew and nieces.
Now, we’re acutely aware that many of you are reading with the expectation that at some point we’ll start talking about barbecue. If we know our readers, there are quite a few of you slavering for the first mention of pulled pork and vinegar sauce. You probably also know that when you’re looking for good BBQ, you don’t necessarily go to a big restaurant – often the best local food is found at a nondescript shack with a pit out back. Some of these places don’t post regular hours, so we were happy to have success on only our second attempt in Windsor, NC. Our first pick had just closed for the day when we turned up for lunch, so we drove to the next town and found that nondescript shack.
In fact, some of the best food we found on the trip was shack-style – at Jalen’s BBQ in Folkston, Georgia. We ordered at the takeout window and ate our ribs, fried okra and pulled pork at the picnic table next to the rutted dirt drive-thru next to the “Guns and Pawn” shop. The ribs were amazing and we both loved the super tangy mustard-based sauce. We also stopped at Shaw’s Barbecue House in Williamston, NC, and Randy’s Rib Shack in Waldo, FL, both of which we can recommend.
While there were Waffle Houses pretty much all the way through the Carolinas and Georgia, we didn’t take the waffly plunge until Florida, where the menu was honestly not that much different from something we’d see at a diner in NY (but with a smaller menu). It didn’t have the grilled chicken biscuit that a Beacon friend (and NC native) had recommended, so we may have gone too far south for that.
Finally, our destination – Anna Maria Island just off Sarasota – was exactly what we needed after spending all those hours in the car: sun, pool and family time. As far as food goes, we had a lot of shrimp, some pretty respectable burgers, and we even did the touristy beach thing and lined up to get all-you-can-eat pancakes at the AMI Beach Cafe. The Island is a popular vacation spot, so beach parking was almost impossible, but fortunately we’d rented a house within easy walking distance, so we got to see some amazing sunsets over the Gulf.
So yes, we did a lot of driving – a thousand miles each way – and as an aside, has everyone else been pumping their gas with the pump on the latch this whole time? This is the way it’s done in Britain, and apparently also in every other state except for New York because we clearly can’t be trusted not to wander off and cause a fire hazard or something. (At least we CAN pump our own gas, cough cough New Jersey). We’re so glad we skipped the flight option and decided to drive down, because it showed us some wonderful parts of the country that otherwise we’d never take the trouble to experience – and we’d be the worse off for it.