After starting 2023 with travels in FL & GA, we went back to Marietta for a short stay and then set back out on travels along the Southeast coast from Wilmington, NC, to Brunswick, GA. At the start of this stretch, the weather was still a little cold and wet, but as we drove along the coast, it warmed up, and we could see signs of spring all around us. We saw roses, rhododendrons, and wisteria blooming along with Atlantic coast sunrises and westward sunsets. From Marietta, we headed to a one-night stay in Columbia, SC, as we made our way to the coastline near Wilmington, NC.
At the beginning of this stretch, I was delighted to meet up with a great colleague and friend who lives north of Wilmington. She gave me a brief tour of the area and one morning we met very early for a sunrise walk along Wrightsville Beach. Also, after many years of hearing about her Lady Banks roses being in bloom at this time, I was able to see them with my own eyes. It was a lovely visit, and we really enjoyed this section of the east coast.
South of Wilmington, we stayed at the Carolina Beach State Park. We booked a quiet campsite with easy access to hiking trails. The park is surrounded by water, though our site was in the forest, and the beach was a short drive away. This park is famous for having the Venus Fly Trap on its ground, and this is the only place in the world where this plant grows naturally. We searched long and hard to catch a glimpse of this unusual plant and finally found one.
There were many other interesting things about this area. Nearby Georgetown, the third oldest city in NC, was a mix of industry and a modest waterfront boardwalk alongside the backdrop of an inhumane society built upon rice plantations. Farther south is Ft. Fisher and an infamous hermit who lived in a bunker nearby for many years. We visited a local microbrewery within walking distance of the state park that also had a short disc course.
Leaving Carolina Beach, we took Highway 17 south to the Fort Fisher Ferry across the Cape Fear River to Southport. Then, we continued driving through Oak Island and over the border until we reached Huntington Beach State Park near Murrells Inlet in South Carolina (SC), where we stayed for an extended period. The entrance to this park includes an impressively long man-made causeway designed for watching wildlife. On any given day, you could see the ebb and flow of the tide along with many migrating birds, turtles, and plenty of alligators.
This park contains a beach, a castle, hiking trails, noteworthy birdwatching, and Greenbrook Gardens within walking distance. The beauty of this area can be traced back to the owners from the early 1900s. Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased a series of rice farms and set about redefining the landscape. They were a well-off couple, and Anna was an internationally known sculptress. In the early 1930s, they built their home on these grounds, Atalaya Castle, which is now a National Historic Landmark. This distinctive building still stands and was modeled after the Moorish architecture of the Spanish Mediterranean coast. It was very interesting to tour this home. The shape and style were unique to the area, and even more unusual were the indoor and outdoor areas designed for Anna’s sculpture work, such as a holding pen for large animals.
Brookgreen Gardens is an enormous piece of property just across Highway 17 from the campground. It started as a part of the Huntington’s estate, and now it is a public botanical garden with an entry fee (well worth it!). Besides an amazing amount of flora in the themed gardens, it includes the Lowcountry Zoo. There is a formal sculpture garden and hundreds of sculptures from Anna and others all over the 9100+ acre property. There is also an indoor gallery, and a rare Rodin exhibit was displayed there during our visit.
We were very lucky to arrive at the peak of blooming for the azaleas. The grounds are huge, and there is a beautifully long entrance that is lined with hundreds (it felt like thousands) of azaleas. It was a glorious sight to behold so many of these flowers in various colors on each side of the road.
After Huntington Beach State Park, we continued south to Hunting Island State Park. This is another in-demand park but much less crowded than the previous one. The park was far east and off the beaten path, which limited the number of visitors. On the island was a huge beachfront, a campground, a historic lighthouse, and many places to hike and watch birds. At the southern tip of the island was a place nicknamed “the graveyard” for the many dead trees that filled the beachfront. We found that this scenery was common in many points along the SC coastline.
Our campsite was a short walk to the very long beachfront. Once again, there were lots of opportunities to view birds, and the change in tide was drastic. Each day, we tried to walk along the beach to see birds, dolphins, fish, and the ever-changing landscape. As we learned, the water is a way of life here, and it’s connected to the food and culture of the area. When we kayaked, we saw many people collecting clams and oysters in the waterways. Jason decided to be adventurous one day and went out to collect some local shellfish. He came back with a bucket full of salty oysters that he steamed up at our campsite. They were quite tasty!
From Hunting Island, we took a couple of day trips to visit the nearby towns of Port Royal and historic Beaufort. Another day, we explored Jekyll Island. As with some of the nearby islands, you must pay a fee to cross the bridge to enter this one. It was obviously a popular place to visit. It has a history that goes way back but also modern touches like a conference center and familiar hotel brands. After looking high and low for the state park grounds, we discovered there is only a private campground on the island.
As we started our journey back to Marietta, GA, we stayed at two more campgrounds. The first was a private campground near Altamaha River, a little inland from Brunswick and Savannah. It was one of the strangest campgrounds we have ever visited. Upon arrival, a strong storm passed over and knocked out the power, followed by a series of other uncomfortable events. So, when we learned that another large storm was coming and the campground was listed as a threat for major flooding, we decided it was time to cut out early and keep moving.
The last site was a lucky find in the middle of GA called High Falls State Park. It had a picturesque dam, waterfalls, miniature golf, and plenty of hiking trails. It was a perfect pit stop to break up the last stretch of driving.
After returning to Marietta in the latter half of April, we had a little time to regroup. Shortly after, we left the US to visit another continent. We made our first visit to the strange and wonderful Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. I’ll share more about that next time.
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