We knew we’d reached the deep south when the menu changed … Shrimp and Grits, Spicy Southern Fried Chicken, Crab Cakes, Corn Bread with Marmalade and Fried Green Tomatoes.
Best of all was the southern breakfast classic … Biscuits and Gravy. A light scone made from buttermilk, then smothered in a thick, creamy sausage sauce.
Comfort food at its finest!
We’d arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on an Amtrak train … the fabulously named ‘Silver Meteor’ that takes 28 hours to trundle down the 1,389 miles of track from New York to Miami every day.
It was our first experience of taking our bicycles aboard a long-distance train and it turned out to be surprisingly easy. They were safely tucked away in the baggage car whilst we happily watched the world go by from huge, comfortable seats … even in economy ‘Coach Class’.
After handing back our rental car in Petersburg and boarding this train from Richmond to Charleston, you might be relieved to know that we did actually do some pedalling … a 300km (186 mile) loop around the Virginia Peninsula to visit the famous ‘historic triangle’ of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
Many of you will also be relieved to hear that Clare’s backside was feeling much better by now and she could enjoy cycling again, especially as the roads were flattening out the closer we got to the coast.
Ironically, the historic triangle saw both the beginning and the end of British colonial history in America, neither giving great cause for national pride.
Jamestown marks the beginning of the colony. Three ships arrived there in 1607, carrying 104 men and boys to establish the first permanent settlement in the New World.
Those early years were characterised by infighting, starvation and disease; by broken promises and ill treatment of the local Powhatan Indians; by the introduction of slavery and indentured labour; and by the development of tobacco as a cash crop.
Surrounded by swamps and mosquitoes and without a good supply of water it must have been an extremely tough life.
Today it’s a fascinating and peaceful place to visit, right on the banks of the James River. The site itself is an archaeological national park but there’s also an excellent recreation of the original ships, the fort and a local Powhatan village.
If Jamestown is the beginning of the British colonialism, then Yorktown just 20 miles away, is the beginning of the end. In 1781, a large British army under General Cornwallis became trapped there between the American patriots and the French navy. After a short siege they were forced to surrender, setting in motion a chain of events that confirmed full American sovereignty two years later.
Halfway between them is a place with a more respectable history for us Brits.
Williamsburg was the first substantial town built by the British, on higher land and with a good water supply. It’s now a charming ‘living history museum’ of eighty-eight original 18th century buildings, the town brought to life by daily displays of fife and drum, costumed actors debating the issues of their day and demonstrations of all manner of historic trades … from wheelwrights to shoemaking.
Much to our surprise, we found ourselves enjoying the comfort of a time-share property during our stay in Williamsburg.
A self-catering apartment had popped up as a last-minute option online and was 1) a great deal; 2) near the town centre and 3) not a motel … so it was impossible to turn down.
Only as we pedalled up to it did we realise that it wasn’t the small, anonymous apartment block we’d expected … but was actually a large holiday village full of vacation homes and condos.
Predictably Clare got the hard sell as she checked in … would we come to a presentation?
The more she refused, the better the enticement got … until eventually they offered to pay for our entry into all the local attractions and to buy us dinner at a local fish restaurant. Oh … okay then … thank you very much!
Dutifully we attended the presentation but it didn’t take too long for the salespeople to realise that time-shares … (sorry, “vacation ownership”) … and bicycle touring don’t really fit together.
The apartment was great though, a perfect base to explore the area. In fact, it became our favourite accommodation of the whole trip!
As we ended up staying for a week, we needed to get some stores in, Andy volunteering to do the supermarket run a few miles away.
He couldn’t resist a few extras, just managing to stuff all the shopping into his panniers. But he’d taken so long it was now pitch dark and starting to rain. The bike was incredibly heavy … probably all those vegetables … or maybe too much wine, beer and chocolate!
Finding decent accommodation at a reasonable price has been one of the challenges of bike touring in America. Self-catering apartments worked well in big cities but the choice in smaller towns and rural areas was much more limited.
B&Bs in America tend to be historic houses, very expensive, usually full and … to be honest, not always that comfortable.
So we ended up staying in a lot more hotel and motel chains than normal. The rooms are big and the beds are both huge and comfortable, with a choice between an extra-wide (6 foot) king bed or a ‘double double’ … two queens. Many of them also have that ultimate cycle touring luxury, a guest laundry.
Perfect after a smelly day in the saddle!
In all our travels through Europe, South America, Asia and Australia we’ve only taken our bicycles into our room a couple of times. Normally they sleep in a garage, shed or in a meeting room. But in America, we’ve been encouraged to bring them into our room most nights … which means they’ve been extremely happy and comfortable.
Almost purring with pleasure!
But … and it’s a big but … most of the affordable places to stay are aimed at long distance car drivers so they’re usually several miles outside a town, clustered on a strip next to the nearest highway.
Stumbling along the grass verge of a busy road for something to eat at a Taco Bell, Ruby Tuesday or Denny’s in the middle of an American strip mall is not quite as charming as wandering around the streets of a quaint little European town.
That said Denny’s, a chain of diners, has become a bit of a favourite.
We’ve enjoyed plenty of great meals out, often finding that the best food comes from the least inviting looking places.
America is famous for its large portion sizes … but most restaurants seem happy when we share a main course. Occasionally we’ve said yes to the polystyrene take out box to turn one half of tonight’s fried chicken into tomorrow’s roadside sandwich.
One thing that shocked us was the massive amount of single-use plastic still used in the States. A plastic cup wrapped in a plastic bag. Plastic cutlery and plates for every breakfast … each knife, fork and spoon wrapped in their own plastic. Coffee from a trendy café served in take-out cups, even when you’re drinking in.
In Charleston, hotels in the historic centre were at a significant premium so we stayed on the other side of a huge bridge that crosses the Cooper River. At 4 kilometres long it was quite a daily commute to see the sights!
Apart from eating plenty of shrimp and grits, we really enjoyed wandering around the tidy streets of Charleston, visiting historic houses and gazing out across the harbour to Fort Sumter where the first shots of the civil war rang out.
Charleston is also home to the USS Yorktown, a famous old aircraft carrier where you can scramble up to bridge, lose yourself in the maze of narrow corridors below deck and marvel at some real Top Gun planes.
This was the second time we’d seen some aeronautical wonders as we’d previously visited the Air and Space Museum near Washington where we saw the space shuttle, Discovery … a proper bucket list tick for Andy.
Plenty of tour companies offer cycling holidays between Charleston and Savannah … “through picturesque countryside imbued with southern charm on a journey you will never forget.” This route is also part of the East Coast Greenway … a “safe walking and biking route that runs from Maine to Florida.”
It was enough to seduce us into the romantic notion that we would be gently cycling for three days on back country roads lined with ancient evergreen Southern Live Oak, each tree dripping with Spanish Moss.
And for much of the time it was just like that … magical!
This whole area is a low country gem. A diverse habitat of forested wetlands, tidal marshes, creeks, barrier islands and beaches. But the marshes and islands mean that there are not that many connecting roads. And we had made the rooky error of not checking it out thoroughly enough.
It turns out that the East Coast Greenway follows busy highways for roughly half of its journey between Charleston and Savannah … including the notorious (for bike tourers) or historic (for everyone else) Route 17 Coastal Highway. And the bicycle tour companies ferry their guests around the main roads in vans … so that they can concentrate on the best bits.
For the first two days, we kept away from Route 17 by heading inland to Waltersboro then back down to the charming, sea-island town of Beaufort, an extra 70km (44 miles) for two of the longest rides on this trip.
But on the third day, an 85km (53 mile) ride into Savannah it was impossible to avoid the highways. There was simply no way around them. We put our heads down, tried to ignore the trucks and played dodgems with the debris at the side of the road.
After 25km (15 miles) we pulled into a small maritime museum to draw breath.
As the two volunteers that worked there enthusiastically described the unique marine environment of the area, we might have vented our frustrations at just how difficult it was to cycle through it.
Before we quite knew what was happening, Tim (one of the volunteers) had strapped our bikes to his car, bundled us inside and was driving us the rest of the way to Savannah.
His shift was just finishing anyway, he explained.
It was only half-way there that we discovered he actually lived in the opposite direction!
If Charleston is a precious gem, then Savannah is even more stunning. Smaller but richer in colour. A lush green emerald of a city covered in oaks, magnolias and cabbage palm trees, highlighted by colourful and elegant townhouses.
Some of these are found on Jones Street, often described as the prettiest in America. In fact, this street is so desirable it’s the origin of a famous saying … “Keeping up with the Joneses”.
Like all the other US cities we visited, Savannah was a great place to cycle around. Our self-guided tour took us through historic squares and past antebellum mansions, before finishing at a quite remarkable church.
The First African Baptist Church dates back to 1773 and is the earliest church in America to be organised for enslaved people. Amazingly, the building was constructed at night after long days of hard labour in the plantations and often a long walk into town.
First the walls went up to keep out suspicious eyes. Then as the rest of the foundations were dug out, they secretly added tunnels leading down towards the river and a basement that eventually became the first stop on the ‘underground railroad’, a support network for slaves who were escaping north.
It’s an extraordinary testament to the skill and perseverance of these people and an important story to tell.
Not that the terrible experience endured by the enslaved people of Georgia or South Caroline is that visible. Amongst all the beautifully preserved houses there are relatively few memorials to African Americans … a notable difference to the brutal honesty we found in museums further north.
Having enjoyed the Silver Meteor Amtrak train so much, we rode to the outskirts of Savannah early one morning before dawn to load our bikes back in baggage car and sink once again into those luxurious seats.
This time the train took us all the way to West Palm Beach and a final couple of days of cycling down the warm Florida coast to Miami and our flight home. We were blown along by the growing winds of what became Hurricane Nicole, only the third hurricane to hit Florida in November since records began.
To be fair, it was only upgraded from a tropical storm to a hurricane for a few hours … but it was windy and rainy enough for us!
On our last day the winds died down and the sun came out again so we could relax on Miami’s South Beach, reflecting back on a what a great experience we’ve had. Surrounded by art deco hotels, it was a small taste of the exuberant yet chilled lifestyle that Miami is famous for.
Overall, we’ve cycled 2,527 kilometres or 1,570 miles on our USA East Coast adventure, enough to get a feel for a small part of this vast country.
How did the cycling compare to other trips?
We’ve had some amazing views from our handlebars and met lots of lovely people … helped by our flags, as we hoped.
The quality of the roads has been so good that we haven’t had a single puncture. Even the gravel bike trails are smooth and beautifully groomed.
It’s been easy to pedal around some amazing cities.
But sometimes more challenging to cycle on busy roads in the countryside.
Bike touring in America is not quite the same as cycle touring in Europe and it’s not just the difference between ‘biking’ and ‘cycling’.
Most Americans go long distance biking on specific trails or known routes … they don’t make it up as they go along like we do. (We did meet one couple from Montana who also made up their own routes but that was on a train … as they were escaping from Route 17 at the time.)
This seems to be because there simply isn’t the same extensive network of small, quiet country roads to cycle on in the States as there is in Europe … so you find yourself on busy main roads more often than you’d like. And because drivers are not used to seeing bikers, those roads can be a bit scary!
It’s often said that America is a ‘car society’. Everything made easy to get to in cars.
As we found ourselves pedalling away from another charming town centre to yet another motel by another highway, we decided that really and truly … we were the odd ones out. We were the ones that didn’t have a car.
But we’re very glad that we’re odd. If we weren’t, we would have missed out on this wonderful experience.
Thank you America … hope to see y’all again!
Clare and Andy
2,527 km pedalled (1,570 miles) … our 2nd longest ride so far
14,965 m climbed … easily the flattest
139 hours in the saddle … with 41 days of cycling