My photographer husband Jim and I have the goal to visit at least a small part of each of our fabulous fifty United States, and we’re almost “there.” Thus, it took only a moment to say “yes” to a call inviting us to a military reunion in Charleston, South Carolina, to renew friendships from our Air Force days.
Charleston had been on our list of “places to explore” for years, as had that state’s off-shore barrier island of Hilton Head, the first eco-planned destination in the United States. We’d also wanted to immerse ourselves in historic Savannah Georgia’s first city – and in Nashville, Tennessee, known to the world as “Music City USA.” “Whoopee! We’ll see new sites,” we said to each other as our plans unfolded.
Before long, we found ourselves high into the sky on our way to Charleston – first settled in 1780 by 150 English colonists, indentured servants, and slaves. Today tourists fill tour boats and traverse its cobblestone streets via foot, trolleys, horse or mule drawn carriages, and buses, taking in its historical and architectural treasures. Among the multitude of enticements are Fort Sumter – upon which Confederate soldiers fired the first shots signaling the start of the War Between the States – and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, where George Washington worshiped, along with magnificent homes like the Aiken-Rhett House, one of Charleston’s largest private residences.
Because Jim walks by wheelchair, we chose to call the Double Tree Guest Suites home for our days in Charleston. This graceful hotel, in the heart of the historic district, boasts a two-room suite designed to make life marvelous and safe for disabled travelers. Not only does it offer a wheelchair accessible shower, incredibly comfy beds, and those famous chocolate chip cookies, it also boasts handsome dark colonial furnishings, a kitchen area complete with microwave, refrigerator, sink, and coffee maker, and large windows opening onto a wide ledge and outdoor stairwell, a feature we found comforting in case of emergency. Best of all, the service is impeccable, and it’s only a stone’s throw from the magical City Market Place, where craftspeople sell their creations along with goods from throughout the world. No one should leave Charleston without a hand-woven sweetgrass basket made before your eyes at the marketplace, by weavers carrying on a tradition brought to this country by West African slaves more than 300 years ago. And certainly one should take time to sample the hot crab and shrimp dip at the Noisy Oyster Restaurant on North Market Street, just across from the City Market Place.
Leaving Charleston, often called the “Garden City of the South” for it’s abundance of floral beauty – was difficult. Yet we looked forward to the beaches of Hilton Head Island, whose earliest history dates back to 1450 B.C., and where sturdy matting from France creates a pathway across the sand to the water’s edge – especially for wheelchairs. For the first time in many years, Jim and I could stroll together beside ocean waves as they ever-so-gently caressed the white and windblown sand.
Because of the activity surrounding it, we had chosen the Holiday Inn Oceanfront on Coligny Beach as our resting place. Coligny Beach, named one of America’s top ten beaches, is a five minute walk to Coligny Plaza, Hilton Head Island’s inviting town center, complete with shopping, dining, charming fountains, and benches for repose. Named for Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a French Admiral and leader of the Protestant movement, who, in the mid 1500’s, sponsored two voyages to the New World, this plaza, sheltered by tall, waving palms and imposing oak trees is a fascinating setting where residents and tourists alike while away afternoons and evenings.
We knew we had chosen the season of hurricanes to savor these Southern states, so we were not surprised to find most of our days in Hilton Head moist, but the weather didn’t dampen our spirits or our fun. Thus, before we were ready, the time came to bid adieu to a most unique vacation land, and our thoughts turned toward Savannah.
The days in Savannah were soggy, yet this city was all we dreamed – and more. A Grayline trolley ride introduced us to its heart, fashioned in twenty-four squares by its creator, General James Oglethorpe, more than two and a half centuries ago, after arriving from England with 114 travelers on the good ship “Anne.” Later we ambled across the cobblestones of the remaining twenty-one squares, feasting our eyes upon the classic, wrought-iron adorned homes and enjoying the ambience of the marketplace filled with quaint shops and bistros.
Savannah is also known as a city of “firsts.” Among many, it boasts the first lighthouse on the South Atlantic Coast; the first cotton gin – built there by Eli Whitney; the first motorized fire department in America, and the first garden for the blind in the Southeast.
It also has a rich military history, and a visit to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum is a must for World War II aficionados and all who appreciate America’s military role in our history. When you go, rest and reflect for a moment in the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles, crafted in the design of a gothic English chapel and so named as a tribute to those airmen who paid for freedom with their lives.
Today Savannah lays claim to being the eighth largest port in the United States, and from our Hyatt Regency hotel room high above the Savannah River, we watched, mesmerized – while treating ourselves to far too many of Georgia’s famous pecan pralines – as tiny tugboats escorted a never-ending parade of giant container ships floating along the Savannah River. Eventually each unloaded into that city’s great warehouses their wares from places around the globe, including Haifa, Hamburg, and Hong Kong.
You can also cruise that river aboard River Street River Boat Company’s River Queen or Georgia Queen on one of their many daily cruise offerings. Both boats are replicas of the great steam boats that once cruised our regal rivers. It’ll be a while before we forget the riveting Savannah River and the old, old, oak trees, dripping the delicate, sage-green moss we’d waited almost a lifetime to see.
Last stop was Nashville, via the wings of Delta, where sunshine and azure skies greeted us. We chose not to drive at all on this journey, thus we elected to stay at the Hilton Nashville Downtown in the heart of the city for ease of foot travel. From the Hilton it was a walk across the park for more than one afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame. We also trekked a short distance up hill to the celebrated Ryman Auditorium, home to Grand Ole’ Opry from 1943-1974, and we meandered a few steps to the honky-tonks on Broadway, including Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (it really is painted bright orchid), where country music greats including Willie Nelson, Jimmy Dean, Mel Tillis and Patsy Cline, performed in their early days.
It was an easy walk to assuage hunger pangs at Merchant’s Restaurant in the old Merchant’s Hotel, also on Broadway, whose history includes that of being a brothel, a 1920s “speakeasy” and a respectable 1925 era hotel, with guests the likes of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Will Rogers. We were but a five minute walk from Nashville’s wonderful walking bridge that crosses the Cumberland River. What a way to spend an afternoon!
Nashville is very accommodating to visitors with disabilities. We were delighted to discover their door-to-door wheelchair van service, Access Van, a part of the city bus system. By registering beforehand and making reservations 24 hours in advance, we were driven to the Hermitage, home of our seventh President, Andrew Jackson, and to wonderful seventy-sixth anniversary celebrations that included performances by Little Jimmy Dickens and other Grand Ole’ Opry “old-timers.” Later, on a bus tour that meandered the countryside around Nashville, Jimmy Dickens waved to all of us while hanging Christmas lights from the rooftop of his abode.
Access Van drivers also drove us to unforgettable brunch and dinner cruises, along the Cumberland aboard the largest paddlewheel showboat in existence – The General Jackson – whose personnel went “overboard” to extend courtesies to those not nimble on their feet. The delightfully delicious afternoon brunch cruise offered a medley of southern delicacies – fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread, mouthwatering salads, and warm peach cobbler, served with the side-splitting country music entertainment of internationally acclaimed performer Tim Watson. The more formal evening dinner offered savory salmon and broiled filet mignon, Broadway entertainment, and an unforgettable view of the night lights of Nashville.
Like the days in Charleston, Hilton Head, and Savannah, our days in Music City disappeared like magic. Most reluctantly– our hearts filled with love for the cheerful, caring souls of the South, and filled to the brim with memories from places we’ll remember always – we boarded our flight home.
Would we return? In a heartbeat! A simple phone call had turned what might have been a month at home into one of the very most wonderful times of our lives. Do take it from us: If you haven’t been to this region of the South, don’t wait to go!
For Information on Attractions noted:
Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.CharlestonCVB.com
Hilton Head Island: www.hiltonheadisland.org
Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.savannahvisit.com
Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.musicityusa.com
Entertainment Books offer discounts for all cities: www.entertainment.com