Wild Horses and a Chance Meeting ~ Cape Lookout National Seashore

“Wild, wild horses, couldn’t drag me away.  Wild, wild horses, we’ll ride them someday.”  ~ The Rolling Stones

Jutting out into the Atlantic, off the coast of North Carolina, runs a low, narrow ribbon of sand, dunes, seagrass, and dense vegetation known as the Outer Banks.  At the southernmost end of this strand of barrier islands sits Cape Lookout National Seashore, running 56 miles in length, and consisting of three barrier islands, Shackleford Banks, North Core Bank, and South Core Bank.

Shackleford Banks is nine miles in length and one mile across and is home to more than 110 wild horses, the Banker Horses.  Smaller in stature than other similar breeds, most likely due to the limited nutrients in their diet, many refer to them as the Banker Ponies.   Researchers believe the Bankers came over from Spain, via Hispaniola (located between Cuba and Puerto Rico) in the early 16th century.  We are on a quest for these wild beauties.

Hopping on a ferry to Shackleford, we were told not many horses had been seen recently but I was determined to see just one, that’s all I wanted.  Well ok, what I secretly desired watching an entire herd racing along the beach, sand and spray following in their wake.  A girl can dream, can’t she?

While others hopped off the ferry with beach gear in hand, we headed to the interior, hoping to find horses in a sheltered part of the island.  Cresting a sand dune an hour later, our search was over.  A band of eight grazed in the grassy meadow below us.  Not wanting to spook them, we sat down in the grass to watch, not the most intelligent decision we made that day, but more about that later.  These little beauties allowed us to share their space for 30 minutes…ahh, life is good.

What started as a beautiful day observing wild horses ended with Terry in Urgent Care a couple of days later, with a series of events in between that were just meant to happen (no coincidences here).

The next day found us scrambling to change our plans to take our RV, via ferry, to Ocracoke, thanks to a poorly constructed temporary bridge we happened to cross, one very rickety wooden, steeply pitched bridge that looked impossible to traverse without getting our home stuck.  And we had to cross this bridge to get to Cedar Island to pick up the ferry. :(

Terry’s thoughtful decision to let the campground manager know about the bridge construction allowed us to meet a lovely couple from Maine the next afternoon, and a very lucky meeting it was to be.

Terry surprised me that morning by announcing he needed help ridding himself of not one, but three ticks, and guess where he most likely picked up these creepy little bacteria/disease ridden arachnids.  Yep, sitting in the grass at Shackleford.  Two of them were content to stop feasting on hubby but one was determined to stay.   Tweezers and some patience disrupted his plans but a part of me was still a bit nervous as we didn’t know how long they had been attached and they were teeny, tiny, not easy to identity.

Enter Richard and Sigrid, the lovely couple from Maine, who stopped by to discuss the bridge situation as this was also their planned route to Ocracoke. The conversation moved on to the subject of ticks, with them being quite knowledgeable, having spent their lives in Maine.  One look and they said “you need to have that looked at” and within the next few minutes we were headed to Urgent Care.

Yep, those tiny little ticks were what we had feared, deer ticks, potential carriers of Lyme disease, and they had been attached most likely in excess of 48 hours.  Before we had gotten to the doctor, a “halo” had formed around one of the bite areas.  A round of antibiotics and Terry should be good to go.  He was happy to surrender his halo, even though it would most likely be the only one he would ever have. ;)  Our many thanks to Richard and Sigrid who urged Terry towards the doctor, a place he, like so many, is reluctant to go.

We continue our exploration northward in the Outer Banks.  Brrr, what happened to spring?

Where the Past is Always Present ~ Charleston, SC

As we left Savannah heading for Charleston, my thought was that it might be a bit overwhelming to visit these two cities back-to-back, given their historical significance.  I did not have long to worry as the weather forecast made most of our plans for us.  A strong storm system was moving our way, bringing lots of rain and the potential for thunderstorms and a tornado watch.  And if that was not enough, we learned upon arrival that the Cooper River Bridge Run, one of the best attended 10k races in the country, bringing 40,000 runners plus family and friends to the city, was to take place the weekend we would be in Charleston.  This race shuts down part of the city, so decision made.   We would have a short window of time to explore so as soon as we finished setting up at the Oak Plantation Campground, we headed to historic downtown.

One of our first stops in many big cities, Charleston being no exception, is the Visitor Center to get the lay of the land and pick up a map.  We headed out on foot, our typical mode of travel, hitting some of the high points but in general just inhaling the city’s ambiance.  Known for its rich history, well-maintained architecture, and gracious residents (having received ‘America’s Most Friendly City’ award twice in the past three years), I felt the city still maintained its antebellum air.  I would not have been surprised if I rounded the corner to find men and women in period dress, ready to greet us.

Charleston, South Carolina’s oldest city, founded in 1670, is a much larger and sprawling city than Savannah so traversing her streets takes time, more time than we had.  It was evident this was to be a cursory review of a city that deserved much more attention.

With Charleston’s 100+ churches and the nickname of “Holy City”, what could we do but visit a few?

St. Philip’s Church, housing the oldest congregation in all of South Carolina, dates back to 1680.  Her stately steeple stands as a testament to her storied history and her interior stunning, most notably the Trompette en Chamade (Shouting Trumpets) that we were told take your breath away no matter how many times you hear them.  Old cemeteries on many of the church grounds have stories to tell, and St. Philip’s has a most prestigious tale, with this being the final resting place of Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Charles Pinckney, signer of the Constitution.  This is only one of many magnificent places to worship in the city.

Wile visiting Sullivan’s Island, across the bridge from Charleston, I was taking a few photos of what I thought was an interesting old church, when a young man walked up and asked if I would care to see the inside of what was once a church turned private residence.  After offering my apologies for intruding, I gestured to Terry to get out of the truck and follow me inside.  The inside was gorgeous and had a Gothic castle feel and the kitchen, oh my!  You can read the interesting story of this property here.

Is it a church?  Is it a castle?  Nope, just a very pricey private residence.

Is it a church? Is it a castle? Nope, just a very pricey private residence.

Churches, universities, and cemeteries seem to be our “thing” when visiting cities, so a trip to the Citadel, rain or shine, had to be one of our stops.  The ceremonial parade ground comes into view as you cross the gates, with impressive stark-white buildings lining it.  With their core values of “Honor, Duty, Respect”, there is an intimacy felt walking these hushed grounds, a special way to round out our Charleston experience.

Citadel graduates have fought in every American war since the Mexican-American War of 1846.  Alumni and author Pat Conroy wrote The Lords of Discipline, based on his time at the Citadel.

Sightseeing makes one ravenous and with so many fabulous-sounding restaurants to choose from, we settled on the Bull Street Gourmet and Market for lunch.  The smoked duck salad was soo yummy! :)  And on a rainy day, while watching Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern, to see just what he might put into his mouth masquerading as something edible, he featured a funky little soul food eatery in Charleston, Martha Lou’s Kitchen.  About as much time as it took us to say “let’s go”, we were out the door.  You will not find any low-cal food here, but you will find two women with a lot of spunk who are passionate about their southern comfort food.  The fried chicken and the pork chop were both so tasty and once again I ate my collard greens – delish!  The women who work here will sing and dance their way into your heart, and if you come during the week you will be graced with Martha Lou’s presence, still a force at age 84.

Here is just a sampling of the lovely sights you can see when visiting historic Charleston, a city where the past is always present:

We now look forward to some downtime, “beach-style” as we head to Murrell’s Inlet, SC.

Georgia’s Oldest Jewel ~ Savannah

We have settled into Skidaway Island State Park, a convenient location for exploring historic Savannah.  Large pull-thru sites beneath arching canopies of live oaks greet you as you enter the campground and  seven miles of trails wind through maritime forests, a relaxing place to spend a week.  Just beyond the borders of the park, on the island, lie 40 miles of biking/walking trails, meandering through genteel southern neighborhoods, through forests of oak and pine, and past salt marshes.  While we have spent most days “spinning our wheels”, we set aside plenty of time to wander the historic streets of Savannah.

Savannah’s history began in 1733 when British General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia as a place to resettle Britain’s poor who were housed in debtors’ prisons.  His design for Savannah was patterned after a contemporary military camp, a central square surrounded by eight city blocks, which formed a ward.  This concept grew until there were 24 squares and of those, 22 still exist today, making Georgia’s oldest city a jewel unlike any other in the US.

All the squares are part of the historic district, encompassing a one-half mile radius, each serving as memorials, with statues or fountains surrounded by lush foliage.   Historic churches and 18th and 19th architectural styling of every kind can be found in the blocks lining the squares, along with azaleas and dogwood adding a breathtaking lushness to the ambiance.  These squares are the heart and soul of Savannah.   The streets surrounding the squares allow for a continual flow of traffic, at a nice pace, making this a pedestrian-friendly city. We chose to spend our days walking it but there is a trolley service available as well, allowing tourists to hop on and off at their leisure.

During one of our many strolls through historic downtown, we found ourselves in Washington Square, where the oldest homes in Savannah can be found. A smartly dressed man, walking a lovely little dog, proceeded to introduce himself as Fred and invited us to take a tour of a lovely historic home that dated back to the late 1700′s, still featuring the original hand-hewn oak walls and hardwood floors.  This historic home was where Fred, his wife Susan, talented artist and author, and adorable rescue dog Lucy live.  Susan was gracious and let us intrude on her day, and we walked away with an autographed copy of her book, Spirit Willing.  

Fred, Susan, and the lovely Lucy

Fred, Susan, and the lovely Lucy

Few cities with such a colorful past would be complete without sightings of restless spirits wandering the cemeteries late at night and Savannah is no exception.  Colonial Cemetery, the oldest in the city, is said to be one of the most haunted places in Savannah, where Voodoo ceremonies once took place in the wee dark hours.  This is the final resting place for many of Savannah’s earliest citizens and a signer of the Declaration of Independence is also buried here.

Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah’s most famous, thanks to being prominently featured in John Berendt’s best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is also alleged to have ghostly sightings.  Bonaventure stands on the grounds of what was once a plantation.  Legend has it that the main house caught fire during a party and the host calmly suggested the guests pick up their crystal glasses and take them outside to continue the party.  As they watched fire consume the house, the partiers  smashed their empty crystal against an oak tree, and it is said that on quiet nights you can still hear the laughter and the shattering of crystal.

We can’t attest to roaming spirits, but the grounds where generals, poets, governors, and Academy award-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer lie in eternal rest are hauntingly beautiful.  Many elaborate crypts overlook the Wilmington River, with live oaks, azaleas, dogwood, and roses surrounding intricate headstones and life-size statues.

Since Savannah’s history is rooted in the American Revolution and Civil War eras, we decided a visit to Fort Pulaski National Monument was in order, a fort meant to guard the river approaches to the city.  We have seen many forts during our travels and I must admit to many holding little interest for me, but this one was  different.  Strategically built on Cockspur Island and named for Count Casimir Pulaski, Polish hero of the American Revolution, Fort Pulaski was thought to be impregnable.  However, during the Civil War a Confederate garrison was forced to surrender the fort when a Union army used rifled cannons during an attack (new military technology for that age), landing mortar dangerously close to the magazine storing 40,000 pounds of gunpowder.   The scarred wall of the fort remains today.

We were so impressed with Savannah’s quaint elegance, her azalea-lined cobble stone streets beneath emerald-green canopies, and her historied architecture.  Should you decide to visit, don’t leave without a stop at Leopold’s Ice Cream, ranked one of the top 10 in the world.  I leave you with a few other images of Savannah, as we say farewell to this fascinating city and move on to a sister city, Charleston, South Carolina.

Mesmerizing Trees, a Bit of History, and Wonderful Friends ~ Golden Isles, GA

It seemed strange to leave Florida after spending the entire winter here but we have so much more of this beautiful country to see so northward we head. Crossing the state line into Georgia we felt winter’s final vestiges as a blustery, rainy day greeted us at Coastal Georgia RV Resort in Brunswick.  Given the forecast it seems our time here is destined to include wind, overcast days and cold.  We have been spoiled by southern Florida’s dreamy winter weather so we can endure a bit of cold.

We are exploring the Golden Isles of Georgia for the next few days, in the southern part of Georgia’s scenic coastline.  The four barrier islands of St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and the mainland of historic Brunswick join together to form the Golden Isles.  Alluring marshland, sandy beaches, and maritime forests create a land of serene, natural beauty.  Historic landmarks, museums and art galleries provide the back story and legacy for the area.  And the southern charm and hospitality found around every turn cannot be beat.

Jekyll Island offers visitors a tranquil setting thanks to a strict conservation clause that limits development to only 35% of its land and with only 220 residents occupying the northern part of the island, much of Jekyll Island will always retain its natural wildness.  On a calm, chilly morning we biked the island before the winds gathered steam later in the day, passing under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, crossing boardwalks spanning marshes, and through pine-scented forests.

One of our favorite stops on Jekyll Island was Driftwood Beach, a mesmerizing, haunting stretch of beach that looks like a tree graveyard due to slow erosion of the northern end of the beach being deposited on the south end of the island.

Jekyll Island has long been appreciated for its landmark historic district.  Built in 1886, the Victorian Inn known as the Jekyll Island Club Hotel is the focal point of the historic district and many of the surrounding “cottages”, which can be toured, add to the opulence.

Once a private club for some of America’s wealthiest, with member names such as Morgan, Rockefeller, Pulitzer, and Vanderbilt, Jekyll Island Club Hotel is now one of Georgia’s top resorts, open to the public.  On the day we visited there were three couples playing croquet on the lawn, dressed all in white.  It felt like stepping back into the 1900′s.

St. Simons Island, the largest of the barrier islands, lies across the salt marshes which were celebrated in the poem Marshes of Glynn written by renowned Georgia native and poet Sidney Lanier.  Majestic live oaks draped with Spanish moss line many of the streets on this beautiful island, framing the lovely properties beyond, some steeped in history.

We headed to the Visitor Center to get some information and I hoped to get a map of the mysterious Tree Spirits I had read so much about.  It seems that local artist Keith Jennings began carving soulful faces into St. Simons Island live oak trees in 1982 and to date has created 20 of these works of art.  Jennings says he works with the tree’s soul and as the wood speaks to him the face begins to develop and peers back at him.  They are so popular they even have their own Facebook page.

Surprisingly, there were no maps available for the location of these tree spirits, at least none that the Visitor Center employee was aware of, although she did have a vague idea of where we could find a few of these unique carvings.  So with cryptic notes in hand, I headed out with a skeptical husband in tow.  To say Terry was less than excited about this scavenger hunt was an understatement, given the traffic and cold, windy day, but he knew I was determined to find at least one.  We found four before I felt I was pushing hubby’s patience button, with directions like “go to Redfern Village and find Gnat’s Landing.  There is a tree nearby that has a tree spirit carving”.

Each we found were wonderful discoveries, the weathered faces working well with the drooping, moss-covered branches to create haunting, contemplative features.

The trees on these barrier islands never failed to enchant us and seemed to be a recurring theme during our visit.  The Avenue of the Oaks was our next stop, a must-see in our opinion.  Once the entrance to Retreat Plantation, known for its superior sea island cotton and sweeping flower gardens, this double row of 188 year-old live oaks now grace the entrance to the Sea Island Golf Club.

This short trip to the Golden Isles was made more special by a visit from our good friends Stan and Marilyn.  We enjoyed revisiting Jekyll Island with them and sharing a yummy meal at Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island. Visits with them are guaranteed to leave our sides aching from laughter and bring tearful goodbyes as we part.   We can’t thank them enough for taking the time to come our direction during their recent travels.

Good friends Stan & Marilyn on Driftwood Beach.

Good friends Stan & Marilyn on Driftwood Beach.

A few images on the grounds of Christ Church on St. Simons Island:

Our next stop is Savannah.

Our Nation’s Oldest City ~ St. Augustine

This past week has been spent with family, and although we had lots planned when we arrived in Titusville, much was set aside to reconnect and relax with sister and niece.  This visit had been a long time coming so we decided that days devoted to conversation and cooking meals together trumped lots of activities.  We did explore Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore and if you find yourself in and around Titusville, I would recommend both.  And of course, there is the Kennedy Space Center.

Leaving Titusville behind and arriving at our final stop in Florida for the winter, we decided to play tourist one last time before we head further north, and where better than in our nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine.  In doing research you will find there is plenty to occupy your time here, whether you enjoy history, the beach, culture, nightlife, shopping, or delving into the paranormal.  And when you tire of all this sightseeing, there are many interesting restaurants downtown to saté your appetite.

The trolley seems to be the most popular way to traverse this city, with about 20 stops along the route, allowing you to hop off and on at your leisure, all while getting a little history lesson from your driver.  We prefer to walk instead, planning our own route and getting some exercise, unless the city we are in is too spread out and St. Augustine is a very walkable city.   There are plenty of brochures to grab from the visitor center to educate you about this historic city and a public parking garage right at the visitor center that can be accessed for $10/day.

This is where colonial America began, 55 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.  First visited by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, St. Augustine was later founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.  Over three years Avilés would import 500 African slaves to this city, the first slaves brought to this country, a sad piece of history.

Over many years the Spanish, French, British and finally the United States fought for control of St. Augustine.  I am not a huge history buff so I will leave you to read the details online if you are interested.   There are two forts in the city, Fort Matanzas and Castillo de San Marcos, for those who love history, and we found both to be interesting.

Our interest in this historic city lies more in the striking architecture found around the Old Town area, particularly some of the old hotels and churches, almost all that were influenced by Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil executive and partner to John D. Rockefeller.   In the 1880′s Mr. Flagler decided that St. Augustine should be a winter resort for the wealthy.  The stunning details in the Lightner Museum (formerly Hotel Alcazar), Flagler College (once the grounds for the Ponce de Leon luxury hotel), and the Memorial Presbyterian Church were certain to lure the affluent.

Tours are given at many sights around the city, some for a small fee and some that are free of charge.  We found the docent-led tour of the Memorial Presbyterian Church to be fascinating, and the architecture had already drawn us in.

Built in 1889 by Henry Flagler, this is the only Presbyterian church of its kind in the world.  It is of the Venetian Renaissance architecture style, shown in the copper dome and ornate terra-cotta frieze, and was inspired by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.   It is breathtaking both inside and out.

This sacred building was a labor of love for Henry Flagler, dedicated to his daughter Jennie Louise Benedict, who died due to childbirth complications the same year this church was constructed, hence the word “memorial” in the name.  Every last detail reflects Flagler’s loving touch, particularly the 92 stained-glass windows, designed by German artist Herman Schladermundt. Each window represents a segment of the “Apostle’s Creed” and they are all spectacular.

I must admit that until we arrived in St. Augustine I did not realize the importance of this city to the Civil Rights movement.   On June 9, 1964, Andrew Jackson Young, Jr., Civil Rights activist, led a march from Lincolnville, a St. Augustine district founded by former slaves, to the downtown plaza.  Mr. Young was sent to the city by his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize a peaceful human rights protest.  When his group arrived at the downtown plaza, they were confronted by a large white mob and were beaten.  Always vigilant to Dr. King’s non-violent strategy, they walked away.   This was a pivotal event that aided in the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.

These bronze footsteps, incorporated into the sidewalk that runs diagonally through the plaza, honor this leader who received his first beating in the Civil Rights movement.

Our nation’s oldest city is rich in history, expressed in both her simplest of buildings and her most opulent.  Although a part of her story reflects some of our nation’s less than proudest moments, St. Augustine still maintains a charm all her own.

From here we continue north into the “Peach State” ~ Georgia.