Saturday, March 4, 2017

US 1: The Road That Started it All

To sum up US Highway 1 in a single, manageable blog post would be a major challenge - both for me to write and for you to read.   The highway originates at the Canadian border in Fort Kent, Maine and ends 2,593 miles later in Key West, Florida!  This first US 1 post will focus on the southern portion from the State House in downtown Columbia, SC to the Southernmost Point in Key West, FL - only about a third of the highway!

Our US 1 story takes place over several years, beginning in 2008 and ending in 2016.  After our wedding in 2008, we moved into an apartment on US 1 in Lexington, South Carolina.  We traveled on it daily to and from work and errands and at some point we learned that if we just drove past our apartment and kept going, we'd get all the way to Canada or Key West, depending on which direction we headed.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways: US 1

In August 2009, we set out on our first vacation together.  The first of our many back roads road trips began on a Friday afternoon with 9 days of open road ahead of us.  We began in downtown Columbia in front of the South Carolina State House and drove South with the goal of reaching Key West, taking US 1 the whole way.
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
Approaching the Georgia-Florida state line

I'll begin this post with a reminder that we took this particular trip several years ago.  Technology has changed a LOT in those years.  Since this trip took place before the whole computer-in-your-pocket also known as a smartphone was commonplace, we set off armed with our handy Road Atlas, which along with a GPS that we were still learning how to use, helped us to find our way all the way to the Keys and back without the help of Google Maps in our back pocket.

We were smart enough to figure out that we should join a hotel loyalty program and we stayed within that chain for the entirety of the trip, with the exception of our nights in the Keys.  A booklet from a hotel lobby containing a complete listing of the chain's locations was our only source for finding hotels along the way.  At some point each day, we'd call ahead to make that night's reservation.  

Our lunches were often at fast food chains, but for dinner, we had the goal of eating mainly at local places - or at least ones we don't have at home. It was on this trip that we began to realize there's something special about eating local while traveling.

Warning: even though it just covers the Southern third of US 1, this post is a monster. I'd recommend getting a snack and finding someplace comfortable to sit before you continue reading. Now let's get to the fun stuff!

US Highway 1
Columbia, SC to Key West, FL
20 hours / 840 miles
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
Take a closer look at the route HERE.

Columbia, SC to Augusta, GA
Approximately 80 miles / 2 hours
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

From the State House, US 1 goes through the Congaree Vista, a former warehouse district that's now home to restaurants, bars, apartments, and shops, most of which have been built within the existing 100+ year-old buildings.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - South Carolina State House
Our starting point, South Carolina's State House

After crossing the Congaree River into West Columbia and passing through Lexington (and past our old apartment), the terrain becomes more rural, going past farmland and through several small towns until it crosses the Savannah River into Georgia at Augusta.

Take a closer look at the route from Columbia to Augusta on US 1.

Augusta, GA to Jacksonville, FL
Approximately 250 miles / 5 hours
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

Weaving through more small towns and farmland through central Georgia, two surprises are Vidalia (you might have heard of the Sweet Vidalia Onion)  and Santa Claus.

Instead of trying to remember the details of this trip, I'll share some excerpts from the travel notes I took as we drove, beginning with this one about the drive through Georgia:

We bought two peaches and a jar of peach preserves at a roadside country store just past Santa Claus.  When we got back in the car I pulled out some of our sourdough bread and spread some preserves on a piece for each of us.  Our snack held us over until we reached Baxley, where we stopped for lunch.  The neat tavern downtown wasn’t open for lunch, so we ate at the Mexican restaurant across the street, Mi Sombrero.  After lunch, I slept as Nick drove us on toward the Okefenokee Swamp park. 
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

At Waycross, Georgia, US 1 veers Southeast and grazes the edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge - a stop which we'd recommend making.

A few small raindrops fell as we wandered through the park along the raised boardwalk looking at the wildlife.  Soon, those small raindrops turned into a huge downpour.  When the bottom fell out, we ran off the boardwalk and found shelter in the Living Swamp display, where we saw the skeleton of an enormous alligator.  After the rain let up, we went over to the Serpentarium, where we saw some snakes and a nature show.  The presenter, who carried a hiking stick, greeted us and told us that his people call the swamp the ‘Okeefenagua.’  During the talk, he showed us two snakes, a 1-year-old little gator, and a two-year-old slightly less little gator, demonstrating how much they grow from year to year.

Immediately after the nature show, we walked over and boarded the little train for a ride around the park.  We enjoyed the ride and learned about the Indians who had once lived inhabited the area, along with a fire that happened a few years back that cleared out a lot of underbrush.  At the end of the ride, we got off at a little swamp homestead that had been donated and moved to the park property for visitors to explore. 
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
 Seeking refuge from the rain

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
 I have to wonder what ate the hole in the speaker's shirt.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
Riding a train through a swamp

As you leave Okefenokee, you'll continue to pass through swampland, but it will become less prevalent as you get closer to your next stop.  Entering Florida north of Jacksonville, US 1 takes you right through the heart of the city.  We'd recommend stopping at Jacksonville Landing for dinner or to stretch the legs.

We decided to eat at Benny’s Steak and Seafood and were seated outside by the river at Jacksonville Landing.  There was a cover band playing in the center area of the Landing, playing mostly 70s songs, and lots of people standing around listening.  At one point during our meal, a bride and groom walked through the Landing and disappeared down the sidewalk into the dark.  The groom was wearing his dress military uniform - I couldn't tell which type from where I was.  Our dinner was very good – and just as expensive as it was tasty.  
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
My great view of the sunset was a nice surprise

Take a closer look at the route from Augusta to Jacksonville on US 1.

Jacksonville to St. Augustine, FL
Approximately 40 miles / 1 hour
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

US 1 crosses the St. John's River on the big blue Main Street Bridge as it continues its slightly southeasterly route toward the coast.  Less than 40 miles southeast of Jacksonville is St. Augustine.  Stop here for an afternoon or stay for a weekend - there's plenty to see and do!

We walked to the Castillo de San Marcos, a 400-year-old structure looking out over the river.  It felt strange to be in such an old building in the US.  It felt like we were in another country all morning, but the feeling was especially strong in the Castillo.  I was disappointed that the moat was filled only with grass, but it was still pretty neat to see a moat in person.  After leaving the Castillo, we decided to eat at the Tavern on the Bay, on Avenida Menindez, looking out over the water.  We planned to eat outside on the porch, but as the girl led us through the restaurant, which was converted from a neat old house, we decided we should sit inside at the window and look out from the comfort of our air-conditioned table.  We enjoyed our lunch – a hamburger and fries for me, and a crab-burger for Nick – with a great view of the river.

We left the restaurant and walked to the Crucial Coffee Café, right on an old cobblestone road, for our dessert.  It was in a really neat little old wooden one-room building.  I got a waffle cone OVERFLOWING with two scoops of cookies and cream ice cream, and Nick got an iced coffee.  We walked through the center of town while munching on our desserts and encountered St. George St. – the pedestrian-only street right in the center of town.  We turned off of St George onto Hypolita St and came out on Cordova St at Grace UMC – a really beautiful old Spanish-style church.  Because it was Sunday, all the churches were closed to the public.  So we wandered on over to the Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church – the first Protestant church in St. Augustine.  Diagonally across the street is Flagler College, formerly a grand hotel, which gives the impression that  a giant crane plucked it up from somewhere in Spain and plopped it down in Florida.  I kind of wish I'd seen this place before choosing what college to go to!  What a beautiful place to spend 4 years.

We walked through the small campus onto King Street and meandered through the Saturday morning craft fair in the plaza near where we parked, then hopped in the car and got moving.  
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
 St. George Street is for pedestrians only!

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
 The view from the top level of the Castillo looking out on the Matanzas River.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
 Inside the Castillo with a Park Service employee in period attire.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Crucial Coffee Cafe, St. Augustine, FL
   I'm not sure if it's the camera or the Crucial Coffee Cafe that's a little crooked.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Flagler College, St. Augustine, FL
On the Flagler College campus

Take a closer look at the route from Jacksonville to St. Augustine on US 1.

St. Augustine to Titusville, FL
Approximately 115 miles / 3 hours
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

As you leave St. Augustine, you're faced with a decision:  Stay on the true US 1, which goes along the coast but is a bit inland - or take its offshoot, A1A, through beach towns along the coastline.  There are several towns along the way where you have the option to move between US 1 and A1A, depending on your mood and the traffic.

If you're a NASCAR buff, leaving Daytona Beach (which is about halfway between St. Augustine and Titusville) without first stopping for a tour at Daytona International Speedway is probably not allowed.  If that's not your speed, go off-road for a drive on the beach before continuing south.

Next up is Titusville, home to the Kennedy Space Center.

The Kennedy Space Center wasn’t very crowded when we arrived right as it opened at 9:00.  Our first stop was a ride on the Shuttle Launch Experience, which is exactly what it sounds like: a simulation of a shuttle’s takeoff and ascent into space.

Our visit continued with a tour of a model of a Discovery ship and an informational movie about the International Space Station - but the highlight was a live briefing of the status of the launch scheduled for the middle of the night tonight - 1:36 am tomorrow morning!  This was a pretty cool surprise but it did mean that we couldn’t actually visit the launch pad, which is normally included on the bus tour. We were still able to visit the Apollo Mission Control room (the real deal!) and an enormous hangar containing an Apollo rocket, a piece of moon rock, and a few other exhibits about the Apollo program.

The next stop on the bus tour was the International Space Station Center, where visitors can look down onto the assembly floor to watch teams work on pieces that will eventually become part of the ISS.  The team we saw working was here from Italy.

As the bus took us back to our starting location, the driver pointed out the Vehicle Assembly Building, which has what appears to be a normal-sized American Flag painted on its side.  Interesting fact:  Each star on the flag is 6 feet across.  It’s not normal-sized at all!  The garage-type doors on the side of the building, are large enough for an upright spaceship to roll through!  We learned that launches take place on top of the very platform that’s used to transport the shuttles from the assembly building across the complex to the launch pad - wheels and all! 
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Kennedy Space Center

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Kennedy Space Center
 Mission Control Room

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Kennedy Space Center
 Looking toward the launch pad, complete with a spaceship (which is probably the wrong terminology, but I'm no rocket scientist)! 

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Kennedy Space Center
In the Apollo hangar 

We heard on the news the next morning that the scheduled launch had to be delayed due to the weather and were thankful that we hadn't decided to stay up late and try to watch it somewhere.  Read more about visiting the Kennedy Space Center on Where Jo Goes here (including a picture of the giant Vehicle Assembly Center).

Take a closer look at the route from St. Augustine to Titusville on US 1.

Titusville to Fort Lauderdale
Approximately 180 miles / 5 hours
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

The route from Titusville to Boca Raton again provides the option of traveling on A1A or sticking to the main US 1.  Along this stretch, A1A passes through Jupiter and Juno beaches, which seem appropriate having just left the Space Center.  Many huge and fancy houses line the coast road with private boardwalks across the street for beach access.  

Fort Lauderdale, the 'Venice of America' is the last stop in this section.  The abundant canals provide great opportunity for recreation or for a meal with a view.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
That's a lot of waterways!

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Fort Lauderdale, FL
We found a little marina and stopped to watch the sun set over one of the canals

Take a closer look at the route from Titusville to Fort Lauderdale on US 1.

Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo
Approximately 80 miles / 3 hours
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

The first highlight of this drive is the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, a neighborhood within the greater Miami area.  The pool, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, opened in 1924.  It's open to swimmers for a fee, but if you ask nicely, you just might be able to take a quick peek at it and see some photos from its early days on display in the office area before continuing south.   

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, FL
This looked like an awesome place to go for a swim, but the road called us

As you approach Homestead and Florida Cities, your last opportunity to fill up the tank or grab a snack before you reach the Overseas Highway, you'll find a hidden gem that has stumped visitors for years.  Located right on US 1,the Coral Castle is one man's mysterious labor of love constructed entirely of huge coral blocks.  No one quite knows how Ed Leedskalnin built the place, but as the sign at the entrance states, "you will be seeing unusual accomplishment" if you decide to stop here.
It was really fascinating (and odd) how he just created a little fantasy world out of coral and amazing how he could move and shape it all by himself.  We walked around the whole property and were fascinated with all the different pieces that the man came up with.  The coral wasn't very comfortable to sit on, but there were several coral benches and chairs included in the courtyard area.
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Coral Castle in Homestead, FL
 This doorway leads to the living quarters, built completely of coral

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Coral Castle in Homestead, FL
Standing in the courtyard area of the Coral Castle 

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Coral Castle in Homestead, FL
The coral was not very comfortable 

Ed's sundial is pretty accurate; I took this photo at 1:23PM!
If I remember correctly, each un-labeled loop represents the half hour.
We'd suggest checking your tires and making sure your tank is full before beginning the trek across the keys to avoid potential car probelms in the middle of the bridge and causing a big traffic delay.  The drivers behind you won't appreciate it very much, and you won't have much fun waiting for assistance.  :-)  And no, this didn't happen to us!
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
Leaving the mainland!

Take a closer look at the route from Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo on US 1.

Key Largo to Key West
Approximately 100 miles / 2 hours
48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1
  The Overseas Highway is the real highlight of the trip - and the great news is that you get to do it twice!  Passengers should put down books and phones and games and look out the window at the amazing scenery, which includes miles of ocean dotted with tiny islands - both inhabited and uninhabited - that are unreachable by road.  As you continue toward Key West, you'll pass through small towns on several islands that break up the long expanses of bridges.  Since this is just a 2-lane bridge each way, there's a good chance you'll wind up in a traffic jam of some sort, but if you're lucky it'll be smooth sailing the whole way.
It took me a while to get used to driving on the bridges, but after I realized that we would keep crossing over little islands every few miles, I felt a little more comfortable.  We saw the old bridge from Flagler's Folly - the Overseas Railway, sections of which actually have trees growing out of the middle of them.  After miles and miles of beautiful view, we crossed over into Key West.  The first part of the island was crowded and commercialized, but after a stop at the bank for some cash to carry us over for a few days, we headed on toward Old Town on the western side of Key West.
I only took a few photos from the Overseas Highway, and they really don't do the view justice.  You'll have to make the trip yourself to see just how cool this road is.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys
Looking toward the mainland at one of the old bridges

View of the old Overseas Railroad bridge

One of the islands that can be seen along the way.  I wasn't quite sure whether
or not this one was inhabited or just a popular place for a day visit.
If you're planning a drive to Key West, this link provides great tips on driving the Overseas Highway through the Keys.

 Arriving in Paradise!
  Take a closer look at the route from Key Largo to Key West on US 1.

Key West
Mile 0

Congratulations - you made it!  Key West is home to the Southernmost Point in the USA, key lime pie, beautiful sunsets, and Hemingway's 6-toed cats.

When you get to Key West, continue all the way to the Mile 0 sign for photographic evidence that you made it to the end of US 1.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 Mile 0 - Key West, Florida
We did it!!

Upon arrival at your hotel, give your car a break - it's earned one! - and take the opportunity to explore the island by foot or by pedal.  We were able to find reasonably priced bike rentals a block or two from our hotel.

We've shared our thoughts on things to do in Key West in a separate post to make this monster of a post a little less monstrous.  In the meantime, enjoy this beachy scene on the island:

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Key West, Florida

Heading Home
We left Key West late in the afternoon so were able to witness one last sunset over a body of water before we were again on real land.  The last night of our first road trip was spent back on the mainland in Homestead.  One final meal at a little Italian place tucked a few blocks off of US 1 fueled us up for the long trip home the following day.  Capri turned out to be one of the most delicious Italian restaurants I've ever had the pleasure of eating at (and as a carboholic, I've experienced quite a few) and is in my top three favorite Italian restaurants in the US. 

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys
Leaving the Keys behind us

But our fun wasn't over yet.  On our last morning, we made one final stop for an air boat ride through the swampland of southern Florida at the Everglades Alligator Farm.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Everglades Alligator Farm, Florida
 Getting geared up

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Everglades Alligator Farm, Florida
Heading out into the unknown

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1 - Everglades Alligator Farm, Florida
 We couldn't leave Florida without seeing another gator!

All good things must come to an end, and this is where our very first No Interstates road trip ended.  We got on I-95 and shot home on the interstate, but the West coast of Florida was a tempting thought.

Note:  If you enjoy taking the scenic route and you have a few extra days, here's an alternate route to return to South Carolina:  After leaving the Overseas Highway, US 41 cuts West across Florida to the Gulf coast, then all the way North to Tampa.  From there, US 301 meanders North through Florida and Georgia to within an hour of Columbia.

48 No Interstate: Our Favorite Highways:  US 1

Take a closer look at the alternate route along the Gulf Coast.


Thanks for joining us on this one.  This particular stretch of road has a special place in our hearts since it started us off on our road trip adventures.  We hope you enjoyed following along as much as we enjoyed reliving it so many years later.

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  1. Richard StrawhornMarch 4, 2017 at 12:12 PM

    Great recap of an amazing journey. I hope you and Nick realize how wonderful it is that you are able to travel extensively in your youth. Some folks never get to do that and others wait until later in life and then find out that they are not able to travel for physical reasons.

    1. Thanks! We're really lucky and grateful that so many things have worked out to allow us to travel this way.

  2. I love this :) we started out in South Florida, so we have actually also lived on US-1 and traveled it extensively through Florida. We now live in Portland, Or so US-1 feels super far. I miss St. Augustine, this post was so nostalgic!

    1. The Pacific NW is certainly a big change from Florida! St. Augustine is a really unique place; I can't blame you one bit for missing it.

  3. Hope I / we can someday live the live our kids do ... :)

    1. Why not now? :-) I heard you had some experienced travelers plan a route to Maine for you...

  4. Looks like you guys got a lot of great stops along the way! I personally live in fl and have done the roadtrip to Columbia,SC twice in the last 6 months because they have so many activities for kids. Next time your exploring Florida I would recommend to venture out to one of the many stunning springs we have, some will truly take your breath away!

    1. Hi, thanks for reading! We did get to stop at some awesome places, but I would love to visit some of the springs I've seen photos of online sometime!