By Stephanie Hunt
From lush gardens to grits, discover coastal character—times three
Age before beauty? Not so fast. Beneath the mossy live oaks of Charleston, Savannah and St. Augustine—three of the Southeast’s most alluring cities—age and beauty go hand in hand, much like shrimp and grits (a must-try!). And while each of these seaside sisters evokes her own distinct charm, they share much in common: historical character, architectural wow and unbeatable Southern hospitality. Whether you hit all three in one coastal drive or savor them on their own, prepare to be charmed.
Shrimp and grits
Photo: Wallace Weeks/Alamy
Charleston, South Carolina
With its antebellum grandeur and cobblestone streets, Charleston is a history lover’s paradise. As a global hub for the cotton trade, Charleston prospered in the plantation-dominated economy of pre-Civil War days. That past remains evident in the stately architecture—from planters’ mansions along the seaside promenade known as the Battery, to 19th-century storefronts on King Street, to the ubiquitous church steeples that lend Charleston its nickname “Holy City.”
The Miles Brewton House and the Nathaniel Russell House are just two of the 4,800 architectural gems in the dense, easily walkable historic district. Meander along Legare, Tradd and Church streets to get the best feel, and be sure to peek through wrought-iron gates to glimpse Charleston’s famed gardens. But beyond its Old World patina, Charleston’s arts, culinary, fashion and design scenes are as progressive as its buildings are historic. The French Quarter art galleries offer something for every taste, while Charleston’s restaurants and chefs are winning national awards left and right. From the coconut cake at AAA Four Diamond Peninsula Grill to the live jazz and exquisite service at AAA Four Diamond Charleston Grill, to more casual sidewalk cafes and rooftop bars—it’s hard to go wrong.
A two-hour drive south of Charleston, Savannah holds her own as a hub for Old World architecture and elan, but with a bit more Southern Gothic around its wrought-iron edges. Savannah’s historic district features an orderly grid of 22 squares, with centerpiece parks and gazebos where dogs romp and kids play, lovers marry and street musicians serenade. Don’t miss the stunning Mercer Williams House, the setting of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Bonaventure Cemetery on the river bluff. Be sure to explore Savannah’s vibrant art offerings as well, from the Telfair Museums (among the South’s oldest public art museums) to the numerous galleries and shops that often showcase the talents of Savannah College of Art and Design students and alumni. And when it comes to throwing a party, Savannah does it in style: The city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of the country’s largest.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse
Photo: Ian Dagnall/Alamy
St. Augustine, Florida
From cobblestones to conquistadors, St. Augustine is a delightful mix of Old Florida kitsch, old coquina-walled forts and old, old houses (as in the oldest house in Florida, circa 300 years ago)—all juxtaposed with the Fountain of Youth. The city’s Spanish colonial heritage is reflected in the terracotta-tiled roofs and white stucco walls of the old city, home to a bustling pedestrian mall where shops, art galleries and ice cream parlors abound. In the late 1800s, oil tycoon Henry Flagler fell under St. Augustine’s spell and built the city’s centerpiece, Hotel Ponce de Leon (now Flagler College), one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture around—and open for guided tours. Kids and adults alike will enjoy venturing over the “Bridge of Lions” to see the iconic St. Augustine Lighthouse standing guard over the surrounding beaches, or exploring Castillo de San Marcos, site of the city’s colonial-era fort. It’s an ideal spot for a picnic or sunset-watching over Matanzas Bay. But no trip to St. Augustine is complete without a visit to the classic Alligator Farm, which now features a zip line over the alligator and crocodile lagoon (if you dare).
Call or stop by your local AAA office for info on these and other great destinations.