- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

APPOMATTOX, Va. — Richmond, the final stop on our 1,000-mile, two-week Southern summer odyssey, lay just 80 miles to the east. As we stared at the map, we were tempted to take the fastest, straightest road.

But that would violate the rules of the trip — back roads instead of highways; history and scenery instead of speed.

Besides, a detour to Appomattox would lend some much-valued symmetry to the undertaking. A journey that had taken us by the spot in Charleston, S.C., where the Civil War began could now record its official stop in the place where the war ended, with Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Growing up there, the South never seemed like a spot for summer vacation, except for the beach. We usually headed for cooler climes. This year, however, after the coldest of my three winters in Boston, the prospect of a little heat and humidity didn’t faze me much. By May, my nose was twitching for the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle, my mouth was watering for the taste of hush puppies and homemade biscuits, and my ears even were yearning for the twang of country music on the radio (in moderation).

Thus began a zigzag journey through the South, from the Georgia and South Carolina lowlands through the mountains of North Carolina and finally to Virginia and Richmond.

The route, for me and my traveling companion, Maria, was flexible. The goal was to cover swamps, mountains and the foothills known locally as the Piedmont while reminding ourselves there’s more to the South than boring flatlands. The only guidelines were to favor back roads and consume barbecued ribs and corn bread wherever we found them.

We arrived late on a Saturday on swampy, Spanish-moss-draped St. Simon’s, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Cultural readjustment was quick but not instantaneous — startled by a honk from an oncoming car, I lurched with Bostonian shame over some unknown driving offense. Oh, it was just a friendly hello.

More such greetings came the next morning during the service at Christ Church, an idyllic white building on the island and one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the country. The lovingly kept grounds alone are worth a visit.

Inside, the visiting minister, a retired surgeon, noted the pleasing similarity between the red ties and dresses the congregation was wearing for Pentecost and the University of Georgia’s football colors. Then he gave the best sermon I had heard in years.

When I visited the area as a child, my interests lay predictably and exclusively with the beach. This time, thanks in part to Jeanne Pleasants, our appropriately named guide who led us on a boat tour, I was far more intrigued by the surrounding tidal marshlands. The shape of the coastline makes for unusually high tides, and in turn, an unusually flexible ecology — grasses that have learned to sweat out salt, and microscopic shrimp that cling to grains of sand to avoid being flushed out to sea.

After five days of decompression on St. Simon’s, we began driving in earnest. The next leg took us up the coast to Savannah, Ga.; Beaufort, S.C.; and finally Charleston, that most Southern of cities.

There are must-dos for Charleston tourists — carriage rides and elegant houses that line the waterfront Battery, where the shelling of Fort Sumter commenced. But the pleasant surprise was how far Charleston’s shopping and dining have come since my last visit six years ago.

If you’re a bow-tie man, or wish to become one, an essential stop is Ben Silver on King Street, which has a sister store in London. Alas, the prices limited me on this visit to window-shopping, but there was no holding back on food. For dinner, the catfish with our hosts at Cru Cafe on Pinckney Street was delectable, topped by a huge slice of cheesecake at the nearby dessert joint Kaminsky’s Cafe.

Still stuffed, we somehow made room the next morning for an aggressive sampling of muffins, creamy grits and pear cider at a downtown farmers market. On the way out of town, after a stop at the Magnolia Gardens plantation just outside Charleston, we couldn’t resist the ribs at Sticky Fingers in nearby Summerville.

At last, a week into the trip, a crumpled napkin stained with barbecue sauce lying in my lap, I was starting to feel at home.

From the swampy Low Country, we proceeded to the mountains of North Carolina, finding some respite from the heat. We pitched a tent north of Asheville along the French Broad River, which was running high and muddy from a rainy spring.

We picked Asheville as a base for some mountain hikes, but with rain threatening, we decided to spend our first day in the area at the Biltmore Estate, the gargantuan Vanderbilt home. At $36 per ticket, we weren’t sure we would get our money’s worth, but we gave it our best shot, spending nearly all day picnicking and exploring the gardens and vineyards that surround what supposedly is the largest house in America.

Hoping for better weather up north, we struck out a day earlier than planned up the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Virginia. While most roads take the path of least resistance through mountains, the Blue Ridge stays near the crest, making for winding roads but magnificent views of the Smoky and Blue Ridge ranges.

We tried to stick to our plans to drive an hour then hike an hour, but because of the weather, we often picked routes running down the mountains from the road rather than up, hoping for better views below the clouds.

We managed one great one after spending the night at a National Park Service campground at Linville Falls, when the clouds broke briefly on a trail near the town of Blowing Rock, just south of milepost 300 and just north of Grandfather Mountain.

After two such days on the parkway and a half-dozen good hikes, we crossed into Virginia, into a portion of my home state I had never visited before. I’m fond of telling people that because of Virginia’s odd shape, there are parts in its Southwest region that are closer to eight other state capitals than to Richmond.

Meadows of Dan, a tiny intersection just off the parkway, isn’t just far from Richmond, it’s far from everywhere. But it is quiet and peaceful, and Patrick County, best known as the birthplace of Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart, has its attractions. Fortunately, Maria’s Aunt Beth knew everything and everyone in town.

She showed us a scenic but precarious ledge called Lover’s Leap, and she took us around the Reynolds Homestead, the birthplace of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, now a community center. Once again, too, we ate well: fried catfish ($4.95) at the Hilltop Restaurant in flyspeck Vespa and a big breakfast with memorably fluffy biscuits at Mabry Mill, a popular stop along the parkway.

The meal stretched into late morning, but at last it was time for the final leg, to my family’s home in Richmond. We were eager to be done, but we didn’t know when Appomattox, hardly on the beaten path, would be so close again.

The old, tiny village and the surrounding fields where the armies camped — Lee’s was fleeing Richmond, Grant’s trying to cut Lee’s escape route — are owned and operated by the National Park Service. The document formally ending the Civil War was signed there, in the Wilmer McLean house. I asked Evan Jones, a park ranger, about the most common Appomattox myths. He said many visitors believe Lee and Grant were roommates at West Point, but they barely met once in Mexico.

Despite its location, Appomattox was busy. “It’s more or less in the middle of nowhere,” Mr. Jones said, “so you have to have a genuine interest to make it out.”

The same might be said of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Hilltop Restaurant in Vespa, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile stops on a back-roads tour of the South. Contented and full, we dashed to the car to avoid one last downpour and headed on to visit my family in Richmond and dine on one last batch of home cooking — literally, this time — before returning to Boston.

Stops off the beaten track on Southern journey

Cities and sites

Shopping and food

• Ben Silver (bow ties), 149 King St., Charleston, S.C.; 843/577-4556 or www.bensilver.com

• Cru Cafe, 18 Pinckney St., Charleston; 843/534-2434 or www.americascuisine.com/charleston/crucafe.html

• Kaminsky’s Cafe, 78 N. Market St., Charleston; 843/853-8270 or www.charleston.com/dining/Dessert.html

• Sticky Fingers restaurants, three locations in Charleston area and one in nearby Summerville; 843/871-7427 or www.stickyfingers.net

• Mabry Mill: Milepost 176.1 on the Blue Ride Parkway; 276/952-2947

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