Southern Comforts: Virginia and the Carolinas

Originally published by PSC Publications

There aren’t many regions in the US that are more military friendly than Virginia and the Carolinas. Counting satellite outposts, over twenty military bases dot the region. That creates a nice infrastructure that reduces the hassles of a PCS and promises military-friendly attitudes from local communities.

Each state has its own personality and attractions and recreational activities unique to itself. But there are shared features. Housing prices run along the lines of $80K for 1500 square feet, $120K for 2000. It’s harder to generalize about schools. In Virginia, they are generally very good, with many districts bragging about national and state awards. Elsewhere, it depends on the community.

These are great outdoor areas, with more places to hike, camp, fish, canoe, and hunt than there are hot dogs at a ball park. History lovers overdose on Revolutionary and Civil War sites and battlefields. The cities have respectable art and cultural communities, while rural areas boast of their home-town festivals. Dieters despair at the smorgasbord of seafood along the coast and the home-style, stick-to-your-ribs menu of fresh local meats and produce everywhere else. All three states have websites and guides to sites and celebrations of African-American history.

It’s worth the effort to plan to visit all three states during your tour. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Virginia: Most of the bases are in the vicinity of Hampton Roads. This is where the James and Elizabeth Rivers meet the Chesapeake Bay and where the Bay enters the Atlantic.

It’s been a popular residential and vacation spot longer than CPOs have run the Navy. Native Americans greeted Captain John Smith of Pocohontas fame in 1608. They even provided the first BOQ when they allowed his crew to lodge with them that winter.

All of the area’s bases are within about a 15-mile radius of the mouth of the James River. That’s not as convenient as it sounds, though. There’s the 15-mile radius on the map, then there’s the 15-mile radius that includes getting across two major rivers and their tributaries, ponds, and marshes. The highway system includes Interstates, US routes, and state highways, but getting from Point A to Point B is often roundabout and frustrating. The southern crossing to Norfolk and Virginia Beach is notorious during rush hour and in bad weather. It’s not exactly a treat the rest of the time, either.

That’s really the only downside. Hampton Roads is a pretty place with a high standard of living and a very wide range of activities. Think of everything you’d want in a major metropolitan area, but spread over a comfortable suburbia.

As far as recreation is concerned, everything is available within an hour of almost anywhere. All right, if your passion is Aborigine Hip-hop Bongo Dancing, you’re out of luck. But only the most obstinate coach-potato can stay dormant. The civilian communities have very active recreation departments. On base, check the MWR offices for tickets to sporting and cultural events, boating lessons, and equipment from everything from paintball to auto repair. FCTLANT Dam Neck’s Outdoor Adventure Center even boasts a portable rock-climbing wall. Norfolk Naval Base has its own marina.

Beach lovers have their choice of locations and ambiance. Virginia Beach is a year-round resort with a non-commercial boardwalk. Look for free nightly concerts in the summer. Sandridge, south of Virginia Beach, is a spit of land between the Atlantic and Back Bay. It’s a nature-lover’s beach, popular with artists and photographers. Ocean View, near Norfolk Naval Base, is popular with families. Hampton’s Huntington Park has the longest fishing pier on the East Coast and a 14,000-square foot playground. Buckroe Beach has surf, sand, and pier fishing, and weekly summer concerts.

Foodies need to check out Doumar’s Drive-in in Norfolk. It’s where the waffle cone was invented in 1904. The original machine still cranks them out. In Portsmouth, The Commodore Theater serves up dinner and a movie. Sandwiches and pizza are served at your table during the show. It’s a popular spot for unit parties.

North Carolina:
Tarheels work hard and play harder. They nearly worship the Duke Blue Devils and NC State. The Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill is home to over 100 technology research firms. At the same time, it’s the only state with a division of their state agriculture department dedicated to promoting organic farming.

It’s a huge state. It takes about 10 hours to drive from the Outer Banks to the Blue Ridge. The bases are clustered along the coast or inland as far as Fayetteville.

Most of the original settlers were from the British Isles, but the ethnic background has expanded since then. Look for festivals celebrating African-Americans, Latino, Scots, Caribbean, Native American, Hispanic, and Greek cultures. The state’s most famous sort-of resident is recognized at the Blackbeard Festival in Beauford. The remains of his pirate ship “Queen Anne’s Revenge” is on display, and there are reenactments of pirate raids. Maintaining its quirky reputation, Beauford also holds an underwater bicycle race each Fourth of July.

There’s a lot of drama in North Carolina’s history, and much of it is re-told each summer in outdoor dramas. These plays, staged under the stars by mostly local performers, recount the history and legends, from the first settlers to the Underground Rairoad. North Carolina has more outdoor dramas than any other state – at least 15.

The Outer Banks is one of the most popular destinations. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a 57-mile stretch of beaches dotted with lighthouses. For a not-so-quick aerobic workout, climb the Cape Hatteras Light, and be rewarded with a view of the beaches and oceans that would be breathtaking if you weren’t already out of breath. The go fly a kite on Jockey’s Ridge – the largest natural sand dune in the country. It’s just down the road from the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

If you think your kids are animals, let them prove it. Check with the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge for their schedule of “Howling with the Wolves” presentations. Participants learn about the wolves, then join the rangers and the pack in an a cappella, open-air concert.

NASCAR racing fans can pull over for a pit stop in Moorseville, Richard Petty’s home town and tour the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Pottery lovers aim for Seagrove, the center of the state’s pottery industry. Over 100 potters fire their kilns here. The NC Pottery Center showcases samples of many of the artists’ works, so you can decide who you want to visit (and buy from).

Festivals are big on the schedule. There are the usual harvest and food fests – seafood, chili, BBQ, watermelon, oyster and ham, ham and yam, pickle, and sonker (deep-dish pies). But there’s also the New Year’s Eve Possum Drop in Brasstown, complete with a Miss Possum contest, and celebrations of buggies, clowns, mules, and Medieval life. There’s even a weekend devoted to Kudzu – the imported plant intended to serve as a cheap ground cover that’s slowly taking over the south and is more annoying than a fresh Ensign giving orders to a Master Chief.

With so much open space, outdoor activities are popular. There’s sea fishing in the ocean and bass fishing in the lakes and rivers. Canoe and boat trails weave through the marshes and rivers, horseback trails and overnight trips, even 1-3 day llama treks. Motorcyclists can check into guided and self-guided tours of the Blue Ridge, with all accommodations and meal reservations arranged in advance.

South Carolina:
History and gentility suffuse the very air in South Carolina. The gracious port city of Charleston is a theme park of history with over a thousand houses pre-dating 1840, and horse-drawn carriage tours through the historic district. The Edisto Memorial Gardens in Orangeburg – the test ground for all American Rose Selections – is a heady mixture of color and fragrance. Battery and White Paint Gardens in Charleston look out over waters where pirates once patrolled to the notorious silhouette of Fort Sumter.

Then there are the swamps. Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox of the Revolution, did not look like Mel Gibson (Gibson’s character in The Patriot is based on Marion), but he did use the labyrinth of creeks and marshes to vex the Redcoats during the most bitter fighting in the Revolution. Several canoe treks and trails meander through those waters as well as the Congaree Swamp and the Pee Dee and Wateree Rivers.

For those who want their waters open and calm, Lake Murray is the place. With 50-thousand acres of water and 525 miles of shoreline, it will never know nautical gridlock. Cyclists and hikers should check out the Palmetto Trail. When it’s finished, it will run from the Atlantic to the Blue Ridge.

If the PCS is from a northern climate, you might miss snow, but can still skate. Both Charleston and Greenville and large ice rinks.

With typical Southern enthusiasm for entertaining, South Carolina throws good parties. With typical Southern eccentricity, many of them are a little off-the-wall. There’s a Rose Festival, of course, but also the Governor’s Frog Jumping Festival, the Hell Hole Swamp festival – with a tobacco spitting contest, and Snake Appreciation Day.

There are also a lot of conventional attractions. Greer is home to the only American BMW Plant. They give factory tours, but no samples. NASCAR lovers, meanwhile, visit Darlington Raceway and the Joe Weatherly NMPA Stock Car Hall of Fame.

Out of this world travel, sort of, is at the University of South Carolina in Aiken. The DuPont Planetarium glows with lights of 9-thousand stars as it warps on a 3-dimensional travel through space. The Ripley Aquarium in Myrtle Beach boasts the longest underwater acrylic tunnel in the world. Sharks, rays, eels, fish, and other aquatic critters swim around and above it.

Perhaps the most unworldly spot in South Carolina, though, is South of the Border. Driving down I-95, a sombrero hovers 200 feet above the landscape. No, this is not the opening scene of X-Files, but South of the Border, a legend among interstate travelers. Calling it a rest stop is like calling Cal Ripken a ball player. It has three restaurants, an RV park, 300-room motel, par-3 golf course, jogging trail, wedding chapel, 14 gift stores, pool, Jacuzzi, and a firecracker store. (They’re legal in SC.) Arriving travelers drive through the legs of the 97-foot tall mascot. It’s worth the move just to stop there and slap one of their bumper stickers on your car.