10-day Southeast Road Trip to North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina – 2021

Visit Date: May 2021

Itinerary PDF to print

This is our family post-vaccine celebration trip! We looked at a lot of possible US destinations that would be good in May, and we went back and forth about driving vs. flying, but flying opened up many more options. Savannah has been on my wish list for a while, so I started there in piecing together the itinerary. I played around a LOT with the various options for where to fly into and out of, and the combination of airfare and rental car costs was a significant factor for our decision to fly into Raleigh-Durham, NC and out of Charleston, SC. And the path we landed on enabled us to see 3 cities in each state.

Day 1 – Wednesday, Raleigh-Durham, NC

This is predominantly a travel day, as our flight didn’t get in until 4pm. There was a pandemic-induced rental car shortage, but we got ours easily and headed straight to Wegmans in Raleigh to pick up some snacks and drinks to keep in the car – we pack a soft-side cooler in our luggage whenever space permits.

We ended up doing two things in our limited time. First we walked a stretch on the Neuse River Greenway Trail in Raleigh – a 27.5 mile paved, uninterrupted greenway with winding boardwalk areas and suspension bridges crossing over wetlands. We parked at the Falls Lake Trailhead (GPS: 12098 Old Falls of Neuse Rd, Raleigh), and if we had more time and it was just me and Tom, we’d have rented bikes from The Bike Guy (GPS: 9745 Fonville Rd, Wake Forest, NC) at $25/hr.

We then headed to Durham to drive around Duke University, and perhaps get a Duke sweatshirt at the bookstore. Unfortunately only students and faculty were allowed inside, but we enjoyed our drive around campus. We drove through a few campuses on this trip, not because anyone’s looking, but just because we didn’t look outside of the Northeast and were curious how these southern campuses compared. 

Day 2 Thursday, Greensboro, NC

Drive: Durham/Chapel Hill to Greensboro (1 hour) 

We have been curious about furniture shopping in North Carolina and decided to take this opportunity to check it out. Choosing where to go was incredibly intimidating, and we ultimately landed on  Furnitureland South (GPS: 5635 Riverdale Dr., Jamestown, 336-822-3000), self-described as the world’s largest furniture store, with 1.3 million square feet of showroom space. I got some interesting ideas, but even their discounted prices were way more money than where we shop up here, so we didn’t buy anything. 

We also went to Antique Marketplace on Burnt Poplar Road (not much of interest to us) and walked around downtown Greensboro and enjoyed the art. We ate dinner outside at Darryl’s which was quite good.

Day 3 – Friday, Charlotte, NC

Drive: Greensboro NC to Charlotte NC (1 hr, 15 mins south) 

On our way to Charlotte we saw a highway sign for High Point University and decided to take a quick detour and check it out. Oh my goodness, what a gorgeous campus, unlike anything we had toured in the Northeast with a pool at the activity center, fountains flowing on an empty campus, and white rocking chairs on every dorm room balcony. The guard at the gate was very friendly and let us take a quick drive around, and Megan bought a sweatshirt at the bookstore. Then we got back on the road to Charlotte.

Our Charlotte activities, although fun, were probably not all that representative of Charlotte for a variety of reasons.  First, I ran across information for the Day Spa at the Ballantyne Hotel and thought that massages would make a chill girl’s day as an early birthday gift for Caitlin and spending the day on the gorgeous grounds would be fun for all. However, the spa was totally booked and IMHO the hotel cost without the spa didn’t make sense. But once I had the massage idea planted it stuck, and we ended up going to the OM Spa Charlotte. It was a great massage for sure, but not particularly unique to the Charlotte area. Tom decided to explore the area during the time and let’s just say was not a fan of the street layout and traffic; several times during the day we had to cut across several lanes of heavy traffic to get on and then off roads with little warning. This experience made us less interested in driving across town that evening.

After the massages we made a short stop at the McGill Rose Garden (GPS: 940 N Davidson St), which is “over an acre large and covered in more than 1,000 rose bushes, as well as fountains, sculptures, and benches along its winding paths.” They were setting up for an evening wedding so we weren’t there long but it was a cute stop. And we made an impromptu stop at Pelican’s Snowcones just up the street which was a nice treat to cool off. 

We had a happy interruption to our evening plans in Charlotte [evening yoga and a free concert at the U.S. National Whitewater Center]. Caitlin received a call from her dream internship asking for a zoom interview at 6pm. So we headed to the hotel early to get her set up (we ended up paying to upgrade the internet speed) and the 3 of us walked to a local bar for appetizers. These ended up being quite filling so we just brought pizza back for Caitlin and called it an early night. This turned out to be a very successful evening as Caitlin got the summer marketing internship at the Television Academy in LA. 

Day 4 – Saturday, Greenville, SC 

Drive: Charlotte NC to Greenville SC (1 hour, 45 mins)

First, I want to give a huge shoutout to the tourism page for Greenville. I find most town pages to leave a lot to be desired, but I was looking for places to stop between Charlotte and Atlanta and after spending time on this page decided to not only stop here, but to spend a whole day here.  

What a gorgeous area of the country. We started the day with several stops along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Hwy 11, along the highway US-25. There was a gorgeous overlook at Caesars Head State Park [GPS: 8155 Geer Hwy, Cleveland, SC]. We were nervous about parking as it’s a small lot, but it wasn’t bad as people don’t stay that long. We also were considering the Ravin Cliff Falls hike, as it’s considered easy-ish and ends at Falls that look amazing, but it was closed. 

Next we headed to Jones Gap State Park (GPS: 303 Jones Gap Road, Marietta, SC), where we paid $5.30 to reserve a parking spot from 9am-1pm (we also paid $6pp upon arrival for the hike). We did the Jones Gap Falls hike, a moderate hike that was honestly a bit much for me due to the roots and rocks under foot. But I’m so glad we stuck with it as the falls were like a prize at the end. We also stopped by a random cool overlook on the road back.

We next headed to such a cool park, Falls Park on the Reedy and the Liberty Bridge, which has been named a “Top U.S. Park” by TripAdvisor. It was such a cool area, and since we happened to be there on a Saturday afternoon in May we were joined by swarms of teens taking prom photos and even a couple of wedding parties. 

I also really wanted to see some of the Public Art Walking Tour, especially the Mice on Main sculptures of 9 tiny bronze mice hidden along a section of Main Street (220 N Main St), inspired by one of our favorite children’s books, Goodnight Moon. But the hike did us in and I had to read the room that more walking around just wasn’t in the cars today.

Day 5 – Sunday, Helen, GA

Drive: Greenville SC to Helen, GA (1 hour, 45 mins)

Day 5 a.k.a. Caitlin’s birthday!

We started the day with such a unique experience – Toccoa Falls (GPS: 107 Kincaid Dr., Toccoa Falls GA). These impressive falls are actually 26 feet higher than Niagara Falls, yet are privately-owned by a college, Toccoa Falls College, and are accessible for a nominal fee through the college’s bookstore. After having to work hard yesterday to be rewarded with falls, these were an easy walk down a short path and were much more stunning than expected.

We then proceeded to Helen, GA, which I had originally found as a cool day trip from Atlanta, but it made more sense in our schedule to come here first for a day, and then head to Atlanta. Helen is a very unique town that has established itself as a replica of a small Bavarian Village nestled in the blue ridge mountains. We spent a good amount of time strolling through the shops in downtown Helen.

We totally lucked out for our next adventure. I was super excited about tubing on the Chattahoochee River that winds through the town center, but the web sites all said it didn’t open until Memorial Day weekend. So I was SO excited to see a bus pulling tubes going through town and learn that they open early on nice weekend days, even though they don’t advertise it! YAY!! We went through Cool River Tubing (590 Edelweiss Dr., Helen GA) and appreciated the changing rooms and lockers. We opted for the short ride that takes 1-1.5 hours ($19.50pp) even though they were offering the long ride (2-2.5 hours) at the same price. Pro tip: if you want to go down all together you need to tie all the tubes together. This can also slow you down and require more use of the provided sticks to manuever around objects, but we went 2 by 2 and never caught up to the girls. 

To celebrate Caitlin’s birthday we had a special prime rib dinner at Paul’s Steakhouse, 8537 S Main Street, Helen, GA. It was in a lovely location, right on the river, and we really enjoyed our meals.  

Day 6 – Monday, Atlanta, GA

Drive: Helen, GA to Atlanta, GA (1.5 hours)

We started our time in Atlanta with a stop at the The Swan House at The Atlanta History Center, the home used in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay: Part 1 as President Snow’s mansion. We just wanted to walk around the grounds and take some photos, which is what we did.

We then headed for lunch at Mary Mac’s Tearoom (GPS: 224 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 404-876-1800) for a true southern meal. My chicken and gravy was delicious, and Megan enjoyed trying the sweet tea and peach cobbler.

We took a few pictures in front of the World of Coca-Cola, and then headed to the Georgia Aquarium, the largest indoor aquarium in the world. They recommend ordering tickets online in advance to avoid waiting in line at the front gate – we did, this but not until we were done with lunch and knew when we’d be in the area. The staff who answered exhibit questions also asked people to pull up their masks as necessary, which made us feel safe inside. The exhibits were really interesting, and different from our local (Boston) Aquarium – we had such a fun time and stayed until closing.

While we really enjoyed our chosen destinations, we did run into many issues with activities and restaurants not being open on Mondays, and a few closed early due to some sort of emergency response training exercise happening near the Centennial Oympic Park. The PDF Itinerary has other options we considered that happened to be closed. 

Day 7 – Tuesday, Savannah, GA

Drive: Atlanta, GA to Savannah, GA (3.5 hours)

Our drive from Atlanta to Savannah was the longest of the trip, so we wanted to do something either before leaving or ideally en route to break up the drive. We were seriously contemplating the Drive-thru Pine Mountain Wild Animal Safari but decided against since it would add 1 hour from Atlanta to the Safari and an extra 30 minutes to Savannah. We did however end up visiting Covington, GA, just a half hour from Atlanta, to see some of the filming locations from Vampire Diaries and Legacies – this was a fun stop for the girls. 

Since Savannah was the impetus for this trip, we stayed at our hotel for 3 nights and planned on spending this afternoon and another full day exploring Savannah, and having an additional local beach day too. We were staying in the Historic District so we decided to spend the afternoon and evening exploring the areas in walking distance. We walked through a few of the charming, historic squares on our way to the riverfront. We had an early dinner & drinks at the rooftop bar of Cotton Sail Hotel, Top Deck. Since Savannah allows open containers we stopped into Wet Willie’s to grab a drink and then walked along the river and enjoyed the pretty sunset. Once it got dark we went looking for a rest room and stumbled across the JW Marriott Savannah Plant, which we had no idea was a hotel lobby as it actually looks like a museum. We really had a fun introduction in the city. 

Day 8 – Wednesday, Hilton Head Island, SC

Drive: Savannah, GA to Hilton Head Island, SC (40 mins)

We knew we wanted to have one beach day, and the weather today seemed best for that. Although we considered Jekyll Island, GA in part to get cool photos on Driftwood Beach, we ultimately felt that a more traditional beach day on Hilton Head Island would be better. I chose Coligny Beach, primarily because they offered umbrella and chair rentals and shade is key to beach happiness for our family. Coligny Beach also offered free parking, walking paths, and a shopping plaza. We chose to set up fairly near the Tiki Bar and Beach House restaurant, where we had a nice lunch and easy bathroom access. The weather could not have been better, with enough of a breeze to be comfortable in the shade. It really was a perfect beach day.

Day 9 – Thursday, Savannah, GA

Forsyth Park was high on my list of things to see, and I had read several recommendations to get here early to avoid any crowds, so that’s just what we did. And it was a very beautiful, picturesque area, not just the fountain, but all the flowers and trees with the Spanish moss. We also hit a few more of the squares on the way back to our hotel.

Then we got in the car to visit the Wormsloe State Historic Site, billed as one of Savannah’s can’t-miss attractions, and I 100% agree with that assessment. You don’t have to pay to get photos at the gate, but you do to take the mile-long drive down the road with towering live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. We opted to pay the $10pp to take the drive and then walked around the historic ruins. The tour was fine, but the real star is most certainly the drive. 

We stopped in for an afternoon snack at the ice cream institution, Leopold’s Ice Cream (GPS: 212 E. Broughton St.). It meant waiting in line outside for about 30 minutes, but it tasted so good on a hot afternoon. 

It was 90 degrees out so we ended up heading back to the room to chill for a bit before dinner. We ended up having a really nice dinner at Churchill’s (13 West Bay Street), an English pub. And we ended the day enjoying another walk through the historic district squares, this time at night.

Day 10 – Friday, Charleston, SC

Drive: Savannah, GA to Charleston, SC (2 hours)

Today was set to be another 90 degree day, so we wanted to get as early a start as possible, so we were seeing as much as possible before the weather got unbearable.

We started our visit on the waterfront, walking along the Charleston Battery lined with gorgeous antebellum homes, including those known as Rainbow Row. There were lovely gardens and parks with cool fountains. Though we did our best to stay in the shade, the heat was already issue by the time we were walking back to our car.

We went to brunch at Toast! on Meeting Street, which is known for excellent French toast, and we wholeheartedly agree. Then we headed to John’s Island to see the Angel Oak (GPS: 3688 Angel Oak Road, Johns Island, SC), one of the oldest living trees east of the Mississippi. It is 65 feet tall (6 stories), 28 feet in circumference, and it shades an area of 17,000 square feet. It is free to visit, with a good amount of parking, and was well worth the time. It is one of those destinations that is hard to do justice to in photos. 

To stay out of the sun, we then went shopping at the Historic Charleston City Market. There were lots of fun vendors with unusual items for gifts, and we probably would have stayed longer if more of it were air conditioned vs. cooled by fans. I’d definitely recommend at least a quick stop here. We enjoyed our dinner at Tattooed Moose, and I heartily recommend the basket of fries and bowl of gravy. We got to bed early and we stayed in an airport hotel to make the airport drop-off for our early Saturday flight as seamless as possible.

There were two activities that just didn’t work for us, but that if I were doing this trip again, I’d make some changes to try to fit them in. While I appreciated our extended stay in Savannah, if we didn’t already have the reservations, I would have stayed one less night in Savannah and instead driven to Charleston on Thursday night. That way we could have done the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens right when they opened at 9am. We then would have flipped seeing the Angel Oak until later in the afternoon and gone straight from there to Bowen’s Island to Charleston Outdoor Adventures to do a sunset kayak to spot dolphins. It took longer to get across bridges to the “island” parts of town for the Angel Oak, and my family was tired from the heat and not up to another long drive across town to get to the kayaking. I’ve included info for both activities in the PDF Itinerary for you to consider.