Road-trip season is here, perhaps this year more than others. After months of lockdown, we’re ready to see new places and old friends. In early July, I jumped into my silver sedan and headed down the east coast to visit friends who’d recently moved to South Carolina. It was absolutely wonderful, a much-restorative break after months of isolation, but the journey was very different from my cross-country road trip last year. Here’s what I learned:
Many of the things we took for granted simply aren’t there right now. Services and amenities are changed, and we don’t know for how long. It’s like Nantucket in the winter right now, except hot.
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Do your research.
There are restrictions now that were unthinkable a year ago. Inform yourself about your own state and any others you’ll be visiting. Are there quarantine requirements in place? Are hotels, restaurants, museums, and so on open? Are masks required? Stay on top of changes and reversals. Booking.com is maintaining a clearinghouse for information about restrictions.
Also inform yourself about policies at the establishments you want to visit. Booking.com is also giving hotels the opportunity to include information related to current protocols, such as cleaning, distancing, and food-safety practices, on their reservation pages. (And as of this writing, Rakuten is offerring 2 percent cash back on rooms reserved through the site.)
Check out cancellation policies for hotels, tours, anything you reserve. If your destination suddenly shuts down its bars or beaches again, you might want to change your plans. GetYourGuide is now offering a 24-hour cancellation policy for its activities.
Stay close to home.
You don’t know when something’s going to change that makes you just want to go home. I felt most comfortable staying within a long day’s drive of Alexandria. Charleston is about 10 hours away, allowing for stops and the fact that I-95 is typically a parking lot north of Fredericksburg and smooth sailing south (one of few things that lockdown hasn’t changed).
Visit loved ones.
The best part of the road trip was spending time with friends. We’re created for community, and months of isolation alone or with only the people living in the same home just isn’t healthy for us or for our society as a whole. A visit with family or friends is a way to give two households a recreative boost.
- car keys
- auto fluids
Most items are not as readily available as we’re used to.
Don’t expect pre-2020 levels of service.
My original plan was to spend a short week exploring the South. I booked my first night on the road at what used to be a luxury hotel in Williamsburg, the kind of place that displays photographs of the great men and women who’ve stayed there before–Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, even a magnificent portrait of a young Elizabeth II descending a staircase in a ballgown and the Queen Mary tiara. I’d stayed there before and been very pleased. My rationale, as a woman alone, was that, given all the uncertainty of the times, I wanted the security of luxury service. It was a gross miscalculation. Virtually the only thing that was the same (besides the photographs) was the price. Citing the pandemic, they have minimized guest-room cleaning. There is still daily house-keeping, but only replacing the towels, removing the trash, and making the bed, without changing the linens. There is no evening service. And there were cobwebs on the window panes. There was only one restaurant operating, and only during 3-8, an outdoor (in Virginia, in July) Terrace with a limited menu. There was no room service, except for a “Contactless Continental Breakfast”, to be reserved by 7:30 the previous evening, for drop-off “by 8:30am”, at $24 plus tax per person, with a $5 “Delivery Charge per Order”. There was no valet parking, but there was still bell service, which was excellent when I arrived and nowhere to be found when I left. We were not amused.
Expect to be treated like the Red Death.
Our temperature was taken at a plantation. Masks are required virtually everywhere indoors, muffling the voices of tour guides and, even more so, of fellow travellers asking questions. The camaraderie among travelling strangers is gone for now, as we’ve become conditioned to view one another first as potential agents of disease, rather than image-bearers of God, neighbors with whom we share common interests, common needs, common humanity.
On the other hand, distancing is making some experiences more enjoyable. The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a fascinating quirky museum in Charleston. It’s housed in the building where South Carolina elected delegates to the Continental Congress (the men who signed the Declaration of Independence), ratified the Constitution, and held a ball in honor of the new President George Washington. The two main floors are open for self-guided exploration. But the Dungeon requires a tour guide. Before this year, the tour accommodated up to 50 visitors. When we visited, capacity was capped at 10, making it much easier to roam the spooky red-brick Dungeon once used as a harsh British prison.
Capacity controls are also making restaurant dining more enjoyable. My friends and I ate out three times in South Carolina:
- Sticky Fingers, a casual Carolina barbecue spot in Charleston
- Magnolias, an upscale Southern restaurant also in Charleston
- The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene, a waterfront seafood shack in Mount Pleasant
The service was good at all three, the food outstanding, and the distancing made the whole experience quieter and more comfortable.
Never miss an opportunity to visit the necessary.
Many fast-food places are still closed to indoor dining. Even among those that are open, some don’t have rest rooms available for visitors. Most rest stops along I-95 were open, but many were closed, and few were clean. Gas-station rest rooms did tend to be available. Plan accordingly.
On my first morning in South Carolina, my friends and I decided just to drive into Charleston and walk around to see what was open. We first found the lovely Washington Park, with monuments to–you guessed it!–George Washington, as well as other historic figures, surrounded by lush green trees. Nearby was the intriguing South Carolina Historical Society Museum. We probably would have missed out on both if we’d made a plan instead of deciding to play it by ear. They set off a wonderful day of simply walking and exploring, capped off with a delightful Harbor boat ride under a magnificent full moon.
As for that plan I had to spend a few extra days exploring the South on my own, I had booked a couple of nights at a hotel in Virginia Beach. But after my disappointing experience in Williamsburg, and the unreliability of road services, I cancelled and headed straight home from South Carolina, grateful for the flexible hotel policies of this unusual time, and for my decision to stay within a day’s drive of Alexandria.
Have the right mindset.
As you have read, a lot went wrong on this trip. But a lot went right. I got away for a few days, after months of lockdown. I explored a beautiful city, a city full of history and great for walking. And best of all, I spent time with good friends, friends who share my interests and my values and my curiosity, friends I care about, and who care about me. To me, it was absolutely worth the hassles. Before you go, ask yourself whether the pleasures will be worth the hassles to you. If not, it’s better to accept it, and find something to do around home. If so, I hope this post has given you a clearer idea of what to expect.
Recognize, too, that you might not want to travel now as you have in the past. One thing I realized is that America isn’t the only thing that’s different from a year ago. I’m different too. Last year, when I went out on my cross-country road trip, I’d recently ended a long-term relationship, and I was hungry to renew myself alone. This year, I’ve been alone for months, and I was hungry for the companionship of friends. Ask yourself what needs have bubbled to the surface in you during this strange time.
One need that I will always have is to surrender myself to the moment, in the way that travel allows, to inhabit that glorious space where I can let myself go to what little surprises might come along. On our last night, after dinner in Mount Pleasant, my friends and I went for a long walk along the docks. At around ten o’clock, we found a covered spot with a long bench. We sat looking across the water. There was a small grey shack. Slipped in front was a sailboat, longer than the shack was wide. There were no sails, just the mast soaring into the night sky. And the full moon glowing in the quadrant created by the lines of the mast and the roof. We just sat and gazed at it, and we all agreed that it was the perfect way to cap off a wonderful visit. Because there’s one thing that will never change: The little things are the things that matter most.