Half Way There—Flight of the Snowbirds

July 5, 2015 Updated: April 28, 2016

There is no joy in flying any more. A newspaper reported that an airline discovered they could save $65,000 a year by not serving pretzels on flights so they stopped serving free snacks while the CEO took another bonus. Passengers are often treated without respect or dignity and are squeezed for every extra including seat space. Luggage fees apply. If a bag is even a pound over the 50 pound allowance there is a hefty surcharge. Yes, one pound. A curbside check in for one airline took huge bags from a Latin American bound passenger that promised a good tip. Cash changed hands while I had to pull a pound out of my bag or pay extra.

Traveling with pets, families and lots of baggage? Cross airline flights off the list. Snowbird or vacationing tourist driving from the northeast back an forth to Florida makes sense. A flight takes 2 1/2 hours. Getting to the airport 2 hours early and paying the exorbitant taxi or limo fares bumps up inconvenience and costs. Other alternatives are bus travel. Long distance bus trips are not only inconvenient they can be sheer torture. That leaves rail. There is a service that takes vehicles on the train. It costs about $700 for one passenger one way. Anyone that can sleep on a bumpy, noisy, horn blowing shake and bake train ride must be on pills. The train ride runs between northern Virginia and northern Florida. That can add at least 500 more driving miles to any travel from New York to South Florida. The train saves only about 900 miles of driving.

With gasoline prices within reason, automobile travel back and forth along the eastern seaboard to Florida is reasonable. Car travel has been reborn as a happy way to get to and from Florida. It is a feasible solution for snowbirds that make annual migrations south in winter and north in spring. All the vacation gear and luggage can be packed along; family and pets welcome at no exorbitant charges and there are great sights to see.

There is an amazing book by Stan and Barbara Posner’s book entitled “Drive I 95.” It can be found no the web. This couple travel I 95 routinely. They take every exit east and west along the highway. They miss nothing. Whatever exit a driver may choose there is complete information available on what to find. The book is available on line and updated regularly.

Mid-way in most drives to and from Florida is the extraordinary City of Florence, South Carolina at Exit 164, right off I 95. There are ample hotel chains to suit every budget. The Hampton Inn just off Exit 164 has all the amenities trail weary travelers want. There is a fitness room, indoor hot tub and swimming pool. Complimentary coffee and tea are always available in the lobby along with fresh fruit. Full breakfasts are complimentary and include ham and eggs, waffles, cereals, grits, juices, fresh fruit and hot beverages. The rooms are suites with refrigerators, coffee makers, microwaves with granite counter tops equipped with a sink. Large rooms are nicely appointed with comfortable beds, ample soft or hard pillows, duvets, free wireless Internet and a lap desk to enable guests to work from the comfort of their bed.

Florence, South Carolina is one of those towns that grew out along the Interstate corridor to welcome tourists. That growth spurred development of every imaginable fast food emporium and option for overnight stays.

The city itself has retained its southern charm and elegance. This is the advantage of driving. The trip is part of the vacation. Florence, South Carolina may be half-way convenient but there is so much to see and do downtown and nearby that it is a great place to visit.

After studying at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, Ben Zeigler attended Oxford University and obtained a degree in English. Ben returned to the U.S. and studied for his law degree at Harvard University as did his father. He settled back in the town where he grew up. Like his father before him Ben took an active interest in history. When the opportunity presented itself Ben and other visionaries decided on plans to revitalize the city’s downtown.

Blocks of old buildings were bought. These magnificent brick structures were renovated to create the 49 room Hotel Florence that serves as anchor to redevelopment. Restauranteur Tim Norwood brought Victors fine dining establishment to the first floor level of the hotel. There is elegant dining in casual atmosphere. Diners in shorts and open shirts feel just as comfortable as people in suits and ties that are likely local business people that know where to find good food.

“The hotel is a major part of downtown restoration. It began two years ago. This downtown started falling off in the 50s and 60s. There was nothing down here. A group of us bought the old library building, restored it and turned it into offices for the law firm. There were federal tax credits available for restoration projects. It was so successful that they came to us to develop another tax credit rehabilitation project. That resulted in this hotel with Victors on the ground floor,” Ben said.

His enthusiasm for his home town is echoed by the cordial welcome visitors receive everywhere. It is akin to returning to an era of good manners and hospitality somehow lost in big city life elsewhere.

“We have a museum now and art center. We just bought and gutted buildings next door and will add rooms to the hotel, offices and retail stores,”Ben added.

“Francis Marion University is putting students in this vicinity. They run the Performing Arts Center. We have two hospitals in Florence. The university is going to open a school downtown for nurses and physician assistants. There will be rotations for medical students in training,” Jennie Peze said. Jeannie is the Coordinator of Eastern South Carolina Heritage Region.

The Florence Museum downtown is well worth a visit. Propellers recovered from the Confederate ship CSS Pedee are on display outside in the museum grounds. Artifacts found in the river, where the warship was set on fire by its crew to keep it from falling into Union hands toward the end of the Civil War, are also on display. The ship’s name is spelled differently from its namesake Pee Dee River.

Florence itself was not directly involved in Civil War battles. With Union forces advancing, prisoners from Andersonville were interned at a stockade outside Florence. A military cemetery offers testimony to the tragedy of war. Panels inside a gazebo describe the stockade. These were harsh times and many Union prisoners died from privations.

Hiking and biking trails lace the city. There are kayak trails and horse trails for every experience level. Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion led a band of South Carolina militia against the British. Marion adopted guerrilla tactics he learned fighting Indians to strike at British supply lines then flee with his men back into the swamps.

Marion’s men rode small Spanish horses dubbed ‘Marsh Tackies.’ The British rode fine, large European horses that were no match for the swamp bred horses of the militia riders. It was Marion’s guerrilla warfare that so provoked the British that commanders released troops from the north to seek and destroy him thus relieving pressure on General George Washington and his men.

Victor’s Restaurant offers exceptional food. Sure there are lots of chain restaurants to choose from in the area. If travel is to savor the aura of a place then make the stop a pleasure. The ambiance at Victors is to be enjoyed. The carefully restored building is reminiscent of a grand era in America. As soon as the portal is crossed wonderful piano music decorates the air. Peggy Paul is a renown pianist and her music immediately treats the ear. A small lounge seating area is near the piano.

Tables are comfortable and offer accents that create a mood for a good meal to come. Victors specializes in local sourcing of farm fresh produce, fish and meats where possible. Fresh starts include she crab and shrimp bisque with aged Sherry, $8. The Anne salad is cranberry laced baby spinach, blue cheese, apples, pecans and an apple poppy dressing, $9. Malt crusted oysters are flash fried and served with cucumber chipotle, $13. Pan seared crab cakes are prepared with roasted red peppers, basil and artichoke cream, $13.

Entrees include chef’s specials or regular features like Angus upper choice ribeye steak, $29 for 14 ounces, $37 for an 18 ounce portion. Prime New York strip, billed as 1% of all U.S. beef, is $36 for a 12 ounce portion. There is #1 Sashimi grade tuna $16 for 4 ounces, $28 for 8 ounces. Fresh Atlantic salmon, $12 for 4 ounces, $23 for 8 ounces. Other entrees include chicken breast, salmon and shrimp combinations, pot roast ravioli and vegetarian tart made with goat cheese, ratatouille and charred red pepper coulis. All about $24.

Peggy Paul does more than tickle the ivories. She makes Victors desserts and scrumptious they are to tickle the palate. Try the chocolate cake. It is an ample serving. Ben Zeigler described it as much smaller than he remembered. While the serving was quite large the server confirmed that they did reduce the portion size. Whatever the past cake serving was it must have been gigantic. Victors has an ample wine list to suit every taste and budget. It is wonderful to find fine dining and wholesome food, tastefully prepared on a driving vacation.

Florence is right smack in the middle of the northeast corridor just off the Interstate. Stay over. Enjoy good food and a chance to take in the sights. It is not getting there in a great rush that makes a trip memorable. It is convivial stops along the way, meeting people and enjoying good food and culture that turns a long drive into a fun trip. Gasoline in Florence is about as cheap as can be found anywhere along I 95. Just an added bonus for stopping off there.

For more information about the City of Florence go to www.visitflo.com or call their visitors bureau toll free at 1-800-325-9005 or locally at 843-664-0330.