Southern USA: Beach baby's American dream in Florida and Georgia
For me, planning a holiday immediately triggers a longing for sunshine, lots and lots of it. This is not too much of an unusual desire, but if you're Irish and are resigned to accepting our climate's penchant for a cloud or two, you will know only too well the importance of such a need.
My pasty complexion almost ran with tears of joy as I stepped out of Orlando International Airport in February (yes February) to scorching afternoon heat. After a nine-hour flight spent joyously smug, spread-eagled across three seats, I arrived bursting with excitement and ready to explore Florida and its neighbouring state Georgia.
Our first port of call, Kissimmee, is a city just south of Orlando and conveniently close to all major attractions and the airport. With bags dropped and tummies rumbling we found ourselves in Disney Springs, an outdoor shopping and dining complex. This is a great choice for families of all ages.
We opted to eat in the restaurant of Oprah's former chef, Chef Art Smith's Homecoming Kitchen - if it's good enough for Oprah it's good enough for us. If southern fried chicken, mouthwatering cocktails and a buzzy atmosphere is what you're after, this is a good choice.
The rest of our time in Kissimmee consisted of lounging by the hotel's (Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate) fantastic pool and a trip to Wild Florida Airboats, where we got up close and personal with some swamp alligators. If you're feeling adventurous, you can even chow down on a gator burger.
Soon we were back on the road but after an hour or so a pit stop was deemed necessary to stretch our legs and soak up more of the gorgeous sunshine. We stopped off in St Augustine, cited as the oldest town in the USA. Think winding streets with a collection of craft shops offering everything from pottery to panama hats to hand-made jewellery. It was a bargain-hunter's dream and the perfect place to stock up on gifts for loved ones back home.
Before we knew it we had reached our next destination, Amelia Island. I find myself struggling for the right words when trying to accurately describe just how beautiful this island is. The only thing I can liken it to is the location of a Nicholas Sparks movie. Imagine endless beaches of white sand, friendly locals and an easy, breezy pace of life.
We stayed at the Seaside Amelia Inn, located right on the beach. And when I say right on the beach I really mean it; as in toes-in-the-sand type proximity. For a beach baby like myself this was the dream and I floated to my cosy bed in a happy haze. The location was such a feast for the soul that an (ordinarily laughable) plan to get up at dawn to watch the sunrise proved a doddle and we all met puffy-eyed but thrilled on the sand the following morning.
During our time on Amelia Island we visited Fort Clinch State Park and the historic Fort Clinch. We were taken back to 1864 with a re-enactment-style tour of what the fort would have been like during the Civil War. We topped off our time there with a sumptuous candlelight picnic which proved to be spooky and delicious in equal measure.
If your dream holidays are less about lounging and more about activities then a beach ride with Happy Trails Walking Horses is the perfect option. If you don't consider yourself too comfortable on a horse or if you've never ridden, do not fear, as the experienced staff are well accustomed to catering for all abilities. This was one of my favourite activities of the trip and definitely something I would do again. Even those who had never ridden in their lives had to be prised from their four-legged friends on to the next adventure.
Next stop was the state of Georgia and Jekyll Island, one of the four Golden Isles, just off the coast. From the moment we stepped on to the island we were whisked back in time.
We stayed in the exquisite Jekyll Island Clubhouse, in the Jekyll Island Club Resort, a place rich in history, having first opened its doors in 1888. Owned in part by financier J.P. Morgan, it soon became a retreat for some of America's wealthiest families.
And so I found myself up at the crack of dawn for another sunrise. This was a quieter occasion, as I rocked gently on the white rocking chair perched on the balcony that was adjacent to my beautiful room, as I drank in the views and savoured my surroundings.
Dinner was served in the clubhouse dining room. From the food to the atmosphere, it was an idyllic evening. Jazz was playing and cocktails were flowing. Our group was unable to do anything but beam, so enjoyable was this dining experience. My dessert arrived, a chocolate turtle perched on a sandbank. I enjoyed a few moments of being the right side of food envy, pleased with my sumptuous choice. The only flaw here was that it was so beautiful, I almost didn't have the heart to eat it. Almost.
Soon it was time to leave this haven for a mini island hop. A 30-minute drive took us to St Simons Island for a tour and lunch. Our guide, Captain Rod, had us falling off the trolley with laughter. The trip was time well spent as although we had only a few hours on St Simons we left feeling we had got to see much of what this beautiful island has to offer.
Wandering round our next stop, Savannah, is an experience like no other. Forget traffic and the hectic feel you would normally associate with city life. The air was filled with the scent of flowers in full bloom as we walked, taking our time to discover some of the 22 square parks dotted throughout the city. We even got to the square where the opening scene of Forrest Gump was filmed, thanks to a stint on the historic district's trolley tour.
Due to the inevitable selfie-induced traffic jams the city couldn't keep 'Forrest's bench' at the square but the square is most definitely well worth a visit, if only for a cheeky snap.
Dinner that night was an entertaining affair in the Pirates' House which first opened its doors in 1753 as an inn for seafarers. Our host (dressed as a pirate, naturally) showed us to our table and we enjoyed a hearty meal… sorry I couldn't resist.
On our last day in Savannah, we visited Mrs Wilkes's Dining Room. A former boarding house taken over by a young Sema Wilkes in 1943, such is the popularity of this southern-style restaurant that a queue forms at 11am every day and that's just the first sitting. The tables seat 10 which means that friends and strangers sit together. This meant I found myself chatting away to the couple beside me, having met them two minutes before. With their famed southern fried chicken, gumbo and corn muffins, this isn't the place for those watching their waistline but it is most definitely well worth a visit to fully experience the finest southern homecooking.
Our final location was Tybee Island. This is where the new Baywatch movie was filmed, and one step on to the expansive beach told us why. It was so picturesque that even the fact that this was our first cloudy day did nothing to deter us. We shivered happily on the sand until, thankfully, the sun decided to peek out just in time to warm us up. Happy and sandy, we traipsed the handful of steps off the beach to our hotel. Hotel Tybee is situated right on the seafront, ensure you ask for a seaview room to take full advantage of its idyllic location.
It was time for our final dinner on this indulgent holiday. The Crab Shack was one of the quirkiest restaurants we visited. Think fairy lights woven everywhere, and ridiculously tasty seafood platters.
After our meal we wandered outside and took a stroll around. There is an excellent gift shop and rather unexpectedly a number of friendly cats. In keeping with southern hospitality they promptly guided us to their little home a distance from the restaurant, also lit with fairy lights and aptly named The Cat Shack. Like I said, it was a pretty unique place.
If you have not experienced the Southern states and what they have to offer, they are well worth a trip. I will most definitely be going back.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
The aptly named Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, Georgia, is lined with ancient driftwood, and provides a dramatic backdrop for even the most amateur of photographers.
Sea Turtle Centre
Meet a mix of veterinarians and volunteers at the Georgia Sea Turtle Centre on Jekyll Island who carry out essential work to rescue turtles and rehabilitate them before releasing them back into the wild.
For more information about travel to the USA and to plan your trip, go to visittheusa.com.
Kissimmee, Florida, go to experiencekissimmee.com.
Amelia Island, Florida, go to ameliaisland.com.
Georgia, go to exploregeorgia.com.
Jekyll Island, Georgia, go to jekyllisland.com.
Georgia’s Golden Isles, go to goldenisles.com.
Savannah, Georgia, go to visitsavannah.com.
Tybee Island, Georgia, go to visittybee.com.
Read more:Big Easy Bounce: New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina
Sunday Indo Living