Growing up in Florida, every summer, we’d make the trip north to visit family in the mid-Atlantic. My husband, growing up in Maryland, would travel south for the beaches or trips to Walt Disney World. In both cases, we had the experience of traveling I-95 through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. With the cost of the AutoTrain or flying being out of our budget, it was our turn to take our daughter on the multi-day trek along I-95, so we decided to hit as many roadside experiences as we could (while still making time).
Here’s the highlights from each state, going north to south. (Note: All photos were taken by whoever was sitting in the passenger seat — never drive distracted!)
Washington, DC/Northern Virginia
I often get asked by people considering moving to Florida if traffic on I-4 is as bad as they’ve heard. My answer is that it really depends where you are coming from. Well, I found out that traffic in the NoVA/DC/MD corridor is pretty insane any time of day, and although there are normal chokepoints, huge backups can occur anywhere and any time. (The most popular radio station in the area is WTOP, which does traffic every 10 minutes–or more often if conditions require it.) Southbound on 95 seemed to be the direction to go (or sit, actually). The backup when we were headed towards DC was around 20 miles.
When it was our turn in the southbound lanes, we paid for the HOT lanes — around $1 per mile, with the alternative being more than an hour to go about 20 miles.
Thankfully, traffic around the District was pretty light when we were traveling, so we had the ability to cut through the city and see the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument.
And the Capitol building. (We also saw but were not able to photograph the Pentagon, Air Force memorial, and Lincoln Memorial.)
The southern part of Virginia has a rather unique love — they love 7-11 stores. During my time in Virginia Beach visiting family, I was able to stand on one corner at a 7-11 and see two other 7-11s nearby. Every few miles, there was another 7-11. In fact, Virginia loves 7-11 as much as Florida loves Publix.
Speaking of love, although we didn’t “love” that most rest areas in Virginia were under construction with trailer-style facilities, our favorite rest area on I-64 in Virginia has a wonderful photo op that you would LOVE to see.
I’m a big fan of public art installations and especially of whirligig-style ones. At the rest areas in North Carolina, they have some unique ones on display.
If you look closely at them, you can see that they’re made from old interstate signs.
At the North Carolina Welcome Center, if you have kids, they have a free coloring book. It’s changed a bit since I got my first one more than 30 years ago, but it’s neat that they still have it.
North Carolina is also home to my favorite gas station sign. Take a look at the name and the font, and does it seem almost familiar?
On the flip side, Dunn, North Carolina is home to what I think is the creepiest sign on all of I-95. The Dunn billboards all feature the creepy eyeball critter looking over the top of the billboard, but just the way he’s looking at that woman…
Technically, South of the Border is in South Carolina. Realistically, it’s in its own world. If you have ever driven past it on I-95, you know you cannot miss it. Horribly tacky and cringe-worthy in terms of political correctness, there’s nothing like it.
In short, here’s the story of South of the Border. In 1949, Alan Schafer built a beer stand called “South of the Border Beer Depot” to sell beer for people coming over from dry counties in North Carolina. A few years later, he added a ten-seat grill and changed the name to “South of the Border Drive-In”. He eventually went to Mexico to try and make connections for importing items. There, he met two men that he helped come into the United States to work for him as bellhops at his newly built motel. People called them “Pedro” and “Pancho”, and eventually the idea of Pedro as an iconic figure for South of the Border stuck. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find Pedro statues.
This is the epitome of tacky tourist stop, and the merchandise shop is about as over the top as it gets. You can buy “generic toilet paper for cheapskates” alongside fake poop. You can buy one of dozens of shot glasses.
There’s a room dedicated to the sale of hats, complete with a sombrero-sporting camel.
T-shirts have their own building.
There was once an “adult room” with cheap novelties for sale, now covered with red paper in the back corner of the main building.
The world’s largest beer stein is still available for purchase, however.
If it is cheap and tacky, it probably can be found at South of the Border.
In case you think what the store needs is more cowbell, that’s covered too.
There’s a store selling fireworks, several restaurants, a giant “sombrero tower”, a reptile area, mini golf, and more.
That said, when I stayed at the hotel once in the 1980s, it was actually decent enough — on par with other budget hotel chains of that era. Now the public restrooms, on the other hand — even though there’s a tipped attendant in there to keep things clean, it still feels somewhat sketchy.
Apparently the people of South Carolina believe that canned vegetables of southern delicacies (collards, boiled peanuts, and more) are not available when you cross into North Carolina and points north. That’s the only explanation for the more than 50 billboards for canned southern foods going north on I-95 and not one going south. Because there isn’t much to see, watching for canned vegetable and South of the Border billboards is entertainment on I-95 northbound.
Seriously, these billboards are everywhere.
The Carolinas are also a good place to find Stuckey’s, a type of truck stop/convenience store. As kids, my husband and I rode past many in our day, but neither his parents nor mine would stop. We made it our goal to stop at a Stuckey’s and get their famous pecan log. It was surprisingly light and fluffy and painfully sweet. Bucket list item, check.
Consistently, the friendliest people that we’ve found on our road trip are in Georgia. On this trip, two people really stand out, however. A shout out to the barista at the Pooler, Georgia Starbucks who is preparing for her trip to Walt Disney World with her dad. Hope you have a great time! And a shout out to the two guys running Peach World.
In addition to being extremely personable, they really know their stuff about the products they have and were very generous letting us sample many things. One “new to us” food we tried was boiled p-nuts. (In my opinion, you must write it as p-nuts instead of peanuts if you buy it from a roadside stand.)
My verdict — it isn’t my thing. We were told the best way to eat them is to put the whole thing in the mouth and suck out the juices (which was good), and then eat the nut inside. Well, the boiling process made the nut inside have a very earthy taste and the consistency of mud. I know that many people love them, but I’m guessing it’s an acquired taste. The peaches we bought, however, were simply marvelous.
For us, there’s nothing like seeing the Welcome to Florida sign as we cross the border into our home state. Every time, we need to stop at the Welcome Center for our free orange juice.
I also love seeing the “Florida time” clock to remind me that we’re back in the land of rest and relaxation where you don’t have to hurry. You can’t clock-watch here.
There’s a lot to see at the Welcome Center, so make sure to spend some time to explore. We also decided to stop at Florida’s entry into roadside stops at the Florida Citrus Center.
Citrus isn’t really in season now, so we just stopped to look at the fun tacky tourist souvenirs that were present.
And needless to say, what kind of unpaid outlet intern would I be if I didn’t stop to look at the “Disney Souvenir Outlet” here. (I think I’ll stick to Vineland.)
The rest of our trip was uneventful, and it was good to be home… sort of. On our night in Savannah on the way home, we received text messages from the power company that our power was out due to a bad storm in the area. When we arrived home, we found that the power was back on, but we had a more pressing problem.
Either lightning or a power surge had taken out a control board to our a/c unit. The temperature in the upstairs bonus room was 95, and downstairs was 85. As quick as we could, we booked a hotel at Disney for some much needed a/c until we could get the unit fixed. (Thankfully, they were able to squeeze us in and get the unit running on Monday.) It was our first time staying at Art of Animation, and although the room was what you’d expect size-wise from a value resort, it was a comfortable stay and had some really cute design.
And thus, our road trip along I-95 ended the way many people’s vacation trip does — arriving at Walt Disney World — bringing a close to our Best (Roadtrip) Week Ever.
Which is your favorite: boiled p-nuts or Stuckey’s pecan logs? Do you ever stop at South of the Border? Got any fun stories about the road trip down I-95? Feel free to share your best road trip to Florida stories in the comments!