East Coast Road Trip: Orlando to New York in 5 Days
By Emily Green
As kiwis living in New York we crave the outdoors; any chance to dip our toes in the ocean, sleep where there are actually stars, or cook over a campfire, we jump at it. On a few rare days where both Jordan and I were free, we decided to hit the lesser-traveled East Coast USA, grab a flight into Orlando, and drive ourselves back home to New York the long-ish way.
DAY 1: Orlando, FL to Alexander Springs, FL
On a balmy Orlando morning, we picked up Lightning Bug, our home on wheels for the next five days. Before heading out of Orlando, we fueled up on coffee and trip itinerary ideas in the Downtown Arts District and had a wander around the maze of painted streets. After a nice and rewarding stroll, it was time to hit the road!
With the windows rolled down to the welcome southern heat we stopped at Daytona for our first dip in the Atlantic and a cool beer before the sun went down. This felt like the perfect beginning of our adventure.
That evening it was time to head inland once we hit Daytona Beach and find a spot in the Ocala National Forest for the night. We set up camp at Alexander Springs and watched the fireflies flicker in the trees.
Let me tell you nothing compares to that first night waking up, brewing a coffee, and drinking this in bed with a tropical forest at your door.
DAY 2: Alexander Springs, FL to Tybee Island, GA
This little secret is almost too good to share as it was peacefully empty while we were there and I’m tempted to keep it that way. Driving west out through the Ocala Forest amongst horse farms, there is a prehistoric underground spring named Devil’s Den. Here we rented snorkeling gear and ascended a staircase leading down into a cave with crystal clear water and a platform to step off. The pool is illuminated from sunlight through a leafy hole above exposing old rock formations, friendly fish, and turtles.
Ticking off Florida we welcomed in Georgia with a taste of true southern barbecue right off the highway in a gas station parking lot. You could see Malson’s big barbecues smoking next to a little red shack right when you pulled off the exit. We ordered from a window and were handed saucy piles of pulled pork, smokey ribs and chicken with homemade pickles and potato salad. We ate on an old picnic table beside the barbecue, and once again hit the road stuffed and happy.
By the afternoon we’d reached the coast again, watched the wetlands near Savannah spread out like a golden blanket in the afternoon sun, crossed over tiny bridges past stranded docks, flicked by little fishing villages and found a spot to set up camp on Tybee Island. Out there, the trees beside the coast began to bear big drapes of Spanish moss which gave the appearance of wise old bearded men. There were also tons of stray cats – apparently a problem in Tybee – but I loved the way they appeared to own the island, gathering in packs and laying out on lawns and lots.
DAY 3: Tybee Island, GA to McClellanville, SC
We cruised through Savannah, grabbing a coffee at The Coffee Fox in the morning, a favorite local spot, and people watched on the main street.
Arriving in Charleston by lunchtime we checked out the markets full of local produce, had a beer on the rooftop of the Revelry Brewery, perused the forts lining the bay and beautiful historic buildings. There’s no beauty lost between Savannah and Charleston, each an icon of southern charm and American civil war history and worth taking a little time to explore on foot.
North of Charleston we detoured away from the monotonous I-95 we wound down avenues of trees and empty roads in the Francis Marion National Forest. We’d discovered a privately-owned camp spot beside the river for the night on Hipcamp in North Carolina and our host Dave had no shortage of stories to tell, musicians he didn’t know or hadn’t partied with. We explored the river walkways trying to catch the glint of a gator’s eye before sundown. It was a rare opportunity to have a spot to ourselves, sleeping with just a soundtrack of birds, frogs and alligators.
DAY 4: McClellanville, SC to Outer Banks, NC
We got on the road early stopping to brew a coffee at Myrtle Beach, checked out a few thrift stores in the port town of Wilmington, made it just in time to catch the ferry at Cedar Island. The slow three-hour ferry trip to the remote Outer Banks set the island pace as we chatted to other travelers and had a nap in the camper – there’s something pretty awesome about lying in bed while the ocean swells outside the window!
After splashing out on a dozen delicious oysters at the Ocracoke Oyster Co. we headed five minutes out of the village to the National Park campground. Chill vibes set the scene with a roaring ocean and sand dunes right on our camper doorstep.
DAY 5: Outer Banks NC to Wharton State Forest, NJ
The next morning saw a misty cool light spread out across the road as we drove north, nothing but sand and sea either side for the most part, a few small towns, and an abandoned waterpark.
This was seriously an epic detour worth taking, even if it meant we were racing to catch the Lewes ferry to Cape May and ticking off four states – North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey – in one day.
We found a last minute campsite amongst the colorful flowering rapeseed and blueberry farmland in New Jersey, cooked up a delicious taco feast and fell asleep beside a little lake.
Before sunrise the next morning we were on the road again, reaching the New York skyline along with the daily commute. We said goodbye to Lighting Bug at the NY Escape camper van rental site and lugged our bags, and my hanging plant from SC, to the subway.
Now I’m back in New York City and dreaming of the open road and the whirlwind trip which saw us get a taste of the Atlantic through its beaches, forests, rivers, local delicacies, southern charm, and horse farms.
I’ve never been much of a slow traveller, but there’s something liberating about traveling fast, having an adaptable itinerary and deciding as you go where to take your time.
Nothing quite allows for creativity like having the freedom to step outside, sleep and wake with the light, break your routine and really live.
My Favorite Ways to Experience Local:
- Fill your fridge with a beer from each state/town you visit
- Stop to check out farmer’s markets, roadside stalls or barbecue pits
- Discover unique camp spots on Hipcamp
- Tune into whatever radio station pops up as you go
- Talk to strangers and listen to their stories!