I spent two weeks this summer traveling across the Deep South for Gadling, on top of a two-week business trip/vacation there in May. When the mayor of Chattanooga told me, “You have the heart of a Southerner” I blushed, but I also felt like I must have figured out how to feel comfortable there. The South is a little different from the rest of the United States – especially if you’re a woman traveler. But I find it an especially intriguing and hospitable place for women who are willing to slow down and saunter. Here are my five Southern Travel Tips.
1) Enjoy the conversations. I found the South to be much like visiting France, in one sense: you say “good morning,” pour on the charm, and don’t expect to get away quickly even if all you’re buying is gum. You should expect – and enjoy – conversations everywhere and with everyone, from strangers to waiters and farmers market vendors. I was at a rest stop in Alabama when the man in the next car ran after me. Had I left my lights on? No, he’d seen my Michigan plates and had relatives in Detroit. Did I know them? No, but I now know he and his mother were driving his little sister to college and it was a big day for them. Likewise, if you need recipes for anything, just say, “I don’t know how to make this,” and you’ll be bombarded with advice. I can now make black-eyed peas, thanks to a farmer in Tupelo. Also, expect to be hugged by people you’ve just met. My daily hug count was usually three, and one day hit seven. Karen, my server at The Grand Hotel in Fairhope, Alabama, was among my hug givers.2) Let them hold the door. Those of us whose moms and grandmothers were part of the women’s movement up north have grown accustomed to fending for ourselves. Not in the South. If I arrived at a door at the same time as a man, 99.4% of the time, he’d hold it open for me. By the end of my trip, I just came to expect it, and would stand there and let a man or boy open it for me, although I was smiling inside. Also, get used to being called ma’am – it doesn’t mean you’re old. It’s a term of respect. And you use it, too. This is a Southern tradition, in the same way that you say “monsieur” and “madame” in France.
3) Savor the food. I know that by the end of a few days, you probably will have eaten more calories and carbs than you ingest in a month. It doesn’t matter. Southern food is amazing, from flaky biscuits and croissants to gas station fried catfish to some of the finest gourmet dishes you can taste in the United States. Take my advice: savor it, and enjoy it. To be sure, your body probably won’t be able to handle southern specialties for three meals a day. Pack some Grape-Nuts and get yogurt at breakfast, but dig into smoked turkey BBQ and ribs and peach cobbler. Just remember it will slow you down a little, so intersperse it with salad when you can. And stay hydrated; heat plus diving into air-conditioned rooms can dry you out.
4) Pack the pearls. The big hair and makeup we saw on Delta Burke and Dixie Carter isn’t a stereotype. Southern women like to do up and dress up. So do some men, for that matter: I actually saw more men in suits in New Orleans and Birmingham than I often do in Chicago. You can go casual for every day, and you probably will want to if you’re seeing sights and trying to stay cool. But when you go out to lunch or dinner, wear the dress you packed, tie on a scarf, put on some lipstick, and be glamorous. It’s a place that allows you to be fancy, and eccentric, too, so bring that hat you’ve wanted to wear. And on the big hair front, the secret to taming it seems to be a lot of hair spray. Or you can give in to humidity, which is pretty much what I did.
5) Plot your route. The South is picturesque and stately but it can also be a little beat up and even intimidating if you have no frame of reference. Pretty much every place you visit will have a bad part of town. I’m not saying you’d be in danger, but you might have your romantic visions shattered by a wrong turn, just as you would in any other part of the country. I was taken aback when I rolled into Greenwood, Mississippi, and saw blocks of shanties before I discovered all the gracious homes where “The Help” was filmed. A good GPS, Mapquest map or directions can keep you on track. But don’t be afraid to take an alternative route, especially if you know how to get back to the main road. There is nothing so breathtaking as a southern back road, even one that takes you past some buildings and streets that are falling apart.