The Secret South
You don't have to go far to find Southerners with a secret--whether it's a favorite barbecue shack or a hidden dive bar. The trick is getting them to divulge. We canvassed the region to uncover the best Dixie has to offer. Here's what we found. Shhhhhhh...
The oldest trees in the South are an unforgettable sight, giant anvil-topped bald cypress looming over tea-colored swamps. One tree, known as BLK 69, dates back to at least A.D. 372. But first you have to find these trees. They’re deep in the black-water swamps of North Carolina, in the Nature Conservancy’s three-thousand-acre Black River Preserve. You can go on a big-tree hunt by canoe or kayak, but only if you want to get there badly—there are no signs, no trails, no markers. Locals will tell you to paddle to the Three Sisters, a trio of meandering swamp channels that wind under the biggest boles. Good luck. But even if you don’t find BLK 69, you’ll still be surrounded by a thousand acres of old-growth cypress trees, trees that were alive when there were Carolina parakeets and warring Tuscarora. (nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/northcarolina/preserves/art5589.html)
Twice a year, the population of High Point, North Carolina, nearly doubles in size for the International Home Furnishings Market. The transient crowd is a soup of decorators, magazine editors, and shop owners looking for the next best thing. A select few return to one spot that isn’t in any of the guidebooks: an unassuming place called Antique and Vintage Furnishings on Main Street. The owner, Tony Sink, arranged the entire place by color, but it’s the mix of high/low that’s most intriguing. Pedigree pieces sit next to humble vintage finds, and Sink carries everything—milk glass, silver, antique botanical prints, mid-century furniture. “Everybody has their own style, and they like what they like, so that’s why I carry such a mishmash,” he says. “There’s something for everyone.” (336-886-5126)
The Time Jumpers, a country-and-western swing band, plays the Station Inn in Nashville every Monday night—and they’ve been doing so for ten years. In the process, they’ve been nominated for two Grammies, and everybody from Vince Gill to Robert Plant drops by to sit in. But awards and accolades haven’t changed the music or the fact that they play every Monday night at the Station Inn. (thetimejumpers.com)
You might not know that the Nature Conservancy owns all or part of fourteen barrier islands that course over sixty miles of the Atlantic just east of the Chesapeake Bay, but you should. Managed as the Virginia Coast Reserve, the islands encompass thirty-eight thousand acres of beach, dune, marsh, and maritime forest. Access is by boat only and is limited. These islands, after all, are for the birds. You can’t camp, bike, drive an ATV, build a fire, or pick a flower. But you can crest a natural dune and look in every direction and not see a boardwalk, surf shop, snow-cone shack, stoplight, or brake light. (Virginia Coast Reserve: 757-442-3049)
On a beachy Caribbean outpost best known nowadays for grandiose villas, plush resorts, and routine celeb sightings, one of the most idyllic spots, not surprisingly, requires the most effort to reach. You can get to Little Bay—a gloriously undeveloped little crescent of sand and balmy turquoise shallows on Anguilla’s north shore, hemmed in by sheer cliffs—one of only two ways: 1) Pull over at an unmarked spot on a gravel road on the outskirts of the Valley (the island’s capital), hike along a bluff top, then back carefully down a thirty-foot precipice while clutching a guide rope; or 2) drive to nearby Crocus Bay, where a fellow named Calvin will ferry you over on his powerboat for about twelve dollars per person, circling back to retrieve you at whatever hour you specify. On an island this small, there’s no such thing as a total secret. But even so, a “crowded” day at Little Bay means you might have to share your sliver of paradise with a few other determined beach bums and a handful of sailboats anchored for a snorkeling session just offshore.
With old-time neon signs above the door and in the window, a sandy parking area out front, and the skies above it shaded by live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, Wisteria Tavern is an atmospheric seventy-five-year-old Pensacola, Florida, institution that just keeps getting better. (Want proof? Until not long ago, the men’s room was a dirt-floored outbuilding with a trough.) A country grocery in the 1920s and ’30s that began serving “beer only” late in the day to sportsmen headed to town following excursions in the Panhandle’s wilds, Wisteria over time developed the kind of lived-in character that can’t be bought. Eventually, it prospered so much as a beer stop that groceries ceased being delivered, which left more room for things like pool tables and pinball. Today the jukebox and pool table go virtually nonstop, and more than a hundred brands of chiller-fresh beer are for sale. Yes, Wisteria is still a “beer only” establishment, though owner Terry Abbott would like to change this. To draw more customers, he recently petitioned for a wine-license upgrade, only to be summarily denied by the city attorney. “We are planning to appeal,” he says. (wisteriatavern.com; 850-433-9222)
Birding Hot Spot
Starting at the Sunset Field Overlook at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 78.4, in the George Washington National Forest near Buchanan, Virginia, thirteen miles of dirt roads drop twenty-seven hundred feet in elevation, through old-growth hardwoods, hemlocks, pines, and meadows. Dubbed Warbler Road, the route is beloved by birders as a place where you can see twenty or more species of migrating warblers during the spring flights. It’s off the beaten path just enough for solitude but navigable by car. (fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/natural_history/wildlife.shtml)
There are three things you do if you’re a local eating at Chez Fon Fon, chef Frank Stitt’s award-winning French bistro in Birmingham, Alabama: 1) Order an Orange Thing; 2) Get the Fon Fon Burger; 3) Ask for the peppermint ice cream at Christmas. But you could live years in the Magic City without realizing that there’s something else on the menu that you absolutely have to try—the boules court out back. Open all year, but best enjoyed spring through summer, it seats up to thirty people and offers the same France-in-Alabama vibe the restaurant does, only you’re sitting under a charming arbor and you get to play games while you wait for your food. But be forewarned: It’s first come first serve, and the few people who do know about it fill it up fast. (205-939-1400)