LENGTH OF THIS TRIP: 809 miles on US 17, the Coastal Highway, not counting inevitable excursions
TOTAL LENGTH OF US 17: 1,206 miles from Punta Gorda, Florida, to Winchester, Virginia
NICKNAME OF GEORGIA’S ALTAMAHA RIVER: Amazon of the South
Ask Southern motorcyclists about their favorite rides, and a few storied names are sure to cross their lips: the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Cherohala Skyway, the Tail of the Dragon, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, among others. Today, however, I’d like to take you on one of my personal favorites—a lesser-known route that’s worthy of more attention, perhaps even a place in the canon of epic Southern rides: the Coastal Highway, US 17, as it follows the Atlantic Seaboard.
It’s a route my late father handed down to me based on his extensive two-wheeled travels, back when I’d ride my ’89 Harley-Davidson from North Carolina down to the Georgia coast to visit my parents. It’s the route I still enjoy whenever possible, as it offers so much more splendor, history, and character than the endless race of the interstate.
Highway 17 was the Eastern Seaboard route before I-95 was completed in the late seventies, and the route was especially popular among midcentury vacationers making their way to sunny Florida. Today its lanes (two to four) will lead you down some of the wildest coastline left in America, racing along salt marshes, over blackwater rivers, past barrier islands and salt-worn shrimping fleets. You won’t go hungry, either.
Since I make my home in Savannah now, we’ll kick up our stands on the southern end of the route, down on the St. Marys River Bridge, nearly a century old, which straddles the Georgia-Florida line. We’re heading north, and Steffens Restaurant is just three miles up the road, an old-school diner with red leatherette booths that’s been dishing out Southern comfort food since 1948. But if it’s barbecue you fancy, we’ll make for Captain Stan’s Smokehouse in Woodbine, Georgia, where we can sit beneath the canopy on the patio and chuckle at the corrugated metal sign: “I ♥ my pork pulled and butt rubbed.”
To walk off the meal, we’ll head to the Woodbine Riverwalk—a boardwalk where you might catch one of nature’s great aerialists, the swallow-tailed kite, as it darts and swings over the tea-dark Satilla River, catching its meals on the wing. I first saw one of these rare raptors on a road trip with my father, and I have its likeness tattooed on one shoulder. Then we’ll crank our engines and motor on, crossing into Glynn County, home of the Golden Isles that raised me, detouring to ride among the stately homes of Jekyll Island’s Millionaire’s Village—an old summer haunt of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers—along with the oak-lined lanes of St. Simons Island.
In the morning, our engines thrumming through the mist-wrapped cypresses, we’ll cross the Altamaha River, the “Amazon of the South”—one of the mightiest rivers on the continent and rumored home of the Altamaha-ha, the South’s own Loch Ness Monster, which inspired my novel The River of Kings.
We’ll stop at the Smallest Church in America before crossing right underneath I-95, boots kicked out in the wind, happy to be free of the interstate rat race. Outside Riceboro, we’ll pass near the Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center & Museum, a tribute to the culture that’s had such a profound influence on the food, language, and customs of our coast. We’ll ride through Savannah and cross high over its river, where I once watched a dusk storm crack lightning over the great port cranes, only to be caught in the downpour minutes later. As I stood shivering in a Waffle House, an old-timer pointed me to the best booth to avoid the icy wind of the air conditioner. Never has a coffee tasted so good—the small, sweet moments of life on two wheels.
Next we’ll take 170 into Beaufort, South Carolina, one of the best small towns in America, where we’ll visit the Pat Conroy Literary Center, paying homage to that great bard of the Lowcountry, then ride out to Hunting Island, where you might think we’ve stumbled into a land before time, a primeval maritime forest. For a good soak after a hot day on the bike, I’ll recommend one of the well-appointed cottages of the Beaufort Inn back in town.
Come morning, we’ll rejoin Highway 17 for one of the loveliest legs of the trip, opening our throttles across the ACE Basin—one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the East Coast. If there’s time, we’ll pick up 174 toward Edisto Island, passing the tiny Adams Run post office on our way out to Botany Bay’s Driftwood Beach, where salt-killed trees stretch from the sand like the bleached bones of prehistoric leviathans.
Back on 17, we’ll climb one of the largest “hills” on the Coastal Highway, the massive Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge high over the Cooper River—quite the experience on a motorcycle. Past Charleston’s outskirts, we’ll gas up at the Sewee Outpost and head deep into the Francis Marion National Forest, where I once ran out of fuel and had to ask a man riding a lawn mower for help. For more spiritual matters, we might drop a note in the roadside prayer request box at the intersection of SC 41 and Saints Delight Road. It was here that I asked for help while writing my novel Pride of Eden, set on an exotic wildlife sanctuary right off 17.
In the lesser-known gem of Georgetown, we’ll walk to the top of the Rice Museum to see Brown’s Ferry Vessel—a fifty-foot river freighter built in 1710, said to be the oldest boat in North America. On the way out of town, we’ll drop by the gazebo at the Hobcaw Point Observation pier, where you have to hear the way the wind whispers through the shore reeds. Then we’ll motor on to the historic fishing village of Murrells Inlet and eat a sundown supper at one of the marsh-front restaurants, our bikes dusty from the ride.
We’ll cross the North Carolina state line the next morning, pitting at Beach House Harley-Davidson for the free coffee and gaggles of fellow bikers, then take 211 into the sweet little town of Southport. After that, it’s a lovely ride up 133 along the Cape Fear River, stopping to tour the USS North Carolina battleship before crossing into downtown Wilmington, where we’ll refill our tanks at Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods, taking stools before the brass plaque at my old writing spot: “This Space Is Reserved For Taylor ‘The Bodyguard’ Brown gtfu.”
North of Topsail Island, we’ll follow NC 24 east along the Crystal Coast, visiting the North Carolina Maritime Museum to view artifacts from Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Shelter for the night will be the Bask Hotel, where I was once stranded three nights as the outer bands of a hurricane lashed the coast, whipping Bogue Sound into a frenzy while I wrote away in a dark harbor tavern.
In the morning, we’ll ride to the tip of Cedar Island and ferry over to Ocracoke, one of the southernmost islands of the Outer Banks. From there, we’ll make the run up the nearly two-hundred-mile string of islands, listening for the local “Hoi Toider” brogue and gazing across the Graveyard of the Atlantic—the final resting place of more than five thousand ships, including the Spanish El Salvador, whose twenty chests of gold and silver have yet to be found.
At Kill Devil Hills, we’ll visit the Wright Brothers memorial and ride on to Kitty Hawk, whose tall dunes and high winds provided ideal launch conditions for the Wright Flyer. By now, we’ve covered the better part of a thousand miles. Intrepid riders can venture up into the Virginia Tidewater and Chincoteague Island, but here, where two bicycle mechanics pioneered the sky, seems an especially proper place to turn for home. After all, what but the motorcycle better fuses the freedom of two wheels with the thrill of flight?
Discover more off-the-beaten path Southern adventures from our June/July 2023 issue.