Four wheels recommended in the USA

Paul Gogarty takes the long road to Walt Disney World via the Deep South

So you have finally agreed to do The Mouse at Disney in Florida. But what's your payback for four days' theme-park mayhem? A week's r 'n' r on some Gulf Coast beach just does not seem adequate recompense. Rightly, you reason, if you are going all the way to America, you really should see some of the real thing ­ Florida may be as far south as the country goes but it is not the South. With some tour operators imposing no surcharge for flying in and out of different airports, my tip is to do what I recently did and fly into Charleston (a short hop on from Atlanta) in the Old South and spend a week or more driving oh so slowly down to Orlando via the breathtaking coastal scenery of South Carolina and Georgia, and a string of towns as fabled as Samarkand, before meeting the family at Walt Disney World.

So you have finally agreed to do The Mouse at Disney in Florida. But what's your payback for four days' theme-park mayhem? A week's r 'n' r on some Gulf Coast beach just does not seem adequate recompense. Rightly, you reason, if you are going all the way to America, you really should see some of the real thing ­ Florida may be as far south as the country goes but it is not the South. With some tour operators imposing no surcharge for flying in and out of different airports, my tip is to do what I recently did and fly into Charleston (a short hop on from Atlanta) in the Old South and spend a week or more driving oh so slowly down to Orlando via the breathtaking coastal scenery of South Carolina and Georgia, and a string of towns as fabled as Samarkand, before meeting the family at Walt Disney World.

Having picked up the Buick at the airport, I was in downtown Charleston in a matter of minutes, eating deep-fried soft-shell crab in the sultry night. I managed a couple of bars and a walk beneath old gas lamps in the exquisite preservation district before the jet-lag and journey kicked in. Time to hit the sack.

The next morning I joined a walking tour led by a 50-year-old named Pharen who was as graceful and good-looking as the town. There were just six of us in the group, the other five coming from Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Virginia. And yes, they just loved my accent. The air was perfumed with jasmine, the gardens ablaze with magnolias, and the songbirds all seemed to possess the same languorous southern drawl as the human inhabitants.

We passed a string of buildings resplendent in their Doric columns and pedimented pomp: homes to the Hibernian Society ("where girls enter Charleston society"), the South Carolina Society founded by French Huguenots and still a male-only preserve, and St Michael's Church complete with Tiffany glass and a Honduras mahogany pulpit. (Apparently General Robert E Lee, the Prince of Wales and Baroness Thatcher have all worshipped in pew 43.)

At Market Hall the woman from Pittsburgh asked if slaves used to be sold inside. "Everywhere but," Pharen replied. "And when they weren't bein' sold they had to watch out for hurricanes, earthquakes and enemy occupation." The Old South continues to talk of the Civil War as if it happened yesterday, and the window display at Walden Books on Meeting Street echoed the continuing preoccupation ­ The South Was Right by James and Walter Kennedy, Confederate Charleston, Civil War Handbook, and Dixie Before Disney.

As I headed out of town a day later, I started picking out the South Carolina number plates and the slogan "Smiling Faces Beautiful Places." Anywhere else I would put it down to small-town big ideas; here it just happens to be the truth. I slipped out of town along the riverfront, a brilliant green swath of reeds gently sashaying to passing ferries. I passed picket fences and Baptist churches, and a one-horse hamlet called Hollywood before the landscape became a swamp jigsaw of water and sawgrass.

The windows in the Buick were down, the radio played JJ Cale, and buzzards hovered languidly overhead. Open road ­ this is why the wise come to America. Roadside stalls offered cherry cider, pecan syrup and fishing bait. After an hour I pulled into a seafood shack where I sat on the waterfront deck watching flickering butterflies and dancing horsetail grasses, while chewing the fat with the proprietor whose vowels were so long they stretched to the floor.

Eventually I reached Beaufort (pronounced "Bufert") where Forrest Gump, The Big Chill and The Prince of Tides were shot. Surrounded by rice and cotton plantations, this small grid of handsome antebellum two-storey homes nestles by the river, paddle fans slowly turning the treacle air on broad balconies draped in Confederate flags. One, the Rhett House Inn, recently hosted Julia Roberts, Nick Nolte and Robert Redford for three months.

Highway 21 followed an early Indian trail out of town to a series of islands fringed by six-foot cordgrass. Out on the water, herons, egrets and cormorants fished behind the shrimp boats. Deep in a forest on Hunting Island I pulled up in the State Park and watched with amazement as a bare-footed black woman padded by, her blond dreadlocks bouncing over enormous bare breasts and sackcloth. "We call her Voodoo Woman," one of the park attendants, Daisy, informed me. "She gets dropped here every so often in a big limo with a roll of $100 bills, a laptop and a tent and stays for a month and more. No one asks questions."

I didn't either. I walked over a bridge, spotted an alligator in a freshwater pond and continued on to a beach that stretched for ever.

On the way back to my overnight base at Beaufort, I pulled into a petrol station and asked the way to Martin Luther King Drive. A guy in a pick-up said he would show me the way. I followed his trail of salt water sloshing out of the pick-up's shrimp tank until he waved me off to the left. A mile or so down the street I found what I was looking for: Penn Center.

Unfortunately, it was clearly closed. I peered through the windows. The floor was covered in colourful rugs and baskets. On the walls were early black-and-white pictures of schoolchildren. This had been the first school in the South to open to free slaves, in 1863. In more recent times, Dr Martin Luther King Jr had used the campus as a retreat to plan his March on Washington. In the grounds children were playing ball and skipping; back out on the road women sold sweetgrass baskets.

My next overnight base was just across the Georgia border. Savannah, like Charleston, has become a Hollywood backlot in recent years. The latest two movies to have been shot there were Ben Affleck's and Sandra Bullock's Forces of Nature, and The General's Daughter starring John Travolta. But the one everyone still talks about, and which really put Savannah on the map, was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Its key character, Madame Chablis, still performs around once a month in town at Club One. Or so legend has it.

Whereas Charleston has a soft, feminine feel to it, Savannah is more male ­ orderly, prosperous, and with an abundance of buildings whose grandeur reflects the wealth of their owners. It was America's first planned city, with gardens every couple of blocks. Twenty-one of the 24 original garden squares remain virtually unchanged 150 years later with live oaks draped in Spanish moss, gas lamps and gorgeous homes complete with porticos, raised stairways, and wooden shutters.

It was time to hit the road again. As I headed south, I detoured across more beautiful wetlands to Jekyll Island. "The Jewel of the Georgia Coast" was once the most exclusive vacation spot on earth. At the beginning of the 20th century, the most powerful men in the world holed up here shooting skeet, eating oyster roasts and riding their buggies round the golf course. Simple pleasures. They created a private island dripping with wealth and chipped in loose change ­ $40,000 ­ for a clubhouse (now a Radisson Resort hotel).

The Jekyll Island Club already had motorised buggies in the 19th century for its golf course (they are still there) and its marina was dotted with the ostentatious yachts of Vanderbilt, Astor and Andrew Carnegie. (Unfortunately, John Pierpont Morgan's 304ft-long Corsair couldn't quite fit in.) You can still tour some of the humble homes such as Crane's "Cottage" with 17 bedrooms. Another of the "holiday homes" has a 42ft solarium. Nowadays the island is inhabited by ordinary holidaymakers like you and me cycling beneath the palms and live oaks, picnicking on manicured lawns and sunbathing on perfect beaches.

And so into Florida. The state may be the shiniest modern star on the theme park map but there is heritage, too: in St Augustine up on the north-east coast they have America's oldest continuously occupied town. The day before I was due to meet my friends in Orlando I found myself in this atmospheric Hispanic town, founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. The riverfront was a riot of sunset colours and, beyond it, the beaches eclipsed anything I had seen further south in the state.

By the end of the day, I found myself ensconced in a bar ­ Scarlett O'Hara's on Hypolita Street. "This is the oldest bar in the oldest street in the oldest city in America," the man on the next stool said, by way of preposterous conversation. I smiled indulgently and hoped the madness would pass. "Yup," the bartender took up the theme, banging a glass down on the bar top for emphasis. "Strong, see. The bar's made from the headboard of the bed the original owners brought from England. Things don't come much older in America." Francis Drake probably called in for a beer here before he razed the place. The mighty mouse beckoned, but after all this reality, it was hard to remember why I was going to the fantasy land in Orlando.

Getting there

America Direct (tel: 0870 789 6688) offers return flights with Delta from Gatwick to Charleston and from Orlando to Gatwick plus one week's car hire from £325 per person, based on two sharing. A one-way drop supplement on car hire costs $100 (£70), payable locally. Alamo Gold car insurance, which covers virtually everything, costs an extra £172 per car. You can pre-book accommodation en route from £75 per room per night or simply stay where you fancy.

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