If your impressions of the East Coast come from driving along the I-95 corridor through nearly nonstop urban and industrial sprawl, following our Atlantic Coast route will open your eyes to a whole other world. Alternating between wildly differing beach resort areas and lengthy stretches of pristine coastal wilderness, the route runs along almost 2,000 miles of two-lane country roads, within earshot, if not sight, of the Atlantic Ocean almost the entire way. In place of the grimy concrete and soulless netherworld of the interstate, this route passes through innumerable quirky seaside towns and timeless old fishing villages, interspersed with huge swathes of beaches, wetlands, and woodlands that have hardly changed since the first explorers laid eyes on them four centuries ago.
Starting in the north at that all-American icon, the Statue of Liberty, and winding up in the south at free-wheeling Key West, this route truly offers something for everyone. Those searching for photogenic lighthouses or beachcombing solitude will love the undeveloped and usually deserted strands that stretch for miles along the low-lying islands that make up most of the coast, much of which, as at Assateague Island or Cape Hatteras, has been protected as national seashore parks. In contrast, the many beach resorts that dot the in-between areas vary from the grand Victorian charms of Cape May to the funky old Coney Island–style attractions of Ocean City, Maryland, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with their boardwalks full of roller coasters, wax museums, and saltwater taffy stands. And let’s not forget the glitzy casino resorts of Atlantic City.
Alongside the contemporary attractions are many evocative historic sites, including such unique places as Roanoke Island, North Carolina, where the first English-speaking colony in North America vanished without a trace in 1587. Lying south of the Mason-Dixon Line for almost all of its length, the route also visits many important Civil War sites, including Fort Sumter, where the first shots were fired, and the vital naval battlegrounds at Hampton Roads at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Midway along, we also pass one of the key sites of modern history: the windy sand dunes at Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers first proved that humans could fly.
Though this Atlantic Coast route will bring you to many well-known sights, its real attraction is the traveling, stopping off for fried chicken or barbecue at one of the hundreds of roadside stands, watching the shrimp boats pull into a sleepy dock and unload their day’s catch, or simply chatting with locals at the general store or post office in a town that may not even be on the map.