Travel: Day Drives to the Panhandle, Tennessee, and Virginia

These three destinations, all within a day’s drive, are ideal spots to consider for a little R & R, post-pandemic.
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On St. George Island, a wide variety of beach houses are available to rent (COURTESY OF COLLINS VACATION RENTALS)

Beach Time in the Panhandle

Just a five-hour drive from Orlando on the state’s northwest coast, St. George Island’s Old Florida roots haven’t changed much since a bridge replaced the ferry service in 1965. Multi-generation families can rent large beach houses and come for a blissful week of exploring the 21 miles of sugar-sand beaches on the Gulf side and fishing or paddling the pristine wetlands of Apalachicola Bay on the other. The days are sun-drenched; nights, star-filled. Dinners starring the day’s fresh catch are often cooked at home and enjoyed alfresco.

Hundreds of vacation rentals include two-bedroom beachfront villas, quaint cottages and multi-bedroom houses on both the beach and bay side—some featuring private pools and others have docks with views. Homes on the island’s west end are more secluded in a gated community called St. George Plantation. A 6.3-mile bike trail connects the Plantation to the entrance of remote St. George Island State Park.

Climb the tower in the rebuilt Cape St. George Light Museum, which was originally constructed in 1833. Immerse yourself in nature by kayaking along the placid shore of the bayside estuary. Take your sunrise on the beach (watch for sea turtle tracks and newly dug nests) and sunsets on the bay, where folks traipse out on the old bridge to cast their rods. Groceries, beach set-ups, golf carts, bikes, kayaks—you name it—can all be delivered to guests’ home-away-from-home for contactless commerce.

Feeling island fever? It’s just 14 miles to historic Apalachicola, one of America’s best small-town secrets.

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Explore the tranquil waters of the Tennessee River via kayak or canoe (TENNESSEE RIVER GORGE.COM)

The Simple Life in Tennessee

Longing to get away and commune with Mother Nature? The Tennessee River Gorge has been a favored destination of outdoor enthusiasts for decades. A day’s drive north from Orlando, this long and winding waterway flows through a 27-mile gorge cut through the Cumberland Plateau and offers spectacular vistas of the Appalachian foothills.

About a 45-minute drive west of Chattanooga, you’ll find the widest part of the gorge, which is the location of the Tennessee River Gorge Island Cabins. Situated on 13 private acres along Nickajack Lake and adjacent to Prentice Cooper State Forest, the area is serene and secluded.

You’ll find all the comforts of home at their three cozy, private cabins. Each is fully stocked; just bring your own food and drink. Owners Chuck Smith and his brother sweeten the deal by providing free firewood, plus one canoe or two kayaks for each cabin rental. If you want more horsepower, they also rent pontoon and fishing boats.

There is plenty to see and do in this picturesque terrain. Spend your day exploring the bluffs along the river or hiking the 35 miles of trails through the Prentice Cooper State Forest. Launch a kayak or canoe into Nickajack Lake’s crystal waters from the boat dock, just steps away from your cabin. If it’s your night to cook dinner, grab a rod and reel and cast for largemouth bass, bluegill or walleye. Then head back to the homestead and fire up the grill. At the end of the day, you and your family can relish in the simple pleasures of star-gazing and listening to the hoots of the owls above.,

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At Healing Water Falls, the well-appointed bedroom promises a good night’s sleep (RIC WILKINSON/TRICSAW PHOTOGRAPHY)

Peaceful Scene in Virginia

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,’’ Henry David Thoreau famously wrote 166 years ago.

Today, Healing Water Falls, a beautifully rustic artisan cabin in the mountains of southern Virginia, can ably serve as your Walden Pond in coping with these trying times. There’s no TV, cell phone or Internet service. Instead, there’s the sight and sound of a 150-foot waterfall just off the deck, the vivid color of a Blue Ridge forest, and an Asian-inspired dwelling that meshes perfectly with the peaceful setting while providing plenty of material amenities.

Owner Caroline Carter has created a magnificent refuge for the spirit, whether you’re a writer trying to rediscover your calling, a solitary soul eager to relax, or a couple wanting to shut out the outside world and reconnect. There’s a king bed, a luxuriously deep soaking tub, a thoughtfully stocked kitchen, and the aforementioned deck, where you can doze in the afternoon and, when you awaken, wonder whether you’re still in a dream.

If you can bring yourself to leave this place, Grayson Highlands State Park is 20 minutes away, where you can hike among gentle wild ponies on various paths that connect to the Appalachian Trail. Back at Healing Water Falls, a leather-bound journal sits on the writing desk, an invitation to share your thoughts about this mountain paradise. And you will, while promising yourself to return as often as your soul needs healing.

Planning Your Trip

Each of these getaways offer opportunities to reconnect with nature and experience the local sights while maintaining your distance from others.


On St. George Island, Collins Vacation Rentals offers some 220 properties, from cozy condos to sprawling beach homes, all with contactless check-in. Most include free activities through the Xplorie program, including beach yoga, daily bike rental and a round of golf at St. James Bay.


Call this eco-outfitter to discuss your ideal vacation, and they’ll put together the perfect plan—whether an offshore-fishing charter, a boat excursion to an uninhabited island for shell hunting and a picnic, or a guided paddling trip and overnight camping adventure. 850-927-3259,


Each of the three Tennessee River Gorge Island Cabin rentals are far enough apart to offer maximum privacy. Nightly rates run from $150-$198 per cabin. Amenities include swimming pool, covered deck, washer and dryer, and jet tub. They also have an up-river shuttle service that goes as far as 13 miles.


Healing Water Falls is 5 miles north of Independence, Va. (a 9½ hour drive from Orlando). There’s a landline for emergencies. Rate is $150 a night, with a two-night minimum. The entrance is steep; four-wheel drive is recommended, but the two-wheel variety and some determination will work.;