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Hidden treasures of the South

Many travelers enjoy visiting big-ticket, brand-name attractions when they travel, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But others want a more authentic experience and seek out little-known, unheard-of or largely undiscovered destinations.

For those who want to avoid the crowds, these hidden treasures of the South may just fit the offbeat and off-the-beaten-path bill.


Boneyard Beach

Bulls Island, South Carolina

People who visit Boneyard Beach on Bulls Island, off the coast of South Carolina, often find themselves uttering such words as “primordial,” “otherworldly” and “awesome.”

“It’s finally a good use for the overused word ‘awesome’ because it is awe-inspiring,” said Captain Chris Crolley, owner of Coastal Expeditions, which operates the Bulls Island Ferry and offers tours and charters.

Boneyard Beach is studded with skeletal trees that have been bleached white and scrubbed smooth by the sun, sand and salt air, ghostly remnants of a forest that is being gnawed away by Mother Nature.

The Boneyard was a forest that grew up on land, and the beach was a mile away from it, Crolley said. But every year, storms stir up sand and dirt on the island’s north end, and the current carries it away to the island’s south end. Over time, Bulls Island erodes on the northern end, and creeps to or grows on its southern tip.

As the northeastern end of the island wears away, it leaves behind remnants of the maritime forest. At Boneyard Beach, a dead garden of 200-year-old oak and cedar trees juts up from the sand and waves. Tidal pools at the base of gnarled roots harbor sea stars, sea anemones and barnacles, and a freshwater creek wriggles from the forest through the tombstones to the ocean.

“Boneyard Beach isn’t a place; it’s an experience,” Crolley said, “and to know that, you have to go there.”

To get there, visitors drive about 30 minutes north of Charleston to Awendaw, where they catch the Bulls Island Ferry at Garris Landing. It’s about a 30-minute ferry ride through the estuaries, where passengers will experience pristine wilderness and varied wildlife, such as bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, alligators and some of the 293 species of birds that call the area home throughout the year.

The 5,000-acre island is six miles long and one and a half miles wide with about 16 miles of hiking trails and seven and a half miles of undeveloped beach. But aside from an old farmhouse, some restrooms and a weather shelter, “Bulls Island is just wild,” Crolley said, and visitors must be prepared for the elements.

Passengers can walk from the ferry landing to the other side of the island, then cut north along the coast to reach Boneyard Beach, or they can walk through the maritime forest. Either way, it’s about two and a half miles to get there, but it’s worth the investment, Crolley said. Visitors also need to plan to go to Boneyard Beach at low tide to experience it.


Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

Belmont, North Carolina

It’s unexpected and maybe a bit startling: As people drive through the rural countryside near Belmont, North Carolina, a grand Italianate building and formal gardens spring up in front of them.

“It’s very unexpected,” executive director Kara Newport said of the garden.

Daniel Stowe, a retired textile executive, donated the land — nearly 400 acres along the banks of Lake Wiley — and laid out plans for the garden, which opened in 1999. The site features about 10 acres of manicured gardens, including the tropical Canal Garden, the year-round Four Seasons Garden, and the all-white White Garden, as well as the surrounding natural areas and a woodland walking trail.

The botanical garden’s latest addition is the Orchid Conservatory, which opened in 2008, the same year the garden began its annual orchid display, Newport said.

Sprinkled throughout the grounds are 12 fountains, including everyone’s favorite, the Tunnel Fountain tucked away in the perennial gardens.

“People love the Tunnel Fountain,” Newport said. “It’s a fountain where you walk under the water; kids love running through it trying to get wet, and all the brides have their picture taken running under it.”

The garden is looking toward the future, drawing from and expanding on Stowe’s original master plan. About 110 acres of Stowe’s 380-acre donation are developed, but officials are working on plans to develop an additional 200 acres, Newport said.

Crews just broke ground on the newest garden, Lost Hollow, a children’s garden that is slated for completion this fall. The designer, W. Gary Smith, calls it a “deconstructed castle,” Newport said, because the garden will resemble an abandoned, crumbling English manor and its overgrown gardens.


Homer Laughlin China Co.

Newell, West Virginia

Visitors don’t have to be Fiesta Dinnerware fanatics or even know what it is to enjoy touring the Homer Laughlin China Co. factory.

The company got its start in 1871 when brothers Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin formed a partnership to sell yellow ware pottery made in the East Liverpool, Ohio, region. But two years later, the brothers won $5,000 in seed money from the city to build and run an operation to produce white pottery ware, which was gaining popularity.

The company eventually outgrew its East Liverpool location, and officials bought land directly across the Ohio River, where they built the current Homer Laughlin factories and developed the town of Newell, West Virginia.

Today, the company offers twice-daily tours of its factories Monday through Friday, and larger groups can make tour reservations, said company historian Dave Conley.

Each tour starts in the museum, where visitors watch a video about the company’s history and see items Homer Laughlin has made over the past 140 years, including a bedpan from the late 1800s.

From there, guides lead groups through the factory, where they learn about each step of making dinnerware and restaurant ware, from piping in liquid clay and forming to firing and coloring. Today, much of the factory is automated, but some of the dinnerware is still made by hand, Conley said.

“Teapots, pitchers, vases — those are still made one at a time,” he said. “A pitcher, we maybe make a dozen a day, but plates, bowls, we do hundreds of those a day automatically.”

The company also does about 1,500 “decorations” a year — special-order designs or custom patterns for restaurants that are applied to the pieces. Visitors can even watch a worker hand paint a thin gold line on a plate.

“That takes a lot of practice and a steady hand,” Conley said. “The people who work there love to show what they do as much as the people taking the tour love to see it.”

Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum

Marion, Kentucky

The Clement Mineral Museum is a hidden gem, both literally and figuratively. The museum houses an extensive collection of rare minerals, but very few people know about the treasure.

Ben E. Clement was a giant in the Kentucky and Illinois fluorspar mining industry from the 1920s until the 1960s. Even after the industry foundered, a victim of cheap foreign ore, Clement remained an avid mineral collector who was intent on preserving the history of the Kentucky/Illinois Fluorspar District until his death in 1980.

“He spent 60 years putting this collection together,” said Bill Frazer, museum president.

When the Clement family and museum founders were sorting through his collection in the early 1990s, they called in John Sampson White, curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian’s gem and mineral collection. When White walked into the Clement household, “his mouth flew open, and he said, ‘Gentlemen, I can already tell you my trip’s been worthwhile,’” Frazer said.

There are more than 10,000 pieces in Clement’s collection, about 3,500 of which are on display. Among the smallest items are pieces of fluorite that Clement had faceted by German craftsmen, and the largest is a chunk of ore that probably weighs more than a ton, Frazer said.

Although most of the collection is fluorite from western Kentucky and southern Illinois, the collection also includes barite, germanium, fluorine, calcite crystals of all shapes and sizes, and vivid, colorful franklinite pieces that glow in an ultraviolet display.

The museum is open year-round, although hours vary by season, and group tours are available by appointment. Visitors can also go on digs, day or night, to find their own minerals. The museum hosts a monthly dig at a nearby farm, and private digs can be arranged, Frazer said. During a day dig, visitors may find fluorspar, lead, zinc, cadmium, barite and smoky quartz. During a nighttime dig, guests use handheld black lights to find fluorescent hydrozincite glowing in the dirt. All of the digs take place in surface dirt, not in underground mines.


Borroum’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain

Corinth, Mississippi

There aren’t many places where you can find a cherry phosphate these days. And you can’t find many places that have been owned and operated by the same family for 150 years, either. But visitors find both at Borroum’s Drug Store, the oldest operating drugstore and soda fountain in Mississippi.

Dr. Andrew Jackson Borroum started Borroum’s in 1863 as a wholesale outlet before officially opening the drugstore in 1865, said Borroum’s great-granddaughter, Camille Borroum Mitchell.

“[The drugstore] has been in the family and has always been operated by a family member since it started,” she said. “It doesn’t seem unusual to us, but when you think about it, it is unusual. We managed to survive CVS and Walgreen’s and Wal-Mart.”

Mitchell graduated from pharmacy school in 1948, a time when women pharmacists were unheard of, and has been practicing pharmacy ever since. Today, she owns and runs the drugstore, and her son Lex and his wife, Debbie, run the soda fountain.

The soda shop sells plenty of good old-fashioned malts, banana splits and sundaes, Mitchell said, but it’s a toss-up as to which is more popular: a regular hamburger or the local specialty, the slug burger. Borroum’s slug burger is a mix of ground beef, soybean meal and spices that’s deep-fried to give the patty a crispy crust.

In 2000, the family restored the building’s original facade and renovated the soda shop to resemble a classic soda fountain, complete with padded chrome stools and black-and-white-checked tiles, Mitchell said. The original 1939 soda fountain — the equipment, not the space — has been completely rebuilt twice since the 1980s. Borroum’s also uses its original showcases, as well as a 1926 metal National Cash Register that “probably weighs 600 pounds,” Mitchell said.

“People will come in for a few minutes before they leave Corinth, and they ask if they can just sit in the drugstore before they leave,” she said. “They just want to sit for a little bit and take it in.”


Walnut Ridge, Arkansas

In the northeast corner of Arkansas, visitors can stop at the only place in the world where Abbey Road meets the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway.

In 1964, during their first American tour, the Beatles landed at Walnut Ridge’s airport to change planes. They were off to spend a day between concerts at a dude ranch in Missouri. When they returned to Walnut Ridge two days later, a crowd of about 300 people waited for them at the airport. Although John, Paul, George and Ringo only stopped briefly in Walnut Ridge, their visit had a lasting impact on the small community.

In 2011, the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” tribute sculpture was unveiled. The 20-foot-wide, 10-foot-tall sculpture interprets the cover of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album and memorializes the band’s stop in Walnut Ridge, said city tourism director Charles Snapp. Steel silhouettes of each Beatle “walk” in front of a background of hand-etched aluminum.

Walnut Ridge also sits right on U.S. Highway 67, which state legislators officially named the “Rock ’n’ Roll Highway” in 2009. Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley and Elvis Presley gave birth to rock ’n’ roll along the 111-mile stretch of highway in the 1950s. Those same musicians also influenced the likes of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

“Before the Beatles became the Beatles, they would go out of their way to listen to Elvis Presley,” Snapp said.

One block from the “Abbey Road” sculpture in Beatles Park is Guitar Walk at Cavenaugh Park, which was completed in 2012. The 115-foot-long walk is a built-to-scale Epiphone Casino guitar that pays tribute to the fathers of rock ’n’ roll.

Visitors can walk on the guitar and stop at 11 surrounding plaques, 10 of which have audio tours narrated by Burgess, as well as music clips.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.