Much like everyone else, Michael and I have cancelled numerous trips over the past 9 months. Our last trip was to New Orleans the weekend before the pandemic set in, March 7th weekend. Since March, we’ve visited our parents in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, but that’s it. When the opportunity arose for Michael to play golf in Birmingham this fall and a family beach trip was rescheduled to around the same time, we decided to make a long road trip out of it. Today I’m sharing our experience taking a road trip during a pandemic.
Disclaimer: Before I jump into our trip, a little disclaimer. I’m in no way promoting travel during a pandemic if that’s not something you feel safe doing. We took a lot of precautions during our 2+ weeks away, and I was still anxious on a daily basis while trying to enjoy our vacation. The most asked questions I received via DM on Instagram while sharing our trip was did I feel safe and are people wearing masks. I’ll get into all of that below!
Prepping for Our Trip
In non-pandemic times, we would 100% fly to Birmingham from Houston. But with the current situation, I felt more comfortable driving. I wanted to have our own car and be able to bring everything that made me feel comfortable about traveling during a pandemic.
With that said, by taking a road trip during a pandemic, we packed A LOT of stuff. In addition to clothes, toiletries, and other trip necessities, I brought our own pillows, comforter, and bed sheets. I generally get grossed out by hotel comforters anyways, so this was a no-brainer for me on this trip.
Since we were going to be gone for 2.5 weeks, and I wasn’t sure what the restaurant scene would look like in the places we were visiting, I stocked up on groceries. Mainly fruit and snacks. I packed two reusable grocery bags full of food. In addition to the food, we also packed a large cooler that included water bottles and our coffee/tea necessities so we wouldn’t have to go out and spend money on coffee every morning for 14+ days in a row. Keeping the cooler full of ice wasn’t that big of a hassle. Every hotel we stayed at had a way to access ice.
A few pandemic-related items I stocked up on for our trip – hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, and face masks. I have a stash of disposable face masks in our car just in case either of us misplaces or forgets our cloth masks.
Houston, TX to Baton Rouge, LA
We left Houston after work on a Wednesday. We stopped in Baton Rouge at Michael’s parents’ house for the night. The drive from Houston to Baton Rouge is 4 hours. We’ve been to Baton Rouge several times during the pandemic. While we’ve mostly done takeout if we venture out at all, Michael and I had lunch at The Overpass Merchant, one of our favorites, on another trip to Baton Rouge. They have a large tent setup outside for outdoor dining. It was great – the staff had masks on and all of the patrons were spread out throughout the outdoor space.
Baton Rouge, LA to Birmingham, AL (Laurel, MS)
We woke up early the next morning to get on the road to Birmingham. The drive from Baton Rouge to Birmingham is about 6 hours. During quarantine, Michael and I binged every season of HGTV’s Home Town. It’s shot in Laurel, MS, which happens to be exactly halfway between Baton Rouge and Birmingham. Erin and Ben Napier, the show’s hosts, have two shops in Laurel that I really wanted to visit – Laurel Mercantile and Scotsman General Store and Woodshop.
Laurel is a sleepy, small town with a cute downtown area. If it’s on your way, and you need a pitstop, I definitely recommend making a quick stop. With that said, I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit Laurel (no offense to Laurel). We popped in Lee’s Coffee and Tea for, you guessed it, coffee, tea, and a quick breakfast snack. While Michael was on work calls, I popped in Laurel Mercantile and a few other shops downtown. The downtown is totally walkable with lots of cute shops. All of the shops were in full Christmas mode when we visited, which was fun! We popped over to Scotsman General Store and Woodshop – the woodshop is the one you see in every episode of Home Town – before getting back on the road.
I was SUPER impressed with the mask wearing in Laurel. It’s a small Mississippi town, so I wasn’t expecting many people to be wearing masks. But I’d say 99.9% of people we encountered had masks on and were observant of social distancing. And every shop I went in had a sign on the door encouraging customers to wear masks. I felt totally safe while in town.
Michael and I lived in Birmingham prior to moving to DC and subsequently Houston. We actually met in Birmingham! With that said, we’re both super familiar with the city and still have a handful of great friends that live there.
We used Marriott points to stay at the Elyton Hotel downtown. While I enjoyed our stay at the Elyton Hotel, I’d recommend staying at Marriott’s other Autograph Collection hotel in Birmingham, the Grand Bohemian Hotel. We’ve stayed at the Grand Bohemian in the past, and it’s fantastic.
There are several reasons I recommend staying at the Grand Bohemian over the Elyton, especially as the pandemic is ongoing. The Elyton Hotel is in a high rise building downtown, which in turn means there are numerous floors, including a rooftop bar that seemed pretty popular, and small elevators. I felt anxious every time the elevator door opened that someone was going to get on the elevator with me. The hotel has signs up encouraging guests to only take elevators with people in their party, but of course, only some abided by the recommendation. I also didn’t particularly like that the rooftop bar seemed to be a hot spot for locals and wedding parties alike. There were always groups of people waiting in the lobby to go up to the bar that weren’t necessarily hotel guests.
Another reason I recommend the Grand Bohemian over the Elyton is parking. Parking at the Grand Bohemian is easy and free. Parking at the Elyton is a pain. You either have to pay $30/day for valet or street park yourself and pay the meter, which we did. Because of the pandemic and businesses being closed, I wasn’t super comfortable walking from our car to the hotel at night because it seemed like there was no one around.
It was so nice to see friends while we were in town! We ate out at a few restaurants – patio dining only – and had a few small hangouts at our friend’s houses. I was pleasantly surprised at how serious all of the restaurants we visited were taking Covid. None of the restaurants we visited allowed indoor dining at all, only patio dining. All of the patio and outdoor tables were spaced out and staff at every single restaurant wore masks. We dined at Chez Fonfon, Rojo, Automatic Seafood and Oysters, Porch, and Trattoria Zaza (the BEST Sunday brunch!). I’d recommend all of these restaurants – the food was amazing and I felt totally safe!
Birmingham, AL to Fairhope, AL (The Grand Hotel)
My outfit details: All old pieces | Michael’s Outfit Details
After a few days in Birmingham, Michael and I packed up our car and drove 4 hours directly south to Fairhope, Alabama where The Grand Hotel in Point Clear is located. Another Marriott property that we used our Marriott points to book. The Grand Hotel was hit by Hurricane Sally a month before our visit. There was some noticeable damage to the property, but overall, the property was in great shape! There are multiple restaurants on site – three with outdoor dining options, a massive pool area, and a beach area too! The resort was essentially empty when we were there, although we were there from Sunday through Thursday, likely not a popular time to visit in October.
I never saw another person on our floor besides the housekeeping crew. I felt totally safe at The Grand as related to Covid. We used the gym every day and were always the only people in there. The staff at all of the restaurants and in the lobby all wore masks. I even had a prenatal massage at the spa and felt really safe. My massage therapist wore a N95 mask, I kept my mask on the whole time, and only had services performed on my back side. I skipped the facial massage portion.
We dined onsite at The Grand at Buckey’s on the patio and ate off site in Fairhope for our other meals. All of the restaurants we visited were abiding by the current Alabama mask mandate. We dined outside everywhere we went. We had lunch at Warehouse Bakery and Panini Pete’s and dinner at Sage. All were great!
We spent most of our time working while at The Grand. The weather wasn’t great during our stay. We had one day of sunshine, which I spent on the beach – the beach is a manmade beach on the Mobile Bay. Then Hurricane Zeta hit. We rode out the hurricane at The Grand, and honestly, that experience wasn’t great. The electricity went out at the resort and checking out the next day was a pain in the ass. But I suppose it added a 2020 element to our vacation. HA
Fairhope, AL to Sandestin, FL
Next, we made our way 2.5 hours east to Sandestin, Florida. Friends who had recently visited the panhandle of Florida warned us that the mask wearing is spotty in Florida, and they were right! Florida was definitely the place where I felt the most anxious and least safe in this crazy Covid world we’re living in. It was really hit or miss everywhere we went, and we had to do a lot of due diligence prior to dining out to ensure we were picking places where the staff wore masks. Ultimately, we ended up doing takeout a lot more than we normally would do at the beach because of this.
We used Hyatt points to stay at the Hyatt Place in Sandestin. It’s not on the beach, but its location is great as it’s on the far eastern edge of Sandestin, close to all of the 30A beach towns. And it was free – because of points. I’ve stayed at this property before so I knew it was nice, especially for a lower end Hyatt property. The staff wore masks and it felt pretty empty when were there – Thursday through Wednesday.
We spent most of our time out and about at the beach. We found a great public beach in Santa Rosa, right past Seaside. Because of the time of year, there were hardly any people on the beach. There was plenty of parking and clean bathrooms at the public beach. It was awesome!
Other than the beach, we be-bopped around Rosemary, Alys Beach, and Seaside to check out all of the cute shops. The shop staff were actually really great about masks and most of the patrons of the shops had on masks too. Seaside was definitely the most crowded out of all of the small beach towns, but because it was late October/early November, the crowds were nowhere near what they are during the summer.
We went to Publix a few times for groceries and for their famous Pub Subs (sub sandwiches for the beach). While the employees all had on masks, the patrons were a different story. I avoided non-mask wearers like the plague.
As for dining, on our first night in town, we went to one of my favorite spots (*no longer), Shunk Gulley Oyster Bar. In hindsight, we should have left right when we were seated. Thankfully, we were seated on the edge of the outdoor patio, but none of the staff were wearing masks. My mind was blown.
This was the first restaurant I’d been to since the pandemic hit where employees weren’t wearing masks. That’s why we didn’t immediately get up and leave, I was so caught off guard. To me, it felt like the restaurant didn’t care about its customers or the fact that customers were choosing to support the restaurant during a time when most restaurants are clamoring for business. I felt uncomfortable throughout the entire meal. I never looked our waitress in the eye and couldn’t even focus on our dinner. We ate our dinner and got out of there pretty quickly. I’m mad at myself for spending money there, but we learned our lesson.
The standout restaurant for us was The Great Southern Café in Seaside. They have a huge tent set up and tons of outdoor dining. We sat on the patio. Our waiter, as well as the rest of the staff, wore a mask. The food was outstanding. We had a great time dining there!
We dined at two of the food trucks in Seaside – the grilled cheese truck and the Greek truck. Both were great and there are tons of tables set up outside for easy outdoor dining. We also had lunch at Raw and Juicy in Alys Beach one afternoon. Again, there are tons of tables outside, and there were hardly any other people around.
We picked up dinner two nights – a pizza from Bruno’s in Watersound (wouldn’t recommend dining in as the staff were not wearing masks when we picked up our pizza and there’s no outdoor seating) and salads from Everkrisp in Sandestin (similar to Sweetgreen).
Sandestin, FL to Navarre Beach, FL
After spending almost a week in Sandestin, we made our way an hour west to Navarre Beach, Florida to meet Michael’s family for a few more beach days. We stayed at a condo on the beach. The only time I left the condo (besides going to the beach) was to pick up a pizza from Sal’s on our first night in town.
The beach at Navarre was more crowded than the beaches in Sandestin/30A, but still, because of the time of year, it was sparse and easy to set up beach chairs far away from other beach goers.
We cooked dinner in one night and had takeout from Cactus Flower and Broussard’s the other nights. Neither restaurant enforced mask wearing by staff when my in-laws went to pick up dinner, so I wouldn’t recommend dining in at either of these spots. Again, mask wearing is really spotty in Florida.
A little note about the weather while we were in Florida at the beach. Usually, we frequent this area during the peak summer months but because of the pandemic, we had to cancel those trips and ended up going during the fall. The air temperatures were perfect! Warm but not sweaty hot. The ocean water was cold. The kids on the beach didn’t seem to mind, but there were barely any adults in the ocean. Another odd thing – we were there during daylight savings so the sun set super early as compared to the summer months when we usually visit. We made a point to get to the beach early since we had to go in around 4:45PM every day.
Overall, I’m glad we went on this extended road trip during a pandemic. I was nervous about leaving our bubble, especially for that long. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have bouts of anxiety and second guessing every day while we were away, but overall, it was a great mental and physical break from being in Houston. Michael and I are used to traveling A LOT. After 9 months of essentially no travel at all, it was needed.
The main takeaway from our trip for me was that you can totally get away from home and still be safe and thoughtful about minimizing your risks of exposure to Covid. We mostly kept to ourselves, spent time outdoors, and were diligent about where we choose to be out in public around others we don’t know.
Questions? Feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an upcoming road trip planned and are looking for some insight!