An interstate highway dilemma: Should you take 75 — or 95?

A few hours from now I’m packing the kids into my old Honda Accord and driving from Florida to Washington. The trip north seems to be an annual ritual.

Since we live almost exactly in the center of the Sunshine State, depending on where we’re going we sometimes have a choice: cut across I-4 and head north on I-95 or drive west and catch I-75 up.

Which is better? That’s not the kind of question you hear every day, but today isn’t every day. We’re starting a new feature on this site called Travel Smackdown, which pits two travel things against each other. You know, Sonoma against Napa, New York versus L.A., fly or drive.

Come on, it’ll be fun.

Depending on where and when you drive, both these road trips combine everything that’s good and bad about motoring through America. They can be exciting and, at the same time, dreadfully boring. They are scenic but occasionally the view from your window looks like something straight out of a dystopian novel.

The two roads couldn’t be more different. I-95 is strictly East Coast, a straight shot from Miami to Maine. I-75, which passes through Florida’s more laid-back west coast, runs roughly parallel to I-95, but then cuts across Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan. One is not an alternate route to another, unless you live where I do.

For us, like most people we know on the East Coast, I-95 is direct. It doesn’t mess around with the coastal cities, except Boston, New York, and Savannah, where you always have to look for a speed trap.

There are stretches of road, roughly between “South of the Border” and Rocky Mount, N.C., that are unbelievably dull, no matter what time of year you’re driving. And then it’s all city for almost the rest of the way up to Canada. Washington, Philadelphia and New York seem to be 24-hour traffic jams.

But unless you’re flying, it’s almost the fastest way to get there — even with the tolls every five minutes in New Jersey and the bridges and tunnels that clog traffic.

I-75, by comparison, is a lot like the folks we know on the other West Coast. Slightly less uptight, maybe on less of a schedule. It meanders through some of the less densely-populated areas, with the exception of Atlanta. In fact, any time we’ve entertained the idea of driving up I-75, we’ve had to ask, “When would we hit Atlanta?” It doesn’t seem to matter: it’s always a parking lot, so we do a workaround.

That workaround, by the way, is called I-285, or “The Perimeter,” and it works — except when it doesn’t (3:30-6 p.m. weekdays, some exceptions apply). I really don’t like driving through Atlanta, even when I have to be there for business, but not as much as the residents of Atlanta, who never seem to stop complaining about traffic.

As you head north into Georgia’s mountains, things get quieter and it’s a more scenic drive. Not on the order of Highway 1 in California or Florida’s Overseas Highway in the Keys, but pretty in its own right. If your final destination is Ohio or Michigan, you’re pretty much stuck with I-75, just like you’re stuck on I-95 if you’re headed down to Georgia or Florida from Boston, New York, or Washington.

I don’t consider myself an Interstate snob, but if I had my pick, I’d probably choose I-75, even with Atlanta (and don’t forget Detroit) thrown into the mix. By the time you’re in Florida, I-75 delivers you to some of my favorite destinations, like Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples, and that’s gotta count for something. Plus, it has the coolest name to begin with: Alligator Alley.

If you’re driving south, you end up pretty much in the same place no matter which highway you’re on. You terminate in Miami. Not a bad place to be in the middle of the winter, with half the country under a blanket of snow.

And if that’s not exotic enough for you, try heading south until you reach Key West. There’s a ferry out to the Dry Tortugas if the Southernmost City is still too city for you.

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