Charleston, South Carolina - The Jewel of the South

Places to Go, Pirates to See, Beaches to Walk 

Looking for a winter holiday? Book Charleston, South Carolina, y’all. Steeped in history, surrounded by beautiful beaches (winter months are tepid), enlightened by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, this southern city is easy to navigate and a foodie’s delight.

About two hours by plane (from anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard) lands you at ironically small Charleston International Airport, ready to be whisked downtown, if you so desire, to check in to any number of historical hotels or cozy bed and breakfasts. Slumber with the ghosts of past and present at the Lodge Alley Inn, the family-owned 1837 on Wentworth Street, the Vendue Inn, or The Palmer Home, a pink manse built in 1848 by John Ravenel. Try the Charleston Place Hotel for grandiose opulence. These places are spacious and historically appointed, transporting you back to a gentler, more gracious time. Charleston is nothing if not known for its hospitality. Notice the tendrils of Spanish moss, nature’s own panels of lace, adorning the Live Oaks that expand across the terrain. There’s nothing like the charm of the south to make you stop and take note. Charleston will make you want to slow down, but don’t stop altogether. There’s too much to see and do.

Check out the grand antebellum homes along the Battery, many of which sit with their porches sideways (called “single houses,” this architectural design element is meant to help catch a breeze on a hot summer’s day). Those on the East Bay side salute the harbor housing Fort Sumter, where the shot that started all that mess between the North and South was fired in 1861.

Fort Sumter, April 1861; albumen silver print from glass negative; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Walking or biking is the best way to absorb the city. Take in the Four Corners of Law at Meeting and Broad Streets, supposedly the only intersection like it – home to St. Michael’s Episcopal church, Charleston City Hall, the County Courthouse, and the Post Office and Federal Courthouse. Then toodle down towards the bustling city market to pick up some artisanal souvenirs or pass by Rainbow Row, thirteen colorful houses north of Tradd Street. Plan a pit stop to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, which purports to harbor ghosts of pirates moving among the history of presidents and patriots. Interesting fact: that building is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Hungry? Long standard favorites, Poogan’s Porch and 82 Queen both offer lunch al fresco, and while 82 Queen may hold the record for the best She Crab soup (determined years ago by yours truly), Poogan’s Porch houses its own ghost. Dine next door at the restaurant that has changed the face of foodie-dom, Husk. This ground-breaking heritage-based Southern foodie favorite kicked into existence three years ago (the New Yorker featured founder chef Sean Brock in an 11-pager the fall of 2011). Two Boroughs Larder (a nod to the up-and-coming conjoining neighborhoods of Cannonborough and Elliotborough) is hip and rustic cool; you’d swear you were dining at one of New York’s trendy Williamsburg eateries with heirloom tomato salads and duck confit. Pork is about as southern as you can get, but if you’re vegetarian, please try Alluette’s Café, where chef/owner Alluette Jones conjures up the “holistic soul food” loved by Oprah and Charlestonian Bill Murray. One of the newest establishments, The Ordinary, with its towers of fresh seafood, gets the punch line of the day – because, according to those who’ve dined there, it is anything but. Best bet if you’re hankering for oysters –  winter is the season – go for roasted if you can stand the rough and raw ambience of Bowen’s Island, an unpretentious old stand-by a short drive toward Folly Beach. There view the sun set over marshy waters while cracking open a bushel or two of the briny fruit of the sea as they’re shoveled onto your table from the roasting pit. 

Sunsets are a marvelous thing in Charleston. They are mango-hued, lasting like tropical-shaded fingers of honey dripping down into the night’s edge. There’s no better way to punctuate an end of day than by heading over to Remley Point in Mt. Pleasant to watch the sun retire behind the spectacular Arthur J. Ravenel Jr. Bridge with its ship’s mast-like span across the Cooper River. You might catch local fishermen coming in with the tide. If you find yourself over on one of the other islands as twilight looms, there’s always the Boathouse at Breach Inlet on Isle of Palms, just north of Sullivan’s Island. The second story outdoor deck is a perfect sunset spot. Or pick any restaurant over at Shem Creek to take in the sights and sounds of shrimpers pulling in to the harbor as you scoop into some fresh crab dip. If you end up renting a beach house, get up early and watch the sun rise straight out of the sea, while saving stranded starfish by throwing them back into their habitat.

Charleston, with more than 400 churches, may be the Holy City during the day, but it’s got its share of ghostly legends and the package deals that go with them in the evening. The Grey Man may be the most well known; he’s said to appear on the beaches in time to warn of impending hurricanes. Legend also tells of the “gentleman ghost” and a headless torso making themselves known to guests at Battery Carriage House Inn. If you’re so inclined, specify Rooms 10 and 8, respectively.

Of course, what is Charleston without a visit to one of its old plantations, stately estates ranging from Magnolia Plantation for its exquisite gardens, to Middleton Place, Drayton Hall and Boone Hall. Don’t forget the city’s vibrant cultural buzz – perhaps some entertainment at the Dock Street Theatre, the first building in America designed as a theater. And although the art of nature abounds and astounds, check out the photographic art at the Gibbes Museum, where Photography and the American Civil War plays out through January 5th of next year. Sine you can’t possibly fit everything in during one trip, you’ll just have to plan another visit back to Charleston soon. Y’all come back now, ya hear?

By Kimberly Cihlar