Charleston – Part One

Most folks are pretty surprised when they learn that Charleston, S.C. was voted the number one U.S. travel destination by Conde Nast Traveler readers in 2011.

They’re often downright stunned when they find out that Charleston grabbed the number one spot on the list of top cities in the world for 2012.

Numero Uno.

Seriously? What about Florence? Sydney? New York? They all made the cut on one list or another, but Charleston kicked their asses.

Charleston?

I was skeptical. But I had been told on more than one occasion that Charleston is an absolutely fabulous city. So when I got the green light to do a feature about the city’s historic churches, I jumped on it.

I was only in Charleston for about 48 hours, which—given the number of wonderful things to explore—is laughably brief. There are so many possibilities: fine dining, historic tours, plantations, museums and beautiful beaches are only a few of the things visitors fill their days and nights with. But I’m gonna step out on a limb here and say I really don’t think any of those things is the major draw. The magic of Charleston, in my opinion, is the city’s lavish hospitality and its leisurely atmosphere. You know those times when you’re invited to dinner or drinks at a friend’s house, and you end up feeling completely comfortable… almost as though you’re at home? That’s what Charleston is like; it’s got a consistent mi-casa-es-su-casa vibe. Whether you’re at a restaurant, in a historic church, or riding through the city’s streets in a horse drawn carriage, the last thing on your mind is rushing to the next place. Charleston isn’t a city that you consume; it’s one you savor. In some strange way, I think Charleston savors you.

All that to say, I’m glad I resisted the urge to try and see it all the first time around. Some travel companions are major planners, as in, “Let’s break up the day in chunks and decide in advance exactly what we’ll do when.”

I hate traveling with those people.

Fortunately, my North Carolinan sister joined me on this adventure, and she either tucked her Fodor’s guide away or she has a similar approach to sightseeing. (We’re still figuring that out since we’ve only known each other for three years. But as we say in the south, that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

I actually think it’s good to do some recon work before taking a trip, but I’m not going to get married to what I find.  Once I’ve reached my destination, I’m a big believer in letting the city take me where it will. Some call it wasting time; I call it listening to the local heartbeat. Would you rather listen to a stuffy tour guide try and impress you with some rich guy’s overabundance of noisy, shiny crap, or would you rather hang out with two fantastic, basket-weaving African-American women who tell you about having being born on a plantation? (Yes, I did both, and yes, the latter was far superior to the former.)

Since I was in Charleston to work on a magazine article about the city’s historic houses of worship, about 25% of our time was spent in churches (and one wonderful synagogue.) The photos below chronicle some of what went on the other 36 hours.

After dropping our bags off at the lovely Doubletree Hotel on Church Street (two room suite for $204/night—a little pricey but comfortable and hugely convenient) we headed out for a carriage tour. In fact, having been to Charleston once before, my sister insisted on it. 

Palmetto Carriage Works is easy to spot: they’re the only carriages drawn by mules rather than horses. Bones, our Owen Smith-lookalike tour guide, kept us thoroughly entertained throughout the ride (and I’m not easily charmed by Owen Smith or people whose job consists of repeating the same thing over and over again.) Bones was a great storyteller. 

A carriage tour will help you scratch the surface of the city’s skin, because all of the stories and history and gorgeous Antebellum homes provide a framework for everything else you’ll encounter from that point on. Carriage tour: highly recommended.

After about a block and a half we stopped at the one stop lottery shop (my title, not theirs) where every single carriage must wait while the attendant draws a lotto ball. The color determines which part of the city the tour will cover (which means you won’t know in advance exactly where you’re going.) 

Other than the church tour (which was vital to the reason I was there), the only other non-negotiable activity on my tiny “must-see” list was photographing the city’s skyline from the USS Yorktown.

Due to a city preservation plan that was initiated in 1974, building heights and angles have been limited to preserve the view of, among other things, church steeples. I’d heard that at dusk the spires were prominently displayed against the waning sunset, and I wanted to try and grab a few shots. Unfortunately, the fact that I didn’t lug my super heavy 70-200mm lens made it pretty difficult to capture much from where I was.

If you’re a history buff with an affinity for naval air memorabilia, you’ll love the Yorktown. I’m not one to wander around an aircraft carrier and read every placard. But seeing and photographing the airplanes and all their quirky features was definitely enjoyable.

The World Famous Screwbirds were a squadron that conducted operations all over the world from a wide variety of ships. Interesting side note: according to the Online Urban Dictionary, a screwbird is "a person that thinks they are world famous but is not really world famous at all. Seven out of eight people have never heard of them."

The other benefit of visiting the Yorktown was being able to photograph the Arthur Ravenel Bridge at different times during sunset; every few minutes the sky radiated a new set of hues. I only wish I'd had my tripod.

I wish I could offer a significant culinary critique of the city, but dining wasn’t my focus this trip. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning:

Best food:

Poogan’s Porch (I’d call their dinner menu a cross between southern comfort food and fine dining.) We sampled sautéed grouper, mint and rosemary risotto, and BBQ Pork Belly with smoked gouda, among other things. They even serve fried alligator (uh… no thanks.) The following two photos were taken with my iPhone.

Poogans Porch: Highly recommended.

Most enjoyable vibe:

Mercato (Italian) Their food was just okay, but that may be because I ordered the gluten free pasta. (It was pretty bland, but at least they had pasta I could eat.) The ambience, however, is worth the price of admission, which means either having a few drinks or eating dinner. Do it! Live jazz rules the place, though it’s presented at a decibel level that allows for conversation. Once we sat down I wanted to keep ordering things so I didn’t have to leave. Mercato: Highly recommended.

Lunch/Brunch:

We ate at Sweetwater Café once, and it was average at best. A couple of folks told us the café served ridiculous grits, and I thought, “Maybe I just haven’t given grits an honest chance.” Nope. They still tasted mealy and bland. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone whose grandparents considered grits God’s gift to taste buds. Sweetwater Cafe: skip it.

We ate at Toast twice, the first time for lunch and the second time for brunch. (I cannot tell a lie: the bottomless mimosas were the deciding point for us.) 

We spent quite a bit of time at the Charleston City Market, which is definitely a must-see. There’s great shopping (I picked up some awesome leather goods) but there are also countless sweetgrass basket weavers selling their wares (which cost a whole lot more than you might think at first glance. Art dealers and museums are often on the lookout for exceptional pieces.) West African slaves brought sweetgrass basket making to the area, making it one of the oldest African art forms ever brought to the United States. The craft has been handed down through the generations, a tradition no doubt accompanied by slews of stories.

One other thing worth mentioning: I’m all for touring historic homes and museums, but I’m not interested in paying to be held hostage in someone’s self-indulgent game of “Look-how-much-expensive-stuff-I’ve got.” We paid $15 to tour the Calhoun Mansion, which is the largest residence in the city. The outside is gorgeous and worth seeing (which you can do for free) but the inside is full of art and collectibles that the current owner had shipped in from all over the world (rumor has it, 10 tractor trailers full.) Sound interesting? It’s not. A particular turn off was the guide’s hyped up reminders that “The family ate breakfast here this very morning” or “You’re actually seeing where the owner conducts his business.” I so wanted to blurt out, "Who CARES?" Calhoun Mansion: Definitely swing by to peruse the outside of the property. But don’t waste your money OR your time on the inside tour.

I usually pick up one small token to remember each trip by, and I fell in love with this little medallion. It combines the southern gate ironwork so prevalent in the city with the state tree, which of course is a palm.

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