Charleston: The City That Has it All

by kevin_chaffee

Photos Courtesy of Explore Charleston

Charleston, S.C. is one of America’s most treasured locations, home to an astonishingly rich history spanning more than 350 years. It has wonderful architecture, beautiful gardens and outdoor settings, plantations that have been occupied by the same families for centuries, a notable restaurant and music scene, myriad cultural and sports activities and hotels that appeal to the most discerning visitors. Whether you stay for a week-end or much longer, there is always something to truly inspire you there.

 

DAY ONE

Check into your hotel, grab a map and head down King Street toward the harbor to get acquainted with this beautiful city. Start with a one-hour horse drawn carriage tour through the winding streets that begins at the Big Barn, just a block away from the old City Market (also worth a visit) and continues with a sidewalk-level view of the historic district’s wonderfully picturesque Ante Bellum architecture. The guides are well versed in the city’s history and attractions and you’ll finish your hour-long sojourn with a lot of ideas about what to do in the next few days. From $40. Palmetto Carriage Works Tours, 8 Guignard Street, 843-723-8145, palmettocarriage.com.

Palmetto Carriage

Use the time left before dinner to wander down to the Battery to admire the many beautiful private private homes, many now owned by seasonal residents, which explains why the streets are somewhat deserted (except for tourists) in the warmer months. Take a right on King Street, the “Soho of the South,” where you’ll find an interesting mix of national and international brands along with locally-owned businesses. Lower King is known for its antiques stores, although some have closed due to Covid. Drop by George C. Birlant & Co. (191 King Street), a third-generation establishment specializing in 18th-and 19th-century furniture, silver, china and crystal as well as bench made reproductions. Middle King is fashion oriented with a number of distinctive high end boutiques that are well worth a visit, while Upper King (above Marion Square) qualifies as a design district with a mix of furniture stores, art galleries and bookshops mixed in with trendy bars and restaurants, many favored by a younger (and noisier) crowd.

DAY TWO

After a hearty breakfast at your hotel, head back downtown to join The Two Sisters Tour, a not-to-be-missed opportunity to explore the historic neighborhood guided by Mary Helen Dantzler and Therese Smythe. Both siblings are guaranteed to captivate customers throughout a truly entertaining two-hour trek that includes details about the many grand and beautiful homes as well as the “secret gardens,” back streets and alleyways hidden in plain sight. Their amusing anecdotes and personal insights about Charleston’s history and many colorful characters, from colonial times to present, are as humorous as they are fascinating. $25. twosisterstours.com.

     Use the rest of the day to visit several of the mansions open to the public south of Broad Street. Start with the 1825 Edmonston-Alston House (21 East Battery), which is still inhabited by the Alston family who live on the third floor.

Edmonston Alston House

Ninety percent of the furnishings are original including the original paper bag where the deeds were stored. The Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting Street), a grand Federal structure completed in 1808, is set amid beautiful gardens with nearby old slave quarters. Its astonishingly magnificent free flying staircase is one of the most beautiful in America.

The Nathaniel Russell House Staircase

Heyward-Washington House (87 Church Street), built in 1772, was owned by a signer of the Declaration of Independence and derives the second half of its name due to the fact that George Washington actually slept here. Antiques lovers will appreciate the beautiful Chippendale furniture, much of it by legendary Charleston cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe. Along the way, you also won’t want to miss “Rainbow Row,” one of Charleston’s most famed (as well as peculiar) attractions. The 13 houses on East Bay Street are all painted in different pastel colors. Folklore maintains that this was done to make them easier to find by drunken sailors back when the general waterfront neighborhood was a dangerous place.

Rainbow Row

    A delightful way to see the city from the sea is an afternoon cruise on the Pride, an 84-foot, three mast wooden schooner that “sails with the wind and tides so every cruise is unique.” The vessel always stays within the sheltered and picturesque harbor area, affording unique views of diving dolphins and pelicans, the Charleston skyline, Forts Sumter and Moultrie, various barrier islands, the World War II-era U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier and the longest cable-stay bridge in North America. The seasoned young crew are old hands in putting sea shy guests at ease as they raise and lower sails so adeptly that you may find yourself watching them more than the scenery. The cruise is unnarrated but they are happy to answer questions. $49, $33 children; bench-style seating with beverages available for purchase. schoonerpride.com.

Cruise on the Pride

 

DAY THREE

Located on a man-made island at the entrance to the city’s harbor, Fort Sumter is maintained by the National Park Service, and therefore free of charge, but the site is only accessible via a scenic 30-minutes ferry ride (round trip $30, $18 children) that departs frequently from Liberty Square in downtown Charleston and at least once daily from Patriot’s Point in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. ( Note that the Park Service generally recommends buying ferry tickets at least two to three days in advance.) Doing a bit of homework beforehand is highly recommended to acquaint yourself with its dramatic history as the starting point of the Civil War when the Confederates heavily bombarded it on April 12, 1861. Your tour starts at the Education Center with a 15-minute overview by a Park Ranger that allows about 45 minutes to explore the grounds and visit exhibits on the history of slavery and ante-bellum political tensions between the northern and southern states. Visitors with children should make sure to pick up a junior ranger packet.

Fort Sumter Cannon

   Don’t leave Charleston without detouring to the nearby low country where early colonists settled to raise cash crops (indigo, rice, cotton) that allowed them to amass great wealth and lead a luxurious lifestyle and active social life. Located within a half hour of the city, these spectacular estates all neighbor each other on the same road and are well worth visiting at any time of year. Be sure to check operating hours before visiting.
   Drayton Hall, the country’s oldest unrestored plantation (circa 1738) open to public view, is built in the Georgian Palladian style and is one of the few to have survived intact through both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Unlike many of the other great houses, Drayton Hall was spared destruction by invading Union troops in 1865 probably because the clever owners had planted smallpox flags around the estate to scare the marauders away. Occupied by seven generations by the Drayton family until the National Trust acquired it in 1974, it has never had plumbing, electricity, water or gas. Its features include a famed double portico (probably the first of its kind in the world, a post-Civil War African American tenant house and one of the nation’s oldest African American cemeteries still in use. $24 adult, $10 youth age 7-15, children free. 3880 Ashley River Road, draytonhall.org.

Drayton Hall

     Middleton Place (1741) did not escape Yankee torching, which explains why a north flanking wing is all that remains of the once grand mansion of the Middleton family (who still own the 110-acre estate). Lost in the fire were a library of 10,000 volumes, a music conservatory and many objets d’art. You’ll want to focus on the “essential tour” of the magnificent landscaped gardens and stable yards that are famed for “living exhibits” depicting how work was done on the plantation by hundreds of slaves. The on-site restaurant serves excellent food at both lunch and dinner. $26, student $15, children $10, 4300 Ashley River Road, middletonplace.org.

Aerial view of the Middleton Place

 
  Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has been in the hands of the Drayton family since 1676 and members of the 12th and 13th generations still live there. The garden is considered to be the oldest in America and is certainly one of the most beautiful. In the 1830s, Rev. John Grimke Drayton expanded it in the Romantic style to achieve an “earthly paradise of harmony” between humanity and the natural world and the result is clearly spectacular. Its reputation is bolstered by the fact that it is planted to guarantee the best bloom possible throughout all four seasons. Guests are welcome to explore the estate’s 500 acres via miles of bike and walking trails that wind throughout diverse ecological habitats that feature a Native American ceremonial mound, a pre-Revolution rice barge, maze, petting zoo and fossil dig. $29, $15 children, 3550 Ashley River Road, magnoliaplantation.com.

Magnolia Plantation Garden

 

STAY

Hotel Bennett may be new but few would deny that it exemplifies much of what passes for Low Country grace and charm, albeit with a classic European touch. Strategically located on fashionable King Street at historic Marion Square, it is within walking distance of many of the city’s best shops, restaurants and tourist attractions. Custom furnishings and local artwork ensure a feeling of total luxury in the public spaces and an attentive staff is always available to fulfill most any request.

Hotel Bennett

Average guest rooms are comfortably plush and include all the amenities one might expect (seating area, flat screen TV, refrigerator, coffee maker, safe, electrically operated blackout curtains) but seem on the smaller side for a property of this category although plus-sized bathrooms centered by huge soaking tubs in addition to separate walk-in showers more than compensate.

Hotel Bennett Bathroom

Many face a narrow interior courtyard or side streets so be sure to ask for one that faces the landmark views of the square. A small rooftop swimming pool provides a refreshing interlude much of the year but access is often hampered because so many of the seats are reserved for guests occupying the pricey cabanas.

Rooftop Pool

At some point in your stay you will want to sample the delightful pastries and sandwiches served in the adjoining La Patisserie cafe, a popular favorite with guests and non guests alike. 179 rooms including 17 suite from $549. Hotel Bennett, 404 King Street, Charleston, SC 29405. 877-496-8934, www.hotelbennett.com.

DINE

The Hotel Bennett’s Gabrielle restaurant features locally-inspired fare that is truly decadent and unlike many fine restaurants that have cut back on menu choices during Covid times, there is no shortage of choices here. While there are many varied soups and salads from which to choose, seafood starters predominate, including oysters on the half shell, mussels with fennel in a white wine broth, Togarashi-seared tuna and blue crab cakes in a spicy remoulade in addition to an impressive caviar service. Mains include a second wave of surf (Carolina flounder, fish and gold rice grits, crispy red snapper) plus turf (Berkshire pork chops, Colorado rack of lamb, duck confit and three kinds of prime beef). Vegan/vegetarian diners will appreciate well-rounded and equally tasty Earth options: Carolina gold rice risotto, blue corn grits in a smoked tomato cream and a roasted garlic panna cotta with beet couscous and shaved asparagus salad. Wine options are exceptional with an especially lengthy list of vintage Champagnes on offer. Be sure to sample the snappy dessert menu (especially the lemon-almond-strawberry Camellias Cake) but do ask to be served next door in the ultra glamorous Camellias Bar, a pink marbled refuge with an etched mirror ceiling for which a separate reservation is highly recommended on busy nights. Lunch $35-$50, dinner $75-$100.

Gabrielle Restaurant

Darling Oyster Bar , a trendy eaterie on busy upper King Street, is well known for both its ambitious crafted cocktail program and an extensive seafood-inspired menu where lobster rolls, clam chowder and oysters, which are the true center of attention (of course). Patrons love to sit and watch local shuckers prepare vast numbers of the succulent bivalves on the icy mountain raw bar before they are consumed. It’s always crowded and service can be spotty but it’s well worth a visit. Dinner $60-$75, 513 King Street, 843-641-0821, thedarling.com.

Inside the Darling Oyster Bar

The Grocery , another popular neighborhood restaurant in the upper King Street corridor, is where you’ll want to watch executive chef Kevin Johnson work his open kitchen magic with a menu based on seasonal produce, seafood and meat from local and regional farmers and fishermen. A vegetarian for a decade, Johnson is noted for his Mediterranean-inspired farro tabouli, harissa steamed carrots, field peas and other delights although that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give the phenomenal house made charcuterie a sporting try.  thegrocerycharleston.com, 4 Cannon Street, 843-302-8825 , Dinner $50-$65

Inside The Grocery

A team of “passionate Southern chefs, a farmer and miller of great grains and an enviable Southern address” is what you’ll discover at Miller’s All Day , one of Charleston’s favorite breakfast (and also lunch) haunts. Located not far from The Battery, this beloved eatery is a not-to be-missed spot to start the day before heading off to see Fort Sumter or one of the nearby historic homes. The “small stack” of cornmeal pancakes (actually not that small) with hickory syrup is a major favorite. Biscuits and rosemary sausage gravy with two eggs, tomato jam and pickled okra are a close second. Don’t be too surprised when patrons toss back bloody marys as soon as the doors open at 8 a.m. Breakfast $20-$30. 120 King Street, 843-501-7342 millersallday.com.

Inside Miller’s All Day

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