Charleston has always been on our list of places to visit. Now that we have the time and flexibility, we rerouted our road trip to visit this city loved by so many to find out for ourselves what all the buzz is about.
Our first day was a major adjustment to the heat. It is unbearably HOT in Charleston in August. I have never been an excessive sweater, but I quickly became one after just five minutes of walking its' streets. Also, it is buggy. One thing we were happy to leave behind on St. Simons Island were the mosquitoes but they must have followed us here because we couldn't seem to escape them! Once we worked out these issues, we quickly fell in love with this picturesque city and its' architecture, people, food, and history. The people here are the nicest, warmest and friendliest folks you will ever meet. The food scene here is outstanding. The city is rich in history. If you are willing to leave the main hub there is lots to see and explore in the less known surrounding neighborhoods. The majority of people wear masks while walking around and everyone wears one while inside public spaces. Hand sanitizers are available everywhere. Social distancing guidelines are followed. They are doing a great job of keeping everyone safe. Their economy, like most, is definitely suffering. This once bustling town has barren streets and empty restaurants. If you can, head over and support this beautiful city for a long weekend. Three nights is ample time to immerse yourself in this wonderful place. Head on over, you won't regret it.
Upon arrival, we checked in at The Spectator Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel that has a central location and offers the best service we have ever received from any hotel. Each room is paired with a team of butlers who within minutes fulfill any need you may have. From the moment you enter the hotel lobby, you are treated like royalty. The staff here is truly unbeatable. Along with designated butlers, guests receive complimentary welcome drinks, complimentary room service breakfast, $25 room credit to enjoy at their 1920's glam bar, a fully stocked fridge with complimentary water and soft drinks (that is always refilled), and a nice variety of snacks that are replenished whenever requested. When we checked in I asked if they had disinfecting wipes that I could use to wipe down the room after housekeeping serviced it (this sounds so bizarre, I know). Since they use a bottled concoction, a butler went to purchase wipes for me, gratis! This is the kind of stellar service you can expect here. There are no facilities besides valet, a lobby, and the hotel bar (which happens to whip up the most perfectly balanced and creative libations) but the decor is consistently sleek throughout the common areas and the rooms are beautifully decorated with great spa products and thoughtful Great Gatsby era touches.
After dropping off our luggage, we headed straight for lunch at Fleet Landing. We enjoyed the water views, misting fans, great service, delicious chow, and spacious outdoor patio. They have a great selection of seafood and an extensive vegetarian and gluten-free menu.
Once we refueled, we hit the sidewalks and explored Harleston Village. It was fun to pass by The College of Charleston campus, The Wentworth Hotel, Colonial Lake and admire some of the architectural gems along the way. I'm not going to lie, we weren't loving the city at this point. We were underwhelmed by how quiet it was and overwhelmed by the heat. The city felt like a complete ghost town. Charleston is a small city with only 130,000 residents, and I'm guessing we saw twenty of them on our first day in town. Maybe it was the heat or Covid or everyone getting ready for school to resume that kept everyone off the streets, but regardless, it was dead. I asked a local where everyone was and she seemed to think everything was as usual. Hmmm...
After walking endlessly in the scorching heat, with not another soul in sight, we started getting pretty cranky. Luckily, we stumbled upon Christophe Artisan Chocolatier on Society Street, owned by a lovely American woman and her French husband, who is the chocolatier. I honestly can't recall a time I have passed an artisan chocolate shop without walking in for a taste or two; it's impossible to resist good chocolate! After chatting for a few minutes, and secretly stretching out the conversation to enjoy more air conditioning time, we opted for the homemade vanilla gelato push-pop and mango sorbet push-pop and boy were we in heaven! They cooled and calmed us down more quickly than they melted. We also tried some of their delicious handmade chocolates. Yum! The owner was quick to remind us that NYC is just as hot in the summer, and since we haven't experienced a summer in New York for a while, especially not while walking around all day, we started accepting the fate of the temperatures ahead. Things were starting to look better, chocolate makes everything better. Chocolate in Charleston changes everything for the best.
As we made a turn on to Meeting Street, we realized Charleston was about to get a whole lot cuter. This long street is filled with restaurants, outdoor seating, bars, gelato shops, beautiful architecture, and even some people! As we headed back to the hotel to cool down and get ready for dinner, we admired the lively stretch of outdoor markets on Market Street, sprinkled with a couple of handful of tourists. It was so wonderful to see humans again!
For dinner, we checked out Barsa in Cannonborough, an "up and coming" neighborhood in Charleston. Similar to Bedstuy or Bushwick in Brooklyn, this neighborhood seems to be going through some changes and several new fantastic restaurants have opened up to attract more diners and overall visitors. Barsa has a tapas-style menu and a lovely outdoor patio. We ate and ate and ate so much that with each bite we still could not stop eating despite our proclamations that"this will be the last bite". We ordered the Brussel sprouts, croquettes, cheese-stuffed red bell pepper, garlic shrimp, patata bravas, grilled octopus, champignon and cheese toast, and lamb meatballs. Barsa was a unanimous success, both the vegetarians and carnivores in our group were extremely satisfied.
Following dinner, we all agreed a long walk was in order. We got lost in the streets admiring the colors and lighting of the homes that dotted the sidewalks wondering who lives in them and wishing to see more locals meandering the streets so that we can get a sense of them. We headed over to Waterfront Park enjoying the many lit up fountains under the bright moonlight. This was a true Charleston moment and a perfect way to wrap up our first day.
We heard Mt. Pleasant is a nice area to visit and that many families live there for a quieter life away from the city while still being in close proximity. Someone also compared it to Brooklyn so naturally, we were intrigued. To beat the heat, we started with outdoor activities first and started our explorations at the Mt. Pleasant Waterfront Memorial Park, a spotless park underneath the Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge with gorgeous water views and inviting playgrounds. These were so enticing that our two younger children finally, after months of avoiding playgrounds, couldn't resist the urge to forget about Covid for a few minutes and just be kids again!
From there we drove over to walk across the Pitt Street Bridge. This was a very pretty walk that also boasts beautiful views and has a great vantage point of Sullivan Island across the way.
We were curious about Sullivan Island and spontaneously drove over to visit its' main street and drive through the island's neighborhoods. We had big plans to sip on iced lattes and cool down with gelatos but those were nixed by kamikaze mosquitoes that literally attacked us by the hundreds the second our feet hit the grass. We all ran for our lives, back into the mosquito-free zone of our car, and instead, admired the small town from the safety of our car. What a shame, in our quick passing it looked like a super cute coastal town...
We crossed the bridge and returned to Mt. Pleasant and passed through a neighborhood called I'on. We liked this area best due to its' close proximity to a small village with a cute vibe, its well-manicured neighborhood that exudes southern charm, and its many green public spaces.
We were ready to stretch our legs and fill our bellies after driving around for quite a while and sought refuge at Crave Kitchen and Cocktails for the freshest blackened tacos loaded with aioli and coleslaw, an adorable courtyard, and award-winning macaroni and cheese. This mac & cheese dish was named "the most life-changing mac & cheese in America" by Esquire Magazine. It is nationally ranked as "the top mac & cheese in America" by Yahoo, Travel & Leisure Magazine, and other major publications and has won seven mac off competitions! Whoa! The five of us eagerly scooped up bites and agreed- it was really good, but not amazing. My kids said that the mac & cheese I make every year on Thanksgiving tastes better (insert me doing a happy dance here!). We would have probably really liked it if it wasn't hyped up. Funny how that works out... In any case, we didn't see any similarities between Mt. Pleasant and Brooklyn except that they are both outside of the city's main hub. Regardless, we always appreciate gaining a broad view of the places we travel to and expanding our wanders beyond the typical tourist map.
When my fourteen-year-old son expressed interest in visiting Fort Sumter National Monument I was like, "fort what?". He learned about this fort in eighth grade when his class studied the Civil War and was excited to visit the site that he learned so much about. Fort Sumter is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. There is too much history here to cover but I want to stress what a great excursion this is. The ferry ride was beautiful, and limited to under 30 people total despite its' three large decks and capacity for a couple of hundred folks. The monument is employed by some of the most passionate patriots you will encounter. The original cannons and rooms help the imagination jump into years of bloodshed and battle held at this very spot. If you have the time, check it out. My boys said this was their favorite memory of Charleston.
After a very long day of sightseeing and covering a lot of ground, we were ready for dinner at Little Jack's Tavern in Cannonborough. They by far have the cutest, tented outdoor dining space and each table even has its' own bottle of hand sanitizer, nice touch! We gobbled up the veggie burgers, cheeseburgers, and the garlic herbed fries that we ordered but the star of the meal was the garlic knots appetizer. These rolls were perfectly buttery, soft, warm, salted, and garlicky and for an added bonus they were served with a cheese dip on the side. Drooling here.
Although Charleston started to really grow on me yesterday afternoon, by day three I fell deeply in love with the city. We continued exploring further and discovered several areas and neighborhoods that I could totally imagine living in. We began the day by walking on East Bay Street towards Rainbow Row. This stretch leads to a row of brightly colored, well-maintained homes that lead to a promenade along the bay. I love the idea of spacious homes in the middle of downtown with easy walking access around the city!
Just a few more blocks south, we found another beautiful community in South Battery and on Meeting Street. These neighborhoods are all steps away from White Point Gardens whose massive oaks offer abundant shade. I started to envision walking our imaginary dogs here, reading under a two hundred year oak while sipping a local cup of Joe, jogging on the promenade, and saying "hi y'all" to the neighbors who pass me by. Charleston and I shared a special moment on day three.
From South Battery, we walked towards Legare Street to further marvel at the gorgeous homes and peek through as many gates as we could to catch glimpses of the most stunning courtyards. The homes in downtown are all built in close proximity to one another but surprisingly some of them have back yards large enough for pools and al fresco dining.
We continued to meander and get lost in the mesmerizing streets of colors, landscaping, and character. In this city, you will find examples of Colonial, Georgian, Classical Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, and Art Deco homes. You can walk for hours and never get bored. Eventually, we hit King Street, known for its' endless stretch of high-end retail shops. I compared this to a very quiet SoHo. Eventually, we found our way back to Waterfront Park to view the Pineapple Fountain during daylight and to stroll through the park one last time.
Of course, somewhere along the way, hunger kicked in and we walked quickly towards our reservation at Basic Kitchen for clean, healthy, and nutritious food. We ordered veggie burgers with pickled beet sauce and a veggie salad with free-range chicken. The biggest hit was the tempura-fried cauliflower topped with buffalo sauce. We ordered three of these as we couldn't stop gobbling them up. We were grateful for yet another delicious restaurant with a comfortable outdoor dining option that offered ample social distancing, despite the fact that not many patrons were around.
Since our kids have been such troopers with all the sightseeing, we wanted to do something that was especially fun for them. They chose Escape in 60 and we happily complied. Initially, we signed up for the Ransom theme, being urged to solve the clues in time to set "our son, Little Jimmy, free from the kidnapper". We were assured it was age-appropriate and not scary but the second we were all left in that dark room to fend for ourselves, we all freaked out and pressed the exit button as quickly as we could. We are always a circus act wherever we go and I absolutely love it. The staff there were so nice and understanding and immediately switched us into the Egyptian Chamber which was well lit and we had a BIG blast. To wrap things up nicely, we even escaped nine minutes early! Go Team!
Our dinner at Frannie & The Fox was the ultimate culinary experience in Charleston and the best way to start winding down our visit. The food scene in this city is amazing. We have not been disappointed once by the staff, decor or quality of food. Everything has been spot on at every restaurant we visited. Frannie & The Fox goes above and beyond by offering a menu of selected choices that are all prepared in a wood-burning fire. We wanted to try as much as we could and we opted for the blue crab fritters, charred corn, wood-roasted summer beans, heirloom tomato toast with whipped ricotta, Margherita pizza, taleggio pizza (white cheese, black pepper, and burnt honey), and wood-roasted half chicken. We were blown away by each bite and left wishing that we had one more night in Charleston.
On our last day, we set out to Avondale, West Ashley, right outside of downtown, to admire the graffiti art alley and view a slew of murals. Its' not quite Wynwood Walls, but it's a good start in that direction and a great way to support local artists.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens was next on the agenda. You can easily get lost in the 464 acres of this magnificent property that has a steep history in the Lowcountry for over three hundred years. We marveled at the breathtaking landscape with lush foliage, vast gardens, a multitude of swamps, and endless marshes. The countless rows of oaks were whispering their many secrets to those who listened, oh how much they witnessed! Slavery. Wars. Love. Passion. Death. Nevertheless, this has remained to be one of America's oldest and most beautiful public gardens preserved by one family. In addition to the infinite trails the property also has a petting zoo, which is always a big hit with the kiddos!
For the grand finale we drove over to John's Island, still, technically a part of Charleston, to dive into Tattooed Moose's mind-blowing blue cheese garlic fries and a yummy outdoor lunch embraced by oaks and to then say hello to Angel Oak, a four-hundred-year-old oak tree that is projected to live five hundred more years. I have referenced ghosts in the south in past posts and have alluded to my personal belief that trees of this stature bear witness to life events that occur around them. When I read that local folklore tells stories of ghosts of former slaves appearing as angels around this tree, I don't doubt it.
Secretly we hoped Charleston would lure us into calling it home. We absolutely adore the people and lifestyle in South Carolina. We changed our entire itinerary last minute with an urgency to visit this city in the event that we could possibly move there. In theory, Charleston meets every criterion we want in a place we would consider moving to. Yet, it just didn't feel like a place we could live long term. New York City is hard to compete with and I am not sure whether we could ever fall in love with another city. So, here we go again, on to the next leg of our road trip, in search of a new home or just the solid realization that there is no place like NYC, the place we have called home for the past twenty-two years.