South Carolina: Charleston

The border on I-95 is rife with amusement rides and fireworks, clearing any confusion that you have switched states.

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We arrived in Charleston after midnight and I missed the turn off Route 17.  Just a few blocks from our intended destination, I stopped the car to re-orient.  I said to Jenni that it felt like the ghetto, which surprised me because I had previously considered only the touristy images of this renowned destination and we were so near downtown.  As we drove away, the lights flashed in the rear view and I got pulled over.  Two cops approached with flashlights on our faces.  The gentlemen on my side was a little scary himself with tats and a beanie, and he asked what we were doing.  Oddly enough we were not attempting to procure narcotics but only to locate our hotel.  He advised, “well you lost, son, you in the hood!”  He gave us directions and warned us not to return.  Things got much better from here.

October 24-27, 2013 (Thursday-Sunday)

Lacking a full appreciation of Charleston’s popularity and cost, we did not attempt to reserve accommodation until our arrival day.  We booked a private room in the annex building of the Not So Hostel at 33 Cannon Street, which was mediocre (squeaky bed, doors hard to shut, breakfast non-existent, toilet requiring my plumbing skills) but priced right at under $80 including tax.  Despite these flaws we might have stayed the next two nights but private rooms were sold out, and we preferred to keep alive our streak of sleeping in the same room as a married couple.  If you are really budget conscious and don’t mind a shared room, the regular Not So Hostel on Spring Street seemed to have a good vibe and the Cannon annex was not so bad.

Lovely home south of Broad
Lovely home south of Broad

A great many places were sold out or even pricier, and we wanted a premier location for two weekend nights here.  So we bit the bullet and paid $249/night for a fairly lousy Days Inn with a terrific location on Meeting Street.  Fine lodging was available much cheaper across the river in Mount Pleasant and elsewhere.

Friday was a lousy and stressful day.  City Lights Coffee shop on Market Street is a charming spot frequented by locals, but I would have preferred to spend fewer than seven hours here working on visa applications and logistics.  A couple more hours at FedEx and $1029 plus $39 for copies and shipping later, our applications for multi-entry India and China visas were in the mail.  Unfortunately, we had to miss the Friday parade at the Citadel.

White Point Garden
White Point Garden

It was unusually cold during our visit which meant perfect days and cool nights, similar to Los Angeles.  My initial impression is that Charleston is a charming blend of the south and the Caribbean.  There are palm trees and we passed a couple corners with guys playing steel drums.  Unique to this city is the eternal presence of young men wearing perfectly pressed gray and white uniforms of the Citadel.  I was struck by how many people are out cavorting day and night.  The crowd tends to be attractive and apparently this is a popular spot for bachelorette parties.  So pay attention all you single guys…

We walked to dinner at Slightly North of Broad (aka S.N.O.B.) and with no reservation on a Friday night were seated quickly at the chef’s table, which is a bar with six seats at the back of the room facing the open kitchen under a brick archway.  The space is pleasant with high ceilings and exposed pipe, but the pipe is closer to black than stainless and there are dark brass chandeliers.  The result is a nice blend of industrial and southern cozy.

The charcuterie plate arrived in an instant and was delicious.  Jenni’s favorite was the rabbit pate and at yesterday’s fair her favorite attraction was the rabbit barn, so we concluded she likes observing and devouring.  And since I said my favorite attraction of the fair was the pig races, a trend emerged.  The highlight of the meal was the butternut squash bisque.  I had a couple interesting beverages.  Smoke on the Water consisted of Cathead Pecan Vodka, chipotle puree, Oloroso sherry, orgeat syrup and orange peel.  In my martini I opted for pimiento cheese olives instead of my standard blue cheese order.  Overall the meal was enjoyable but nothing special.

The next morning we strolled to the Saturday farmer’s market in Marion Square, where I fell in love with Charleston.  Two sides of the square were lined with booths selling photographs, varied flavors of pecans, fruit, vegetables, shrimp, pottery, honey, flowers, pickled everything, various prepared meals, etc.

A woman with a raspy voice headlined the singer/songwriter duo well-versed in Bob Dylan.  Puppies were omnipresent.  Not just puppies as Jenni uses the word to signify any dog, but actual, adorable puppies.  We were surprised to see a Holocaust memorial on the southeast corner of the square.

It was not yet time for lunch but we were tempted by Ted’s Butcher Block which is a deli with great looking artisanal bacon and sausage and all kinds of meats and cheeses plus freshly made paninis.  The City Market was less exciting and very touristy with cheap jewelry and apparel plus knick knacks and a couple food spots.  Charleston Cooks is a nice little kitchen store that offers cooking classes, and it was here I first heard Everlast’s acoustic version of Jump Around.

Re-energized from this auditory gem, we walked through Waterfront Park with its fountain water pink for breast cancer month.  Whoever came up with that public awareness and fundraising campaign is a genius.  Rainbow Row on East Bay Street is worth a visit, and the homes become grander as one walks south towards the beautiful, live oak filled White Point Garden.  Many of the homes south of Broad are spectacular and some function as museums.  We were enamored of the huge porches which scream (whisper?) relaxation and good living.  Horse carriage tours are everywhere, and we preferred to walk but the informative nature might make these a good bet for orientation.

Our disappointment that Husk (a restaurant by James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock) had already stopped seating for lunch dissipated quickly inside Bull Street Gourmet and Market.  One orders at the counter, there is a robust collection of beers and wines, and my smoked duck club was delicious. Alright y’all, now I’m REALLY far behind as I’m sitting in Hong Kong at the moment, so I’m gonna blow through the rest of this!

We grabbed a nice exercise sesh in Marion Square and saw lots of folks in their tuxedos going to weddings on a Saturday night.  Pre-dinner cocktails at Closed for Business were pleasant, dinner at The Macintosh was near excellent.  The dessert menu was so impressive that I must share it with you.

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Yet another waiter who mistook us for bumpkins ignorant in the ways of burrata…After dinner we poked our heads in at Halls Chophouse which was vibrant and reminiscent of Mastro’s.  I think traditionally Calhoun Street was something of a dividing line, but at least now much of the hip restaurant and bar scene is on King Street north of Calhoun.

On Sunday, Sven at last went topless again and there were many folks out jogging as we crossed the bridge to Mount Pleasant.  Brunch at Water’s Edge on Shem Creek was OK, after which we walked around the boardwalk through the salt marshes.  I like this part of town.  And I learned that in the Gullah dialect, cooter means turtle.  How fun.

Boone Hall Plantation is about 15 minutes away and touring this still-working property was wonderful.

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I think there are other plantations on the other side of Charleston and don’t know which are the best, but I definitely recommend visiting at least one.  It is hard to imagine others have a more picturesque driveway entrance lined with live oaks.

Boone Hall began growing indigo and rice before focusing on cotton.  Apparently a plantation is a large farm focusing on one crop.  Pecan trees were their big thing at one time.  Now they grow blueberries, peaches, squash, grapes, strawberries and more, plus a little cotton and pecans and wedding venue business.  They filled some of The Notebook here, and Jenni was elated.  Oh, there is also a huge Halloween spectacle and corn maze, and a butterfly garden.

Charleston is a terrific city, just try to avoid making any wrong turns.

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