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Serious history, seriously good foodSerious history, seriously good food

Charleston, South Carolina Charleston, South Carolina 

Get the lowdown on this historic Lowcountry Mecca for fantastic food, creative cocktails, and antebellum architecture. Bring comfortable shoes, because this great walking town provides ample opportunity to burn off those delicious calories.

  • The Belmond Charleston Place puts you in the heart of downtown’s historic district, with two of the city’s finest restaurants at your fingertips. FIG is across the street, while the award-winning Charleston Grill, with live jazz nightly, is onsite. Whether at the front desk or in-room, service is formal, swift, and effortless. A heated saltwater pool and great city views crown the top of the fourth floor, complete with a retractable glass roof. A health club, full-service luxury spa, business center, and upscale shops are among the other amenities. Photo courtesy Belmond Charleston Place.
  • A sweetgrass basket maker displays her creations at the Charleston Farmers Market. The market is open every Saturday morning in Marion Square. Sweetgrass basketmaking is a tradition that dates back to the early days of slavery in the Lowcountry. Slaves, mostly from the rice-producing regions of Africa’s Sierra Leone, were brought in to work the rice fields of Charleston, built in former marshes. Photo by Anne via Flickr.
  • Charleston residents make loquat liqueur by marinating the fresh fruits in vodka. If you take Laura Wichmann Hipp’s Charleston Tea Party Walking Tour, you’ll not only peek into classic gardens like the one that inspired Porgy & Bess, you’ll get tips and information about Charleston you can’t get anywhere else. The epitome of Southern hospitality, Laura will serve you tea in her home from her silver tea service, along with a meal that includes ingredients from her own garden. Photo by Rob Frisch,
  • Built in the mid-18th century, the fabled Rainbow Row of 83–107 East Bay Street may be Charleston’s most photographed area. Merchants worked below and had homes on the top floors, but the buildings fell into disrepair after the Civil War. Dorothy Porcher Legge purchased a block of the homes in the early 1900s, renovated them, and painted them pastel pink. As others purchased adjacent buildings, they painted them in assorted pastel colors. Photo by Kevin Brown.
  • The Old Slave Mart at 6 Chalmers Street, one of Charleston's few remaining cobblestone streets, is the only known extant building used as a slave auction gallery in South Carolina. When sales were held in the shed, slaves stood on auction tables, three feet high and ten feet long, placed lengthwise so slave owners could pass by them during the auction. First constructed in 1859, the building was used for this purpose only a short time before the defeat of the South in the Civil War led to the end of slavery. Around 1878, the Slave Mart was renovated into a two-story tenement dwelling. In 1938, the property was purchased by Miriam B. Wilson, who turned the site into a museum of African American history, arts and crafts. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
  • Loquats, a variety of stone fruit, grow on Chalmers Street and other locations around Charleston. They generally ripen in late March or early April. Photo by Jennifer Michelle Saunders.
  • You can dine and hear live jazz nightly at the Belmond Charleston Grill. The restaurant has earned the AAA four-diamond award for food excellence. Dishes are divided into four categories—Pure, Lush, Southern, and Cosmopolitan. Photo courtesy Belmond Charleston Place.
  • Noted for its Georgian-Palladian architecture, Drayton Hall is a National Historic Landmark. This rice plantation has been preserved, not restored. Some of the walls were last painted in the 19th century; most of the rooms lack furniture and decorations. This emptiness may surprise the visitor who expects opulence, but it’s the real thing. Your tour guide will fill you in on the seven generations of Draytons. Ask your guide to elaborate on what life was like for the seven generations of African Americans whose lives revolved around Drayton Hall. Don’t miss Drayton’s African American cemetery. Surrounded by tall trees, you’ll find a wrought iron arch that reads, “Leave ‘Em Rest,” few other markers, and a deep quiet that is perfect for contemplation. Peruse the impressive website before your visit; it’s loaded with information that places the mansion in historical context. Photo by Frank Kehren.
  • The gardens at Magnolia Plantation are of such beauty and variety that they have brought tourists from around the world since they were opened to the public in the early 1870s. However, many parts of the gardens are much older, some sections more than 325 years old, making them the oldest unrestored gardens in America. Unlike formal gardens designed to control nature, Magnolia’s “Romantic” Gardens are left to grow naturally so that “the visitor forgets the normality of everyday life and emotion takes precedent over reason.” Photo courtesy Magnolia Plantation.
  • Magnolia Plantation has remained within the same family for over three centuries. Each generation has added its own personal touch to the gardens. Today you’ll find flowers from camellias and daffodils to azaleas and countless other species in bloom year-round, with the climax of floral beauty in spring. Photo by Alistair Nichol.
  • At Magnolia Plantation, don’t miss the Magnolia Cabin Project Tour, a 45-minute, award-winning tour of five restored cabins built in 1850 to house slaves and later domestic workers. You’ll leave with a greater understanding of the different eras of the occupants from 1850 through 1969, from slavery to Jim Crow and finally the Civil Rights era. This tour illuminates the importance of the Gullah people to the Lowcountry’s history and culture. Photo by Anthony via Flickr.
  • Other tours at Magnolia Plantation include a Nature Train that takes you around the extensive grounds, or a Nature Boat, upon which you’ll glide through flooded former rice fields to the Ashley River. A free petting zoo gives kids an up-close look at indigenous species, including whitetail deer, gray fox, owls, bobcats, and snakes. The onsite Peacock Café is a convenient place for lunch if you’re spending the entire day at Magnolia, which is easy to do. Photo by M. Fletcher.
  • According to family legend, Craig Nelson had his first taste of bourbon before he was a year old. As a child, the school bus dropped him off at his grandmother’s liquor store. Today, Nelson mixes drinks at Proof, the intimate craft cocktail bar he opened in 2012. Food & Wine subsequently named Proof one of the 50 best new bars in the country. Nelson has competed in and won a handful of cocktail competitions on local and national levels. Photo courtesy Proof.
  • At The Ordinary, an upstairs seat along the railing gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire restaurant. Below, booths across from the long bar are comfortable, or pull up a chair at the raw bar and enjoy the show as experts shuck shellfish with custom knives. The raw bar displays a full array of mostly local shellfish you can enjoy cold or hot and prepared in a variety of ways, along with shrimp hush puppies, caviar service, and shellfish combination “towers.” Anywhere you sit, it’s a seafood lover’s paradise. Photo by Andy Sebulka.
  • In 1977, Gian Carlo Menotti chose Charleston as the site for an annual art and cultural festival called Spoleto USA. It’s now one of America’s biggest performing arts festivals, with over 150 performances of opera, jazz, dance, theater, and classical music that run from late May into early June. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One of America’s most charming walking cities, Charleston, South Carolina, drew me in for its gracefully haunting antebellum architecture, gardens, and its reputation as a great culinary destination. But to truly understand this city, founded in 1670, look a bit deeper when you visit, to see where slavery and its legacy fit in.

The area south of Broad Street, famous for its centuries-old, perfectly restored Georgian and Federal mansions, offers numerous walks and tours, including Civil War/slavery, architecture, or even haunts of famous ghosts. Amble along the water, where you can buy a sweetgrass basket, a specialty of the Gullah people, who brought the technique from West Africa. Prefer not to walk? Rest your feet on a horse-drawn carriage tour.

Midway between Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, Charleston sits at the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley rivers on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. Class C Charleston Air Force Base/International Airport (CHS) is a 14-minute drive from the historic district near the end of the peninsula. Charleston Executive (JZI), shown in this photo, lies outside the Class C and is still only a 20-min drive from the historic district. JZI is also much closer to Kiawah Island and its resort and golf courses. Both airports have rental cars and similar full-serve fuel prices. JZI also offers self-serve fuel and has no control tower. Photo courtesy Charleston Executive Airport.

I wanted to visit in late March, for the best weather. Plus, that’s when the loquats on Chalmers Street ripen, and locals make liqueur from them. For surely the most authentic and intimate Charleston experience, arrange a tour with Laura Wichmann Hipp, ending with a remarkable tea party in her home.

Walk past the famous pastel homes on Rainbow Row to Chalmers Street and its Old Slave Mart Museum. You might need a drink by then, so mosey down Chalmers to The Gin Joint. In 2005, South Carolina finally struck down the mini-bottle mandate that required all drinks to be dispensed in 1.7-ounce mini-bottles. Like artists with newly unshackled hands, local bartenders responded with an explosion of creative cocktails. The Gin Joint was Charleston's first real dedicated craft cocktail spot. Throw caution to the wind and order the Bartender’s Choice.

Mixing magic: Great cocktails at FIG (FOOD IS GOOD). Bartenders at Charleston’s many excellent bars and restaurants are finding new ways to make great drinks, often using local ingredients in novel ways. Photo courtesy FIG.

Next, head over to Husk or FIG, each just a few blocks away. At Husk, James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock reinterprets traditional Southern dishes to the tune of Kentuckyaki glazed pork belly wraps or country fried steak with root vegetable hash. In Charleston, whether you begin with chilled sweet tea or a custom cocktail, your beverage is always in hand before you even look at the dinner menu—it just wouldn’t be civilized any other way. Although at FIG, I’d say the Painted Hills hangar steak with Beauregard sweet potato and sauce bordelaise calls for a fine Spanish Tempranillo-Garnacha. A chocolate tart with hazelnut praline, burnt Minneola, and cherry will do just fine for dessert. Stumble across the street to your hotel, the 78-room Belmond Charleston Place. Its award-winning Charleston Grill, with live jazz nightly, is onsite. Those who dress to impress flock to the Thoroughbred Club, open till midnight.

Much of early Charleston was built and maintained by slaves, whose actual history is rarely presented. Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tour is the perfect remedy. Next, drive up Ashley River Road to Drayton Hall, noted for its Georgian-Palladian architecture. Magnolia Plantation is often compared to Drayton but is completely different and a must-visit (see photos for details of both). The Magnolia Cemetery combines history, tragedy, current politics, and moody scenery. On many mornings you may stroll the grounds alone except for the herons, roseate spoonbills, Spanish moss-draped trees, and 33,000 souls buried here over the past 165 years, some of their graves decorated with little paper Confederate flags. Another place to find African-American-made sweetgrass baskets, ironically, is at the Charleston City Market, which sits just below the Confederate Museum. The museum is crammed with memorabilia: a lock of Robert E. Lee's hair attached to a signed letter, baby clothes, furniture, oil portraits, buttons, Confederate money and flags, rifles, bayonets, swords, and uniforms, all housed in an 1841 Greek Revival building. Creeped out, I needed another cocktail.

We started with a drink at Proof and then sauntered over to The Ordinary. Whoever named it has a good sense of humor, for this seafood emporium is as far from ordinary as you can get. Slide into a comfortable booth or pull up a chair at the raw bar and enjoy the show as experts shuck shellfish with custom knives. Unusual starters like kale Caesar salad and heirloom pumpkin soup with crab are tempting, and you can follow them with large plates of baked golden tilefish, poached flounder, crispy ginger-lime black bass, or grilled triggerfish—all in all, a seafood lover’s Valhalla. That's Charleston: incredible cuisine and Lowcountry culture. To complete your trip, consider adding a visit to nearby Edisto Island or Kiawah Island.

Magnolia Plantation is often compared to Drayton Hall but is completely different and a must-visit. The original plantation home burned in the 1790s; a second burned in 1865. Blame for this second fire is generally laid at the feet of General William Tecumseh Sherman and his “renegade Union troops.” After the Civil War, John Drayton dismantled a nearby summer home and had it reconstructed on the footprint of the burned-out plantation house. He then opened the elaborate gardens to paying tourists. Photo by Patrick via Flickr.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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