CHARLESTON, S.C. - The biggest challenge when visiting this historic coastal town is not deciding what to do. For me, at least, the problem was figuring out what to reluctantly omit.
I spent a week in Charleston in early October. Three days were dedicated to a professional conference, leaving plenty of time - I thought - to check out museums, shops, historic sites, and restaurants.
Not so. Here, then, is my list of things to do next time I visit: explore Fort Sumter, take a harbor tour, ride a bike over the bridge spanning the Cooper River, spend a day on the beach, devote an afternoon to wandering through the old market, visit the aquarium, take a cooking class, and eat at a restaurant serving Gullah food, the ultra-fresh cuisine born on the region's coast and barrier islands.
And here is my list of the things I did and enjoyed during those four whirlwind days: worshipped at one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, toured two plantations and a historic home, admired century-old buildings during a horse-drawn carriage tour, visited a museum in an old slave market, wandered through a farmer's market and upscale stores, dashed through the old market, and walked and walked - and ate and ate.
Charleston is on a peninsula, with the Ashley River to the west and the Cooper River to the east, both flowing into Charleston Harbor. The city is small and walkable, and most visitors won't need a car. Some of the streets are cobblestone, so comfortable, low-heeled shoes are a must.
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
Imagine walking into a building erected by a congregation founded before the United States was a nation and taking a seat in a sanctuary built before the Civil War. That congregation is Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, which translates to Holy Congregation House of God. The synagogue was founded in 1749, making it the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. Congregants have been worshipping in the Greek Revival-style sanctuary since 1840. It is the second-oldest existing synagogue in the United States, the oldest in continuous use, and the birthplace of Reform Judaism in this country.
Docents offer free tours of the sanctuary daily except Saturday. (90 Hasell Street; 1-843-723-1090 or kkbe.org.)
While the Ashley River Road (Highway 61) carries today's visitors to three historic plantations, the river itself was once the chief route. By car, you can reach the farthest of the plantations from downtown Charleston in about half an hour.
The plantation closest to the city is Drayton Hall, with the only home of the three plantations that was not destroyed in the Civil War. The owners had fled, leaving slaves to safeguard their property. When the slaves saw smoke coming from Magnolia Plantation, a mile or so away, they put yellow quarantine flags at the gate. Union soldiers saw the flags, signaling that malaria raged within, and bypassed Drayton Hall. (3380 Ashley River Rd., 1-843-766-0188, draytonhall.org. Adult admission is $18, or $8 for the grounds only.)
I visited the other two plantations, each quite different. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offers a variety of tours, including ones focusing on the slave quarters and the family home. Naturalists lead tram tours. We saw a number of small alligators, turtles, a snake, a peacock or two, and waterfowl.
Magnolia's grounds make up North America's oldest informal garden, said Herb Frazier, the marketing and public relations manager. "This is not a formal garden - we try to cooperate with rather than trying to control nature," he said.
Magnolia is in the fourth year of a 20-year effort to restore the gardens, the largest restoration of a garden in America's history, said director of gardens Tom Johnson. Although green hues predominated when I visited in early October, camellias in winter and azaleas in spring produce blazes of color. (3550 Ashley River Rd.; 1-843-571-1266, magnoliaplantation.com. Adult admission is $15; eight tours offered for $8 each; all-inclusive pass is $47.)
In contrast, 65 acres of formal gardens are on display at Middleton Place, the third plantation along the Ashley River. Visitors also can talk to costumed interpreters who grow crops and raise livestock. The plantation's home was originally an outbuilding, the only building salvageable after the Civil War.
Displays in the home show silver and other treasures belonging to the original owners. Yet the most moving sight I encountered in my trip was a mid-19th-century seed sack embroidered with these words:
"My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress, 3 handfuls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her,
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Ruth Middleton 1921"
A woman from Tennessee came across the sack in 2007. According to curator Mary Edna Sullivan: "The buyer searched for a suitable repository for this lost fragment of American history. She settled on Middleton Place because of our name, our history as a plantation, and the work we were doing interpreting the history of slavery at Middleton Place." (4300 Ashley River Rd.; 1-843-556-6020, middletonplace.org. Adult admission is $25; the house museum tour is $12.)
Historic homes and museums
Stroll down any street in Charleston and you'll spot metal plaques marking the historic homes. Many are private residences. A narrow side of each home faces the street, and roofed and sometimes screened porches (called piazzas) built to catch the breeze run the length of the west side of each building.
A few historic homes are open to the public. I toured the Edmondston-Alston House, which has a view of the harbor and Fort Sumter.
The home, built in 1825, was commandeered by the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, the Army was loath to give it up. To get their home back, the family appealed to President Andrew Johnson. He granted them a pardon for their role in the war, and the document is displayed in the front room.
Today, like many historic homes, the Edmondston-Alston House is owned by a foundation. A provision allows a descendant of the family to live there, and one does, on the third floor.
Our tour guide pointed out the riches of life in the pre-Civil War period - silver and china, a library lined with 1,000 leather-bound books, ornate light fixtures, and cast-iron details. (21 E. Battery St.; 843-722-7171, edmondstonalston.com. Admission is $10.)
For another look at Charleston's homes, churches, and other historic structures, we took a horse-drawn carriage tour. You won't know until you are under way where you are going, because the city regulates the number of carriages on the streets and assigns one of three routes at the start of each trip. Our hourlong ride took us past some of the oldest and biggest houses in the city. Some were pristine, some were rundown, and some were empty husks. Our guide explained that the city refuses to allow buildings over 75 years old to be demolished, yet fails to insist upon their upkeep. Several companies run tours (you can't miss them). Prices average $20.
Yet another facet of Charleston history was on display at the Old Slave Mart Museum, housed in a small two-story building that was used for slave auctions from 1856 until the end of the Civil War. The artifacts and exhibits were sad, moving, and thought-provoking. (6 Chalmers St.; 1-843-958-6467, oldslavemart.org. Admission is $7.)
Shops and restaurants
Charleston farmers and other vendors assemble from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays from April through mid-December in Marion Square. You can buy the ingredients for a meal or the meal itself, along with other foods, jewelry, and souvenirs. The Old Citadel, which resembles a pink castle and is now a hotel, looms over the market.
The historic City Market is housed in a series of open sheds built in the early 1800s that stretch about three blocks down the middle of Market Street. You'll find everything from pricey handwoven sweetgrass baskets and good jewelry to the cheapest souvenirs, along with packages of locally grown rice and grits, pralines, and benne wafers, the small, crisp sesame-seed confections that are a symbol of the city. The City Market is open every day of the year; hours vary among vendors (thecharlestoncitymarket.com or 1-843-853-8000).
Upscale shops and art galleries are clustered along King Street and East Bay Street. One of our favorites was Charleston Cooks!, a shop and cooking school (194 E. Bay St.; mavericksouthernkitchens.com/charlestoncooks or 1-843-722-1212).
East Bay Street - indeed, all of Charleston - is also home to a number of good restaurants. Favorites included Magnolia's, which describes its food as Uptown/Down South, and where we nibbled on a wonderful pimiento cheese appetizer; Hank's, a seafood house that serves a Low Country bouillabaisse loaded with local fish; and Mercato, an Italian restaurant across from the Historic Market whose risotto was a delicious change of pace.
Our favorite restaurant was Husk, which uses local ingredients to perfection. I ate there twice, at lunch one day and dinner on another. Although owner Sean Brock is a James Beard Award-winning chef and Bon Appetit magazine recently called Husk the best new restaurant in America, there's not a shred of pretension in the food or among the staff.
The menu changes daily, depending on what is in season. Everything we tasted was delicious and some dishes were surprising, such as green-bean-like rattlesnake beans in a warm, Asian-inspired vinaigrette made with guanciale (unsmoked bacon from the jowl) and Southern-fried chicken skins heaped into a wooden bowl and served with hot sauce and honey.
The food - and Charleston itself - is a memory to savor.
Where to Stay in Charleston
The Sanctuary Hotel
Kiawah Island, S.C.; 1-800-576-1570 or kiawahresort.com
I can see how Kiawah Island would be heaven for tennis players and golfers - it's slated to host the PGA Championship in August - but anyone who likes the outdoors will love this Forbes five-star hotel. Along with 255 rooms and suites, the Sanctuary has four restaurants, a spa, and two outdoor pools. The hotel, which resembles an enormous Southern mansion, is on seven miles of beach, and the island is crisscrossed with paths for walkers, runners, and bicyclists. Free WiFi is available, and free coffee is served each morning just off the lobby.
The setup: If you fly into Charleston, rent a car at the airport. The hotel is a 40-minute trip from town, making the price of a taxi or shuttle prohibitive. Along the way you'll drive through a stand of massive live oaks, their branches forming a canopy over the road. I started my visit to Charleston with two nights at the Sanctuary. Activities offered during my stay included a naturalist-led gator walk ($12 for 90 minutes), a family kayaking excursion through the island's tidal creeks ($50 for two hours), and an adult twilight kayak paddle ($50 for two hours). I hopped on a rental bike one morning and rode 8 miles on the beach in search of dolphins, which usually gather in an inlet to feed at high tide. The dolphins had gone elsewhere that day or I had somehow missed them, but the ride still was a great way to start the day.
The room: My room had a king-size bed with sumptuous white feather comforter, a sitting area, a small balcony overlooking the swimming pools and the beach, and a small bar area with a sink. The spacious bathroom had a deep tub, a separate shower with an overhead shower head and hand-held sprayer, twin sinks, and Elemis bath products, including a terry bath mitt.
How much: Prices for a weekend in early December start at $290 a night.
Mills House Hotel
115 Meeting St., Charleston; 1-843-577-2400 or millshouse.com
Charlestonians watched the shelling of Fort Sumter from the roof of the Mills House at the start of the Civil War. The roof is now off-limits to visitors, but the view from our seventh-floor window was fabulous. We could see the Cooper River, the spire of one of the city's oldest churches, and an array of roofs of many styles and colors. The location is excellent, in the middle of the peninsula and within walking distance of the city's attractions.
The setup: This historic hotel was built in 1853 and restored in 2008. It is owned by Holiday Inn, although we noticed no sign of the corporate ownership during our visit. The lobby and public areas are lovely, especially the garden, where we enjoyed a glass of wine one night. The restaurant and bar are open throughout the day. An outdoor pool beckons in nice weather. Free WiFi is provided, although the signal in the lobby and business center was unreliable.
The room: Our room had two full-size beds, a desk and armoire, a coffee machine, and a tiny bathroom with a hook on the door but no towel racks. Toiletries were from Bath and Body Works. The room was just this side of shabby, with an obvious repair in the middle of the carpet. The pipe connected to the bathroom sink crashed to the floor the morning we checked out, unleashing a cascade of dirty water. Fortunately, our bags were already packed and out of harm's way.
How much: Prices for a weekend in early December start at $161 a night.
Doubletree by Hilton
181 Church St., Charleston; 1-843-577-2644 or doubletree.hilton.com
The setup: Many rooms and suites face an interior courtyard with tables where people socialize into the night - if you're a light sleeper, try to avoid the ground floor. Free WiFi is provided, and free coffee is served in the lobby each morning. A restaurant just off the lobby did a booming business at breakfast and also served lunch. In the evening, a bartender serves a limited menu of drinks.
The room: My suite included a spacious sitting room with a desk, plenty of seating, a flat-screen TV, and a bar area with a small refrigerator, sink, and coffee maker, along with a small dressing area, nice-size bedroom, and tiny bathroom stocked with Crabtree and Evelyn toiletries.
How much: Prices for a weekend in early December start at $169 a night for a room, $179 for a suite.