Charmed by Charleston, SC
Before this trip, I had preconceived notions of what summer in the South is like: Hot sticky weather, greasy nondescript food, boring Civil War memorials. But Charleston in July far exceeded my expectations. But don’t take my word for it. Charleston has been voted the #1 U.S. travel destination in the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards, based on its friendliness, ambience and culture.
My love affair with the Holy City blossomed at lunch on Thursday. After my morning meeting, I walked several blocks under moss-covered trees to Poogan’s Porch, a quaint restaurant located in a yellow house, formerly occupied by its canine namesake. A delicious fried green tomato BLT and a local craft beer on the patio persuaded me to embrace the muggy weather and fried Southern fare. The friendly waiter and laid-back atmosphere epitomized Charleston’s charm and hospitality.
Next stop: The Big Red Barn carriage tour to get my bearings of the residential district. (This company was chosen for the quality of its tours, as well as its humane treatment of animals.) In a half hour, our genteel driver provided a witty, off-the-cuff tour that was customized based on the passengers’ inquiries. No question could throw off (or embarrass) our knowledgeable driver. (To minimize traffic congestion, the city of Charleston randomly assigns each horse carriage tour to one of three routes. This also makes it hard for guides to stick to a memorized script.)
The most memorable takeaways from the tour included the colorful Georgian architecture of Rainbow Row, the romantic alleyways between the residences south of Broad Street and the cool breezes off the harbor. (Nights in Charleston are surprising breezy, so remember to bring a jacket to dinner — even in July.)
Within a block of the Big Red Barn on Meeting Street is the open-air flea market commonly known as the Slave Market. According to my carriage driver, slaves were never bought or sold at this market. Rather, a wealthy Southern family donated the market to provide a low-rent space where anyone, including former slaves, could sell their wares and earn an honest living.
As I purchased souvenirs for my kids, I asked a local merchant about the best waterfront seafood restaurant in town. Turns out, there’s only one with outdoor seating: Fleet Landing. For the most part, Charleston’s waterfront is refreshingly uncommercialized. Instead it’s dominated by lavish, historic homes built by old-money families in the shipping industry, who chose the location to watch over their assets floating in Charleston harbor.
Fleet Landing didn’t disappoint with its crab soup, blackened triggerfish and pecan pie. My table wasn’t exactly oceanfront, but a manatee’s impromptu surfacing in the marshy waters alongside my table on the side patio was an unexpected bonus.
I woke bright and early the next morning for a boat tour Charleston harbor. I felt obliged to experience a little off-the-beaten-path Civil War history – but I also couldn’t resist a trip to the beach. Adventure Harbor Tours operates a trip called “Stormin’ in the Beach at Morris Island” that fits the bill. This smaller boat, aptly named “The Charleston Explorer,” has maximum capacity of about 25 people (and a few dogs!) and is captained by the company’s owner, Howard.
En route to Morris Island, I saw dolphins and Fort Sumter, while Captain Howie provided a Reader’s Digest version of the role Charleston harbor played in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Morris Island was formerly the location of Fort Wagner, the scene of the ill-fated assault by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an African-American regiment. This battle was featured in the 1989 movie Glory.
There’s no dock on the remote Morris Island. So, Captain Howie left the passengers and his fearless — but knowledgeable — crew to explore the island for an hour. The first and second mates were actually a couple of marine biology graduate students from the College of Charleston who combed the beach with us landlubbers, in search of shark teeth, brick remnants from Fort Sumter and lettered olive shells — South Carolina’s state shell.
The Morris Island tour was relaxing and, best of all, we were the only people on the island during the peak summer months. After the boat docked, a taxi whisked me to the airport for a quick lunch and a 2pm flight home.
In the 36 hours that I carved out of my business trip for personal leisure, I had developed a new appreciation of summer in the South. Charleston left me with the impression that I had stepped back in time. I look forward to returning soon with friends and family to immerse in some old-fashioned Southern hospitality.