I spent several days in mid-March in this charming southern town with my fit 79-year-old mother to jointly celebrate our birthdays. We appreciated so many aspects of Charleston, aka The Holy City, aka Chuck Town: long, enjoyable walks through town to view the beautiful old homes and churches; the friendly and relaxed demeanor of the locals; the enchanting gardens and wonderfully-displayed window boxes; the many historical plantations and town-homes available to tour; and an over-abundance of outstanding restaurants, both old and new, with chefs and staff clearly passionate about their trade.
Charleston absolutely did it for me. Who knew it was such an awesome city?!! Well, clearly MANY since it has been named the number 1 city in the U.S. four years in a row by Conde Nast, but it hadn’t been on my radar until all the hype.
I met my mother at Charleston International Airport after a two hour flight from JFK on Jet Blue. I got a great deal last winter and paid $117 round trip for the ticket. My mother’s flight on United from Denver, connecting through Houston was slightly longer in time and price: 6 hours with the layover and $375 rt.
It took approximately 3 minutes to get from my gate to our cab. Even with construction going on inside the airport. The cab ride was a quick 20 minutes to our inn, The Governor’s Inn. I initially regretted booking this B&B which is the former home of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a South Carolina governor, when I realized that it truly is a B&B and not a small inn as first thought. The act of ringing a doorbell to enter gave me my first clue. I’m not exactly a big fan of sitting with strangers around someone’s dining table every morning, making small chat. But the charm of the staff, the friendly housecat “New”, the fabulous breakfasts, lazy afternoons spent on the covered porch enjoying complimentary wine and sweets, and the proximity to the old town quickly won me over. Even the mornings spent with strangers were less painful than anticipated… the guests met during our stay were interesting and intelligent empty-nesters who provided us with some worthwhile ideas for our weekend itinerary.
Our first excursion from the inn confirmed it’s fortuitous location for us since we did not have a car; it was an easy walk to everything we hoped to see in town. I rented a car for 2 days but only as a means to drive to the plantations outside of town and also to visit the low country town of Beaufort.
My short-list for Charlestown
- Husk: Named America’s best restaurant by Bon Appetite in 2011, Sean Brock’s modern take on low-country and southern cuisine was our most anticipated restaurant experience. We did enjoy it immensely but it was not our favorite of the trip.
- F.I.G.: The acronym stands for Food Is Good, but it is clearly an understatement, as this James Beard restaurant winner was our number one pick. I booked a couple weeks prior to our visit which was a wise decision. Our waiter, who was young, knowledgeable with plenty of southern charm, gave us some fabulous suggestions… my mother was a bit nervous about the raw fish starter that he raved about, but both of us still talk about the wonderful explosion of flavor we experienced in this one small dish. Chef-owner Mike Lata opened a second restaurant called The Ordinary. I wish we had eaten there as well… hopefully there will be another trip here in my near future!
- S.N.O.B.: Acronym names seem to be the trend here. This one stands for Slightly North of Broad. Good vibe here, but our least favorite food-wise.
- Hominy Grill: This is a casual eatery known for it’s traditional low-country food. I highly enjoyed my shrimp and grits. Another good place for low-country cuisine is Magnolia’s, though more high-end in price and atmosphere.
- Eli’s Table: This was a last minute choice, as we were hungry and tired our first evening and our booking at touted Poogan’s Porch was an hour later. They were unable to get us in earlier, and we found Eli’s around the corner. I had not heard of it, but it was a delightful meal. We sat out in their courtyard, both rejoicing in the warm evening air after an extremely miserable winter. My mother’s shrimp and grits was one of the best dishes of our trip.
- Other restaurants I wished we had time to try: Cru, Magnolias, The Ordinary, Xiao Bao Biscuit, The MacIntosh, and Edmunds Oast.
The Governor’s Inn provided such large (and delicious!) breakfasts as well as afternoon tea with treats, that we opted to skip lunch each day.
- The History of Charleston Walking Tour: Our first morning, we set off on an informative tour of old town with 13th generation Charleston local, Martha Middleton Wallace. Martha and her sister take turns taking tourists through their native city, and discuss not only the historical and architectural facts, but also interject personal experiences from growing up in the heart of C-Town. The tour concludes in the garden of their parents home with an offering of cookies and lemonade (tasted like Crystal Light so don’t get too excited!) I recommend taking this tour or other recommended ones, though you may want to steer clear of the one led by a costumed pirate, followed by an hodgepodge of a crowd with faces cloaked in boredom.
- Middleton Place: This beautiful plantation is a quick ride from downtown, and worth the trek. The camilla’s were still in bloom during our visit, and spring flowers starting to bloom. I imagine a few weeks later, the splendid gardens would have been even more impressive. The house tour was also good — our guide was a character who helped bring the stories to life. And yes, this is the Middleton family related to our tour guide from the walking tour listed above.
- Magnolia Plantation: I bought a groupon for this plantation, which helped the budget since all the plantation visits are quite pricey. It also had lovely grounds, though more wild than the manicured ones around at Middleton Place. We opted out of the house tour here, and toured the slave cabins instead. The four cabins depict their condition from several different eras. Our guide explained that life here was better for the slaves than most plantations, though it still looked quite grim given the cabin conditions. Before leaving the grounds, we did a long walk around the swamp gardens and lake, spying alligators and herons along the way.
- Edmondston-Alston House: I won’t go into detail for all the house museums, but we enjoyed them all, and they were all unique in their own way. This restored home is stunning, and sits right on the water. A descendent still lives in one section of the home.
- Aiken-Rhett House: This is an impressive house, with most of the interior left as found, rather than completely restored. Only audio tours offered here, rather than guided.
- Nathaniel Russell House: This was my least favorite exterior, but the interior is fabulous, especially the stairway. Also, the oval dining room is spectacular.
- Town of Beaufort, SC: We heard this town was worth the trip to experience a taste of Charleston as it was before the tourism explosion. We found it to be a fun excursion, but I’m not sure I would make the trek if one only has a few days.
- 34 West Theater Company: We saw an original play at this cabaret-style theater, written, directed and performed by three actors; the same three who also take the tickets, and man the concession stand where you can procure wine, beer, soda and treats. The show was a comedy set in WWII; both campy and entertaining.