Monday, July 27, 2009

Low Country - Charleston, South Carolina

My husband hates the heat, isn't that fond of the beach but loves Charleston, South Carolina. How can this be you ask? I asked myself the same thing. Most days it's 95 degrees with about 85% humidity in that low-country area. The whole place is one big marsh and beach. How can HE love it there? But while we were down there last weekend he explained to me that, "yes it's hot, and yes, there is sand and sun" but Charleston has, "a lot to offer"... and I couldn't agree with him more.

Charleston is, in my opinion, not your typical beach community. It has it all. There is a wonderfully quaint downtown with some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. There is a lovely (albeit somewhat crowded) beach with powder-like sand and a bath-water warm ocean. There are mazes of small creeks, bayous and such in the outlying areas of Charleston, where you'll find beautiful birds, pristine flats of marsh as far as you can see and the most "southern looking" grand, old trees. The trees are gorgeous...and they look as though they too feel the heat and humidity and show it with their weepy branches, draped with low hanging moss. It really is quite a lovely area and small enough to allow easy access to whatever may tickle your fancy.
So here is a list of things to do, see, buy, eat and enjoy. We were lucky enough to be down there for our friends' John and Lindsey's wedding, but you don't have to wait for an invitation like that to visit (although it was wonderful...thanks you two...and congrats!!). So grab your sunscreen, bring your appetite for shrimp and head down to Charleston for a good 'ol Low-Country time.

I was so jealous walking through Charleston. Having lived in Richmond, once the capital of the confederacy and full of history, you would expect most of the buildings there to be old, historic and, well, actually there. Unfortunately Richmond was burned pretty much to the ground during the civil war…Charleston, however, was not. Actually, there was very little property damage after Charleston was captured so the historic part of town is lined with beautiful old structures...houses and churches alike. I must have taken about a dozen picture of this architectural oddity that seemed to be part of most houses in the historic district. As you can see there is a very normal "front door" attached to most everyone's porch. I can only assume that rocking chair theft was a very real danger back in the 1700's. Or, that people were just very fond of their porches. I could probably research this one but honestly, I'd like to fill my head with all sorts of wild assumptions instead. It's just more fun this way.
See the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Charleston is right proud of this place, and I can understand why. The basement is actually a dungeon...and at one point it held real live pirates! I wonder if any of them were as good looking as Johnny Depp? Probably not huh? Anyway. The dungeon was pretty cool and I loved the story about how Charlestons' residents had a love hate relationship with pirates. They sold cheap goods that had "fallen off the back of a" well, I guess ship back then, so the residents loved the bargains...but hated the plundering, debauchery and such. I guess it was a bit of a double edged sword me mateees. The rest of the building has some historical relevance but honestly, compared to pirates it was downright boring. Oh, and just like Boston, most of Charleston has been built on marsh land by "filling in" the wetland areas. Last time I was in Boston I sat through an hour long description of how they did it there and I still can't wrap my mind around what it would take to build half a city on what is nature's equivalent of a wet sponge, so this amazes the heck out of me. At one time the water backed up against the back wall of the Old Exchange. If you were there and saw how far it was away from the ocean you would be amazed.

See the vegetation, foliage, landscaping, gardens....basically the plants. I think Savannah has to be next on my Southern Cities list because although I didn't know this before, I just found out that I love tiny, creepy, almost over-grown gardens and cemeteries. I just couldn't get enough of them. And they were everywhere. Some were between people's houses. Some were behind churches. Some were just in alley-ways. Some were well kept. Some looked like they were going to consume the wrought iron fences that tried to keep them contained. All were worth a look.

I don't usually put a "shop" section in my travel blogs but here's the exception. Shop the outdoor Market at, where else but Market Street. Our friend Amber told us we should go and I'm glad she did. My husband LOVES haggling. We buy about $100 worth of crap whenever we're in Mexico because haggling is a sport to him and if had he not haggled we would have bought $300 worth of crap. Well done Nick! This market in Charleston reminded me of the outdoor markets in Mexico. It's filled with all sorts of goods (leather goods, jewelry, clothing, arts and crafts, hot sauce, etc.) and it seems to go on forever. I'm not sure if people did a whole lot of bargaining here, but it seemed to me like the type of place where it would be ok to at least try to say, "I'll give you five bucks for that".

Do bring your bathing suit and do visit the ocean. It's a bit more crowded than I expected but I think it's because the beach is pretty narrow. But go early and claim your spot. You'll be happy that you did. The water is warm...very warm. The sand is soft...very soft. There are plenty of beach access points and parking is only $5. Not too shabby.

Speaking of bathing suits. If for some reason you find yourself bathing suit clad in the middle of Charleston go ahead and walk over to the fountain at Water Front Park near the French Quarter. You may, and are encouraged to wade in it. There were some other fountains in the area (pic) that didn't have "no lifeguard on duty" signs next to them so I'm not completely sure if wading in them was acceptable, but if I were you I would play dumb and say something like, "If you're going to post a "no lifeguard on duty" sign next to one fountain you really should post a "no swimming" sign next to all of the other ones". I wasn't wearing a bathing suit...but after a few hours of walking through Charleston in late July I almost got in the fountain fully'll see what I mean if you go there.

There are plenty of plantations to visit as well. Having lived in a plantation packed town in VA we were happy to skip it but I hear they're beautiful. There are also plenty of nature tours available. We didn't have time to take a 3 hour kayak tour of the swamps but I really wish we did. I think if we ever return to Charleston I'll be sure to check that one off my list. I can't even iimagine all of the wildlife that there is to be discovered in those marshy, swampy areas.

Yes. This was the license plate on our rental car. It's as if they were waiting for us :) Charleston has some of the best food I've ever consumed...and lots of it. I think everyone there takes immense pride in their food. I know you're not going to believe me but I swear I had one of the best pieces of carved turkey at John and Lindsey's wedding reception (at the Dunes West Golf Club...beautiful...just beautiful) that I've ever had. I know it sounds silly for me to rave over turkey, but I think it illustrates my point. They take pride in every meal they make...whether it's "true" southern style food or just a great classic. They all have a passion for food and it shows everywhere you look. I also had some bitchin' shrimp and grits at the wedding. Just had to throw that one in there. So get out there and eat. The downtown area is teeming with great restaurants. I stuffed my face as much as time would allow and I didn't even scratch the surface. Eat low-country cuisine. Eat seafood. And eat some high-on-the-hog low-country cuisine. Charleston does all three wonderfully.

Eat at Hominy Grill:
It's not quite in the middle of it all but it is amazing. Now. I don't always do everything Anthony Bourdain tells me to, but in this case, I saw him visit Hominy Grill on his show and I just had to go. They cook classic, good 'ol fashioned low-country cuisine and they cook it well. They start you off with boiled peanuts for the table. If you've never had them you must try them once. I'm sure that there are two quite distinct types of people when it comes to boiled peanuts. Those who love them and those who just can't get over their weird texture. They don't taste like peanuts at all and their texture is somewhere along the lines of cooked chick peas. But please try them. They're a taste experience to say the least. I had the shrimp and grits...of course. The hubby had the Low Country Purloo, which was a rice dish topped with sausage, ham, shrimp and fried chicken wings(of which he demolished). And our friend Amber had the catfish with fried cheese grits(pic right). I think she might have had the winner with that one. The catfish was crispy. The grits were to die for and she doesn't even like grits. A+ for Hominy Grill. Oh....and the staff was great. Super friendly and attentive. I think our waiter might have gone a little overboard on the southern hospitality, accent and "ma'am's"... but I found it charming.

Over the bridge in Mt. Pleasant or Isle of Palms? Looking for some water front dining and a great view? Eat here: Vickery's at Shem Creek:
Ok. So there are a few locations in this "chain". It looks like one in Atlanta and a few in Charleston. Not normally a good sign. And look at that website!? Doesn't exactly say fine dining huh? Lucky for me I didn't know anything about this place when our friends John and Lindsey...yes, bride and groom...booked this place for a dinner and drinks get-together. If I had seen the web site or know it was a chain I would have had a bit of a prejudice before I walked in. And I'm a bit ashamed of that. Because the place was great! The view was wonderful(Pic: Nick and John enjoying the view...John is the proud writer of Rare & Well-Done's "stogie" section). The bar-tenders were great. And I have no complaints about the food. Nick and I shared the Low-country Saute'(pic left) to start. It was filled with crab, crawfish, shrimp, fried oysters, all in a bourbon butter over grits. I don't have a single bad thing to say about this dish. It was perfect. Since we enjoyed that so much we decided to try the crab cakes. They were good. Lots of crab...not a lot of cake...just as they should be. I've eaten some great crab cakes in my day and these weren't the best, but certainly were noteworthy. I think I was mostly taken by the yummy cajun remoulade sauce that they came with. Me likey saucey. Now, Nick and I "technically" stopped our meal there, BUT, we did do a little bit of picking off some friends' plates. Our friends Coach and Amber(a Jersey girl too) got a plate of fries with pepper gravy and we just had to steal a few. If I weren't surrounded by people I would have eaten the gravy with a spoon. It's sort of like the brown gravy they serve with steak fries in Jersey Diners...but a thousand times better. Move over cheese fries...there's a new tater topping in town.

Want to put on a pretty sundress or a pair of khakis and a pink polo shirt and go out to a nice meal(what is it with Charleston men and pink??)? Head over to S.N.O.B.:
It's actually called Slightly North Of Broad but I have a feeling locals love going to a place called snob. This place was fantastic. I heard rave reviews about it, and in a town full of great restaurants all fighting to be crowned best New Southern American (I guess...who really knows what to call this) restaurant, you have to be this good. We started out with the pork belly. Yes. I know. We eat a lot of pork belly. But there's a reason for's finger licking good and almost impossible to screw up. They paired it with an arugula, goat cheese and walnut salad and topped it with slices of probably the freshest peach I've ever eaten. Now the arugula, walnut and goat cheese I've seen before. A lot. What I haven't seen before??? Pork and peaches. I have no idea why I've never thought of this. It was amazing. I think I'm going to try it with some bone-in pork chops this week. If it turns out well you have to try it too. If'll have to go to S.N.O.B. and try this dish because everyone needs to taste this combo. For the mains we had the specials. Nick had the bbq tuna(pic left) and I had the swordfish(pic right). I think I had the winner here. You never see swordfish on a menu right? And understandably so. It is a big 'ol bitch to get right. Sometimes it's oily. Sometimes it's dry. Not this bad boy. My swordfish was so good Nick wanted to ask the waitress to seat him at a different table to stop me from oooing and aahhhing over it. It came with a vegetable medly. I think it was corn, tomatoes and okra. All bursting at the seams with flavor this time of year and I was so happy to have them accompanying my fish. The drinks were good and not overly expensive as well. The dessert, as usual, wasn't quite up to par with the mains, but it was good. I mean, it was peach cobbler. Fresh peaches, crumbly top and ice cream. It can't be bad.

So even though I went into Charleston hoping to discover that one, undiscovered gem of a restaurant and ended up going to one of the most popular places in town and another place that was on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, I'm happy. There's a reason why these places are popular. They're darn good.

Well. This all depends on what you're looking for. If you want to go to the beach every day I recomend staying in Mt. Pleasant. It's just over the bridge from Charleston and there are some decent deals to be had on hotels there. All you have to do is drive about 8 mins down the Isle of Palms Connector and you are AT the beach. You practically drive in to the ocean. And even though you're not in the middle of the city there's still plenty to do in Mt. Plesant. A few miles away you'll find Shem Creek. It's an area on the water packed with restaurants and bars. There's also PLENTY of golfing opportunities to those who desire to do so (I thought that golfing in that heat would be painful at best, but when our friend Coach came back from his golf outing with the groomsmen he let us in on the secret...apparently the beer carts "make" the game. Now that I know this I too may think of taking up golfing). We stayed in Mt. Pleasant because it was close to the church and reception and I have no complaints. It was lovely. Coach, Amber, Nick and I shared a two bedroom suite in an extended stay type place. That's the way to go if you're traveling with friends or family. I highly recommend it. Oh. And when you do decide to drive into Charleston proper park in the Public Parking decks. It's dirt cheap during the weekdays and it's FREE on the weekends.

If you want to walk, and drink, and eat and not have to worry about getting in a car most of the time you're there...stay down town. Charleston is really not that big so even though you'll sweat a bit during your journey, walking is a great way to see the city. I thought the French Quarter and Broad Street area seemed to be in the center of it all. You probably won't get an outdoor pool like we had at our hotel or a full size kitchen (I'm a big fan of these extended stay hotels...every room should have a full size fridge in it) but you'll probably get some classy diggs in a great location.

Before I sign off I just have to wish John and Lindsey all the happiness in the world. I took a bunch of great pictures of them all decked out and posing perfectly, but this one is my favorite. They're taking a well deserved break from being a great host and hostess (and perhaps hiding from the barage of photo ops) and hopefuly ejnoying the lovely location that they picked for their reception. I can promise you I enjoyed it.
John and Lindsey...congratulations you two!

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