It’s a dilemma many a traveling couple faces. How to satisfy a history buff’s hunger to step back in time and a gourmand’s insatiable hunger for fresh, well-prepared, imaginative meals in one weekend? Certainly a trip to Paris would take care of that, but hopping a flight for a long weekend across the pond isn’t in everyone’s budget. For those living stateside (and particularly on the East Coast), a short weekend jaunt to the South Carolina coastal city of Charleston will do the trick (with an added dose of French Huguenot history for Francophiles thrown in there, too). (Photo courtesy of Allison Beck)
Situated at the tip of a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, Charleston offers something for everyone. One of the wealthiest cities in America in the 1700-1800s, Charleston’s rich history can be traced back to the 1690s, when it was a city surrounded by fortress walls to ward off French, Spanish, Native American, and pirate invaders. The colonial city is also home to Fort Sumter, where in April of 1861, the first shots of the Civil War rang out.
For food-loving travelers, much has changed in Charleston over the last ten years when it comes to dining. With a myriad of restaurants offering everything from Southern classics like She-Crab Soup or shrimp and grits, to classic French cuisine or contemporary Asian fusion, there is no shortage of places to eat. In fact, you might find yourself extending your stay (just as I wished I had) to get to all your must-trys.
While you might spend your evenings restaurant-hopping at some of the city’s finest like Husk or Charleston Grill, spend your days getting to know this Southern belle. Whether you roam the cobblestone streets of this well-preserved city by food, carriage, or boat, there are architectural masterpieces and grand, old plantations once used by Charleston residents as summer homes among the overwhelming sights that abound. Don’t know where to begin and only have a long weekend to spare? Here are my recommendations...
Skip town mid-afternoon and catch a flight down to Charleston’s own international airport (which looks more like a regional airport for those who’ve flown through any major U.S. city). Upon your arrival to the Palmetto State, take a deep breath of the warm, slightly sweet air then head to Charleston Place, your home and headquarters for the weekend.
Set at the crossroads of Market and Meeting Streets in the heart of downtown Charleston, the hotel conjures images of a grand, 17th century Georgian residence. Stepping out into the Magnolia-lined courtyard, as a bellhop swiftly guides you to check-in, it feels as though you’ve traveled back in time. The lobby, with a 12-foot, Venetian-style chandelier, boutique shops, and an array of culinary offerings, will make you feel the expanse of the 435-room hotel. (Photo courtesy of Charleston Place)
Unlike most hotels that size, this doesn’t feel cold or austere. Maybe it’s that warm Southern hospitality rubbing off, but it feels much like a home away from home with friendly faces everywhere you look and an abundance of flowers, to boot.
After settling in and freshening up, it’s nearly late afternoon. Shake off your workweek worries by heading out for a stroll down Meeting Street and find an aperitif at The Gin Joint. This sleek and stylish bar serves up pre-Prohibition era cocktails like fizzes, slings, and smashes in a small space just tucked off of East Bay. Sampling their seasonal sparkling cocktail is a great place to start — it’s filled with whatever fresh fruits are at the bar mixed with sparkling wine and ice.
While their expansive menu of small bites may tempt you, hold off and instead indulge your appetite with dinner at High Cotton for a taste of the low country infused with the fresh flavors of locally-sourced ingredients. You can’t go wrong with any of the dishes on the menu, especially if you go with whatever fish is freshest. Just be sure to save room for dessert — and even if you don’t — their pecan pie is not to miss.
While you might be inclined to linger in bed on a Saturday morning (it is the weekend after all), there is only one real way to get to know Charleston — starting with an early morning walk towards the Battery. Pick up the hotel map and meander the silent streets, the cool air thick with moisture easing you out of a half-asleep stupor.
You’ll know when you’re nearing the water, as the heady scent of jasmine and gardenia is replaced with the salty taste of the sea. When your stomach begins to rumble, don’t backtrack. Pass the magnificent homes that line the water and make a detour for a strong iced coffee and a slice of coffee cake or a scone at Baked. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/reellady)
Now that you’ve seen where the city’s wealthy residents once spent their “social season,” it’s time step back into history with a trip to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Set along the banks of the Ashley River, Magnolia was established in 1679 as a residence for an English family moving from Barbados and looking to establish their own lands in the New World. Wander the gardens of azaleas and camellias and cross over arched footbridges, taking in the Spanish moss-covered live oaks. A visit to the swamp garden is a must as is a visit to the peacocks in the petting zoo, just be on the lookout for alligators.
Weary from the morning’s activities, return to the hotel to escape the heat of the day and recharge for that night’s indulgent meal: dinner at Charleston Grill. With six sumptuous courses in your future, it’s wise to choose something light for lunch, like some cheese, crackers, and fruit from the local cheese shop goat.sheep.cow, or share a duck confit sandwich from the gourmet food market Caviar and Bananas.