(a few years ago; any eateries or bars mentioned are still open!)
all photos taken by myself
Day 1 (Feb 14)
A very easy and civilised journey to get there – a 2 hour flight on a miniature plane from nearby La Guardia Airport (everyone here loves to pronounce La Guardia with a heavy Queens accent!). It was so strange on boarding, with only about 3 feet between the overhead luggage compartments on either side above the seats. Sat at the window seat, if you moved your head too quickly you banged it on the curved side of the plane above the window!
When we arrived at Charleston Airport, everything immediately felt different even though all we saw was the car park and a couple of palm trees as we picked up our Enterprise hire car hatchback Nissan. The air was sweeter and everyone seemed to be more laid back.
As we drove into the city you couldn’t tell much at first what it was going to be like, but we were impressed when we got into the heart of things and checked into the Days Inn motel near the very large, elongated historical and attractive indoor market. Hotels here aren’t cheap but we were right in the heart of the centre. We could tell already that the city was beautiful and deeply historic, perhaps comparable in its own way to, say, Bath and Edinburgh (though very different). The whole surrounding state of South Carolina is known as the Low Country and there are a lot of cyclists around. There are no tall buildings as such, just miles of historic, richly colourful and ornate homes, shops and restaurants. Charleston is renowned for its celebrated Low Country cuisine. We’d watched a few travel programmes featuring the food. We were hungry already and thought we’d try Jestines. For some reason it was closed today. We waited across the street for the free trolley that circulates the town (the first place we’ve ever been to where the trolley’s are free!) but we were too hungry so instead thought we’d try Sticky Fingers pub-restaurant opposite the trolley stop. I had a very large tankard of New Belgian ale and we both chose 2 meats from the blue platter barbecue special – the best fried chicken anywhere, yet not remotely greasy. Everyone seemed extremely friendly so far. Even on an old Anthony Bourdain episode in Charleston he jokingly said that he was a bit disarmed by too much warmth and “eye contact” compared to NYC.
We’d noticed a few British accents around the town, by the way, as well as bar and coffee servers with Australian and South African accents.
Being Valentine’s Day, we’d booked a meal at – for us – a fine dining place called Virginia’s on Kings (Street) for the evening. Even “fine dining” is very affordable here though. We were sat upstairs in a fairly quiet (it being after the peak evening time), candle-lit, white table clothed, tasteful room and we ordered up shrimp and grits (Marie) and low country boil (me, a kind of salty broth with bacon, potatoes etc). For starters we tried she-crab soup, one of Charleston’s unique dishes and a creamy crab bisque including crab roe. It was delicious. We were still a bit full though, and had to leave some of the main course. We’re also more comfortable in more casual restaurants though it was romantic and the staff sweet and friendly.
I think earlier we took the trolley in a circle around the town, just to get a look around. One of the main supermarket chains in the South is called Piggly Wiggly – strange when aboard the trolley bus to hear the driver announce in a real Southern accent, “next stop for Piggl-ay Wiggl-ay”!
We did a bit more walking around. Charleston at night is even more aesthetically pleasing, with all the central streets enhanced by gas lighting.
Day 2 –
There’s nowt as good as the first full day on a holiday. When you arrive anywhere for your first half day or few hours, you’re often impressed and excited but you really want a good night’s sleep, to ablute and then breathe it all in on your first proper morning. I think that wherever you go, walking out on that first morning it’s very much a “this is the life!” feeling.
We walked the few minutes to Jestine’s again – for breakfast – but it was still closed so we came back on ourselves and to Market Street. We found a deli café. I had a “biscuit” (a biscuit in America is more like a savoury scone) with country style white sausage gravy.
We walked along the indoor market. The market probably runs for about ¼ mile but is only about 80 feet wide. One of Charleston’s most famous products is hand-crafted ‘sweetgrass baskets’. These used to be made by Gullah, Creole-speaking slaves way back but the tradition has been kept up. To us, a basket is just a basket though the larger ones they make are impressive and take several days. They cost a few hundred dollars!
Everyone seemed incredibly sweet and friendly, as I say. Even from passing strangers you’d sometimes get a “how y’all doing?”.
Next we walked the couple of miles to where we could get the boat out to Fort Sumter. It’s where the first shots were fired at the start of the American Civil War. The boat ride was half an hour each way. The actual fort was just slightly interesting (what’s left of it) but the highlight of the excursion was that we happened to see dolphins! No fanfare or anticipation for this, a school of dolphins were coincidentally swimming by. I had to be quick but at least got a photo of the head and nose of one!
Back in the city centre a couple of hours later, we looked around a honey speciality shop and we had a hot chocolate at City Lights. We took a drive and slow walk along the Battery (Park and waterfront) where we took a lot of photos of the graceful homes overlooking the water. Then back to the hotel for a bit. Although a day early, encouraged by Marie I opened just one of my birthday presents. The Charleston trip was really my present from Marie, but she’d bought me a few mysterious cd’s. The one I opened was the Black Key’s ‘El Camino’.
Later, Marie called Jestines. They were open at last, and had had a problem with some of their kitchen equipment (convector hoods). We had a really enjoyable time there. Fried green tomatoes, pecan crusted fried chicken (Marie), deep fried chicken livers (me), collard greens…and coconut cream pie and banana pudding to finish, washed down with sweet tea (Marie) and a local beer (me).
Note as of June 29th, 2020: Sadly, Jestines has just permanently closed by the way (during the pandemic)
We walked some more on a beautiful night, and discovered the elegant but vibrant French Quarter backed with more restaurants, bars and probably night clubs dotted between gorgeous old streets and churches. There was a lot of Live music going on in many of the bars and restaurants.
We took our time on a romantic walk and gradually wound our way back to the motel.
Day 3 –
Happy birthday to me! Being fifty is so bizarre, I can’t even think about it. It’s best to just enjoy life and ignore numbers though 50 years appears to be only a little bit longer than 30. Lisa and Neal and the boys bought me an exciting gift of a culinary tour of Hoboken for both Marie and myself, in nearest New Jersey (Sinatra’s old ‘hood, once rough – see ‘On The Waterfront’ – but now trendy and lively), and amazon vouchers from Emma & Jake and mum and Martyn. Marie bought new cd’s for me, including First Aid Kit and and Beirut. We played the Beirut and FAK in the hire car later.
Putting the cards on display on top of the widescreen tv, we headed out for sausage, eggs, pancakes and grits breakfast at the Sweetwater Cafe.
Next, a horse and carriage ride. Yes, this conjures up a corny image but they’d been highly recommended and we knew beforehand that most of the drivers/guides have masters degrees in history. We’d read up quite a lot on the tinter’net and chosen the Classic Carriage Rides from the glowing reviews. The buggy rides left from the end of Market Street. It lasts for an hour and the carriages carry about a dozen people. Our guide was great, extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Far from being a muted ride, I think he talked non stop the whole hour, filling us in with a humour laden history lesson along the way.
I don’t think he looked to the road much and was facing us passengers most of the time. They’re also extremely thoughtful of the horses, and don’t work them more than 5 days a week. Charleston is a very clean city, and when the horses urinate the driver throws out a fluorescent marker so the spot can be washed clean later. We drove along through the French Quarter, along the Battery where I’d been taking photos of the grand houses and mansions the day before, past Rainbow Row etc. The routes are chosen on a lottery system, and even the coach drivers don’t know where they’re going until just before the tour. I took a seat at the side and must have taken 80 photos as we went. Everywhere in the city is temptingly photogenic. Unlike most cities that attract tourists, there doesn’t seem to be a rough or plain part anywhere.
We tipped the guide, though noticed that for many things people were not habitually tipping down here.
Then after a short rest, we took the Nissan a good way out of the city to John’s Island. Charleston and the surrounding areas are made up of many islands reachable by bridges. We were headed for Angel Oak. It was about half an hour drive, and we were amazed when we got onto the unpaved country path approaching the mammoth oak tree to see a snowy white squirrel! We had no idea, and they’re extremely rare. I got a photo! I also took about 50 photos around the famous, ancient tree. As trees go it’s pretty unreal, looking like something fictional from Lord Of The Rings. There’s even a small, souvenir shack such is the notoriety of this unusual tourist spot.
Back in Charleston Marie gave me the option to choose somewhere for my birthday evening meal. I said Sticky Fingers, though it was quiet and lacked atmosphere so…as we were already near Jestine’s, yup, we chose to dine at Jestine’s Kitchen again. A cracking visit, and Marie’s favourite meal of the trip! I had blackened catfish, Marie had meatloaf. The friendly waitress put a birthday candle on my dessert and the staff sang happy birthday; in fact, the first time that’s ever happened to me (I’d only casually mentioned it).
We finished by having a pint at a bar called Henry’s in Market Street, a young band playing a small stage. We managed just one beer and a soft drink and listened to half a dozen songs.
As good a birthday as I could ask for!
Charleston Part 2
Day 4, Friday, February 17th –
This was going to be our day of tours. For Bulldog Tours – at the end of Market Street – you report to a friendly reception and then wait in the passageway with the rest of the group to await your guide. We paid $45 each – much more than usual tours – for the (as billed) 2 ½ hour kitchen chef tour. Months earlier we’d been watching ‘Ghost Adventures’, the Charleston Jail episode, on cable tv. The local guide to the supernatural hunting tv team had been Calhoun, known as the ‘hoon. He does both supernatural tours and also the specialist kitchen chef tour, which only runs one morning a week and to a smaller group. Marie said, after internet research, that we’d probably be getting ‘Hoon as our guide. He turned out to be a real character! Like all the guides we had, very knowledgeable and passionate about Charleston’s history.
Anyway, after everyone was greeted, names and where people are from asked, we set off. Hoon exclaimed in a fantastic Southern accent, “oh my God, all my tour today are Yankees from the North (well, except me) – I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
We started at a relatively humble but very nice looking restaurant right by the market, called Barbara Jean’s We were motioned upstairs where Hoon gave us a preliminary build-up and a detailed history on Charleston’s crops and cuisine from its early days. He actually almost burst into tears twice, especially when talking of the city’s sad history of slaveship and what the poor had to eat as treats, such as ‘jelly milkshake’; so as not to waste the bit of jam left in the pot, they used to fill the jar with milk, shake it and offer it as a treat to the children.
Then to two restaurants, Magnolia and Blossom, owned by the executive chef – Donald Brickman – a very humble, interesting bloke. The restaurants are all almost next to one another. Very tastefully done out and quite affordable. To begin with we sat around the bar in Magnolia’s. We were given a small bowl of shrimp and grits to try and had sweet tea.
At Magnolia’s, we were given a brief talk about surfing and Donald’s early days in the industry whilst we sat on bar stools and sipped sweat tea and vodka. He explained his two loves are food and surfing, that he studied culinary arts in London and Australia but got his break when in Australia when the chef missed chopping some food and instead chopped his thigh! He had to step in last minute. As I say, very down-to-earth and interesting guy. He must be doing well financially now (though he said the restaurant business can be “brutal”). But he said that in many ways he was happier when he was a student, surfing and with no money, than owning a big house and car and all its complications. Hoon told us later that Donald was very reluctant initially to do talks on these tours because he was too shy, but that now he can’t stop him.
Then we went with Hoon and Donald (our group numbered about 12) to Blossom, where we had a small taste of pizza with bacon jam (!)…we loved the patio seating outside. We also tried lamb bacon! Very rich but amazing.
Those were just some highlights. We’d gone well over the 2 ½ hours and we gave Hoon a $20 tip. We only saw one other customer on the tour give him a tip. A great tour!
After the tour we ended up back by the market again. At the weekend the SEWE event was due, the South Eastern Wildlife Expo, with about 50,000 extra visitors expected. We weren’t sure if we’d see lions on leashes or elephants strolling by, but nothing quite that exotic!
We were still hungry, as the light bites given to us on the tour really only whetted our appetite for lunch. Of course the restaurants who participate on the tour can’t go wrong, because they know that a lot of those people on the tour will want to go back and have a full meal. We chose to lunch at Blossom, in the back (I had an excellent flounder sandwich). We strolled around and ended up at Waterfront Park after lunch, where we had a Belgian gelato dessert and sat in a public swing. Then we walked a lot more for most of the afternoon, past the pineapple fountains, along to Rainbow Row and the Pink House (Charleston’s oldest house), milling through a beautiful church and churchyard etc etc. I was reeling off a tonne of photographs, easy to do in such a photogenic city but also necessary because I’d need a lot of material to create paintings from.
Saturday, Feb 18th (last day) –
For something completely different, we next drove a short way to Magazine Street and took a few photos outside the old Charleston Jail, part of which is now an art college (which diffuses the mystique a bit!).
Then to one of the big ‘must-do’s’ in Charleston, a plantation home visit. You can choose between several, and we went for Boone Hall Plantation for its picturesque views, and huge oaks covered in Spanish moss. We drove there, and down the impressive and atmospheric driveway of ancient oak trees. After paying the entrance fee everything is free. We started with a short minibus tour (open top) along bumpy dirt tracks around the grounds, with the driver giving us a brief history. Then we took a house tour. Surprisingly, there weren’t originally family mansions on any of the plantations, just farm houses. But the current Boone Hall is of the colonial mansion type, built by a European family who bought the estate in the early 1930s when they chose to knock the old farmhouse down (of course slavery and the cotton crops had long ceased to exist; they bought the grounds for the pecan trees).
On the way back we stopped at Tricklebank Park outside of town for a family wildlife event (lots of tents with events, foodstuffs etc) but we weren’t prepared to pay $20 to get in, so carried on.
We stopped to buy a couple of things to eat in Piggly Wiggly (mac and cheese and collard greens from the deli). Back in the heart of the centre, we shopped for a new handbag in the market for Marie but couldn’t find anything quite right. Then we bought some spices and fresh tea at the aptly named Spices & Tea shop. Our last meal was in the evening at Sticky Fingers, and we went to bed slightly early because of a 5am flight home the next morning.
Charleston is not only quaint throughout and with a vibrant bar and restaurant scene, it’s also pretty big and you have everything there.
There are a lot of corporate jobs in the city and Marie said she would move there in an instant except for one thing: the tropical climate – which begins in about April – would be too much. Plus, most importantly for someone who has a serious phobia of roaches – you get palmetto bugs as real pests in the Carolina’s (well, South anyway). It’s a euphemistic name for a giant flying cockroach, something you always get in tropical climates near water (not all the time of course, but there‘s a danger). I said to Marie we could keep a tennis racket in each room at home, but a move to the tropical South would probably never happen.
We absolutely loved the city, and its people, though!