Travel Destinations: Three Days in Historic Charleston
Historic Charleston Beckons
As the onset of another winter snowstorm was threatening the North, I wanted to runaway to a place that never had snow. My body urged me to go South, away from the next threatening snowflake. But where? In the back of my mind I thought of Charleston. Charleston with its balmy weather and gracious southern lifestyle. I was on my way.
I flew into Charleston International Airport and was relieved that I didn't need my winter coat. No more layers! I got into a cab and headed for the Mills House Hotel situated in the middle of historic, downtown Charleston. As I looked at the passing buildings it struck me that none of the buildings were more than three stories tall. I can see the sky. The weather was okay, in the mid 40s, although I was told that it was unusually chilly for this time of year. The cab driver and I got to chatting about important places to visit in Charleston, so we talked about restaurants and he gave me several suggestions as well as coupons for free appetizers at those places. When I got to the hotel, I liked it immediately, it was colored pink and unlike other buildings nearby, was seven stories high, one of the tallest buildings in downtown Charleston.
After checking in, I walked to Jestine's Kitchen for lunch, one of the recommendations of my sagacious cab driver. I had eaten nothing but nuts during the flight down and I was eager to taste an authentic, Southern home-cooked meal that Jestine's offered.
- Hotel Review: The Mills House Hotel
The Mills House Hotel is a beautiful building located on one of the main streets of Downtown Charleston. So centrally located, it is in walking distance to practically everything historic in Downtown...
Photos by Flightkeeper
A Walking Tour of Downtown Charleston
The following morning I had made arrangements with the concierge regarding a tour and she suggested the Charleston Stroll which was a walking tour of downtown Charleston. Before the tour, I had breakfast at the Barbados Room at the hotel. The décor is elegantly traditional with dark green walls, chandeliers, and heavy drapery. All I wanted for breakfast was again, something I couldn't get up North, Biscuits with Gravy. And literally it's just southern-style biscuits with the roux containing crumbled bits of sausage slathered over it. I love eating it and can't get it anywhere but in the South.
As I waited, and waited, and waited, for the tour and tour guide to appear (because the hotel was the starting point of the walk) I was forced to realize that I might have missed it even though I was down at the lobby 15 minutes before the start. I called the tour service and they apologized and said they would send me another guide. They sent me Neil. Neil is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina and comes from a long line of South Carolinians. He is expecting to go to law school but has worked as tour guide for several years in Charleston. We started walking down Meeting St. and during the two hours, he knowledgeably recounted the landmarks and history of Charleston, specifically the Revolutionary War and the War Between The States, and a little of the slave trade.
Meeting Street is a main street in downtown Charleston and is lined with beautiful historic homes and mansions. We went inside St. Michael's Church, the oldest church in town. The ground floor is filled with private pews that must be bought by a family to sit within, complete with door. It's like having a box seat at the opera. The open pews are on the second floor for those of more modest means. As we strolled past the church, Neil pointed out the finials on the walls of some of the historic houses; those were really the ends of earthquake bolts that ran through the house. Many of the homes put the bolts in after Charleston experienced an earthquake that destroyed half of downtown Charleston. The bolts are there to keep the house together, ready for the next earthquake.
We walked to The Battery where antique (and non-working) cannons lined up and face out to sea, as if ready to defend Charleston at a moment's notice. It's a very pretty and uneventful walk that morning, hard to imagine that 200 years ago, Charleston's ports were so busy that it made Charleston the richest city in the South and the 4th largest city in Colonial America, after Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. We then walked up East Bay Street to look at more beautiful mansions. The Battery, during the revolutionary period didn't have those beautiful homes, they were built after the Revolutionary War. In addition to being the first line of Charleston's defense, the Battery served as a place of execution. This was where people who were considered traitors were strung up for days after they've been tarred and feathered, a slow and gruesome way to die. One of the mansions on East Bay St, during the War Between the States served as a lookout point for one of the South's feisty generals, he conducted a battle from the top of the mansion and relayed his instructions to his troops below.
We meandered to Church Street to look at St. Phillip's Episcopal Church which has had an active congregation since the founding of Charleston and the French Huguenot Church which also has an active congregation and has an annual service that is conducted in French. This unexpected private tour was a pleasure to experience and that was because Neil was a very personable tour guide who told great stories of downtown Charleston's history.
Photos by Flightkeeper
The Market and The Pub Tour
For lunch, I headed over to Hyman's Seafood Co., a popular place for seafood in downtown Charleston. I also had made plans to do a pub tour of Charleston later that evening, so I strolled around The Market to look at some of the home-made and handcrafted items that they had for sale. One of the intriguing items that are available are hand-made baskets made by craftsmen of the Gullah community in South Carolina. The Gullah are African-Americans well known for preserving a lot of their cultural heritage from Africa and mixing it with local American dialect and folkways. It is said that the baskets they made are woven so tightly that it can easily carry water. It is not unusual for these baskets to be priced at least at a hundred dollars because of its craftsmanship.
Later that evening, I made my way to Tommy Condon's Irish Pub for the start of my pub tour. I met John, the tour guide there along with the rest of the tour group (I didn't miss it this time!). We started with Guinness and we were on our way. John's knowledge and trivia of downtown and historic Charleston was extensive and amusing as he regaled us with stories of pirates that stopped off at Charleston in between their pillaging (Bluebeard actually held one of the city's legislators and his young son in captivity until the city gave him and his pirates some much needed medicine.), of the political shenanigans of Charleston's early politicians, the ghosts that are said to haunt certain places (including my hotel – Robert E Lee is said to be haunting the 2ndfloor, but only in December), of the secret places where you can get a drink during Prohibition, and the earthquake, fire, and flooding that bedeviled Charleston. In fact, according to John, it was natural disasters that created the most damage in Charleston and not the Revolutionary War or the War Between the States. The last devastating natural disaster was Hurricane Hugo; Charleston found a third of its historic district knee deep in sea water. The group visited three pubs after Jimmy Condon's, one of which we had Sweet Tea Vodka. We ended the tour at The Griffon, which is a British-style Pub. At the Griffon, I stapled a dollar to a wooden post in case I come back and need the dollar to pay for my drink. This tradition was started when men, before they went off on a sea voyage, would put their name on a dollar bill, attach it to the wall, and when they came back, they would have money to buy their first drink. I marveled that a drink could only cost a dollar back then. It was night time by the end of the tour and as I made my way to Mills House, I was wary that I would see a ghost pop out to greet me, but luckily none did.
- Restaurant Review: Jestine's Kitchen, Charleston, SC
Jestine's is one of those places in the South that everyone knows for its good, low-country home-cooking. The Fried Chicken and Pecan Pie are worth having over and over and over again.
On my last full day in historic Charleston, I decided to go up and down King Street, with its numerous shops, one after the other. Clearly it was the shopping district of downtown Charleston. For lunch, I stopped at Sticky Fingers for its famous Hickory-Smoked Chicken Wings and Memphis-Style Dry Rub Ribs, and of course, some more iced sweet tea. As I packed and got ready for departure the following day, I regretted that I didn't have more time to spend in Charleston. I reflected that Charleston was a modern city full of people who're very proud of their history and embraced the good and the bad of it, and I promised myself that this would not be my last visit.
The following are some books that you might want to use and read before you make your visit to this historic and lovely city.
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