AN ALLURING WEEKEND LIAISON WITH LOVELY CHARLESTON
Awe-inspiring in architecture, mouth-watering in cuisine, all-encompassing in ambiance, heart-melting in Southern charm—Charleston is one belle of a town. Beneath her gracious guise, though, is an unshrinking grande dame who has weathered wars (both the Revolutionary and the Civil), earthquake, fire, pirate attacks from the sea, and as recently as 1989, the eye of a hurricane in Charleston Harbor. Miraculously, through every ill-starred adversity, literally hundreds and hundreds of distinguished buildings have survived, endowing this coastal city’s Historic District with the finest collection of pre-Revolutionary and antebellum architecture in the country. Our four-day, three-night visit will put you right in the middle of it all and provide insightful context for a full embrace of all Charleston’s wide-ranging riches—its history, its culture, its beauty and its cuisine.
In mid-afternoon after taxiing from the airport, make yourself at home at your centrally-located hotel, a once private residence that only recently opened its handsome 19th-century portals to guests. Each of the individually appointed rooms comes with all the amenities expected in a hostelry that is a designated as one of the world’s best, and our favorite gesture is the house-made chocolates—confected in one of the hotel’s restaurants, Circa 1886—that are part of the turn-down service.
But it’s not time for bed yet, so head to the nearby Pavilion Bar, a rooftop aerie that dispenses not only premium preprandial libations but also affords Charleston’s finest view. From there you be able to survey the harbor (making a Harbor Breeze an especially apt choice from the cocktail menu) and take in a panorama that includes an impressive stand of steeples, spires and cupolas elegantly exclaiming themselves across the cityscape. You’ll also get a feel for the lay of the land that you’ll begin exploring fully tomorrow.
First, though: Dinner! No Southern chef of late has racked up more approbation than Sean Brock, a native of the Virginia Appalachian coalfields and the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker. Only 34, Brock has two venerated restaurants in downtown Charleston where he has reunited time-honored, indigenous Dixie dishes with dozens of heirloom greens and grains, many of which have not found application in a modern galley since before the Civil War. The more recent of Brock’s two eateries, Husk, was last year named Best New Restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit, and your table there awaits at 8 o’clock. Daily modified to take advantage of the best of what’s available from local purveyors, the menu is thus always a skillful work in flux, so there is no telling what will be on offer, other that it will be strictly Southern. (So orthodox is Brock in making sure it is, he has forsworn olive oil because it’s not native to the region.) You might savor deviled eggs with pickled okra, or South Carolina shrimp paired with what’s freshest from local gardens. Whatever you choose, don’t miss out on a skillet of smoky Benton’s bacon cornbread, which is, thankfully, always on the bill of fare.
This morning enjoy a homemade breakfast, and about the time you’re having your final cup of coffee, your guide for the day, Linda, will join you. A fifth-generation Charlestonian with more than 27 years of experience, Linda is a licensed, check-all-the boxes guide who can cater to any enthusiasm. Interested in having your morning tour focus on the Civil War? Check. The Revolutionary War? Check. Architecture? Check. Arts, antiques, gardens? Check, check and check. Linda imparts her deep knowledge on any and all these topics in an accent as Southern as a hot buttered biscuit.
Among the tucked-away sights Linda can share is a visit to the private Home for the Mothers, Widows, and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers, established in the dark days of Reconstruction. Nowadays a college, this hidden architectural setting so drips with Southern atmosphere—balconies, weathered shutters, live oaks—that it is often the chosen site for weddings by couples in the know. Linda can also give you an inside look at the airy cast-iron-balconied Dock Theater, the first building in the country designed for use as a theater and recently reopened after a massive renovation that has brought the black-cypress-paneled Georgian-style auditorium back to its original splendor of 1736. Linda’s carte blanche also opens the door to a private home down on Charleston’s Battery, where from a second-story piazza (pronounced pea-ah-zah in these parts and the local name for porch) you will have a outstanding view of Fort Sumter, the brick and granite bastion whose terrible pounding in 1861 ignited the War Between the States.
No tour of Charleston is complete without a visit to one of its elegant homes, and this morning you’ll also be calling at the Nathaniel Russell House, regarded as one of the country’s most important Federal-style dwellings. This grand 1809 townhouse has wrought-iron balconies and a superb fanlight over the door, and inside, elaborate Adamesque plasterwork and a dramatic free-flying staircase that is considered one of the most daring and exuberant ever created in early America. A three-story bay overlooks the home’s formal gardens, which are among the finest in town.
Linda will next drive you a few miles out of town to Mount Pleasant, a darling summer village where, if you’re a film buff, you might be interested to know Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was filmed. The location for lunch in this peaceful, languorous seaside setting is up to you: RB’s Seafood Restaurant on Shem Creek (you could choose fried catfish served with collard greens and Carolina red rice, the latter a local spécialité infused with bacon and tomato paste) or Melvin’s Bar-B-Que, if you feel more like Carolina pork ribs or a sliced brisket sandwich, both served with corn bread and homemade macaroni and cheese. Afterwards, Linda will conduct you around Mount Pleasant’s “Old Village.” Concealed deep within this enchanting community lies a neighborhood of narrow shaded streets along which rise magnificent homes and beautiful churches that measure up to those in Charleston’s, though on a slightly more demure, less look-at-me scale. Pat will also show you a collection of precious Victoria-era cottages that are cleverly raised six feet off the ground to invite cooling breezes from the water. Your side-trip over, it’s back to Charleston.
You’ll next take in one of the South’s most extravagant spectacles. Every Friday afternoon at the Citadel, founded in 1842 and known for its Moorish-style architecture, this military college carries on a nearly 200-year-old tradition of parading the school’s entire corps of cadets—approximately 2,000 men and women—in a 45-minute exercise of pageantry that erupts to the sound of bagpipes, bugles, and drums. Among the many ingredients of this colorful tableau are a kilted drum major, three dozen pipers, feather bonnets, and flags aflutter everywhere, all choreographed to a tee and backed by traditional marching music. The pomp and precision ends with cannon fire and the lowering of the flag. It’s a stirring ceremony you won’t soon forget.
Return to your hotel, say goodbye to Linda for the evening, and relax before dinner. If you like, you can enjoy a drink before dinner at the hotel’s parlor—and even take it up to the hotel’s open cupola, a perch that allows you to relish the crepuscular view. Dinner is at one of our favorites, to which you can amble or hire as your conveyance one of the plentiful rickshaws. The restaurant is known for adhering to the well-practiced Low Country standards, and this might be the place to try the region’s signature dish, Carolina shrimp and grits. Start with a picnic plate of fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and toasted baguette, pickled peaches, and barbecued Low Country peanuts. Live jazz will probably be playing while you dine, and if you are inclined, you can linger after dinner with a café brûlot (a classic Southern after-dinner drink) and listen to more of it.
Following breakfast either in your room or downstairs, Linda will come fetch you for an outing into the rural Carolina Low Country a few miles outside Charleston. First up is Middleton Place, site of American’s oldest landscaped garden and unquestionably one of its most beautiful. It’s hard to imagine the wilderness this place was way back in 1741 when Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress, had the audacity to envision these 65 acres transformed into landscaped terraces, ornamental waterways and gorgeous plantings, all arranged in complex geometric patterns à la those at the Château de Versailles. (In fact, Le Nôtre’s designs were the inspiration.) Despite two wars and a severe earthquake, the vistas, focal points and surprises Middleton planned all live on for enjoyment by the 21st-century visitor, and you will discover them aboard a handcrafted, horse-drawn plantation carriage led by an expert guide and driver. You’ll travel all through these exceptional gardens, through a lush bamboo forest, into scenic woodlands and around the banks of flooded rice fields.
By the time your excursion concludes, Linda will have secured you a table at the Middleton Place Restaurant, founded in 1928 by the local Junior League and offering a menu that reflects the influence of the famous Southern chef Edna Lewis. The restaurant was once her dominion and her recipes are still used for celebrated plantation fare like she-crab soup and as well as other culinary quirks of the Old South, including Huguenot torte, a chewy, macaroon-like cake with origins in, of all places, the Ozarks. After lunch, you’ll explore Middleton Place’s House Museum, originally built in 1755 as gentlemen’s guest quarters and now the only surviving portion of the three-building residential complex that once stood overlooking the Ashley River. (The other structures, including the main Georgian mansion, were set ablaze by Union troops in February 1865, just two months before the end of the Civil War.) Generations of Middletons subsequently adapted to their reduced accommodations until the property opened to the public in 1975.
Your next destination is also a property occupied by the same bloodline for generations: Drayton Hall. For it, superlatives in guide books abound: “Without question one of the finest of all surviving plantation houses in America.” “The most significant surviving building in British North America.” Or just flat-out “One of the finest buildings in the United States.”
Built in 1738, never electrified, never outfitted with plumbing, never significantly altered, and never belonging to anyone but the same family (the Draytons, till 1974), this rice and indigo plantation offers a historical house experience simply like no other in the country. It truly is a time capsule that genuinely transports you to another period; it is the real deal, not a re-imagined, re-manufactured, over-restored one. Nary a stick of furniture dresses up any of the Palladian-style mansion’s many rooms, yet they are ranked at the very pinnacle of American interior design. That is because each chamber is amply though quietly decorated with pedimented chimneypieces, fine plasterwork and distinctive paneling, all bearing an aged patina that testifies to centuries of Southern pluck.
After a tour of this remarkable house, Linda will interpret the grounds, including a Victorian-era garden mound and reflecting pond, centuries-old live oaks, and the ha-ha that created a barrier to keep sheep and other livestock out of the formal gardens in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Afterwards, it’s a 15-mile drive back to Charleston, where you’ll have time to do shopping along King Street and the vicinity. Ben Silver is a old-school London haberdasher offering men’s and women’s furnishings. With designer creations in every stripe, Bob Ellis Shoe Store is renown as not only as the best footwear store in Charleston but perhaps the whole country (really). And Audubon Gallery is noted for fine natural history and botanical prints. Don’t forget to pick up a tin or two of a local delicacy, sesame-seed benne wafers. They come both savory or sweet, and are so named because benne is a word believed to have been brought into 17th-century Colonial America by West African slaves. Another African import to the region is the style of the distinctive sweetgrass baskets that are still woven by women in a technique passed down matrilineally for generations. You will find their wares on offer in a wide range of sizes and styles all around central Charleston.
On the way back to your hotel, pause for a cocktail at the Thoroughbred Club at Charleston Place, where there’s live entertainment from 4 o’clock on and a tapas menu if you need a bite to tide you over till dinnertime. At 8 o’clock, we have made a rezzie at one of Charleston’s best where you can indulge in the prix-fixe four-course meal if you like, or order à la carte. Choices include Thornhill Farms chicken, raised in nearby McClellanville, and pears roasted over pecan shells and served with pecans and coconut.
Prepare your luggage for safekeeping with the bellman and a later departure. Charleston is quiet on Sunday morning, so why not enjoy a valedictory stroll around this beautiful city when you can have it practically all to yourself. A fine destination would be the College of Charleston, founded in 1770 and the 13th oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Festooned with Spanish moss growing from venerable live oaks, the campus features as its main building a distinguished work by William Strickland, one of America’s preeminent architects in the 19th century. By now you will have earned an appetite, and we have the perfect suggestion for brunch. Afterwards, retrieve your luggage and head to the airport by taxi—and on to your next adventure!