One of the South's most venerable cities showcases a splendid harbor and unique historical character.
She’s the Lady of the Low Country, surrounded with marsh, winding creeks, palmetto and pine. Her low skyline, punctuated by the steeples of St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s churches, blends gracefully into her bordering rivers.
Since her birth in 1670, she has suffered five great fires, been pillaged by war and by nature, and served as seaport and naval base. Through it all, she has become a widely recognized symbol of culture, charm and the finer things of civilization. The Lady is Charleston, S.C.
You can approach Charleston from the Intracoastal Waterway or from the sea through the big ship inlet. As you cross the broad harbor, knowledge of what is around you helps to whet your appetite for what is in store when you go ashore. You’ll see Fort Sumter on its island, brooding over the outer reaches of the harbor. The War Between the States began here, when local regiments fired upon the fort. You’ll be able to visit the fort on a tour boat that leaves from the city.
You may pass over the waters where, during the night of Feb. 17, 1864, the Confederate ship Hunley, with a brave crew of eight, became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. However, she mysteriously foundered after her success, with all hands lost. She remained quietly on the bottom until recovered in 2000. You can see her preserved in a 90,000-gallon conservation tank (www.hunley.org).
As you come closer to the city, you’ll be impressed by the fine Southern homes along the waterfront at the point known as Battery Park. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo raged in from the sea where these homes stand, with a tidal surge up to 16 feet and 135-mph winds. But they still stand and are still grandly used.
Some consider the hub of the city to be the old Market Place, not seen from the harbor. It’s situated in an ancient creek bed now filled with long, low brick buildings full of stalls with items including sweet grass baskets woven locally, things to eat, and many arts and crafts. The bed still floods occasionally, and watermarks line some of the brick walls of the market buildings.
Surrounding the Market Place and on nearby streets are shops, from fine to funky, many specializing in arts and products local to the area and most featuring shopping experiences that would be difficult to duplicate except in a place such as Charleston. One example is The Spice & Tea Exchange of Charleston, at 170-A Church Street (www.spiceandtea.com). Its offerings include more than 150 exotic spices and herbs, more than 20 mineral and sea salts from around the globe, an assortment of fragrant and unique loose teas, and more than 75 custom spice blends, including rubs for beef, pork, chicken and seafood, as well as pasta seasonings, curries and salt-free choices. The blends are hand-mixed on premises to ensure freshness and flavor.
And it is here that you begin to appreciate one of the many features for which Charleston is famous: the restaurants.
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There are restaurants ringing Market Place, but that’s just the beginning; you’ll find many more nestled in the quiet streets running out from the area, from informal food spots with touristy themes to exceptional restaurants.
The rich variety of the restaurant experience is exemplified by two we visited during our stay. Fleet Landing Restaurant at 186 Concord St. is so named because for many years the Navy used the building — on what is essentially a pier extending into the harbor — to land sailors and supplies and to service ships. Around 1970 the Navy stopped using the building, and it sat vacant until 2003 when it was leased to the current restaurant owners. Both the view and the food are spectacular.
Inside, you can still recognize much of the old warehouse characteristics of the building, but it’s been subtly decorated and modified to make it very comfortable, with a casual fine-dine feeling. The walls are mostly large windows, and you have a sweeping view out into the harbor and across the Cooper River to Patriots Point and the aircraft carrier Yorktown, the destroyer Laffey and the Coast Guard cutter Ingham.
Fleet Landing (www.fleetlanding.net) features classic and contemporary Southern seafood, regional favorites such as shrimp and grits, burgers, salads, inspired main entrees and much more. When we visited on a weeknight, the restaurant was full, with Charlestonians comprising most of the diners. This, to me, is a clear sign of excellence for a restaurant. There is also a full bar.
The next day we had an amazing lunch at Caviar & Bananas gourmet market and café at 51 George St. It is a fascinating combination of concept and culinary application. It was bustling with local diners and shoppers. When you walk in, the opportunities for eating are overwhelming and, yes, exciting. You can find the ordinary and the extraordinary, and you can build your own epicurean creation or let them do it for you.
Upscale gourmet choices feature made-to-order specialties including sandwiches, salads, sushi, artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, boutique wines, an espresso/tea bar and much more. There are also special events, such as wine tastings. Of special interest to boaters is that you can also order out for a quiet evening on board and even long-term provisioning. The owners say they can deliver whatever you need to your boat (www.caviarandbananas.com).
There are many more excellent restaurants. Poogan’s Porch at 72 Queen St. is one of Charleston’s oldest culinary establishments. It’s in a beautifully restored Victorian-style Charleston single house built in 1888. In case you’re wondering, Poogan was a neighborhood street dog that wandered from porch to porch hoping for scraps. He adopted the place during its reconstruction and then greeted the first diners as he hung out on this porch.
Poogan has passed on, but one lady who lived there long ago is reputed to not have quite done that. There are many reported sightings of the ghost of Zoe St. Amand, a lady who long ago resided at the house. Considering that there is a 15,000-bottle wine cellar, I think I’d hang around, too. The chef, son of the founding owners, has worked at the establishment since he was 13 and has received many culinary awards. (www.poogansporch.com).
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I’ve dwelt on restaurants because they are such a well-known part of Charleston’s allure. Of course, there’s much more. There are many festivals, such as the Charleston Food and Wine Festival, the Southeastern Wildlife Festival and the Festival of Houses & Gardens. We found that the best way to absorb the ambience of the historic area of Charleston is to walk.
But first, to gain an overall familiarity from which you can better arrange your time and satisfy your interests, visit the Charleston Visitor Center on 375 Meeting St. Operated by the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.charlestoncvb.com), it has trained staff, displays and all the information you need to plan your visit. Then consider taking a carriage or bus ride with a guide. There are several competing companies closely regulated by the city. Our ride, in a Gray Line tour bus, included an interesting and well-informed narrative by the driver.
As you travel about, you’ll see DASH (downtown area shuttle) buses moving along the streets. Operated by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, they offer an excellent opportunity for touring the historic area of the city at your own pace, hopping on and off where you wish after you’ve established your walking priorities in the tour. A $5 ticket lets you ride all day long. Get a DASH brochure from your marina and you’ll not only have a map of the city, but also the routes of the buses marked in different colors. Each bus will have a sign that matches the color of the route it takes. This is easy, lets you see more, and gives you the opportunity to explore on foot almost anywhere you wish.
Walking out from Market Place in almost any direction you’ll find quiet, shaded streets, often cobbled with ballast from old ships. The streets of the town were laid out in orderly straight lines in the 1670s, and finding your way about is easy. This is a city not only of businesses but also of well-kept homes, both large and small. Wrought-iron railings, sculptured stones and gas lamps beckon your spirit back to times of the past. Many of these buildings extend a long distance from the street but are only one room wide. This style allowed the winds to blow through and cool each room.
Passage from room to room was by the piazza, a long porch running the length of one side of the building, both upstairs and downstairs. Sometimes people slept out here, enjoying the breezes. The street entrance door is through a wall that extends to cover the front of the piazza. When you go through the door, you find yourself on the porch.
There are many museums and shopping opportunities. For example, at the west end of the Market, across from Confederate Museum, an upscale shopping mall is barely noticeable within a building designed to blend with the older architecture.
Traveling down Charleston’s peninsula, you’ll eventually reach the point and Battery Park, where you can look out on the waters from which you first approached the city. Before you get here, you’ll cross Broad Street, where you’ll then be “south of Broad,” an area considered by many to be the “finer” residential section of town. The “finer” people who lived in those mansions were sometimes called the SOBs by other townsfolk, referring, they assured, to the side of Broad where they lived.
A few blocks after Broad, when you cross Tradd Street, be sure to look both ways. You’ll see both the Ashley and Cooper rivers, one at either end of the street. If, as is likely, you’re on Meeting Street, you may pass a First Baptist Church. This, however, isn’t just a First Baptist. It is the First Baptist Church, founded in 1682.
At Battery Park, you’ll see up close the mansions that first attracted your attention as you approached in your boat. Cannons along the shore remind you of the point’s historical military significance. The stately trees once sported the twisting remnants of hanging pirates. One morning long ago, 30 were hung here.
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Charleston isn’t just about the past. You’ll see this throughout the town and especially on the north side along the Cooper River. Just a few years ago, this was a commercial docking and loading port. Parts of the riverside still are. Tall container ship cranes frame storage yards of a seaport. Cities often “rejuvenate” the waterfront. Charleston has done this, but without losing the waterfront.
Liberty Square graces the midst of the commercial area. A park on the river, it and related facilities provide a different experience from the rest of town. The Fountain Walk has a three-story shopping pavilion and many other attractions. The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center, operated by the National Park Service, exhibits history of the fort and its era. Take a launch out to the fort. After the Union troops surrendered her in 1861, she was occupied by the Confederates and withstood a siege until 1865, with 46,000 shells fired upon her in two gruesome years.
The South Carolina Aquarium is next door to the Fort Sumter center. Here, paths wind among realistically constructed regions, including a living mountain forest down to displays of piedmont, coastal plain, salt marsh, coast and finally ocean depths. Walk down and around a broad, towering column of water full of underwater life. A small theater at the base offers a place to sit and quietly enjoy your feeling of immersion or watch an underwater presentation. Afterward, when you stand outside on the deck and look out to the river, you are overwhelmed by an entirely different aspect of the sea, a sight already familiar if you’ve dined at Fleet Landing.
The aircraft carrier Yorktown, displaying 27 famous aircraft including fixed-wing and helicopters, the Coast Guard cutter Ingham, the destroyer Laffey, and the submarine Clamagore each have a special place in history and in the annals of maritime bravery. Take the water taxi, which lets you off right alongside this fleet. If you are staying at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, you can walk from your dock and down the boardwalk to these ships. They are part of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum (www.visitpatriotspoint.org).
There is also a museum building ashore, but I have to admit I spend most of my time aboard the ships, wandering about from stem to stern, bridge to engine room, officer’s wardroom to gun stations. I need days for this to just walk about each ship, standing silently in the corridors, touching the bulkheads, feeling the memories of brave people — people who have been so important to our survival.
The Laffey was known as the “ship that wouldn’t die.” Off Okinawa in 1945, no less than five kamikaze planes hit her, as well as three bombs. And she lives today. The Yorktown was our 10th aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1943 and named after the aircraft carrier Yorktown that went down in the Battle of Midway. Its service was legendary, including the Vietnam War and the recovery of the Apollo 8 astronauts and their capsule in 1968. Today, you can walk her corridors, visit her bridge, see some of the actual planes from history and, I swear, still feel her pulse, as you can any brave, old ship.
On her flight deck, you can also experience the very essence of unselfish bravery and sacrifice for our country, for here is the Medal of Honor Museum and the national headquarters for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The museum has nine sections following its impressive entrance, including interactive displays that take you into the events of history now honored. Shortly after entering, you’ll walk down what seems to be a time tunnel with scenes and words of true legends appearing as you pass. You’ll be there. You’ll know the people and what they did. I can’t imagine anyone experiencing this shrine without a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye. As President Lincoln said, “Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.” Each of us should visit this place and persuade and help others to do so. And take our children.
Four marinas serve the immediate Charleston area. Sharing the waterfront just downriver from the ships of the Patriots Point Museum, you’ll find Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina (www.charlestonharborresort.com). With more than 17,000 linear feet of floating docks, it can handle very large yachts. It sells ValvTect certified fuel, and diesel can be pumped to some of the slips.
This is not just a marina, but a full resort experience. If you want to get off the boat (or get rid of some guests for a few days) you’ll appreciate the luxury of the fine resort hotel. As a small example of what you’ll find, there are tasteful, realistic electric fireplaces in many of the rooms. Most rooms command a view of the harbor, inlet, Fort Sumter and the ICW, as well as the Charleston skyline. A very nice swimming pool surrounded by white sand, the Indigo Grill for fine dining, the Reel Bar, an annual billfish tournament and numerous resort events make this a destination of its own merit.
In the Reel Bar are displays of antique fishing gear dating to the 1920s. Many of the rods and reels were used by such authors as Zane Gray, Kip Farrington and Ernest Hemingway. This collection is said to be one of the largest and most valuable of its kind in the United States.
Nearby restaurants and bars in the Point Pleasant area give you even more to do. More than 20 golf courses are in the area, including the nearby Patriots Point Links. Marina customers have the privileges associated with the rest of the resort, and you’re only a few minutes from the center of Charleston. A water taxi can take you to various points in town, and a complimentary resort shuttle runs regularly across the river, to and from the Market.
The City Marina (www.charlestoncitymarina.com) is on the south side of the Charleston peninsula on the Ashley River. It is also known as the home of the MegaDock, which extends up and down the river 1,530 feet, with two sides for docking. From the dock, high- and low-speed fuel is available. While the property is owned by the city, the marina is privately — and quite well — operated. It’s just east of the first bridge. Huge cement breakwater walls protect the inner docks.
It was selected as the 2005 National Marina of the Year by Marina Dock Age magazine and has won numerous other awards, such as the International PIANC Award for outstanding marina design. The MegaDock Billfish Tournament (www.megadocktournament.com), the City Marina Sailfish Slam (www.sailfishslam.com), and others are held there. The docks are new, attractive and wide; the main dock looks like a runway. A spacious lounge out on the main dock includes large “couples” bathroom-shower suites, e-mail and television room, laundry, and many other conveniences.
The marina operates a complimentary shuttle to places downtown. Whether going to the sumptuous Harris Teeter across town for groceries, the Market area for touring and dining, or to a nearby boat chandlery, you’ve got the city very conveniently at your fingertips. You also will find a wine shop and liquor store, chandlery and other establishments.
The huge Charleston City Boatyard (www.thecityboatyard.com) is up the Wando River, but you can arrange for mobile services to be performed while docked at the City Marina. It’s worth noting that the aggregate time per tax year that a boat may be in the county without being taxed is 180 days, which is consistent with much of the rest of the state.
Just up the Ashley River, beyond the reported 55-foot vertical clearance bridge, lies The Harborage at Ashley Marina (www.theharborageatashleymarina.com). The facility accommodates boats to 150 feet and offers many amenities, including fuel and a shuttle bus to town. Slips are primarily privately owned, but it still caters to transient business.
The Charleston Maritime Center (www.cmcevents.com) is operated by the city. It is on the Cooper River on the northern side of the peninsula in the Liberty Square area. It includes a marina that is within easy walking distance of the Market. Ask the harbormaster for the best route.
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Charleston, a benchmark of our society, has been rated time and again by innumerable touring magazines and establishments as a premier place to visit. It’s yet another great reason to cruise the East Coast, whether on a local jaunt or a lifetime trip from one form of paradise to another. This is one such stop.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.