Historic mansion in Charleston
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I'm going back to Charleston, back where I belong. I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn't something left in life of charm and grace. --Rhett Butler, "Gone With the Wind"
The Holy City, Charleston, is so named for the skyline of steeples seen by ships' passengers as they enter Charleston harbor. The view was there before the American Revolution, during the Civil War, and you'll see the same today as your ship arrives or departs. Charleston has endured much over the centuries, but the city also has thrived and prospered. Pirates, wars, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes and, most frequently, fires have left their mark on the city and the region known as the Lowcountry, as have the unique individuals and personalities that have shaped the centuries there -- and left us the Charleston we know today.
Today's Charleston is a treasure trove, a unique blend of architecture and history, art and culture. Visit the Old Exchange Building, and see the history of the city and that of the port. Look at Rainbow Row to see how individual buildings have become part of a city landmark. Turn down any corner, and discover quiet alleys and cobbled streets where the past is always present. The air can be thick with scent -- tea olive, jessamine, magnolia; camellias and azaleas burst forth with color, each in their season. It's hard to get lost -- sooner or later, you'll end up at either the Ashley or Cooper River. Walk the Battery, with planters' mansions behind you, and gaze across the harbor at Fort Sumter, where the tragedy of the Civil War began. Stroll the neighborhoods, and begin to understand why Charlestonians are proud of what has been preserved and maintained. They're eager to share it and will go out of their way to help visitors, which explains why Charleston has been named the "Most Polite" city in America several years in a row.
Bring your camera, your appetite and a shopping bag. The city is overwhelmingly picturesque, and you'll find yourself stopping over and over for that perfect photo, that intriguing view. Dine well and often in this city where, in years gone by, residents ate only at home; now, the city is a foodie haven where dining out has become a never-ending adventure. The Saturday Farmers' Market is always crowded, and an annual Food & Wine Festival has been introduced. And, make sure to set yourself to shopping mode. National chains do exist, but it's what's local that really counts. The must-have items are handwoven sweetgrass baskets; they're expensive, yes, but you're buying centuries of tradition. Look for antiques, silver, jewelry and art of every kind. (No, it's not legally required to have an art gallery on every block ... it just seems that way.)
Take your time, and don't try to do everything; you'll be coming back.
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This city is known for its handmade sweetgrass baskets, benne wafers, stone-ground grits, antique silver and furniture, as well as paintings and watercolors by accomplished local artists. You may want to peruse the area before making any purchases, though, as several vendors offer similar products at varying prices. Some will even offer discounts, so it doesn't hurt to shop around before committing.
It's English, with a twist. Charlestonians speak in warm, languid voices that make a drawl seem fast, and African Americans of Gullah/Geechee descent still use the words of another time, softened by the centuries.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
U.S. dollars are used, and ATM's are readily available; credit cards may not be accepted by individual vendors in the Market or by the city's famed basket makers.
Where You're Docked
The passenger terminal couldn't be more convenient; it's within strolling distance of everything. The facility itself isn't the most visually appealing, but plans to improve the area have been stalled in court for years by locals who argue that visiting cruise ships detract from the serenity of the city. Secure, patrolled parking is available for a per-day fee; an open public garage, about two to three blocks away, also offers daily parking.
The city begins at the gangway. The Market stretches for blocks before you and is bordered north and south by a broad variety of shops, galleries and restaurants. It's here that the carriage tours begin and end, and beyond is the main shopping district. To your left lies the original Historic District, Charleston's heart; to your right is Ansonborough, Charleston's first suburb (1800).
On Foot: It's very easy to explore Charleston on foot, given the intimate scale of the area. Check to see if your smartphone is GPS-enabled, or access the MapQuest application on your iPhone to guide yourself. You can shave time and distance from your on-foot explorations that way.
By Bus: For those who don't want to hoof it around town, public transit is available through CARTA, which operates both city buses and trolley-style shuttles. The cost for a trolley is free, and you can also purchase transfers between trolleys and buses to get wherever you need to go. Correct change is required; you can also pre-order single-day or three-day passes.
By Car: Taxis are at the terminal when a ship is in port. Yellow Cab will dispatch (843-577-6565), as will Max Transportation (843-822-1869) and Charleston Black Cab Company (843-216-2627). For cab rides to and from the Charleston airport (about $30 each way), try Grant's Limo-Taxi (843-813-1737). Rickshaw-pedicabs operate downtown, but mainly in the evening (Charleston Rickshaw, 843-723-5685). Rental cars are available downtown at Enterprise or Budget. Both companies are located opposite the Visitors' Center, about a mile or so from the port.
Watch Out For
Watch out for young people trying to sell palmetto roses, made from the fronds of the local trees. Yes, they are cute and make nice souvenirs, but the sellers will remind you of Caribbean beach vendors. Practice the word "no." Also, there's no such thing as a flat sidewalk; public restrooms only exist in the Market, parking garages and near the waterfront park; and, oh yes, those "free tours" being offered at booths and storefronts are come-ons for timeshares.
The Historic District: This is truly the Charleston of yesteryear, covering the city in its Colonial and Antebellum eras. It can be toured in several ways. You can wander on your own with a guidebook and a map, strolling and stopping as you please. You can take one of the carriages that leave from Church and N. Market Streets for a 45-minute ride with an entertaining guide. (Try to get on a carriage with a No. 1 medallion.)
You can also sign up for a guided walking tour with one of the many companies offering them, such as the Original Charleston Walks, which has a range of general, combination and specialty tours. All general tours will include landmarks like the Old Exchange Building, Rainbow Row, the Battery, St. Michael's Church (the city's oldest, dating back to 1761) and St. Philip's Church. (Ask about Calhoun's multiple burials.) Other tours by minivans cover more ground with multiple stops and are easier on the feet.
Specialty tours abound. You'll find Gullah Tours, which portray the African-American experience (including slavery), and Amanda Dew Manning's culinary tours, which feature markets, restaurants and specialty shops, are interesting options. Lastly, if time and temperament allow, come back after dark for one of the many ghost tours, which offer a different perspective on the city's history.
Houses & Museums: Charleston features half a dozen magnificent house museums, an art museum and a historical museum, along with outlying plantations; all are open for tours. They can be visited independently, in conjunction with a tour, or you can buy a two-day Charleston Heritage Passport that covers them all ($44.95). The sites include the Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting Street; with a magnificent flying staircase and decor), the Edmonston-Alston House (21 East Battery; planter's waterfront town home with splendid furnishings), the Heyward-Washington House (87 Church Street; Washington stayed here in 1791. See the priceless Holmes Bookcase and the incredible gardens.), the Joseph Manigault House (350 Meeting Street; a rice-planter's residence, designed by his brother who also designed City Hall), the Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth Street; a huge mansion, preserved in its mid-19th century condition). Both the Gibbes Museum of Art (135 Meeting Street; an excellently eclectic collection) and the Charleston Museum (360 Meeting Street; 300 years of the city's life and history) are included in the Passport or can be visited individually. Not included in any package, but worth a visit, is the Calhoun Mansion (16 Meeting Street; a post-Civil War exercise in Victorian opulence and, no, it's not John C. Calhoun, but a later relative who bought it from its builder).
Fort Sumter: "Where the Civil War began," Fort Sumter sits at the entrance of Charleston Harbor, a battered reminder of the furor and folly that so characterized the Civil War. The attack on the fort was a public spectacle for Charlestonians, who were unaware of the hardship and destruction that would follow. The fort itself, under constant siege and assault, ended the war as a ruin. A visit to the interpretive center at the pier is suggested before boarding the tour boat. The tour lasts a little longer than two hours and includes a narrated harbor cruise, as well as admission to the monument itself and the services of the knowledgeable National Park Services guides.
The South Carolina Aquarium, located just next door to the Fort Sumter National Monument building, is ideal if you're traveling with children. While you're there, check out the venue's albino alligator. There's a variety of other exhibits, too, including otters, fish, sharks, turtles, jellyfish and even a bald eagle. Be sure to use the map you're given when you purchase your tickets. It can be difficult to navigate otherwise.
Special Events: At certain times of the year, some events can use up every hotel room, restaurant and parking space in town, so plan ahead. These include the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in mid-February and the famed Spoleto Festival of the Arts from late May to mid-June -- but be aware of the crowds. Additionally, a series of house tours and events take place twice a year, with private residences, gardens and venues being opened up for public viewing. In October, the Preservation Society sponsors Fall Tours of Homes & Gardens, and, mid-March to mid-April, the Historic Charleston Foundation conducts the Festival of Houses & Gardens. If either coincides with your cruise-related stop in Charleston, so much the better.
Been There, Done That
Visit one of the Ashley River plantations for a glimpse into a unique way of life. Drayton Hall (843-769-2600), a National Trust property, is the finest Georgian structure in the country and was untouched by Union troops, who history suggests may have thought it was a leper hospital. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens (800-367-3517) has grown from seasonal camellias and azaleas to year-round blooms, events and specialty gardens. Middleton Place (843-556-6020), with its incredible Butterfly Lakes, has exquisite formal gardens, as well as extensive vistas over the rice fields and the river. Each has expanded its offerings for a more balanced look at slavery and the part it played in the area's history.
Golf at one of the many excellent courses in the area, including the renowned Ocean Course, which is one of five at Kiawah Island Resort (800-576-1570). After your round, stop off at the resort's ultra-luxury hotel, the Sanctuary, for a drink, a meal or just a look around.
See tea being grown at Charleston Tea Plantation (843-559-0383), the only tea-producing farm in America. Set on rural Wadmalaw Island, the facility not only grows tea (a relative of camellias), but also processes it onsite. Tours of the operations are offered daily with samples.
Ride a bike over the massive and striking Ravenel Bridge on the Cooper River. The structure has walking/biking lanes and offers incredible views of the city, the harbor and all the way out to sea. At the other end, Patriots' Point, is a naval museum built into the WWII carrier Yorktown. If you'd rather not ride, take the water taxi. Affordabike is a nice option (534 King Street, 843-789-3281).
Charleston is home to the Charleston RiverDogs, a class-A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees. If you're spending time in Charleston pre- or post-cruise, you can catch a night game for just a few dollars. The field, located in Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, is at 360 Fishburne Street and is within walking distance of hotels in the Medical District; from downtown, it's a five- to 10-minute cab ride. The stadium is also where you'll find the Homewrecker Hot Dog -- a half-pound, all-beef dog (featured on an episode of "Man vs. Food") to which you can add any of 25 toppings for reasonable prices.
Fleet Landing (186 Concord Street, 843-722-8100) is a converted Navy pier and offers open, waterfront dining. It serves seafood and southern food at moderate prices in a unique setting.
Gaulart & Maliclet (98 Broad Street, 843-577-9797) is known as Fast & French by everyone. This place offers great pate, fruit and cheese plates, sandwiches and salads; at night, enjoy French country fare. It's open all day.
Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Avenue, 843-937-0930) is best known for its breakfasts, and dinner is just as great. A short ride from downtown, it's southern comfort food with a twist. Ever had jalapeno hushpuppies with green tomato ketchup?
Il Cortile del Re (193 King Street, 843-853-1888). Ask to be seated in the original back area or the courtyard itself. The food and service are excellent, but the setting and ambience are what make the place. If there was anymore atmosphere, you'd pass out.
Magnolia's (185 East Bay Street, 843-577-7771, 11 to 3 p.m.) has become a Charleston classic, with updated Southern specialties in a clean, elegant atmosphere. The killer appetizers and desserts are not cheap.
Martha Lou's (1068 Morrison Drive, 843-577-9583, breakfast and lunch only until 2 p.m.), 10 minutes away, is a "don't judge a book by its cover" experience: Southern soul wrapped in pink cinderblock. The cabbie knows the place; he ate there and sat next to the mayor and a federal judge.
The Noisy Oyster (24 N. Market Street, 843-723-0044, open all day) is bright, colorful and fun for families and everyone else. A variety of seafood and other options is available. The walls roll up for an open-air experience. It's reasonable and within sight of the ship terminal.
Peninsula Grill (112 N. Market Street, 843-723-0700) is in the Planters Inn and reflects the high standards and service of its host. It's really a magnificent setting, with elegant service and fabulous food. Besides, the coconut cakes are to die for. (They ship them, too.)
Southend Brewery (161 East Bay Street, 843-853-4677) brews its own beer, including ales and stout. They go well with the smoked meats and ribs, fish, pasta, sandwiches and salads. There's often live entertainment. Try the White Chocolate Banana Spring Roll ... maybe twice?
Sticky Fingers (235 Meeting Street, 843-853-7427), started by three local friends, is now a regional group of unqualified success. Offering smoky-sweet everything, its food is just delicious, and there's great service to boot.
TBonz Gill & Grill (80 N. Market Street, 843-577-2511) has a fun, lively atmosphere that's reminiscent of a jazz eatery you'd find in New Orleans. As its name suggests, TBonz is a great place to snag some steak, but it also features seafood, burgers, nachos and other indulgent fare. The mashed sweet potatoes come highly recommended.
Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar (205 E. Bay Street, 843-853-8600) is a posh bar and seafood restaurant with an urban feel, making it a superb addition to the eateries of Charleston. But, despite its appearance, it's quite affordable and offers amazing crab cakes. Other menu items include delicious hushpuppies, burgers and an assortment of items like salads, soups and, of course, seafood.
Cupcake (433 King St., 843-853-8181) is the perfect place to pull up a chair if you're craving a sweet snack. Amazing cupcake varieties include red velvet, lemon, chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, vanilla, carrot cake and many other tasty options.
Closest to Port: Market Pavilion, a deluxe operation, was recently built next to the Market and less than two blocks from the pier. Beautifully decorated, it features an excellent restaurant (Grill 225) and a rooftop pool and bar with great views.
Grand Luxe: Charleston Place is the local Orient-Express outpost, an excellent example of subdued grandeur. Amenities and facilities abound; formal tea is served in the Thoroughbred Club, with Gucci and Godiva in the Arcade. It also boasts an excellent pool and health club.
Opulence: The Wentworth Mansion is a massive Victorian townhouse, now converted to a AAA, five-diamond, award-winning hostelry of near over-the-top comfort and style. It provides an awesome experience.
Favorite: The Planters Inn is small, central, gracious and exquisite. It is a member of Relais & Chateaux, both proud and comfortable with its identity. The rooms are equaled only by the service; it's an in-town hotel with the feel of a country manor.
Moderate/Family-Friendly: The King Charles Inn is a Best Western property the group can be proud of. Well-done and well-kept, it is convenient to everything and offers free covered parking (a Charleston rarity).
Value/Budget: Days Inn Historic District has basic rooms and amenities, but it also has an incredible location, a pool and free guest parking. Another option for those looking for a no-frills place to sleep is the Comfort Inn Charleston at 144 Bee Street. It's inexpensive and offers free breakfast that includes waffles, cereal, fruit, yogurt, pastries, donuts, muffins, juice and coffee. However, it's about a two-mile walk -- or a five- to 10-minute cab ride -- to downtown.
Staying in Touch
The City of Charleston has free wireless access on the Lower Peninsula. While okay, the signal is spotty and overloaded, so try a connected location like the East Bay Coffee House (160 East Bay Street, 843-723-3446), just three blocks from the port, and have a hot or cold beverage and a snack while you're at it.
Options abound, though most first time visitors opt for carriage rides and/or walking tours. Add a trip to Fort Sumter or one of the great plantations in the afternoon, and the day is done. For the more adventurous, there are kayak tours of the marshes (birding included), deep-sea fishing and golf outings. History excursions of every sort are popular, focusing on everything from the Revolution to the Civil War.
Highly Recommended: Charleston Culinary Tours
For More Information
On the Web: Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau or Port of Charleston
Cruise Critic Message Boards: U.S. East Coast Departures
IndependentTraveler.com: Southeast Travel Guide
--by Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic contributor. Updated by Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor.