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.
Charleston Cruise Port Address:
32 Washington Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Slightly North of Broad (SNOB) (192 E. Bay Street; 843-723-3424) is a southern lowcountry bistro that serves soups, salads and tons of seafood dishes. It also offers a gluten-free menu.
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.
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.
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.