When Bill and I realized our nephew, Ben, a senior basketball player at The College of William and Mary, and his team (Go Tribe!) would play against College of Charleston, we put Charleston on our travel radar.
Actually, we didn’t need a specific reason to visit Charleston. If too much time has passed since our last visit, Charleston simply beckons us. We somehow sense this and happily respond to its inexorable pull, eager to be entranced again by dignified mansions, cobblestone streets, lush gardens, rainbow-hued row homes, serene public parks, towering live oaks, and stunning waterfront vistas.
We’ve lost count of how many times over the past several decades we’ve been to Charleston, either as a destination on its own or as a side trip while staying on nearby Kiawah Island. Even so, it’s not enough.
This is how author Pat Conroy describes the protagonist’s undying reverence for Charleston in his book, South of Broad – “I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk.” We feel the same way.
Founded and settled by English colonists in 1670, Charleston has been called the place “where history lives.” With its rich legacy, punctuated by its lead role in the Civil War, and its meticulously preserved architecture, Charleston seems an odd fascination for us native Northerners, especially given our more contemporary tastes in art and design. I guess it lends further credence to the theory that opposites attract.
In any event, we’re just two of the many travelers who’ve willingly fallen under the spell of the Holy City, so called for its large number of churches. For three years running, the readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine have named Charleston the number one city in America. While Charleston’s surroundings evoke the past, the city fully lives and breathes in the present.
Our most recent visit was brief, but, as always, fulfilling.
Home base was the elegant Market Pavilion Hotel, ranked the number one small city hotel in the U.S. and Canada by the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine. From the rooftop Pavilion Bar we enjoyed 360-degree views of the skyline and the harbor.
Although we’ve taken the popular horse-drawn carriage rides around the historic landmarks, we prefer to soak in the signature charm of Charleston on foot, so walking is always our major activity. The early planners must have had walkers in mind, because they laid out this peninsula city in an easily accessible grid pattern.
Ben had a few free hours, so we took him on some of our favorite strolls:
- Waterfront Park – This popular gathering place features pathways, an expansive lawn, two dramatic fountains (A cheeky sign says: No lifeguard on duty. Wade at your own risk.), and an unobstructed view of the iconic Cooper River Bridge.
- The Battery – We walked along the fortified sea wall for second-story views of the antebellum mansions on one side and Charleston harbor on the other. The flag flying above Fort Sumter is just barely discernible across the water. The park has monuments, memorials, and cannons from earlier wars, a gazebo, and a tree-lined promenade.
- King Street – One of the best shopping streets in the country with a heady mix of independently owned upscale boutiques and national chains.
- French Quarter – Colorfully painted canvases, sculptures, and crafts, many created by local artists, line the gallery windows of the arts district.
- Charleston City Market – Vendors in the open-air stalls sell a variety of merchandise, including sweetgrass baskets. Slaves brought this woven art form from West Africa, and the craft is still practiced here in its original manner. Our must-stop shop on Market Street is Market Street Sweets, purveyor of golden pralines and bear claws – indescribably delicious caramel and pecans blanketed in dark chocolate. Yum.
Charleston has superb, nationally renowned restaurants. It’s always a challenge to narrow down the choices from our long list of favorites.
For lunch, Bill and I shared tomato pie and shrimp and grits at Dixie Supply Bakery & Café, an unimposing spot dishing up home-style Lowcountry cooking in a mini strip center. For dinner, we enjoyed the fresh fish and energetic vibe at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, situated in a renovated warehouse.
Post-game, the three of us saluted The Tribe’s valiant loss with champagne and dessert at Halls Chophouse, a premier family-run steakhouse that exemplifies the art of establishing relationships with its guests. Billy Hall, one of the owners, greeted us warmly as we entered. Noticing Ben in his team colors and aware of the final score, he enthusiastically told Ben how much he admires The College of William and Mary and wished Ben well when he graduates.
Now we’re back home in that limbo period, breathlessly anticipating the next time Charleston sends us its siren call. We know the wait won’t be long.