Getting to Know Charleston
Two years ago, I breezed through Charleston, S.C., in the course of an afternoon, just enough time for lunch and a stroll through the historic City Market.
Little did I know how much I was missing, that Charleston deserved my time and attention, and that I was just skimming the surface that seemed a tad too touristy.
As I discovered last week during my return trip, I was all wrong. Charleston is a terrific little town, worth several days of your time -- because there really is so much to do and see. This ain't no blip on the map, it's a serious contender on the vacation to-do list.
Here's what I now know about Charleston:
* It is a great walking city. Stumble out of your hotel and just put one foot in front of the other. The streets are flat, often narrow, tree-lined and romantic, occasionally feeling a tad European. Spanish moss, magnolia trees and palms are more the rule than the exception. Amble onto a side street and you'll see two and three-hundred year-old homes, which leads me to my next point...
* It's an architectural treasure trove. You'll see examples of federal-style town homes and the "single house," the dominant architectural form, with its trademark side "front" entrance, through a doorway and lower "piazza" (aka porch). There are the grand antebellum villas and plantation homes, Greek revival mansions, gargantuan churches in the Gothic revival style. You'll see slave quarters that have been morphed into detached condos, stumble onto alleys and secret gardens.
* Loaded with history is an understatement. It's not just one of America's oldest cities (dating to 1670), Charleston's historic district is enormous. It's got the oldest museum in the country with the Charleston Museum and the Avery Research Center for preserving and documenting the history and culture of Africans and African Americans in the lowcountry. South Carolina had more African slaves than any other colony; the slave trade would last longer there than any other colony, and as a result, is more Africanized than any other place in the United States, according to Dr. Bernard Powers, a professor of history at the College of Charleston.
* Regular cabs are expensive (It cost just under $30 bucks to get to the airport, a 15-minute ride). Pedi-cabs, aka rickshaws, are not, and a romantic way to get around town. You'll see plenty of young men with well-developed calves offering up rides for hire.
* It is a bridge-lover's destination. I am in awe of Cooper River Bridge, which connects Charleston to Mt. Pleasant, and is North America's longest cable-stayed bridge. It's a sight for sore eyes, with an amazing, unobstructed view of Charleston Harbor.
* Considering its size (a population of about 100,000), Charleston is a serious restaurant town, serving up a mix of high-end cuisine and classic home cookin'. On a tourist map covering about two square miles, there are 55 restaurants listed. It's hard to find a chain here, an indication of the commitment to local culinary traditions -- shrimp and grits, pilau of countless varieties, she-crab soup, fried pork chops, ham biscuits, roasted oysters and enough places that serve fried chicken you could easily compile a restaurant round-up.
* Internet access is hard to come by -- I won't bore you with the details of the fuzzy connection at my hotel or the weak signal at the nearby Starbucks. But thank goodness for a few independent wired coffee shops, offering free WiFi. During my three days in town, City Lights coffee shop (141 Market Street, 843-853-7067) was my living room away from home, an adorable dark-wood storefront serving Counter Culture coffee beans (Murky fans here in Washington will know why I'm mentioning), freshly squeezed orange juice and lemonade and beer and wine for a late afternoon sippy poo. Nicest people I met in Charleston, too.
I didn't have time, but City Lights customers I spoke too also had high marks for Kudu CafÃ©, owned by a South African, who's buying beans from Africa.
This list is far from complete, as I ran out of time. A third trip is already in the works. Share your favorite thing about Charleston, well-known or obscure, in the comments area below.
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Posted by: vch0920 | June 26, 2007 1:40 PM
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