Charleston: A Love Story

IMG_1935{One of the many breathtaking mansions in the neighborhood South of Broad Street.}

Last weekend, I made my first visit to Charleston, South Carolina. Prior to making the trip, I didn’t really know what to expect, but the only thing I’d ever heard from friends who’d been there were rave reviews. Little did I know just how enchanting this little city would be. In fact, until last weekend, I didn’t believe in love at first sight.

As a first-timer to Charleston, three of its features stood out most for me: history, architecture, and food. Needless to say, there’s too much history to cover in one blog post, and an army of well-qualified experts and tour guides are always at the ready to educate visitors. I’m not a big fan of group tours (they can be cumbersome, and it can often be tough to hear your guide and ask questions), but on this occasion, a guided carriage tour around the city on my first full day in town proved to be the perfect crash course for learning Charleston’s colorful and dense history. (I’d had no idea–or maybe I’d forgotten–that Charleston was once a walled city, that it’s where the first free blacks lived in the U.S., and that it’s known as the Holy City because it’s home to so many churches and houses of worship. And that barely scratches the surface.)  Our guide and driver, Mark Jones, who, it turns out, is also a published author multiple times over, was exceptionally knowledgeable, even as tour guides go. That never hurts.

IMG_1876{Mark Jones and co., our superb guide and educator extraordinaire.}

As deep and rich and fascinating as Charleston’s history is, its architecture is even more so, if only because it’s physical evidence of the past that we can only imagine in our minds–like pictures in a book, only better. Building rules and regulations dictate that the city’s physical structures be preserved during renovation and rebuilding processes (the Preservation Society of Charleston is the oldest organization of its kind in the country), so it’s not unusual to find yourself browsing couture clothing or sitting down for a BBQ dinner in a setting that seems better suited to banking or horse grooming. (If you make it to Charleston,  stop in the Urban Outfitters and Starbucks shops on King Street. Both are great examples of how the city has preserved its structural heritage while adapting to the needs of the modern consumer.)

{Urban Outfitters on King Street, Charleston’s main shopping thoroughfare.}

And then, of course, there are the historic homes along Meeting Street, The Battery, and the entire neighborhood South of Broad Street. It was during Jones’s tour through these residential neighborhoods that I fell hopelessly for Charleston. The streets are replete with grand homes built in Georgian, Victorian, Federal, and Italianate styles, among others. Many are only a single room wide and are famously turned sideways from the street, their long porches leading the way to neat-as-a-pin English-style private gardens that are (sadly for nosy tourists like me) not easily visible from the street. Some of the homes were built by shipping magnates with piles of money or those with old family fortunes, and some were symbolic, built and given as wedding gifts or grand gestures of love. One of the grandest of these homes is the Calhoun Mansion, located at 16 Meeting Street (the behemoth of a home is the largest privately owned residence in Charleston, at a hulking 24,000 square feet). The Calhoun Mansion was built by the wealthy merchant George Williams, who in 1890 gifted his daughter, Martha Williams, and her new husband, the jeweler Warring Carrington, a check for $75,000 to be used in the construction of a new home for the couple. The resulting home, just a few doors down at 2 Meeting Street, now serves as one of Charleston’s premier B&Bs. Although the Calhoun Mansion is open for tours, it’s still privately owned and serves as a part-time residence for its owner and his family. (Additional notable historic homes are listed here.) I can only imagine that living in this part of town is akin to waking up each day in the pages of a romantic period piece of literature.

{The Calhoun Mansion and its gardens.}

{Two Meeting Street Inn}

(More architectural highlights from my carriage tour…)

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IMG_1889{Updates were being made to this home, which is among a few unique homes in Charleston
that remain under ownership of their original owners, having never been sold.}

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IMG_1929{The ceiling of this home’s porch was painted blue to resemble water,
which evil spirits are said to be unable to traverse.}

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One thing I did somewhat expect before my visit to Charleston is that I’d be eating a lot, and that the food would be good. (I wasn’t sure, but I was hopeful that there would be pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, and grits involved. There were.) I could not have prepared myself for the extent to which those predictions would turn out to be true. I stayed at the absolutely lovely Charleston Place Hotel, and while the accommodations were nothing short of amazing, what I found truly and pleasantly surprising was the quality of its restaurants. The two-and-a-half meals I had at the hotel (one lunch, one dinner, and a cocktails-and-apps gathering) were not only the best meals I had while in Charleston, but they were among the best hotel-restaurant experiences I’ve had in all my travels. Lunching at the Palmetto Cafe felt like dining in a  terrarium or greenhouse, and the atmosphere and decor (contemporary farmhouse chic) were upstaged only by the menu. (Tempura-fried marinated tofu sliders? Homemade breads and herb butter? If I must!) And the Charleston Grill was the perfect piece de resistance of a blissfully happy weekend in my new favorite city. Alabama native Michelle Weaver helms the Mobil Four Star restaurant, but the Southern chef’s influence manifests itself far beyond the shrimp-and-grit dishes that are ubiquitous in the area. I still dream at night of the Thai fish entree I ordered for dinner–encouraged at every turn by the wait staff to “eat it with a spoon” lest I miss a single drop of the tart-and-spicy broth that pooled around the tender filet. Eating fish with a spoon felt silly and awkward at first, but I soon grew grateful for the advice and happily lapped up every last bite, just as I was eager to drink in every nook and cranny of this magical corner of our country. And I can’t wait to go back for more–of all of it.

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{Pimiento cheese turndown amenity at Charleston Place Hotel.}

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{Tofu sliders at Palmetto Cafe.}

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{Fried plantains with braised pork and homemade pimento cheese.}

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{Homemade breads, herb butters, and squash soup.}

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{Sweet potato gnocchi for dessert–yes, dessert–at Charleston Grill.
I didn’t pull my camera out until the meal was nearly over, sadly.}

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{Fried green tomatoes and grits for breakfast at Sweetwater Cafe.}

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{Charleston Place Hotel, my home away from home for this picture-perfect weekend.}

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