5 Days in Charleston: A Southern Sibling Sojourn

Thursday, June 06, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

June 2-6, 2013

Back in the 1980s, my brother, sister, mother and I took a couple of short vacation trips together—just the four of us—sending us back in time to the days when we siblings were kids and Mother boldly loaded us up in the car for family road trips.  Since we were 25 years overdue for a sibling adventure, we decided to invade Charleston together.  This time we embraced Ken into our fold, and he agreed to come along as our patient and always congenial driver.

Second Level Piazza of our rental home
Thanks to VRBO, we secured the ultimate Charlestonian accommodation in a historic house on South Battery, the southernmost street of the old city.  The homeowners spend half the year cruising the seas in their sailboat, leaving their beautiful home vacant.  Luckily for us, this year they decided to make it available as a vacation rental.  When the house was constructed in 1795, South Battery was a waterfront street along the Ashley River. Active in the shipping industry, the original owners extended a wharf from the house into the river to accommodate their ships. 

Our home away from home on South Battery
In the intervening 200+ years, the river has moved away from the house as land was filled in to create another street between South Battery and the Ashley.  Furnished with period antiques, the elegant home definitely kept us in a Charleston state of mind.  We especially relished sipping our morning coffee on one of the piazzas and toasting the day there while catching the afternoon breezes off the river.

To avoid a long single-day drive, Mother and Jeanne made an overnight layover at our place on Saturday.  On Sunday we arranged and rearranged, stuffed and pushed, and finally crammed all our necessities into the back of the Acura, arriving in Charleston just in time to pick up Woodie from the airport.  He disembarked with a slew of Low Country recommendations he had picked up from friends in Tennessee.  Since we were all overdue for lunch, we quickly agreed to sample one of his proposals, a restaurant called A.W. Shucks.

Sunday - We learn our way around the city.
Expecting to see stalks of corn, I was thrilled that we were headed for a vegetarian place.  Turned out that oysters also get shucked.  Even though the seafood restaurant is popular with tourists, we weren't so thrilled with our fare.  As we were waiting for our check, Jeanne pulled out her smartphone to show us the geocaching app she had recently downloaded.  Sure enough, the map indicated numerous caches in our immediate vicinity.  A great way to walk off some of those calories.

Although we've occasionally stumbled upon geocaches while searching for a letterbox, this was our first experience with deliberately trying to locate one.  The app uses the phone's GPS capabilities to eliminate the need for a separate device.  It took us a while, but we finally found the microcache hidden away in a crevice on the fence next to the customs house.  A tiny clear plastic tube about one-fourth the diameter of a pencil (pictured in Jeanne's hand above), the geocache earned a difficulty rating of 4 on a 1 to 5 scale, but we learned that only after we had scrutinized every inch of the area to find it.  Delirious with victory, we decided to try for one more, a larger and easier to find container in nearby Philadelphia Alley, before calling it quits and retreating to the house to kick up our feet and relax on the porch.  After dinner, we swatted at the pesky mosquitoes who tried to discourage us from our stroll along the riverside battery and White Point Garden Park.

Monday - Further exploration by carriage
On Monday, Charleston's rainy coastal weather mucked up our plan to begin Day 2 with one of the city's legendary carriage tours.  When our morning ride was dampened, we slipped into the City Market to soak up some local flavor.  Opened in 1803, the market shelters a profusion of vendors offering a plethora of products from jewelry and clothing to paintings and pottery, and, of course, Charleston's signature sweetgrass baskets.  Local artisans who learned basket making from their grandparents casually demonstrate intricate weaving techniques as they chat with tourists.

While eating lunch at the nearby Noisy Oyster, we sympathized with passing tourists getting soaked by the hourly deluge.  Escaping to the car during a break in the clouds, we returned to our refuge on South Battery to wait out the rain.  By the time our date with a carriage driver arrived at 5 p.m., the monsoon had abated—mostly.  Following the advice of a Southern Living reviewer, we booked our tour with Palmetto Carriage.  Thanks to our knowledgeable guide Tim, we were not disappointed.  Otis, the mule who reluctantly hauled us around, was not as enthusiastic.  Feeling sorry for her (yes, her), we asked Tim if she might be tired since it was late afternoon.  Apparently Otis just wanted to give life to the old expression "stubborn as a..."  Ours was her first and only tour of the day.  (Perhaps there's a good reason she was named for the shiftless drunk who frequented Andy Griffith's Mayberry jail.)

Following Tim's recommendation, we headed over to Hominy Grill for dinner, where obtaining a table involved hanging out for an hour and a half until one was free.  When we declined an offer to join the wait list, the Hominy host referred us to another restaurant a block away—Five Loaves, a cozy café serving up flavorful, creative dishes featuring fresh local ingredients.  A great recommendation and a delicious way to end the day.

By the end of Day 2, we discovered that the sultry coastal air had infected our speech with a heavy Southern drawl.  Vowels somehow grew widah and some of ouwa ahr's just seemed to disappeah, Sugah, the longah we were in Chahlston.  Since Jeanne was the mastah of this honey-drippin' tawk, Ken dubbed her Ms. Magnolia.

Fort Sumter
To start Tuesday, our third day, we boarded the ferry for an invasion of Fort Sumter, famous as the site of the opening salvo of the Civil War.  Built on a man-made island to defend the city from attacks by sea, the fort quite naturally stored its gunpowder in the corners of the structure facing the land. When Confederates bombarded the federal citadel from the shore, threatening the magazine, the commander surrendered rather than endangering his troops.        

After returning to the mainland, we invoked our lunch reservation at Hominy Grill, where we were seated promptly.  Though the food was adequate, it paled in comparison to Five Loaves.  A five-spoon dish of pecan pie a la mode was the best part of the meal and a fine send-off to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, a 70-acre property on the Ashley River northeast of the city center.  One of the oldest plantations in the south, Magnolia was established in 1676 when Thomas and Ann Drayton built a house and a small formal garden on the site.  The property has remained under the control of the Drayton family for 15 generations.

Magnolia Plantation
In the 1840s, the grandson of the original owner had the gardens reworked into a more formal style, introducing new species such as the camellia and azalea to America.  Magnolia Plantation became a favorite antebellum destination, receiving many renowned visitors.  Matthew Brady photographed the gardens, and John James Audubon made a pilgrimage to sketch its feathered creatures.  In the economic collapse after the Civil War, the Draytons opened the gardens to the public as a tourist attraction to raise operating funds. 

One of Magnolia Plantation's peacocks
In addition to the various gardens, Magnolia houses a nature center and intimate zoo, which is ruled over by an entertaining flock of peacocks.  These birds are bold, brash and beautiful.  Whether they were strutting their stuff for visitors or for the neighborhood peahens, we couldn't be sure, but they provided plenty of photo ops for everyone.  When these guys spread their tail feathers into a quivering fan for their ladies, they're almost six feet tall from foot to feather tips.

With supplies from the local Harris Teeter supermarket, we took advantage of our kitchen facilities and prepared dinner in, winding down from an eventful day.  No wait for a table on South Battery.

Wednesday - We sample the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
Serendipitously, our visit to Charleston coincided with the annual internationally celebrated Spoleto Festival and its companion, the Piccolo Spoleto, which showcases outstanding local and regional artists.  Finally on Day 4, we chanced to go by Marion Square when rain was not falling.  More than 80 award-winning South Carolina artists were displaying their works in this public park.  Though they had spent much time in recent days dodging storms and frantically rescuing their paintings from harm's way, these locals were friendly and eager to talk about their creations.

Since this would be our last full day in the city, we wanted to get a closer look at the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, stretching 2.5 miles across the Cooper River like a huge stringed instrument connecting Charleston with Mount Pleasant.  This spectacular structure was designed with guidance from Charleston history.  A nineteenth century earthquake that nearly leveled the city inspired a superstructure that can withstand a 7.4 quake.  Hurricane Hugo's massive destruction in 1989 prompted engineers to create a span that can endure wind gusts in excess of 300 mph.  One-acre rock islands surround and protect the bridge towers to protect from the kind of ship mishaps that have occurred in the past.  An uncontrolled ship will run aground on the island rather than colliding with the tower.

Arthur Ravenel Bridge (photo from Wikimedia)
After this man-made marvel, we drove south to Johns Island to visit a natural wonder.  Estimated to be 400 to 500 years old, Angel Oak is a Southern live oak with a trunk 28 feet in circumference.  Though damaged severely by Hurricane Hugo, the tree has since recovered.  From tip to tip, its longest branch span measures two-thirds of the length of a football field.

Having sampled the visual arts component of the Piccolo Spoleto, we finished off our last full day in Charleston with a local theater performance, Mary Kay Has a Posse, an amusing parody of The View hosted by four Southern women tipsy on their "spiked" coffee.   These native Charlestonians have played improv comedy together so long, they seamlessly pick up the thread from each other's comments as if rehearsed.  Any topic from pop culture to the lives of audience members provides fodder for their irreverent and politically incorrect humor.  The show had mixed reviews from our group but generally everyone found something to laugh at.

Thursday - Winding up our visit
Like all good things, our sojourn in Charleston was destined to come to an end on Day 5.  We had to deliver Woodie to the airport before noon, leaving us just enough time to visit two nearby Charleston landmarks.  Waterfront Park, a 12-acre sliver of land skirting the Cooper River, is home to the iconic Pineapple Fountain.  Winner of numerous design awards, the park features a quarter-mile canopy of oaks paralleling a palmetto esplanade along the river. 

Our final stop was Circular Congregational Church, whose origins date back to the founding of Charleston.  Established in 1681 by English, Scot and French settlers of various religious backgrounds, the congregation was determined to be an independent Protestant group, refusing to tie itself to any church hierarchy.  This spirit of liberty pervaded the membership and served as a breeding ground for local leaders in the Revolutionary War.  Though we were unable to explore the church, we were fascinated by its graveyard, Charleston's oldest burial grounds with markers dating back to 1695.

And then it was time for us to reluctantly release Woodie, who was flying south for a reunion with his Duncan brothers in Tallahassee, which Tropical Storm Andrea was threatening to flood before she arced her way up to Charleston.  Dodging the rain-drenched coast, we abandoned our plans to drive home through Savannah and headed due west.  Woodie arrived safely in Tallahassee, and Jeanne and Mother departed from our house the following morning, leaving us with cherished memories and a collection of photos of our week in Charleston.  Not to mention a few remnants of a lingerin' sultry drawl, Honey.

The Custom House on E Bay Street
By the time we left Charleston, Ms. Magnolia had assigned names to Ms. Gardenia, Ms. Azalea, Mr. Stone, and Mr. Boo.  As we ventured around the city, Ms. Magnolia became moah and moah concerned about the degradation of genteel old Suthun mannuhs, quick to remind her traveling companions of propah etiquette when we slipped.  Finally, she decided that she could really help the situation if she wrote a guide that she could distribute to various people she meets along the way.  Imagine our surprise when we saw this being distributed to new arrivals at the airport when we dropped Woodie off.

 Here's the Trip Color blogging we did on the go in Charleston:  High Times in the Lowcountry.