Travel Advisory: Charleston, SC

Last week Jason, Hazel and I escaped Tallahassee for a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. I’d visited Charleston with my parents a couple of times, and Jason spent the first six months of his life there.

We arrived on Friday evening and checked in at The Vendue, which is a somewhat-trendy newer hotel downtown. The hotel boasts unique artwork and even has an artist-in-residence. They also have free Starbucks in the morning, free wine in the evening, and free milk & cookies at night. And free wifi! I am always annoyed when I pay a little more for a hotel, only to find out that I have to pay a little more for basically everything else, so I was greatly relieved to see that our stay included such nice perks.

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Friday night we ate at Fleet Landing, just up the street. We shared she crab soup (even Hazel had a bite), and I had shrimp & grits.

Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe

Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe

Saturday morning we had breakfast at Dixie Supply Bakery Cafe, then took a carriage ride to get the lay of the land. Our tour guide was a high school history teacher who leads tours for fun on the weekends, and he was fantastic.

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After our tour we had lunch at Griffon, one of Charleston’s surprisingly awesome pubs. Because the city has a distinctively English vibe, there are a number of delightful pubs with tasty food and local beers. We walked off lunch along the river, making our way from Waterfront Park down to Battery Park, taking in the architecture and landscaping.

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Saturday afternoon we visited High Wire Distilling Company, which makes various liquors in a contraption straight out of Willy Wonka.

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After the tour was a tasting! Of course! We were big fans of their Hat Trick Gin, which practically explodes with botanicals. It may replace Hendricks as my favorite gin. (Don’t tell Hendricks.)

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Saturday night we went out for a fancy dinner at High Cotton. It’s always weird to have a nice dinner with a baby, and we certainly didn’t want to disturb the other diners, but thankfully Hazel was an absolute angel. She munched on baby Goldfish crackers and didn’t make excessive noise. Whew!

Sunday morning we walked to Hominy Grill. Turns out Hominy Grill was 1.5 miles from our hotel, so by the time we got there, it was brunchtime. No matter – I still threw down on a plate of coarse-ground grits, eggs, bacon, and a tall biscuit. The higher the biscuit, the closer to God – that’s how the saying goes, right?

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Fueled up, we made our way to visit the H.L. Hunley, a tiny claustrophobic sub that made history as the first submarine to successfully attack an enemy ship during war. It was lost in 1864, when it disappeared shortly after sinking the Housatonic. Despite being raised in 2000, and studied since then, no one really knows why it sank. A MYSTERY. The submarine doesn’t have a museum yet, so we visited the lab where the conservation work is being done. The sub sits in a giant tank of Drano, which is slowly removing concretions and other sediment. It looks terrifyingly small to have held eight full-grown men.

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Continuing our American Civil War History theme, we left the Hunley and went to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Late Unpleasantness were fired. Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed. The boat ride out was lovely, and the fort’s location is very picturesque, but there’s really no fort left. The Confederates kind of blew it apart, and it’s been preserved in its post-Civil War state rather than restored to its antebellum condition.

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After Sunday’s adventures, we were tired. We headed to Artisan Meat Share for a snack of cured meats, toast points, grainy mustard, and homemade pickles. Nothing says “refreshing” like your daily allowance of sodium in one sitting. Sunday night we were too tired to venture out, so we headed up to the hotel’s rooftop bar for a light dinner.

Monday was our last day in Charleston, and we didn’t want to miss a minute. We headed to King Street to sample the wares at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, a tiny alley of a place that did not disappoint.

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The biscuits are 3 for $5, so I tried a cheddar & chive, a bacon, and a blackberry. The bacon biscuit surprised me – rather than being a piece of bacon on a biscuit, it involved finely chopped cooked bacon incorporated in the biscuit dough. I probably don’t need to tell you that it was delicious. The blackberry biscuit was sweet, almost like pound cake, with a tasty blackberry preserve on it. The cheddar and chive was also very good.

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Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from the biscuit vendor and drove out to Drayton Hall Plantation.

Let me step back for a moment. Charleston has been described as “a drinking town with a history problem.” It wasn’t really until Monday that I grasped the two viewpoints of the debate over the city’s history, and how best to share that history with visitors. It’s a debate between “preservation” and “restoration.” The preservationists want as much gritty authenticity as possible – all of history’s dents and dings, the fade of 200-year-old paint, the reality of crumbling plaster. Drayton Hall is a perfect example of preservation. Built in the 1750s, it’s a gorgeous Palladian mansion on the Ashley River. But it’s also completely empty. There is no furniture, no artwork, no textiles. Our tour guide explained that the house was sold to the preservation trust in 1974, and that it was being maintained exactly as it was received. “If a piece of plaster falls off the ceiling, we don’t replace it.”

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After Drayton Hall we visited the Nathaniel Russell House, which is a perfect example of the restoration point of view. Nathaniel Russell is a time capsule of 1808, the year it was built. When you walk in the front door, you are stepping back into another era. The antique furniture is all from the correct period. The wall colors have been meticulously researched, and the artwork on the walls frequently features actual inhabitants of and visitors to the home.

I can see the merits of both sides of the debate, and I think it’s worthwhile to have a mix of the two in Charleston. One can learn different things from a ruin and a restoration.

Monday night we ate dinner at Pearlz Oyster Bar, which was fantastic. We shared a dozen raw oysters and then I had a big ol’ bowl of linguine with clams.

Tuesday morning we had another round of biscuits at Callie’s and hit the road. I feel like we really experienced the city, but there are pah-lenty of things I can’t wait to do next time we visit.

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