Charleston has always been on my places to visit bucket list. Ever since I read the Prince of Tides when I was in my 20’s I have wanted to visit the magical city that Pat Conroy wrote about. Pat is one of my favorite authors and he writes so beautifully of the southern places of his young adulthood that you feel as if you have been there. One of my favorite books, South of Broad , tells the story of the families who live in the giant mansions south of Broad street (and those who do not). Because of his books, I have always wanted to see the mansions, the town, and the nearby islands, and finally I had the opportunity. I cashed in some Marriott points and got a free hotel room near the college and within walking distance to the historic part of the City. On Saturday morning Lee and I got up very early and drove the three hours down to Charleston.
Some things in life don’t live up to their press. Let’s face it… most things do not, but I loved every part of Charleston, and the city absolutely delivered on the promise made to me by Mr. Conroy and his books. In order to truly experience this city you really need to walk its cobblestone streets, but I will share my experience the best that I can. For those who have been to San Francisco (another of my favorite cities), it is similar in the mixture of history, water, and beautiful gardens. For those who have been Boston or Philadelphia you will understand how amazing it can be to put your hand on the brick wall of a structure built in the 1700’s. I have been to those places, but have never experienced one city that provided history, culture, nature, and style all in one package. Charleston is “southern old”. The colony was started in 1670 by a group of settlers with a grant from Charles II and they were largely left to their own devices. In order to survive they built a wall around their town and used the ocean as their main means of transportation. The historic part of Charleston exists within the boundaries of those long gone original walls, and a tremendous amount is within that relatively small space. The buildings are close together, and the alleyways are tight, which gives the city a very European feel.
The city is also home to a very old military college called The Citadel. Founded in 1842, the Citadel is a truly southern institution and since Pat Conroy was a graduate I just had to visit it first. It was way too early to check into our hotel when we made it to Charleston so the Citadel was our first stop. Visitors are welcome and because it was Christmas break the campus was almost completely empty. We read that every Friday people come to see the weekly military parade of the students, but we enjoyed wandering with no crowds and took some great pictures while we were there. The gift shop was open and I couldn’t help myself. I had to buy a copy of the Lords of Discipline while I was standing on the grounds.
After the Citadel, we drove downtown and were pleased to see that the weather (slightly rainy) was keeping the crowds away. As we were driving through we saw the restaurant where my sister said she had the best meal of her life and decided we had to stop and have lunch there. We parked next door (free parking if you eat at the restaurant) and took a little walk until they opened their doors at 11:30.
Really neat fountain that people are allowed to play in
It was a very pleasant walk despite the weather and I definitely worked up an appetite for Magnolia’s. Magnolias is a white table-cloth restaurant and one I normally wouldn’t try, but my sister and her husband know their food and I wanted the experience. The service was absolutely amazing, I mean truly amazing, and we had a great seat by the window so we could watch the people walk by. The food was a mixed bag. Lee’s fish was according to him in the Top 10 fish meals he had ever eaten. My tomato basil soup was good, raspberry sorbet was terrific, but the fried green tomatoes were only so-so. In general I prefer diners, and a $58 dollar lunch is a bit steep for me, but I did enjoy the overall experience. After lunch we walked over to the market which has tons of local vendors selling their wares in a series of long brick building (think Faneuil Hall) and we explored some of the narrow cobblestone alleyways.
Next we drove to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon to take a tour of one of the oldest and most historic buildings in the city. This building was interesting to me because the Constitution was ratified here. According to a poster it was one of the three main building used during this time period and by seeing it we had completed the trifecta. (Independence Hall, Fanueil Hall, and the Old Exchange) Since I am a bit of a history nerd that was pretty exciting to me. We also had a tour of the dungeon area and saw part of the original 1600’s wall which the Exchange was built on and was excavated only 50 years ago. Seeing a wall that had stood for that long was really amazing and along with the other historical facts made the $9 entrance fee a bargain for me.
After our history lessons it had cleared up enough for us to take a walk along Battery Park which has its own rich history since this is where the cannons were stationed that defended the port. It is also where the old mansions are and we spent a couple of hours walking the streets and the park. One of the best moments was when we came across a wedding in the gazebo in the park and got to watch the couple dance to Etta James’s “At Last” as their first song. It was an amazingly romantic moment and one of my favorites of the weekend.
After walking the sea wall and viewing the houses I was getting a little cold, so we jumped in the car and drove the many side streets, stopping on occasion to get a closer look at one of the houses. The houses in this area cost between $3M – $8M and they are mostly on tiny lots, but the interior houses have made the most of the space with the most beautiful gardens. One of the houses was open for a tour, but I was more interested in the gardens which were free to walk. Absolutely amazing.
After walking the homes we decided to take advantage of the remaining light and visit the Angel Oak tree on Johns Island. When my sister found out how much I loved trees she recommended it and it was a very very special moment for both of us. The tree is between 300 – 400 years old and is absolutely massive. Admission is free but they have a small gift shop and a donation box if you would like to contribute something and I absolutely loved touching the old bark. Amazing and absolutely worth the trip.
While making our way to John’s island we kept seeing signs for the Festival of Lights on James Island so we thought we would check it out. Our friends Deb and Steve had stayed in the campground there and liked it, and since it was so close we thought “why not?”. What an absolutely wonderful surprise. For $15 ($10 if you bring a can of food) you can drive through the park and see all of the company sponsored lights and there were over 100 displays. In addition, the park center has a great stopping place where you can walk a section of lights, shop, roast a marshmallow, or have a cup of hot chocolate. We absolutely loved it. Almost all of the lights blink and show some kind of motion and they are very creative. We took many pictures but here are a few to give you the feel of the experience
After the light show we drove back to the hotel and I think we were asleep by 9:30pm. It was a very long day and we still had a full list left for the following morning. I really wanted to eat at a french bakery the next morning but unfortunately all they had nearby was a little restaurant called Another Broken Egg. It started out great, totally cute brick building with friendly servers and the breakfasts themselves were reasonably priced. But when the bill came it was $32 before tip. Apparently the coffee was $3 a cup and Lee’s orange juice cost $4!!! With tip that was a $38 dollar breakfast and trust me it was not that good. One positive thing that came from the meal though was a serious conversation about money and eating out. We will discuss whether or not to spend $40 on an attraction, but when it comes to food we often do the most expedient and invariably pay for it. So we decided that food for us would hence forward come in two categories: Fuel and an Experience. We were definitely willing to pay more for an experience but if it was just fuel we would start searching out more reasonably priced alternatives. With that conversation out-of-the-way we came to Sullivan’s Island. Sullivan’s Island is only 3.3 miles long and has some of the highest per capita real estate prices in the country. Since it was early Sunday morning and another chilly day hardly anyone was out and we had a great time driving through the neighborhoods and seeing the beautiful homes. We also saw Sullivans lighthouse and stumbled across this really great public walkway to the beach. I love the ocean and this beach was a very nice one.
After Sullivan’s Island we drove to Patriot’s Point to tour the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. For $20 a person (a bargain) we got to explore an aircraft carrier, a submarine, and a destroyer. The carrier alone had 5 self-guided tours and took us several hours to complete. The entire day was amazing and I haven’t seen Lee so excited in a long time. Even though I am not a military buff, I was fascinated by how they fed and clothed so many people at sea. It is not unlike today’s cruise ships in that respect. But it is a TON of walking up and down stairs so be prepared for your workout if you go! I was definitely tired by the time we were done.
Patriots Place is an absolute must see in our opinion especially if you have any interest in World War II, the military or have ever played Call of Duty!! We had a wonderful time, but I was definitely wore out so we started our way back to Rock Hill. As I said when I started this blog it was one of the best weekends of my life and I would definitely return when we had more time. Bucket list item; CHECK!!
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Wow, Trace! We’ve heard so many good things about Charleston! Thank you for all the great tips!
Diana and Jim
Wow – really awesome journaling! You got to see a side of Charleston that I didn’t. Maybe I’ll try to go back again.
Thanks …it’s Lee …he squeezes everything out of every place we go. 😄
Wow you really got to see and experience a lot of Charleston! Steve & I really enjoyed it too. I’d go back also. I’d love to bike on those ocean front walks. The Ange tree looked wonderful. Much bigger than I would’ve thought. It looked like they should’ve named it Medusa though. Wish we could’ve seen it.
We were in Charleston in June and absolutely LOVED it! We stayed at the county park on James Island. I think it is the same place where the Christmas lights were. We want to go back. I’m a history nerd too and love old cities and old sections of those old cities. Great stuff.
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