It had been almost three years since our last real vacation, so we decided at the beginning of this year that no matter what, we were each going to take off work the week of our anniversary (6 years on 6/6, so kind of a big deal) and do something special. We’d had a couple other vacation destinations in mind, but in the end we decided to go to Charleston, SC. We’d kind of started planning this vacation a couple years ago, and then we had a couple of topsy-turvy years and couldn’t go, so a lot of the planning was actually already done. I booked the hotel and started planning out activities and restaurants, and that was that!
Saturday: Our goal was to get on the road by 7:00, but it was more like 7:30 before we were on our way. Our first stop was actually to visit my coworker M, who lives in North Carolina. On the way, we passed through some weird land where Wawa, Sheetz, and Royal Farms coexist. It took us about 8 hours, and we were at his house around 3:00. His kids came to greet us and we all hung out for a bit, before going to their favorite local spot for ice cream, then getting barbecue, and spending a long time sitting out on the back deck talking. I figured one of two things would happen: either he and GG would become best friends, or his wife would hate me and GG and we would awkwardly leave early. Luckily, everyone got along! He works from home, so one of my favorite parts was getting to see his home office in person! (It’s not the way it appears via videoconference.) As we were leaving, his wife invited us to meet for brunch the next morning before we left town, yay!
Sunday: We met up with M and his family at this cute restaurant in the middle of their cute town for brunch. It was nice, but their kids were a bit rambunctious, so it wasn’t quite the sendoff it could have been. After eating, we continued on our way. GG had driven to NC, and I drove from there until we got to SC – we switched off at South of the Border (after counting 44 billboards for the place between Rt. 40 and the border). I’d never been there before – it was way crazier than I expected! We took a trip to the top of the giant sombrero, then were back on our way. We finally got to Charleston around 4 or 5 PM, checked in to the Elliott House Inn, and with no other plans for the evening, wandered around town. We stopped at Sticky Fingers BBQ for dinner (yes, BBQ two nights in a row… and my first glass of sweet tea this trip!), and then found our way down Meeting Street to the park at the Battery – of course, we didn’t really know what these things were yet. Then we decided to find a drug store so I could get some Dramamine to be able to take the ferry to Fort Sumter at some point. Google Maps on my smartphone completely steered us wrong, so we went on this wild goose chase all through town looking for a CVS, but finally found it, got my pills, and went back to the hotel to crash.
View from the top of the sombrero
Monday: I’d attempted to put together a schedule for the week, so we could make sure we had time to do all the things we definitely wanted to do. But that kind of got thrown out the window and we did things more on the fly. We still got through most of our list, though! So on Monday we got breakfast around the corner at Toast (known for their bottomless mimosas!), then decided to take the (free!) trolley to the Charleston Museum, and then do a couple other things in that area. The trolley system seems like a great idea – there are three routes around the city, and it’s free, so you can just hop on and off as you like. The problem was, there were no stops really near where we were starting from. So by the time we would have walked to a stop, we might as well have just walked to wherever we were headed in the first place. But we didn’t know that yet, so we took the trolley. The Charleston Museum is a small but informative museum, and I’m glad we went there on our first full day in town, because it gave a lot of great background about the history of Charleston, how it started, how it grew, the Civil War, and basically why things are the way they are now. Then we walked to a nearby bookstore, Blue Bicycle Books, which had been recommended to me for its selection of Charleston books, and docile cat. When we went in, the cat was sitting right there in the “local authors” section, and then followed me over to the travel section. I don’t know if GG realized this because he stayed in the front of the store talking to the owner (who is also an author and has his book and articles about himself hanging all over the store, which is kind of off-putting…), but the store goes way back and is actually pretty huge. After that, we happened across Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale, where we had lunch (GG said it was the best quesadilla he’d ever had), and then stopped at Cupcake for dessert. We also walked through a park where artists had set up tents to sell their paintings and artwork. Then it was back to the hotel for a little rest and clean-up before dinner at Poogan’s Porch, where we had the best thing either of us ate all week: smoked gouda mac and cheese. Luckily, the restaurant was two doors down from our hotel, because GG pretty much collapsed after dinner. But we did get up and go out for another walk around the Battery (we used Trulia on my phone to look up the homes for sale and see how much they were; most of them had a luxury car parked out front, if there was just a regular car we wondered what was wrong), followed by drinks back at the bar at Toast, before turning in for the night.
Gershwin’s piano at the Charleston Museum – “Porgy and Bess” was inspired by a neighborhood here, so they have a bit of a thing for Gershwin
Tuesday: By this morning, we wised up and figured out that our hotel provides breakfast for free. You check off your choice of food and beverages, choose a time, and indicate whether you want it served at your room or in the hotel courtyard. We took advantage of this and for the rest of our vacation, had a nice breakfast in the courtyard with the birds (more on this later). The only thing specifically on the agenda for today was a tour we had scheduled for the afternoon, so I decided we should visit the City Market for a little souvenir shopping. We’d seen it on the trolley the day before, so we knew where it was, and it was bigger than I’d expected! I’d been told that this was the place to go for sweetgrass baskets, and I guess it was, except nobody told me that they were like $200 for the tiniest one! So nobody got baskets. But we did get lots of nice gifts for everyone – handmade bakeware, a tray with a picture of Rainbow Row, ornaments and decorations, and of course spices and food! We found a place we wanted to have lunch, but it wasn’t open yet and I wanted time to drop our purchases back at the hotel before the tour, so we dropped everything off, then came back to the Charleston Crab House for lunch on the rooftop deck, before heading to the meeting point for our tour, the Pineapple Fountain. The tour turned out to be us and a young European couple, so it was cool because we could just talk about whatever we wanted. Our tour guide was Andrea, the woman who runs Charleston Walks, and she was very friendly and knowledgeable. We went all over the place, even when it started raining! (GG had a jacket and I shared my umbrella with the woman from the other couple.) We ended our tour at the Old Slave Mart, which is a neat little museum. I couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like there when it was a whole warehouse of slaves! Afterward, we went back to the hotel to get cleaned up and headed to dinner. We wanted to go to FIG, which I’d heard was awesome, but I didn’t realize how fancy it was or that we really should have made reservations, otherwise I would have planned for it in advance. We did call ahead, and they told us to just come and sit at the bar, so we did. (Our other option was to sit at the “community table” and eat with whatever other strangers showed up.) The bar was actually really cool and we had a very nice bartender who also waited on us (he reminded me of The Mixologist from “Portlandia”). Dinner was fabulous. We had a cheese plate (brought by a server who looked and spoke like Ted Allen), I had this awesome chicken and beet dish, and GG had salmon. After dinner, GG really wanted to go to this place he’d seen called Wet Willie’s, which is a bar where they serve extremely strong frozen drinks. Yes, I had another drink (it was melon flavored). GG made friends with a strange guy at the bar and they made up a new flavor by mixing coconut, banana, and a really strong one called “Call A Cab.” That was probably the drunkest I was all week and I sent a friend an e-mail from my phone complaining about how I’m bad at drinking (even though GG says I’m a great drunk, I just get really happy and funny), and I know it said, “This is probably as close as you’ll ever get to a drunk text from me.”
Breakfast in the courtyard
Wednesday: This was our anniversary, 6/6, and the only thing we had planned was our dinner at Husk. It turned out that this was the rainiest day of our trip, so we took the car out and drove to a plantation. There were a couple of plantations on our list of things to do, and they’re actually all kind of next door to each other along Ashley River Road, but I chose Drayton Hall because it seemed to be the closest and least expensive, but mostly because I’d been told they “pride themselves on their historical conservation efforts.” What I should have been told was that Drayton Hall is all about “preservation” – when “Aunt Charlie” died in the 1960s and left the plantation to her nephews, who eventually turned it over to the National Trust, she stipulated in her will that the house was to be kept exactly as it was – which means no redecorating or recreating what it would have looked like in its glory days, and not even adding electricity or running water. So it was kind of a shell of a house, and not the impressive plantation I’d been expecting, but on the other hand that was neat because you got to see some of the architectural things and layers of stuff that you might have missed if it was all done up. On our way back to downtown, we stopped at a boiled peanut vendor! Neither of us had tried them before and… they were actually pretty good! The worst part was the feeling of a plastic bag full of warm, wet nuts sitting on our laps while we ate in the car. When we got back to town, the rain had cleared out, and we walked to this gourmet deli called Ted’s Butcherblock for lunch. The food was good, but we apparently did not know how to order correctly, it was way on the edge of town, away from everything, and basically DiBruno Brothers in Philly is just a million times more awesome. Sorry, Ted. Afterwards, we walked down King Street, which is pretty much the shopping strip of the town. Then it was back to the hotel for what had become our daily afternoon nap, and then it was time to get changed and go to our much anticipated dinner! Somehow, even though we were literally next door to the restaurant, we were still running late. (Correction: GG was running late.) So we just had time to snap a quick picture for our traditional anniversary photo, and then we were off. Dinner was a-ma-zing. The idea at Husk is that they do kind of gourmet takes on traditional southern food. And try to sneak pork fat into everything. GG had a mint julep, while I enjoyed more sweet tea. We had some biscuits served with honey butter with smoked pork fat (see?). Then I had some kind of beet salad while GG enjoyed smoked oysters (they weren’t steamed, they opened while being cooked in their smoker). For our entrees, I had the sirloin, which was roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head good (I’m sure because of all the pork fat in the sauce), and GG had a pork chop, to which he said, “If this weren’t such a fancy restaurant, I’d pick this bone up and gnaw on it.” We really did not need dessert, but when we saw peach cobbler with brown butter ice cream on the menu, we decided to split it. After dinner, we went to the Husk Bar, which is in a little outbuilding next door, and enjoyed drinks developed by the historical society. GG and I ended up swapping with each other, and so this was the third and final time this week that I got a little tipsy.
Approaching Drayton Hall
Thursday: We thought we’d head out today and go to Fort Sumter, but once again I didn’t do enough advance research, and didn’t realize that there’s only two ferry runs there each day, and we were already too late for the first one and had conflicting plans for the second. So we decided instead to tour a couple of the historical houses in town. To kill some time before they opened, we walked to Colonial Lake, a large lake in the middle of a residential area. It was pretty beautiful in the morning. Then we walked back toward downtown, looking at more historic buildings on the way. We stopped at City Hall, which our tour guide Andrea told us had the cleanest public bathrooms in town – I think she was right! Then we went to the Nathaniel Russel House; tour guide Andrea had said if you’re going to tour one house in Charleston, see that one. It was pretty impressive – the staircase was amazing. The history of the house was interesting, too. After that, we went to the Thomas Elfe House. Word of warning: This is actually a guy’s house, where he lives. It’s open two hours a day for tours. The whole thing is sort of awkward, because you’re basically going from room to room in the house while he shows you every antique in every room. But it’s all worth it because at the end, he shows you his amazing kitchen. The kitchen was added to the original house in the 1960s and was very dated when this guy bought the place in the 90s, so they redid it to look like it was an original part of the house, with appliances hidden behind cabinets and paneling, little pull-outs for storage, and everything just very authentic looking. And finally you end up in his cute courtyard (I was sort of obsessed with catching glimpses of courtyards, so I loved that part). After that, we went around the corner to Bull Street Gourmet for lunch, another gourmet deli, but this one disappointed me less than Ted’s (sorry Ted). We had a tour scheduled for that afternoon, leaving from Battery Park, and with a couple hours to kill before it started, we just went to the park and sat and read and took pictures. It was really nice just sitting there in the shade for a while. Finally it was time for the tour. This was a Pirates & Ghosts tour, sort of a custom tour put together for us by Charleston Walks. It was going to be just me and GG, but I guess this mother/daughter joined in at the last minute. Our tour guide was John, a lifelong Charlestonian, and he was probably the most knowledgeable person we met all week. He knew something about everything, and it was all personal. I asked what this building was that we’d been seeing, and not only did he tell us what it was (former Shriners hall), he’d had his high school prom there! The ghost tour was pretty awesome – there are lots of haunted places in Charleston. I wish that tour had been longer. For dinner, we’d been planning to go to Hyman’s Seafood, a very popular place that had been highly recommended. There was always a huge line of people waiting to get in. I had a great idea – order food to go from their take-out storefront, and take it back to the hotel to eat in the courtyard! So we took our dinners back to the hotel and ate in our peaceful courtyard, it was lovely. This woman showed up, who had just flown in from Maine and was telling us how her flight was late and bla bla bla. We told her how we’d gotten take-out for dinner, and also told her how the best thing we ate was from Poogan’s Porch (two doors down from the hotel). Later on, GG saw her eating Poogan’s Porch take-out in the courtyard :o) (Funny side story: GG was talking about how a week away from the cats is like a year to them. “We had Christmas without you! And Cat Hanukkah!”)
My favorite ghost story takes place at the Thomas Rose House: Dr. Joseph Ladd came down from New England to make his fortune and become a prominent doctor so he could come home and marry the girl of his dreams. While in Charleston, he stayed at this house, renting a room from two spinster sisters. Every night he would whistle a certain English tune when he came into the courtyard so they would know he was home. He’d become friends with a carpenter, and as he rose through the ranks of society as a doctor, the carpenter got jealous (even though Dr. Ladd was never weird about it and always treated him as equal). One night the friend challenged Dr. Ladd to a duel in Philadelphia Alley. Ladd shot first, and not wanting to hurt his friend, shot off somewhere else. The other guy wasn’t so nice, and shot Ladd in the abdomen. He was brought back to this house, where the Rose sisters tended to him until he died. He never got to marry his dream girl. Now he haunts the house, but he’s a nice ghost. He shows up at happy occasions – for example, on the first day of school for the twin boys who lived there, Dr. Ladd stood at the top of the stairs, smiling. Also, you hear him whistle his tune in the courtyard.
Friday: On our last day in Charleston, we finally made use of that Dramamine I bought when we arrived, and took the ferry to Fort Sumter. Cruising across Charleston Harbor, you get a great view of the city and what it must have looked like to people arriving hundreds of years ago – its nickname is “the holy city” because of all the steeples across the skyline. At the fort, we got a little narrative history lesson from a park ranger, then had some time to explore the site on our own, including an indoor museum. There are still mortars stuck in the walls from the Civil War! (Side story: When the ranger was introducing herself, she said, “You’ll notice I don’t say ‘y’all,’ I say ‘youse guys.” GG yelled out, “Yinzer!” Yes, she was from Pittsburgh.) On the way back to town, I decided I felt well enough (and the weather was nice enough) that I could stand at the front of the boat and just enjoy the breeze. We went to a restaurant called Blossom for lunch when we got back. I didn’t realize it was a little fancy (we’d actually passed by its sister, Magnolia, because I thought we were way too casual to go there). Oh well. I had possibly the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. After lunch, we went to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. This was actually not really a dungeon, but a lot of people were imprisoned in the dank basement, which led to lots of disease and death, which led to… ghosts! No ghosts were mentioned in the tour. The tall man who was our tour guide looked so familiar, and then GG reminded me that he was the guide at the Slave Mart on Tuesday! Then we went back to the hotel, where we dipped our feet in the hot tub in the courtyard for a while. (Why did we wait until our last day to do this?! The jets felt wonderful on tired feet and legs!) After our afternoon nap, we went back to the Husk Bar for dinner – no reservation needed, and in fact, even on a Friday night, we were the only people sitting up there for a while. I didn’t realize how limited the menu was, so I ended up eating my second burger of the day (it was pretty awesome too), and we shared a cheese plate (our third of the week, if you’re keeping track). (My notes from dinner that night read, “Husk Bar: small, awesome menu, neat atmosphere, tons of flies.”) We continued our low-key final night by getting Belgian Gelato and walking to the Pineapple Fountain to sit for a while. GG told me that this was the best vacation we’ve ever taken, and that just about made my week.
Pineapple Fountain as seen from Charleston Harbor
Saturday: I think the local birds sensed that it was our last breakfast at the hotel, because after leaving us alone while we ate all week, one bold little bird jumped up on the table and tried to take a bite out of GG’s muffin! He pulled off the bit the bird had touched, and left it on the edge of the table for it. The bird flew right back up and took it, and sat there with us for a minute while GG took its picture. We got the car loaded up, then stopped at Harris Teeter (found on our long walk to Ted’s!) to pick up some snacks for our long car drive. After we got out of town, we switched positions, and I ended up driving through SC, NC, and most of VA. We wanted to switch spots around Richmond, but we got onto some sort of bypass to 95 where there were no rest stops, so I just kept driving. Luckily, we switched before we got to DC, because our GPS got all confused and we ended up somewhere in the downtown. But GG figured things out and we were back on our way home. We actually were home by about 7:00 PM, which was not bad at all (I was hoping to be home by 9:00). I had a major headache, so I just crashed and didn’t really clean up or unpack until the next day. Our kitties missed us a lot, and every time I leave for more than a day I feel like Sacha is significantly bigger when I get home.
Breakfast bird with a muffin crumb
Overall, this really was a fabulous, long-awaited, and much-needed vacation. Everything really worked out well. I think the thing we lucked out with most was the weather. We were expecting hot and humid southern days, but it was kind of unseasonably cool and breezy in Charleston that week, and it was just beautiful. The city was the perfect mix of history, shopping, sightseeing, and food, I hadn’t really realized what a foodie town Charleston is. I don’t know how we will top or equal this vacation, but we’ve got at least a year to plan the next one… (You can see all my Charleston photos here!)