Charleston 2016!

Remember when GG and I went to Charleston, SC? We had such a great time, we’ve basically been talking about it for the last 4 years. It was really a perfect vacation. So with our 10th wedding anniversary (!!!) coming up, we decided to go back! We booked our time well in advance, because we knew it would be a tough week for GG to get off work. Hotel rates seemed much higher than when we were there before, probably because it was more in the midst of the Spoleto Festival. I ended up booking us an Airbnb a couple months in advance, and then one morning I woke up to a message saying the reservation had been cancelled by the owner! Turns out, hotels in Charleston are suing Airbnb, so until everything was worked out, property owners were advised to cancel any pending reservations. GG and I started looking for other options, and found that in the meantime the rate at the Elliott House, where we stayed in 2012, was back down to where it had been before, so we booked it! And thus concluded our pre-vacation drama.

Wednesday, June 1: The week before we left, a tropical storm hit the area hard enough to cause flooding that closed down areas of I-95 for a while. Luckily, everything had cleared up just in time for us to leave. We didn’t stop anywhere on the way to South Carolina this time (except a creepy gas station in Virginia where I made the mistake of using the ladies’ room!). We left early in the morning and GG drove until we were past DC, then I took over for a long stretch (only listened to “Hamilton” once!), and then we switched back shortly before our destination. We had planned to take one day while we were there and drive over to Savannah, GA, but as we pulled into town, I was so sick of driving that I said to GG, “I know this sounds crazy [because we already have a detailed written agenda], but I would be ok with scrapping Savannah and doing something else around here that day instead.” So we did! (Read on to see what that was!)

We hadn’t really planned anything for our first evening in town, but GG had ideas for us. As soon as we checked into the hotel, we headed two doors down to Poogan’s Porch, where we sat at the bar and shared an order of the smoked gouda mac & cheese that just about put him in a coma four years earlier. We learned about two things there: a local beer called Pluff Mud (which GG enjoyed throughout the trip), and the existence of Poogan’s Smokehouse, which we immediately added to our agenda for later in the week. After that stop, we went next door to Husk, where we got a table in the carriage house bar and enjoyed a cheese platter and crazy burger with bacon in the burger meat. (Bacon is the main theme of Charleston.) Now here’s the sad part: after dinner, we went for an evening walk around town. I was wearing sandals that are usually extremely comfortable, but for some reason they gave me huge blisters that night! So for the rest of our trip, I had to wear the one pair of more sneaker-like enclosed shoes that I’d brought (which probably was better for my feet, but still!).



Poogan’s Porch mac & cheese

Cheese plate at the Husk bar

Not glamorous, but glad to be out of the car!

One other funny story about the hotel: the majority of the guest rooms are all along one side, which faces the alley next to Husk. Last time, our room was right above Husk’s dumpster, where they were constantly clanking glass bottles and trash. (It was the hottest dumpster in Charleston, though!) This time, as we checked in, GG said to me, “I hope our room isn’t on the first floor.” It was on the first floor (which was fine, we didn’t have to go up any steps and there was no problem). I jokingly said, maybe we’d be right by Husk’s kitchen entrance. Well, we walked into the room, opened the blinds, and the kitchen door was literally right outside the window! LOL! It really wasn’t any problem at all though. It wasn’t that noisy, there were wooden blinds that pretty much prevented anyone from seeing in, and we had a full blackout curtain for nighttime. Just thought it was funny :o)

Thursday, June 2: I know I said I was sick of driving, but, today was the day we planned to do a couple things just outside of downtown, so it was back in the car for a short ride. Our first stop was the Angel Oak Tree. The Angel Oak is often said to be the oldest tree in the country, and it really isn’t, though it is very old and very large. It’s impressive and beautiful, and you are free to just wander around it and admire up close or from afar. You can take pictures, although there are signs all around it that you can’t move. But don’t worry, because there is a gift shop!! We met an artist named Frank deLoach who was working on a really interesting painting of the tree. He said for years he did realistic tree paintings and couldn’t give them away. Then he started doing this technique and people are trying to buy them before he’s even finished, and he sells them for thousands of dollars. He mixes sand with paint to create the sketchy outline, then fills in the voids with color. Also, if you light the painting from just the right angle, the outlines cast shadows that give the piece a whole new look! Angel Oak pro tip: arrive early; we were there first thing in the morning and it was already getting crowded by the time we left.



Before we left, my mom warned me to stay on paved surfaces and not go under trees. Whoops.

This is the painting on an angle – here it is straight on

Our next stop was Magnolia Plantation. There are several plantations you can visit along the Ashley River and I was a little disappointed with the one we saw before because it turned out it was “preserved” (i.e. kept in the same dilapidated state it was when the last owner died), not restored. Magnolia is the one everyone talks about, because it’s a huge property you can explore, and in addition to the house there is a garden, zoo, swamp tour, etc. I really just wanted to see the house, so we bought admission to the garden (which you need to be able to do anything else) and a scheduled house tour. We had time before the tour to explore the garden, and then wandered down to the river, which was the site of a British attack that preceded the battle of Yorktown (“Hamilton” has really improved my knowledge of the American revolution!). It was very beautiful but also very hot, so I was glad to get inside and check out their little indoor museum as well. They had some connection to the Grimk√© family, which was fictionalized in The Invention of Wings. (We’ll refer to this book again later, too! I read it because of its Charleston and Philadelphia connections!) The house tour was good; the property has had a long history, and actually is currently owned by the same family – the gardens were created by an early owner to make his wife happy, since he took her away from her city home, and were later opened to the public to make some money by charging admission.



The front of the house actually faces the river, since that’s how guests would arrive; this is the back that faces toward the gardens

We went back to town and had lunch at Eli’s Table, which was one of GG’s picks, and happened to be right around the corner from our hotel. After we mentioned to the waiter that we were from Philly, he brought over a waitress who was originally from Pennsylvania. Would you believe she went to the same high school as me?! Small world! Anyway, the meal was amazing. Afterward, we went on a little quest to visit some of the new distilleries in town. We first headed to Charleston Distilling Company, producer of a sorghum whisky that GG picked up. They have a tasting room, but due to SC’s weird regulations, you can’t just visit that area. You have to pay for a full tour, and then at the end you get the tasting. GG just bought a bottle of what he wanted, and then they let him in and basically gave him a little tour anyway.



We were going to try to walk to another distillery after that, but realized how far away it was, and it was super hot out and we were getting cranky, so we got ice cream instead :o) They have Jeni’s ice cream in Charleston! In what became our usual schedule for the remainder of the trip, we went back to the hotel, took sponge baths, changed, and then went out to dinner. Our reservation was for SNOB (Slightly North Of Broad), a restaurant we missed on our last trip. It was very good, but I think we only went there because it’s one of those “must try” restaurants everyone talks about. Now we’ve tried it. After dinner, we went for a walk around Waterfront Park and caught our first glimpse of the pineapple fountain this trip.

Friday, June 3: On the schedule today was a trip to the South Carolina Aquarium, which we had skipped last time because it seemed like a lot of kid stuff, and we’ve been to aquariums before. However, this year I learned that the aquarium is home to a Sea Turtle Hospital, and you can schedule a tour of this facility in addition to your aquarium admission! The aquarium was nice, though we realized after we’d gone through everything that we’d kind of done it backwards – you’re supposed to start upstairs with the “mountain” environment, and then work your way though all of SC’s ecosystems until you get to the “coast.” We did it the other way around, and I guess that’s why sometimes it seemed like doors didn’t have signs on them, it was because we were going through from the wrong side, haha! At our scheduled time, we met up with our turtle hospital tour group (including a Charleston transplant who was originally from our area in PA, you see this is becoming a theme), and we headed outside to the hospital entrance. The “tour” isn’t so much a guided experience as it is learning about the hospital, and then they just let everyone inside to wander and ask questions of the staffers. I was worried it was going to be sad but it really wasn’t – most of the turtles there were greatly improved from when they came in, and were swimming happily around their tanks and getting ready to go home! Turtle hospital pro tip: Book your tour in advance, they will fill up! (Actually, the hospital is going to be moving to a more prominent spot later this fall, so I don’t know how it’s going to work going forward.)



This non-native species is taking over the Atlantic Ocean, hope you find them delicious!

This huge tank was pretty cool (human included for scale) – we also saw a dive show they did in here

Turtle Hospital was basically 15-20 tanks like this, filled with recovering sea turtles

After the aquarium we thought we’d hit up a couple of the historic homes, but we weren’t really in the right location to visit both, so we just did the Joseph Manigault House, which is right across from the Charleston Museum (we visited last time) where we bought the tickets. The house is beautiful, but the “tour” again was just a speech in the foyer, then we were split into two groups and half explored upstairs on their own while half explored downstairs, then we switched. We did hang behind after the tour and speak to the docents about stuff like how bad everyone must have smelled in the olden days :o) The most impressive thing about this house was that it had been used for many different things, including a period where it was a boarding house for lots of families with kids running all over, and temporary housing for war veterans, yet the beautiful wooden railing and chandelier in the center spiral staircase remained intact!



We stopped by Bull Street Gourmet for a little drink and snack on the way back to our hotel, then got cleaned up and changed and headed to one of the dinners I was most excited about, Minero! This is Sean Brock’s Mexican restaurant… and I love me some Mexican food ;) We started out with guacamole and a trio of salsas, served with fresh chips they kept warm inside an oven mitt. For our main course, I had two little tacos. GG ordered a burrito which, for the price, was ridiculously oversized! He was literally almost in tears by the end of the meal because he was just physically incapable of finishing the whole thing. (Another fun thing about Minero: napkins and silverware are in a little drawer under your table!) After dinner we walked around and did our usual, checking out houses by the Battery and along Rainbow Row.



Saturday, June 4: This was the day we had originally planned to go to Savannah, but as you’ll recall, we scrapped that plan as soon as we arrived in Charleston. Instead, we decided to go to the Charleston Tea Plantation. This was an excellent decision – the tea plantation was one of the most interesting places we visited on this trip! Now – we both love tea. But it was really fascinating! The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only tea plantation in the US – all other tea comes from overseas, much of it from Asia, Africa, and South America. This plantation was set up as kind of an experiment, since the soil and climate in Charleston are ideal for growing tea. You enter through a huge gift shop, selling every type of tea and tea accessory. There is also a sampling station of hot and iced teas, which you are encouraged to bring with you on the tour! We first did a little walking tour of the factory, which is free and runs every 15 minutes or so. You basically just walk along while looking at the factory equipment through a window, and videos play to explain what each piece does in the process. Then we went on a trolley tour of the plantation. Our tour guide was super knowledgeable and we got to learn how they grow and harvest all the tea there. Most tea around the world is harvested by hand, which takes hundreds of people. At the Charleston plantation, they have developed a piece of equipment that cuts down the bushes and separates out the leaves, allowing them to do the same work with just a handful of employees. The bushes are planted in rows designed for the harvester to fit between them. It takes about 27 weeks for the plants to re-grow to the height they need to harvest them, so they divided the plantation into 27 sections – by the time they reach the last one, it’s time to harvest the first one again! They also have a greenhouse for starting new tea plants that is naturally climate controlled and all automated.



The tea harvesting machine


This is Waddy the frog, named for Wadmalaw Island

When we got back to town, we went to Poogan’s Smokehouse for lunch, as had been recommended to us by the Poogan’s Porch bartender on our first night. It was a very cool and kind of industrial place, and the food was fabulous of course. We split their version of mac & cheese, just to try it, and then I had a burger. GG got a platter of three different types of BBQ meats and a couple sides. He was again just about in tears by the end of the meal because he couldn’t finish the roll that came with it! (They have six types of BBQ meats and the largest platter includes five – our waitress told us she had a customer who got the five meat platter and then ordered the sixth type as his appetizer, just so he could try them all!) Poogan’s Smokehouse pro tip: the bathrooms here are really nice!

After lunch we went to the other historic home we wanted to see, the Heyward-Washington house. While waiting for the next tour to start, they told us to go check out the outbuildings and garden. The cookhouse had some information about the families who’d lived there, and mentioned Judge Grimk√©. This was the house where The Invention of Wings took place?! So then I was extra excited about the tour. This was probably the best historic home tour we went on – it was informative and the group was just us and two other people. Like most of the other historic homes, this one had gone through some transformations (for example, at one point the downstairs was lowered and converted into a bakery storefront). There were a lot of paintings in the home that our guide kept pointing out because they were mostly done by the same artist, and he was really bad, but he was the only portrait painter in town at one point, so he got all the business! He gave everyone one of two face styles, he couldn’t do hands so they were usually covered up, and actually he was bad at painting skin, so that was usually covered too.



After the tour, we were walking back toward the hotel and saw this church with its courtyard gate open, inviting people in to their garden. Turns out it was a huge cemetery, and GG got some great creepy shots. I walked around for a little bit, but then hung out on a bench where I was eaten alive by bugs.



We went to Bull Street Gourmet for a full meal, finally, and had dinner there. Of course we had to get one of their beautiful cheese boards. Then I had a gorgeous salad, while GG ate some gazpacho. After dinner we went for a walk around Colonial Lake. I’d heard on the local news that they had recently completed a beautification project there, and yes, it was much nicer looking than the last time we’d visited, with nice new landscaping. It felt like it was about to rain any moment, but still not yet a drop the whole week, despite the daily forecast calling for scattered thunderstorms.



Sunday, June 5: We started off the day back at Eli’s Table for brunch so we could try the breakfast side of their menu (the hotel did provide breakfast every day, which is a great time and money saver, but we’d decided we did want to eat out at least once). Our Philly friend was our waitress, so we got to see her again! The highlight of the day was my special surprise gift to GG (and myself) – massages! I’d figured by this point in our trip we’d be pretty achy from all the walking around and whatnot, and we’d had a couples massage on our anniversary a couple years ago, so I knew GG would enjoy it. However, what I learned at our previous massage was that he does. not. shut. up. Making it very hard to relax. So the Massage For Two at Earthling Day Spa is perfect, because you actually get separate massages in separate rooms. Mine was excellent, exactly what I needed. I felt so much better and just more relaxed for the rest of the day!

We didn’t really have too much planned until dinner, so GG tried looking up some other homes in the city we might tour, and found the Calhoun Mansion. This Victorian mansion was inherited by a descendant of John C. Calhoun, hence the name, but is currently occupied by jet-setting lawyer with extremely eccentric taste. The home is filled with various art and artifacts that he’s collected since his college years, as well as several dogs and cats who are locked in the kitchen during tours so we didn’t get to meet them. They’ve used the mansion in several films and TV series, including “The Notebook.” It was weird and ornate and there was lots of historical “stuff,” but it wasn’t really a historical re-creation since it’s actually someone’s home. (Also, no photography inside, but you can see pictures on their web site or buy postcards in the gift shop.)



Our dinner was a GG pick, Lowcountry Bistro. He’d added it to the list because they serve cioppino, which is a type of fish stew they have in California. However, once we got there, he saw they also had jambalaya and paella on the menu! He ended up getting the paella. I had an appetizer for dinner, fried chicken on sweet potato waffles. And we split an order of brussels sprouts with pancetta. GG made friends with our waiter (of course), who recommended Carmella’s Dessert Bar for dessert. We actually first tried to book a ghost tour, but we were like 10 minutes too late, they’d already cancelled that night’s tour due to lack of attendance. So we went over to Carmella’s and had some gelato, then hurried back to the hotel because it seemed like it was actually about to rain at this point.

Monday, June 6: Hey, remember how it was supposed to rain every day during our trip, but it never happened? Well, it finally rained … and it rained all day! Another hurricane was blowing in, bookending our trip. It wasn’t raining when we arrived at Waterfront Park for our Porgy and Bess walking tour, but as everyone gathered, umbrellas started popping open. This was the one Spoleto Festival activity we were doing, and I’d really been looking forward to it. I’d seen Porgy and Bess maybe once, but I am familiar with the story and music. The story was written and takes place in Charleston, and the tour was held in conjunction with performances of the opera during the festival. Our guide was super knowledgeable (I missed his intro in the beginning, but I think he’d written a book about Porgy and Bess?!), and we learned so much about the opera, its creators, and its Charleston connections. Of course, it was pouring rain the entire time, and it was kind of hard to hear or pay full attention when you are dodging puddles and being pelted with rain, trying to peek between everyone’s umbrellas. We stopped under roofs and shelter when we could, but it was kind of miserable.



This is the Heyward-Washington house again – DuBose Heyward was a relative and lived down the street from here for a period

GG found a flag to match his shirt (outside a liquor store run, ironically, by a pro-Brexit British expat

I’d worn shorts, and by the time the tour was finished, my legs were totally splashed with mud, plus my shoes were waterlogged and just wrecked. (Luckily, they were cheapies from Payless – the same pair was on sale online, so I tossed the ruined ones which had served me so well all week, and ordered replacements that arrived home shortly after we did.) We got cleaned up at the hotel and then went back to Poogan’s Porch for lunch (and to split another order of smoked gouda mac & cheese) – seemed fitting that they would be our first and (almost) last meal of the trip.

We went out to pick up some souvenirs while the rain had lightened up a little bit, then got cleaned up and changed, and went for our super fancy 10 year anniversary dinner at McCrady’s. (Well, first we had to get our traditional anniversary photo where we’re holding up fingers for the number of years we’ve been married.)



McCrady’s is super old, super historical, and super expensive. They serve very fancy, almost molecular gastronomy level dishes. For example, the man at the table next to us ordered a dessert that was basically blueberry foam overflowing out of a fish bowl :o) It was very very good though, and now we can say we’ve eaten at all of Sean Brock’s restaurants (well, at least the ones in Charleston). We tried going for a walk after dinner, but it was raining so much, and we had to get up early in the morning, so we just went to bed.

Tuesday, June 7: Watching the news the night before, we saw the effects of the next tropical storm blowing in, and GG suggested we pack up and drive home overnight. Actually, it’s a good thing we didn’t, because everything passed through during the night, and though there was some flooding in some areas of the city, by the time we left early in the morning, the rain had stopped and skies were clear. We had no issues getting home and the kitties were happy to see us :o) Although it was hot and humid (i.e. normal weather) compared to the last time we visited, I would still rank Charleston in my top five favorite places. We had a great trip, plus I can’t believe we’ve been married ten years!

Check out all my Charleston pics here.

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