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We like quick weekend getaways to Charleston. Besides that, we haven’t really explored much of South Carolina, but probably should.
Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Alexander Valley, The Berkshires, Portland, Oregon, The Road to Hana, Maui’s “upcountry“, Hong Kong, Austin, San Antonio, Valley of Moon, California, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Split, Croatia, Krk, Croatia, Koper, Slovenia, Mendocino County, California, Auckland, Oslo, the small German town of Speyer and Deidesheim, Oahu, Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, and here are his tips should you decide to visit South Carolina.
The term “lowcountry” refers to a quintessentially romantic region of elegant estates, ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss and resurrection fern, she-crab soup and gumbo. Geographically, South Carolina is shaped like a diamond with the “lowcountry” defined narrowly as the 4 counties making up the southern tip. Often, however, the much larger expanse between the Sandhills and the Atlantic Ocean is referred to as the “lowcountry.” Culturally and historically, this area dates from more than a century before the Revolutionary War (Charleston was founded in 1670) and was shaped by plantation life. Richard Porcher, renowned conservationist and prolific author observes that “All the major attractions (tourists) come to see in Charleston, Savannah and Georgetown were built with rice money.” Tip: This destination report will cover the Charleston area as well as Georgetown and Murrells Inlet, less than 2 hours north. Add some suggestions from my Practical Travel Tips: Myrtle Beach report for a very full vacation of a week or more on the South Carolina coast.
What we did
An annual survey conducted by Travel+Leisure Magazine (T+L) has named Charleston the best city to visit in the United States for 7 years in a row (2013-2019) “because it offers the perfect mix of…fabulous restaurants, stylish boutique hotels and intimate, family-run shops.” In this destination report, I wanted to focus primarily on activities offered in “the Holy City” over the holidays (although some of them continue well into the new year and every attraction mentioned is open year-round).
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
The tract which today is Magnolia Plantation & Gardens (MP&G) was first settled by Thomas and Ann Drayton a full century before the American Revolution and remains owned by their descendants today. Note: Conde Nast named nearby Drayton Hall the “best place to see in South Carolina.” Opened to the public in 1870, T+L named MP&G one of “America’s Most Beautiful Gardens” in 2014, an honor shared with the Portland Japanese Garden (see Practical Travel Tips: Portland, OR) and the New York Botanical Garden. It is 1 of only 5 gardens in the U.S. (and only 30 in the world!) to earn the prestigious “International Camellia Garden of Excellence” award. Yet it is MP&G’s collection of azaleas that remain unequaled. American novelist Owen Wistor (author of The Virginian) wrote, “…no horticulture that I have seen devised by mortal man approaches the unearthly enchantment of the azaleas at Magnolia.” Kirk Brown, MP&G’s National Outreach Coordinator, offers a less flowery (pun intended) but more evocative description; he calls the gardens “a vomitorium of color in spring.”
Lights of Magnolia: When the sun goes down, the gardens are lit up by 23 hand-made, 3-dimensional, brightly colored silk and steel sculptures spread over 9 acres that make up the “Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange” lantern festival — the first authentic lantern festival at a public garden in North America. The magnitude of this exhibit is matched only by its magnificence: the displays, built in China and shipped to the U.S. for assembly on site, filled 11 tractor trailers! The dragon, which is 200 feet long and 45 feet high at the head, is constructed using 26,600 pieces of porcelain dinnerware (see detail in photo). Insight into the “behind the scenes stories” of these structures makes wandering among them even more magical. “Lights of Magnolia” opens at 5:30pm Wednesday – Sunday for 4 months, ending March 15, 2020.
“From Slavery to Freedom: The Magnolia Cabin Project Tour: It is to MP&G’s credit that it doesn’t shy away from addressing its connection with the ugly institution of slavery. Its award winning “From Slavery to Freedom” tour – which provides an opportunity to visit 4 former slave cabins – each restored to reflect a different period: pre-Civil War slavery (1850), Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Jim Crow era (1877-1950s) and the Civil Rights movement (1950s and 60s) – is offered daily at 10am, 11am, Noon, 1:30pm and 2:30pm. On the day we visited, our tour was led by none other than Joseph McGill, Jr., a former Field Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston whose epic quest to sleep in every former slave dwelling still standing in the U.S. has resulted in the founding of the Slave Dwelling Project. You can listen to his Ted Talk here. Tip: Joseph normally gives the 10am, Noon and 2:30pm tours on Mondays and Tuesdays; call ahead to confirm his schedule.
Charleston Tea Party Tour
It’s a tour of incredible hidden gardens. It’s your invitation to enter private homes, lovingly restored and decorated for the holidays. It’s a tale of the personalities that made Charleston what it is today. It’s a completely “proper” tea party served on vintage china and silver. Laura Wichmann Hipp’s “Charleston Tea Party Private Tour,” which has been described as the “ultimate insider experience,” is all this, earning it 141 “excellent” reviews out of 156 total on TripAdvisor (more on this later). Our tour began @ 9:30am and ended with an authentic lowcountry luncheon of okra soup served over red rice, finger sandwiches, pumpkin pudding, gingerbread cake and, of course, tea served in the front room of Laura’s home on the Battery overlooking the Ashley River. A highlight of our tour included visiting the private garden (pictured at left below) of the Isaac Motte Dart House, included in the Garden Conservatory of America’s list of the top 50 American gardens. Note:. Up until a few years ago, this tour started with breakfast at a hotel. This hasn’t been true for a while and Laura no longer advertises her tour this way. Unfortunately, dated reviews live forever on the Internet. Also, Laura’s religion occasionally colors her commentary. If this isn’t your cup of tea (pun again intentional), there are other tours you can take (see below).
Holiday Walking Tour with Bulldog Tours of Charleston
Bulldog Tours offers something for every price point, interest and taste (literally!); it offers 7 different history tours ($6-$40), 5 different food-oriented tours ($65-$84+), and 11 different ghost tours ($29-$50) including a “haunted pub crawl” – mixing spirits with spirits…now that sounds dangerous! Because of the theme of this destination report, we picked their “Holiday Walking Tour” which is billed as an opportunity to “…enjoy the holiday spirit and seasonal decorations, conclud(ing) with seasonal refreshment.” While it appears this tour is pretty much a mashup of their history tours supplemented with holiday lore and capped off with eggnog and cookies (yum!), we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Where we stayed
We had expiring free night certificates with both Hyatt and Hilton, so we selected one waterfront property and one in a neighborhood undergoing revitalization for this report.
Hyatt Place, Charleston Historic District
The opening of Hyatt Place and Hyatt House, Charleston Historic District (9/24/15) was a key to the revitalization of “Upper King,” the trendy area emerging north of Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston. Breakfast here is free for World of Hyatt members and includes an omelet station and yummy breads.
Hilton Garden Inn, Charleston Waterfront/Downtown
The Hilton Garden Inn, Charleston Waterfront/Downtown (opened 5/5/14), located at the foot of the Ashley River Memorial Bridge, offers beautiful waterfront views in its rooms facing the Ashley River. Orders for its cooked-to-order breakfast (free to Hilton Honors Gold/Diamond members) are taken tableside; if “Mr. Jack” is working the dining area, he’ll brighten your day. This property offers an hourly free shuttle to the historic district, dropping riders off just a block away from one end of the City Market.
Where we ate
Charleston’s reputation as a foodie city is well-deserved. We tried 3 new (to us) restaurants on this trip: one in its first year of operation, a reimagining of a Charleston fixture and a chain restaurant.
Bourbon ‘N’ Bubbles, 570 King Street
Bourbon ‘N’ Bubbles is one of what will eventually be 3 restaurants sharing a building fronting the Hyatt House/Hyatt Place hotel that is part of the “Upper King” revitalization. If you are a connoisseur of bourbon or champagne, Bourbon ‘N’ Bubbles approaches pilgrimage site status. While the food is quite good, the alcohol really is the star here. Order an appetizer or two and a “flight” of bourbon or champagne for a pleasant way to begin or end a classy night.
A.W. Shuck’s Seafood Shack, 208 King Street
The original A.W. Shucks opened as a full service restaurant almost 40 years ago. It reopened this year as a fast casual restaurant where patrons can order a variety of hand-helds from a counter which are served tableside in disposable containers. Diners can bring their own fresh, cleaned catch which the restaurant will cook and complement with grits and Old Bay chips for $11; a generous cup of she-crab soup is just $5.
California Dreaming, 1 Ashley Point Drive
This chain restaurant offers stunning views of the Ashley River waterfront but, sadly, that’s the best thing that can be said about our experience. My she-crab soup was full of tiny bits of shell, etc. and I couldn’t taste the sherry we requested. I felt the salad was overly “wet” and the ribs overly dry. By the time our server brought our wine we had already finished our soups and salad.
Day trips we took
Between Charleston and Myrtle Beach lie Georgetown and Murrells Inlet, which make interesting day trips.
Kaminski House Museum (Georgetown)
Although it’s not immediately evident, the Kaminski House and Museum (KH&M) typifies the lowcountry “single house” style with the narrow end of the building facing the street and the main entry door midway along a porch running the length of one side of the building. It has been home to 3 of Georgetown’s mayors. One of these, Harold Kaminski, was the only officer on watch duty at Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941. His attempts to relay critical information about the Japanese invasion were stymied by a telephone operator he described to a Presidential Commission as “perfectly useless” and complacency of the command on Oahu. Each year, the area’s best home decor specialists and interior designers decorate the rooms of KH&M for its “Designer Holiday Showcase.” Guided tours are offered Monday-Saturday at 11am, 1 and 3pm. You can take a virtual tour here.
Atalaya and Huntington Beach State Park (Murrells Inlet)
The description of Huntington Beach State Park (HBSP) as a place “where history and nature meet” is well-deserved. Named for Anna Hyatt Huntington and Archer Milton Huntington who owned this property as well as what is now Brookgreen Gardens across the highway, HBSP is a birding mecca. The park’s 2,500 acres of freshwater lagoon, salt marsh, maritime forest and beach habitats attract more than 300 bird species including the endangered Least Tern and Wilson’s Plover, a pair of bald eagles and one of the world’s most colorful songbirds – the painted bunting. Also on HBSP’s grounds is the former winter home and art studio of the Huntingtons, Atalaya – a Moorish-style “castle” which hosts the largest juried arts and crafts festival in the U.S. on the last full weekend in September. The Huntingtons led incredibly productive lives: Archer wrote the definitive translation of El Cid; Brookgreen Gardens, the first public sculpture garden in the U.S., is the showcase for more than 1,400 of Anna’s pieces cast in aluminum and bronze and, for just a few days each December, one of the most beloved holiday events in the Southeast – “Nights of a Thousand Candles.”
About the Author:
I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.
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