We wound through the narrow streets of Charleston, following our tour guide. Under a canopy of oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, he paused to explain the sultry, laid-back vibe of South Carolina’s oldest city.
When you meet someone in Greenville, S.C., for the first time, he or she will ask where you’re from, the guide said. Meet someone in Columbia, the state capital, and they’ll ask what you do for a living. But meet someone in Charleston, and they’ll ask what you’re drinking. “We do things a little different down here in the Lowcountry,” he said.
Perfect. That’s exactly what my friend, Rose French, and I came for — a few days without the pressure of our weekday jobs as journalists. Rose lives in Atlanta, and we don’t get to see each other often. Phone calls and e-mails get sporadically wedged into our busy schedules. We wanted a weekend with uninterrupted conversation, spectacular food and drink, with a bit of history, culture and shopping in the mix.
Charleston has become a go-to favorite for such girlfriend getaways, with a well-deserved reputation as a gracious host. The city embraces the reputation as evidenced by all the “Girls Gone Wild”-inscribed trinkets, shot glasses and T-shirts. The motto, however, feels incongruent for the elegant city of antebellum homes with their piazzas and fragrant, colorful gardens.
Rose and I didn’t exactly go wild (except when served a few decadent desserts), but we relished the way the city’s lazy charm — not to mention its compact and concentrated size — made it easy to enjoy each other’s company while dipping into an unknown city, one with a deep and ever-present history.
Colonized in 1670 by British settlers, Charleston thrived until the Civil War with a busy seaport and the farming of rice, cotton and indigo. In April 1861, the war that changed its fortunes started in the city when Confederate soldiers fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter, now a national park in the city’s harbor — and one of the places Rose and I visited.
The city recovered slowly after the war, compelling the restoration, rather than replacement, of homes and buildings. It’s why it is a unique gem, exuding historic allure.
The late great Southern writer Pat Conroy wrote in his novel “South of Broad” that Charleston is a city “so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets” and so “corniced and filigreed and elaborate that it leaves strangers awed and natives self-satisfied.”
In the Holy City, as Charleston is called for its dozens of church steeples rising to the sky above the low-slung buildings, drinks are to be savored with dinner — or lunch or even breakfast — on a hotel rooftop or in a garden.
While there is much to explore outside the city and historic district by car, we parked and mainly explored on foot. With grid-like streets, much of Charleston is easy to navigate.
Charleston is also filled with lush, verdant life: palm trees and oak trees, boxes of flowers hung under storefronts’ and homeowners’ windows. Beautiful metalwork on benches, streetlamps and signs highlights the charm. These are among the city’s slower pleasures.
We visited the farmers market in Marion Square, sipped iced coffee and wandered down more high-end shops on King Street, window-shopping mostly their higher-end preppy, country club-style clothing, home goods and antiques.
When I’d had enough froufrou, I wandered a couple of blocks to the Cistern Yard, the quiet, gated square at the center of the College of Charleston, heavy with massive trees, Spanish moss and ivy. As is the case throughout much of the romantic city, there was a wedding party posing for photos nearby.
A brutal past
For all the beauty, Charleston’s brutal past is inextricably present, too. The macadam streets that add such authentic history were built by African slaves. The city’s port and Slave Mart were among the busiest and most notorious in the nation.
Our weekend included stops at three somber sites. We took a ferry for the Fort Sumter visit to stand on the historic windswept ground and trek around the grassy little fort where I found surprising comfort as I stood next to a cannon glancing back to the city. The place where I stood had once been ground zero of the country’s bloody divide. But no more. Here we were, the happy tourists and chattering schoolchildren simply enjoying the ferry to the fort and a brief brush of history.
We expected a darker experience on our visit to the Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street. We left disappointed.
The exhibitions include artifacts such as leg irons and posters listing the selling price for slaves based on their ages, gender and health. One stop on the tour — which takes less than an hour — included oral histories recorded in the voices of the former slaves themselves.
Rose, a native of rural Louisiana, believed the museum lacked a sense of poignancy, saying it gave short shrift to the city’s dark legacy. I, too, wanted more of an emotional connection and tribute to the brutal existence of the ancestors who had built the stunning city and infused it with the West African culture and cuisine that remain a strong part of the regional culture.
The deserved homage may be coming. The International African-American Museum is expected to open in 2019 and will hopefully bring Gullah history to life. The Gullah culture sprung from West African slaves who were prized in the region for their knowledge of rice cultivation. Their Lowcountry dishes became signatures of the region, including the long-simmering catfish stews, oyster and turtle soups, shrimp and grits, gumbo, rice and macaroni and cheese.
I wanted to see another place that had pulled me before our trip: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Called “Mother Emanuel” by many locals, the church was founded in 1816 and is the oldest AME church in the South and one of the oldest black congregations.
In June 2015, Dylann Roof entered the church during prayer service, killing nine people. He later confessed to the crime, saying he wanted to start a race war.
We walked to the stately white church, where I hoped to pass on an unspoken message of love.
Horse-drawn carriages passed by. A documentary crew was filming from the sidewalk. On this Saturday afternoon, the church was closed.
Many others had been moved to visit, leaving behind flowers made of sweet grass, rosaries, stones and notes in the church’s metal gate. On a black notice board in white letters, the parishioners posted a simple, moving message for visitors: “We thank you for your many acts of kindness.”
Top restaurants abound
I consider myself a fairly well-traveled foodie. I’ve dined well from Paris to Rome and Berlin, New York to San Francisco and Sydney, Australia. Let’s just say more than a couple of Charleston restaurants rank among my mental lifetime top 10.
But first, a drink.
Minutes from our hotel, we found a bar-restaurant on the water with lovely views and serviceable cocktails. A better choice — with pricier drinks — would have been one of the city’s hotel rooftop bars with panoramic views.
We weren’t, however, about to make the same mistake with our meals.
The city’s celebrated restaurants serve Lowcountry standards in traditional and updated versions, sure. Biscuits, grits, shrimp, bring it on, I said.
I do, however, suggest making reservations before a trip. Tables can be tough to get in many of the renowned restaurants — and there are many and they are busy. We got lucky.
On our first night, we wandered the cobblestone streets until 9 p.m., peering into busy dining rooms. We eventually nabbed the one available white-tablecloth table at S.N.O.B., which stands for “Slightly North of Broad,” and calls itself a Lowcountry bistro.
I went classic by ordering the region’s signature shrimp and grits, a house specialty, the server informed me. I’ve dreamed of it ever since — that deep red roux, buttery grits and perfectly cooked shrimp.
Another strong suggestion: Dessert in Charleston is not to be denied. At S.N.O.B., we tucked into a stupendous house specialty, warm apple sour cream pie with walnut streusel and vanilla ice cream.
After a single weekend, I couldn’t presume to provide a definitive guide on where to eat. But on my next stop, I will return to FIG (Food Is Good), a nationally celebrated restaurant where we improbably lucked into a table.
Razor clams and ricotta gnocchi in lamb Bolognese sauce, referred to by the staff as “pillows of love,” were shared by Rose and me. The finish again was heaven: sticky sorghum cake with a scoop of walnut/amaretto ice cream. For another bite of that alone, I would return.
Because we are no longer late-night revelers, we love breakfast and the Hominy Grill was a must. It’s yet another very popular spot where waits can get long. We arrived — unintentionally — 20 minutes before the place opened, securing a spot at the head of the line for a table and the time to savor a coffee or mimosa from the outdoor garden counter while we waited.
Amid the eating and drinking, coming and going to our hotel, we detoured often through the adjacent indoor market featuring local artisans. Sweetgrass bowls aren’t my style but they’re a signature offering here.
We separated and when we reconnected, Rose excitedly told me about a framed print she had purchased of two young black women, backs to the painter, their colorful patterned skirts blowing in the wind as they looked to the sea. We looped back to see the kiosk.
I bought an identical print as well as a second of women in a church pew. The painter, Jonathan Green, I later learned, is nationally known for capturing the Southern experience.
His reproductions of his famous works now hang in my home, perfect reminders of a weekend in a most storied city.