Why You Should Visit Charleston Now

Annie Fitzsimmons
June 25, 2012

Even the name Charleston evokes easy living and a genteel spirit. The city is small and the very picture of Southern hospitality, but with cosmopolitan restaurants and beautiful beaches a short drive away. A great weekend here combines revisiting the classics like a sunset sail on the Schooner Pride and a Palmetto Carriage Tour, but also discovering the new, with restaurants earning the highest praise from critics, and world-class art exhibits.

When you’re planning your trip, plan to wander the gracious, stately homes South of Broad street and to take a boat to Fort Sumter. Perhaps schedule a “Taste of the Lowcountry” cooking class with the lively teachers at the Charleston Cooks! kitchen shop. The renowned Spoleto Festival has come and gone this year but there is always great live music and events in Charleston.

Here are a few more things I loved on a recent visit:

1. Southern Flavors Gone Bold (And The Best Granola Bar In America): It’s no secret that Charleston’s restaurant scene has evolved in the past ten years to still praise its lowcountry roots with crabs, shrimp & grits, and oysters but also totally reinvent it. Husk, voted the #1 New Restaurant in America last year by Bon Appetit, is leading the foodie charge in a 19th-century historic home, with innovative cocktails and a menu that changes daily, telling guests where their food comes from on giant blackboard. Recent appetizers were cornmeal fried okra and buffalo pig ear lettuce wraps. Chef Sean Brock of Husk has also manned old-school McCrady’s since 2006, housed in a Georgian home where George Washington once had dinner. Here, food is still ingredient driven in a sophisticated space, like a spring grilled cobia with collard greens, ramps and rhubarbs.

This month’s Vogue features a profile on Brock by Jeffrey Steingarten, who says in the piece, “Why all the fuss about Southern American cooking? Only this. It is simply the finest that America has ever produced.”

Circa 1886 is a bit removed from downtown and is the restaurant for Wentworth Mansion guests. You won’t get the buzzing atmosphere of Husk, but it’s old-school Charleston with dishes to match. For a casual lunch, Monza on King Street has great thin-crust pizzas and big salads, and Poogan’s Porch has a great selection of Lowcountry cuisine, sandwiches and sliders.

Charleston also boasts the best homemade granola bar in America at Bull Street Gourmet. One bar is enough for 2 people, although you’ll want to eat it all, filled with oats, brown sugar, cranberries, gold raisins, almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, and honey.

2.. Middleton Place Plantation: In downtown Charleston, you’re enamored by the history and architecture. At Middleton Place, you’re swept away by the romance of it all. The gardens here rival the best in England and were laid out in 1741, when the Middleton family was wealthy from rice and indigo as cash crops and shipping from Charleston Harbor.

The sheer number of original objects like furniture, silver, and artwork, shown on the House Tour, is staggering. The family can count 1,600 descendants and each year, items return to Middleton Place, in a shared goal to preserve family history for generations. You can stay on-site at The Inn at Middleton Place, a welcome contrast from tradition with modern, minimalist architecture.

“When you visit, it’s not just the history of Middleton Place,” says Charles Duell, Founder and President of the Middleton Place Foundation, and a direct descendent. “It’s the history of America.” Duell even lived at Middleton Place, and is one of the most delightful, fascinating people in Charleston, with a passion for preservation and historical accuracy.

Middleton Place was inundated with calls during the Royal Wedding madness, but no, there is no known relation between this family and the one that raised the future Queen.

3. Gibbes Museum of Art: Even if you’re not a “museum person,” the city’s rich history comes alive in the permanent “The Charleston Story” at the Gibbes Museum. But their rotating special exhibitions are the most compelling. If you are in Charleston before September 9, Mary Whyte’s “Working South” is one of the most powerful shows on display anywhere. Portraits depict the blue-collar, often vanishing jobs of the South – fishermen, craftsmen, boat makers, tobacco farmers, dishwashers. You see a hard-working and resilient spirit in all, but are left wishing you could have known them like Whyte did as she captured the moments.

4. Gracious Hotels: Charleston Place is the most luxurious full-service option in the city, centrally located with 441 rooms, beautiful decor and the classic Thoroughbred Club for afternoon tea and cocktails. There were hiccups when I stayed: missing turndown service, a painfully slow WiFi connection, crowds blocking the doors. But the hotel is refined and the staff friendly, with the lobby acting as Charleston’s social center.

Across the street, The Planter’s Inn is a smaller, elegant option and you can get the famous twelve-layer Ultimate Coconut Cake at The Peninsula Grill.

Charleston Place provided 3 nights of accommodation. Annie Fitzsimmons is a freelance travel and hotel writer based in Manhattan. Connect with her @anniefitz or at [email protected].

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