Distinct regional diversity is what drew me to the USA because any regional diversity in Australia is so subtle that even Australians struggle to detect it. I was drawn to finding places where local speech, attitudes and architecture would be different to the last city I visited.
I couldn’t have picked a better city than Charleston to wedge between my two months in New York and my time in New Orleans. It is the sweet, genteel and slow antidote to New York’s gritty, brash, harried hustle and bustle. It’s the quiet, discreet and sugar-coated alternative to the free-spirited, raw and raucous energy of the Big Easy.
These three cities were all so different that picking a favourite is futile. New York inspired me and awed me and New Orleans delighted me and shocked me. Charleston enchanted me.
It’s easy to fall head over heels for this sweet city in the South, but I had to remind myself to keep the city’s historical context in mind. It was especially hard to ignore as we walked along Charleston’s millionaire mile, The Battery.
But you can’t hold modern people to the actions of their ancestors. The people we met in Charleston were some of the nicest that we met during our trip. Southern hospitality is legendary and everyone we met lived up to the reputation. We immediately noticed the change in tune, starting with our shuttle driver, check in staff at DoubleTree and the waitress who served us at the Market Street Inn, a rooftop bar near our hotel. Everyone was noticeably friendlier and chattier than in New York City. It makes sense, moving from one of the biggest cities in the world to a small one, but it was still a welcome change. After the too-cool waiters of New York City, the service in Charleston left us speechless.
We spent our first evening in Charleston on the rooftop of the Market Street Inn, overlooking the quiet streets and enjoying the fresh breeze. The change in pace was already noticeable, and it felt so good to slow down somewhere friendly.
The wide streets are quiet in the morning and just cool enough in the shade. Food here is cheap, which is a relief as accommodation is not. We were pretty impressed by our digs at DoubleTree, after coming up empty in our search for a B&B or reasonably priced independent hotels, but it really gouged a hole in our pockets.
A mouthwatering taste of Southern hospitality
Kitchen 208 on King Street welcomes diners with sunshine-yellow wood-panelled walls and oversized, country-style wooden chairs which made me feel a bit like a child. For just $8, I had French toast with crunchy applewood bacon, maple syrup and fresh strawberries. David had scrambled eggs with house fries (baked potatoes) and biscuits with grape jelly. Biscuits are like salty, buttery, savoury scones. I don’t like scones, but strangely, I love biscuits! The mimosas were only $4, so it seemed silly not to get one after spending weeks paying $12 for the same thing in New York. As it turned out, these weren’t the same as in New York – they were much stronger! In New York, a mimosa is a glass of orange juice with about three drops of Champagne. In Charleston, the balance is much more in favour of the Champagne and all is right in the world.
On another morning, as we waited on the footpath for a table at Toast, the manager came out and asked, “Who wants to meet a neighbour?”. I didn’t understand what she meant until after a couple took up her offer, to share a four-person table with another couple. We were seated near the foursome later and watched as the two couples shared a meal and got to know each other a little. I can’t imagine anyone venturing outside their bubble at brunch in Australia, even at the popular communal dining tables!
One of my favourite restaurant experiences to date was at Magnolia’s, a beautiful white tablecloth restaurant on East Bay Street. We went for the Southern cuisine, but the outstanding service also had me swooning. Our waiter was a gentleman in his fifties, who seemed delighted to help us select a variety of interesting Southern dishes. We started with fried green tomatoes with white cheddar & caramelized onion grits, country ham and tomato chutney and crab cakes served with low country succotash and tomato butter. I had a blue crab bisque for my main and David had the bourbon-fried catfish with shrimp, andouille sausage and butterbean succotash with Creole grits and tabasco remoulade. I don’t know how we managed to squeeze in so much food (although, spending two months eating US-sized portions in New York might have helped), but despite our indulgent meal the bill was still under $100, including two cocktails!
We couldn’t resist buying bucketloads of praline, from a few of the many sweet shops around town. The sweet shops in the South are something else!
Rainbow Row & the Historic District
Walking around downtown Charleston is like walking through a movie set. Are they sure these beautiful facades aren’t fake, and that these well-dressed, smiling people strolling through the streets aren’t actors?
Young men in navy uniforms stroll down the streets arm in arm with their girlfriends. The delicate, sweet scent of tea olive is carried in the gentle breeze down by the battery.
In the middle of town, pastel-hued homes and businesses are carefully preserved, as part of the largest Historic District in the United States. The historic district is mostly populated by art galleries, law firms, antique shops, fashion boutiques and interior design firms, as well as a number of bars and restaurants.
The world spins slower
Horse-drawn carriage tours meader through the city, carefully managed by a city controller so as not to disturb the peace. When we wandered down a side street off East Bay St, we were rewarded with an enormous fountain, at the head of a long, narrow garden lined with live oaks.
At the end of the park, we came out by the water, near the Carolina Yacht Club. The calm Ashley River is lined with pale green sweetgrass which sways in the gentle breeze. We stopped for a minute to admire the view and spotted a pod of dolphins gliding through the water, emerging every now and then in a flash of silver.
Waterfront Park on the Cooper River
Romance in White Point Garden
In a happy daze after a surprise dolphins spotting, we made our way down to The Battery, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in America. As we walked along the waterfront, we oohed and ahhed at pale green, lilac, sunshine yellow and bubblegum pink mansions, each desperately trying to out-do each other. At the end of East Battery, we found White Point Garden. The thick tangle of live oak branches almost completely obscures the sunlight, making the garden feel intimate even in broad daylight.
We were walking towards an old pagoda when a young Southern man walked up to us and asked David to take a picture of him and his girlfriend. We noticed his hands were shaking. He whispered, “I’m about to propose.” The couple posed in the pagoda, and we took the few decoy photos until he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. We caught the whole thing on camera for the happy couple and wandered off again in a bit of a daze.
The air smells sweet, the people are polite, the cafes are warm and inviting and the food is cheap and bountiful, the heritage buildings are painted in pretty pastels, there are sweet shops around every corner, dolphins play in the river and we just participated in a marriage proposal. At first glance, Charleston seems to be plucked straight out of a fairytale.
A tragic history
Of course, every place has its demons, and Charleston is no stranger to the ugliness of humanity. It was a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War, it was built on the profits of plantations worked by slaves and it prospered as its port became one of the most prominent slave-trading ports in the United States. Just a few months before our visit, a gunman had opened fire in a church, Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine innocent people.
During our stay, several Charlestonians referred to the shooting. They still seemed shocked that such an ugly crime could happen in their community. Whether they were mourning the lives lost in the shooting, lamenting about the recent flood or celebrating, the community spirit in Charleston was palpable.
We happened to be in town for the “Second Sundays” street party, held on the second Sunday of every month. King Street was busy, but not overcrowded, as droves of people came out to catch up over ice cream, BBQ ribs or any of the other street food offerings. In general, people in Charleston were pretty well dressed, but it was the four-legged Charlestonians that really set the standard. At Second Sundays we saw not one, but three dogs wearing bow ties, and one larger dog in a neck tie. They certainly seemed to have one up on the locals, when later that evening I had my first sighting of a non-ironic cowboy hat, worn by a man eating dinner at a restaurant.
Between street parties, pastel-coloured mansions, beguiling Lowcountry landscapes and enormous plates of finger-lickin’ food for a fraction of the price, Charleston’s charms are hard to resist.
Have you visited Charleston? Where is the prettiest city you’ve ever visited?