There are certain places around the world that I feel guilty for not visiting. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, I just haven’t made it to these popular spots yet. Among these outliers is an American city that isn’t really that far away from me, is legendary for its history and beauty and is usually on most top ten travel lists – Charleston. On a recent road trip – my first such trip this year – I included a brief stop in this colorful city knowing I wouldn’t have enough time to do it proper justice, but that it would serve as a nice introduction to the city and region. As it turns out, that was a great decision and my couple of days in this quietly important Southern city is I know the start of a beautiful new relationship.
Travel at the moment is still fragile and each of us has different comfort levels when it comes to leaving home. I’ve been extremely cautious throughout this pandemic and took my first foray back into the world over Memorial Day weekend when I spent some time at the very secluded Nemacolin Resort in Pennsylvania. Since that was a successful trip, I started to extend my comfort bubble with a short road trip down through Virginia, North Carolina and ending in South Carolina. At the time the states were reopening and things looked positive for the first time in months. Since then, South Carolina has started to have several hotspots and instituted new rules, so deciding when to visit should be based not only on your own level of comfort, but also what local and national authorities advise.
Charleston has long intrigued me probably for the same reasons why it has intrigued would-be visitors for decades, if not centuries. The city is a curious but wondrous mix of history, physical beauty and creativity that’s hard to find and nearly impossible to replicate. It’s not only one of the most lauded American cities; it’s also one of the most important throughout our short history. Founded in 1670, Charleston played a key role in the British colonization of the Americas and quickly became the center of the African slave trade in the future United States. That dark history came to define the city for centuries – it’s estimated that more than half of all slaves brought to the Americas entered throughout Charleston. Naturally, the city also played a key role in the Civil War; it was the seizing of Fort Sumter that lit the powder keg and ignited the bloody conflict. Today the city’s complicated history figures prominently into any visit, but Charleston has also addressed its past, apologizing for injustices and creating unique ways to share this important history in ways that are smart and engaging. This is most certainly though not a city rooted in the past; it’s progressive, creative and eagerly looking towards the future, as I quickly learned during my time exploring the city.
One reason why Charleston is routinely named to the Best Travel lists is thanks to its robust and well-nuanced food culture. Low Country cuisine was once the food of the poor and struggling, but today down home classics are enjoyed by people from all walks of life and can certainly be found even in the best restaurants around town. There are a number of food tour options around Charleston, but before my trip I booked a private experience with Crafted Charleston. (I really did pay, this isn’t an ad) Together they helped me enjoy some incredible Charleston BBQ, as well as experience the city’s most famous landmarks along the way. One of their most popular tours combines local bourbon, beer and BBQ into an experience that sounds like a lot of fun, as a driver shares what both the foodie scene as well as the growing brewery scene is really like in the city.
It’s those Low Country classics though that continue to inspire chefs in Charleston, whether it’s She-Crab soup, shrimp and grits or just an old fashioned seafood boil, the options are many but mostly centered on the abundance of local seafood. Being on the water is actually an important aspect of any trip to Charleston, not just to admire the scenery or learn more about the history, but just to enjoy some time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It’s from the water that you can better explore other nearby spots, including Point Pleasant. It’s not only a nice place to enjoy a dockside dinner or even catch a boat out to see Fort Sumter, but it’s also the best entrée to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Across the water from Charleston, Mount Pleasant also boasts an impressive history, but in recent years it has been discovered by tourists thanks in large part to its proximity to Charleston. There are a number of hotels in Mount Pleasant that offer incredible access to everything there is to see and do in the region, but are also more affordable than many of the downtown Charleston properties, including where I stayed – The Hotel Indigo. This reimagined boutique property has taken on a new life in recent years and in addition to incredible access to Charleston and points beyond is a great home base as well. With an acclaimed restaurant and resort style pool, it’s easy to feel like you’re on vacation almost immediately. It was from here that I launched my quick but fun exploration of remarkable Charleston.
Oddly enough for me, I didn’t really have a game plan in Charleston. I more or less just wanted to walk around and soak in as much as I could, and so that’s what I did. I started in Rainbow Row, one of the most iconic sights in the city and with good reason. Once part of a down-on-its-luck neighborhood, in the 1920s private citizens began to buy the homes, painstakingly remodel them and bring them back to life. Through a strange sort of community synergy, others joined in and soon the line of 13 colorful Georgian homes were returned to their former glory. It was the perfect starting point for me as well as I began a morning of easy admiration for the city.
I wish I could share a plan of action or the top ten things I saw, but I can’t really. It was my first visit and I wanted to just explore, from the waterfront and the gentle breezes that tried to break the heat to the old neighborhoods and massive mansions – symbols of former (and present) wealth and power. The Historic City Market had only just reopened after quarantine but even with new safety measures in place it was a fun spot to explore for some outdoor window-shopping. One of the highlights of my day though was spending time in a small museum that many visitors may miss, the Old Slave Mart Museum.
Located on Chalmers Street, the slave mart was built in 1859 and is thought to be the last extant slave auction facility in South Carolina. It’s also a reminder of the role Charleston played in the American slave trade, just as the museum is a reminder of the city’s attempt to reconcile with its dark past. The museum itself tells the story of the slave trade in the Americas, with a special focus on Charleston and South Carolina. The information and exhibits are powerful and informative, but what’s even more powerful is to simply stand inside the building. To be there is to understand the magnitude of the slave trade and how evil an institution it was. Personally, if you do anything in Charleston I think it has to be a visit to this important site.
I finished my day in Charleston in the best way possible, eating a leisurely dinner outside along the water. Not far from the Hotel Indigo in Mount Pleasant is Shem Creek, a popular waterfront-dining district with a park and boardwalk that offer panoramic views of the marshlands and even Charleston Harbor. For me, it was the perfect symbol of my brief visit to the area. A laid back evening with great food, beautiful scenery and just a feeling of peace and contentment. We travel for a lot of reasons, but in these uncertain times being able to relax a little and not stress about the issues of the day is a priceless luxury.