Charleston: Rich history and Lowcountry charm

When I was young girl, I made a list of the 10 cities in the United States that I most wanted to visit. Charleston, South Carolina was one of those cities. I was intrigued by its long and rich history, its location on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, distinctive architecture, its culture and cuisine. Regretfully, it was not until recently that I finally got the opportunity to go there and see for myself why Charleston has always been one of our nation’s most beloved destinations.

I arrived in Charleston and the fabulous Charleston Place Hotel in the middle of the afternoon — just in time to enjoy a cup of hot tea and an assortment of finger sandwiches, scones and bite-size pastries. As I sat there in the lobby lounge, enjoying the elegant repast, I couldn’t help but think, “What a great way to start off a visit to Charleston and the Lowcountry, where food and gentility are so much a part of the culture.”

In the next several days, I would come to realize what an understatement that was!

That evening, I had dinner at McCrady’s, located at #2 Unity Alley.Like so many other places in Charleston, McCrady’s has a storied past. George Washington was the guest of honor at a dinner party in 1791. The gathering took place in the “long room” at McCrady’s Tavern, a complex of buildings that still remains. 

McCrady’s, considered one of the finest restaurants in town, is committed to using as many sustainable, local products as possible. According to the chef, the menu is a celebration of the hard work of the area’s farmers and fishermen. (I like that!)

I started with a small bowl of Sweet Potato Soup, followed by the Beef Tenderloin with Allium, Fingerling Potatoes, Duxelles and Foie Gras Hollandaise. Dessert was the McCrady’s famous Banana Puddin’. As expected, all proved to be special delights for the palette!

The coffee at McCrady’s was distinctive and good, so I asked my server about it.She quickly told me, “It’s Charleston Coffee Roasters.”

And, quickly, I made note!

The next morning, after an enormous breakfast in my room, I spent a couple of hours strolling up and down King Street, hoping to walk off some of the calories I’d eaten since my arrival.

King Street is famous for its chic and fashionable boutiques and stores. I checked out the inventory at familiar spots like Ann Taylor, The Gap, Abercrombie & Finch, J. Crew, Victoria’s Secret and Talbot’s. But, I also discovered new local favorites, like Eliza’s and Nancy’s.

Bookstores are a weakness of mine, so bumping into a small, locally owned one was great. I spent a long time looking at a lot  of books on Charleston. I settled on a charming little book entitled, Very Charleston, written and beautifully illustrated by Diana Hollingsworth Gessler. The book is a celebration of Charleston’s history, culture and Lowcountry charm. Its watercolor drawings are perfect reminders of this very special place.

When I visit a new place I like to take a motorized tour to familiarize myself with the lay of the land and to get some special tips and tidbits from the drivers. So, I signed up to take the owner-operated Talk of the Town City Tour, and I’m glad I did.

The 21-passenger minibus was roomy and comfortable, just right for the 90-minute tour, which covered six miles of Charleston’s Historic District. Included along the way were drives to The Battery and Harbor, The Old Market, churches and cemeteries, museums, historic homes and hotels, shops and restaurants.

Our driver and guide was Alan Hartley, dubbed “the best in the industry” and, true to reputation, he was a walking-talking reference book. His knowledge of Charleston, its history and its people, was extraordinary.

Hartley is the author of a great little travel book, Walking Tour of Charleston, which features 100 points of interest and a centerfold map. At only $5.95 each, the book is a must-have for visitors to Charleston.In addition to the usual historical stuff he spouted off with ease, Hartley told us about Pat Conroy’s book, South of Broad, and the title’s reference to Charleston’s Broad Street. Homes South of Broad Street are some of the most expensive in the city, and those who live south of Broad are fondly called SOBs. Those who live Slightly North of Broad Street are referred to as SNOBs. Fun to know!

Our tour took us to Battery Park, located downtown where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers meet. From there we had great views of Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney and the Lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island.

Battery Park is also home to some of the most lavish houses in all of Charleston, including the Edmonston-Alston House, the Calhoun Mansion and the Palmer Home (Pink Palace).

In that same area, Hartley pointed out the large and impressive house comedian Stephen Colbert lived in as a kid. Back then, the celeb attended Charleston Day Elementary School and was simply known as Stephen, the funniest kid in school. And, back then, the “t” in Colbert was not a silent letter!Hartley also drove us over to Rainbow Row, the brightly painted homes on East Bay Street (shown above).

The homes were built in the mid-1700s, when this part of town was in the center of Charleston’s commercial district. Small shops and other businesses were located on the first floors of these buildings, and the owners of each resided above, on the second and third floors.The old row houses represent the very first style of home built in Charleston. They were portrayed in Porgy and Bess, an opera written by George Gershwin when he was visiting Charleston.

After the tour, it was time to eat (again), so I headed over to Poogan’s Porch, tucked away in a lovely Victorian home at #72 Queen Street. Since its opening in 1976, Poogan’s Porch has served some of the finest Lowcountry cuisine anywhere and has been a favorite destination for actors, politicians, tourists and locals alike.

Just knowing Tennessee Williams, Joe Namath, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin and so many other celebs have dined at Poogan’s Porch made a visit here all the more enticing!

I started with a cup of the eatery’s famous Issac’s Okra Gumbo and found it to be absolutely yummy! (A larger portion would, in itself, make a grand meal.) Ingredients included Cajun sausage, chicken, seasonal vegetables and tomato broth.

For my entree, I selected a big bowl of Sunrise Shrimp and Grits, another signature dish of Poogan’s Porch. After just one bite, I knew why! Featuring a blue crab gravy, peppers, onions, sausage and two poached eggs, it was extraordinary!

After that big meal, I was ready to set out on foot again. This time I headed over to The Old Market, located between Meeting and East Bay streets. The open-air market plays host to hundreds of vendors selling their wares and visitors hoping to buy finely crafted items, like the famous sweetgrass baskets.

Over 400 years ago, slaves from West Africa brought their craft of basket weaving with local grass to the Lowcountry. Originally, the baskets were used to collect rice and cotton in plantation fields. Today, the baskets are widely respected and considered a distinctive art form. Even the smallest of the sweetgrass baskets are pricey! I was about to “walk on by” until I saw a vendor sign that read, “Bev’s Sweetgrass Baskets.”

As you might guess, I took that sign quite literally and brought one home.

One cannot walk the streets of Charleston without noticing huge displays of decorative ironwork. It seems to be everywhere — on balconies, gates, stairwells, etc. The oldest remaining ironwork in the city dates to Revolutionary War period, but historians say ironwork appeared on houses in Charleston as early as 1739. 

Because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline, Charleston is known as The Holy City. It boasts more than 400 houses of worship — of all denominations. Needless to say, I was eager to visit at least a few of them while I was here.

So, on Sunday I attended a quiet and reflective service at the beautiful St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. With its 186-foot-high steeple and a giant classical portico, the stucco structure has awed visitors from all over the world for more than 250 years. Built in the 1750s, St. Michael’s is the oldest church building in Charleston; it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the centuries, it has survived numerous serious blows, including fires, wars, hurricanes and earthquakes. Each time it was damaged, it was painstakingly restored or reconstructed.Inside, the church retains its traditional 18th century English design, with a second-story gallery and native cedar box-pews. Residents here are rightfully proud that Pew #42 was used by George Washington in 1791 and Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1861.

The Bells of St. Michael’s, which toll on the hour, were created and imported from England in 1764. Since then, the bells  have made numerous trips back and forth to London — each time to have repairs made when they suffered damages, by fire during the Civil War and by wind during Hurricane Hugo. 

I spent four full days in Charleston on this trip, but I left for home with a long list of sites unseen and just as many reasons to return. So, I will have to go back to Charleston. Soon. Very soon!

Now that Southwest Airlines has daily non-stop flights from Houston Hobby to Charleston, getting there will be quicker and easier than ever!

Beverly Denver is the editor and publisher of Houston Woman Magazine.

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