Updated: Feb 26, 2020
Adventure in the low country
Every spring, my mom, sister, and I take a little girl’s trip to Charleston for a couple days. Just two hours south of Charlotte, the charming city is an easy getaway that somehow makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time for a moment.
To begin with, Charleston is full of hotels and bed & breakfasts, it’s just a matter of finding what suits your interests best. Each time we go we stay at a different hotel, and while we have tried them all, I think the Vendue is a fantastic choice for anyone looking to be in the thick of it all. Right off East Bay Street, the hotel shares the block with some of the city’s top restaurants, including High Cotton, as well as the famed Rainbow Row. Less than a five-minute walk away is Charleston’s open-air market, a long stretch of different vendors selling everything from Spartina bags to pecan praline.
While my itinerary may change depending on where I am, my travel style is usually the same. I love to explore cities, getting lost (metaphorically speaking, not literally) in their streets, and basking in its energy. Cities are a cultural hub, so the only way you can truly experience them is to go be a part of the pulse.
When in Charleston, Hyman’s is always our first stop. After a morning of driving, checking in, and unpacking, it is exactly the type of no-nonsense deliciousness we are craving. When you walk in, you will notice framed photos of celebrities all over the walls. Everyone from Julia Roberts to Denzel Washington have not only visited Hyman’s, but raved about it, and it’s easy to see why. Hyman’s is a seafood joint with no frills. Their salmon croquettes are more salmon than breading, and they are seasoned with the most complimentary blend of spices. Us girls love them so much, we usually find ourselves getting a second order.
Normally, we stick to appetizers when we come to Hyman’s. The fried green tomatoes, the dip trio, and an order of the shrimp and pups tend to be our usual order. We’ve tried all of the dips they offer, so I feel confident in suggesting the Spicy Feta Shrimp Dip. Try the trio if it’s your first time, but if you’re looking to pick just one of the dips in order to try a few more of the other appetizers, I would go with the spicy feta. The fried green tomatoes shine in all their low country glory, and the dipping sauce they serve it with is on point. We always ask the shrimp to be fried. They can be prepared any which way, so if you’re looking to stay healthy, you can get them grilled and avoid a cheat. As for me, when in the low country, I’m ordering myself some fried shrimp, and the hushpuppies that they’re served with are huge and perfectly sweet.
Despite having gone to Hyman’s so many times, I have yet to try their Carolina Delight, a lightly fried grit cake that is topped with either shrimp, salmon, or a salmon croquette. I would obviously love to order it with the croquette, and it is at the top of my to-do list on this year’s Charleston weekend.
Charleston is incredibly walkable, especially if you’re staying at a hotel on or around E. Bay Street and King Street. East Bay is filled with restaurants, and King is filled with shopping and art galleries. Both of these streets, and all the little ones in between, are incredibly charming, dotted with colorful homes, cobblestone streets, and quaint flower beds. The architecture is an interesting mix of Spanish, French, and English, and its rich history oozes everywhere from their weeping willows to their captivating row homes.
Rainbow Row is a must-see when in Charleston. A street of pastel-colored row homes built in the mid-1700’s, their original use was reserved for merchants who both worked and lived in them. As time went on, the homes were painted in a variety of pastel colors. There are several legends regarding the motive for the color palette, but my favorite is the one that says the pastels were used to help drunken sailors find their way home. It’s a lot like the story about the location of Ernest Hemingway’s house; he built it next to the lighthouse so he could always find his way home from Sloppy Joe’s, his local watering hole.
Rainbow Row is iconic. Almost every art gallery contains some painting or photograph of the colorful landmark. I can sit there and get lost in time staring at it. Charleston has this interesting way of making you unsure as to what time period you are currently in. The angel trees whisper of souls past and you can hear their echo in every step of the galloping horses as they kick the old, dusty streets. The smell of gardenia has carried the city through centuries of hospitality, war, healing, literature, and cuisine. The Georgian architecture seems to evolve with the ever-changing world around it, while somehow maintaining its bygone appeal.
Charleston is a special city because it doesn’t really feel like one. Despite its walkability and its culinary and art scenes, most shops close around 6-7, and you can’t find too many restaurants that are open past 10 unless you’re in the area where all the College of Charleston kids go out.
There is also an eeriness that surrounds Charleston. While it’s no secret that the city is famous for its ghost tours and sightings, the ominous air comes from more than just the soldiers who have come and gone, but from the deep and complicated history of the low country.
I’m a huge fan of southern literature, so much so that I wrote my first published book on one of its major players, Frederick Douglass. One of my favorite books in this genre also happens to be a book that helps to make sense of the south’s history, a novel by William Faulkner titled, Go Down, Moses. There is a scene when Isaac McCaslin is discussing the land he was supposed to inherit, which at one time was a plantation worked on by slaves. In this scene, he says
“Don’t you see? This whole land…is cursed…
maybe for that reason their descendants alone can-not resist it,
not combat it, maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted.”
Although this is just McCaslin’s personal view, I think it’s an inescapable part of Charleston’s history, and a part of what makes the city so intriguing. On the other hand, it is said that when Union soldiers were taking over the south, General Sherman decided to spare Charleston from pillaging because of her heartbreaking beauty, so he turned the city into the Union’s southern headquarters. The era of slavery, and the war that ensued during it, was such a pivotal time for Charleston that the city would not be what it is today without it. So much of its culture, from its low country cuisine to the Gullah people who hand weave baskets on the side of the street, none of this would exist with the potency that it does.
Charleston is a city born and bred from a unique time in American history, but it has grown into something much deeper and much more eclectic than where it started. If you really want to breathe Charleston in for all that she is, I would suggest some of the reads listed below. Nothing makes a culture clearer than the written word that precedes it.
Go Down, Moses
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
South of Broad – Pat Conroy
North and South – John Jakes
The Apparition of the Little Giant – Shiara Molina
On our second day, we had dinner at High Cotton, an East Bay Street restaurant whose location was also used in the movie, The Notebook. Remember the scene where Noah spots Allie and he hurriedly runs after her only to see her meeting up with and kissing Lon, her wealthy, handsome fiancé? Yup, that’s High Cotton. I didn’t know this coming in, but as soon as I sat down I exclaimed to my sister, “this looks like the place from that scene in The Notebook.” She immediately looked it up and saw that I was right, much to her disturbance. She thinks it’s weird that I remember every little scene from that movie so vividly, but come on…it’s The Notebook.
High Cotton is just as pretty in person. The she-crab soup was rich and creamy, and the colossal shrimp cocktail was exactly what you’d expect; jumbo-sized and fresh. I ordered the swordfish. It was okay but I’ve definitely had better, especially for the price. My sister; however, ordered the grouper and loved every bite of her meal, so I would definitely go back and try a different entrée.
During our daily treks across the city, we always make sure to stop at Giovanni’s for some amazingly delicious pizza, and then River Street Sweets for the most scrumptious pecan praline. The smell of this place is intoxicating, and with their impressive display of sweets, I guarantee you will leave with at least one edible purchase, even if you don’t have a sweet tooth. I always make sure to buy extra praline, as well as some fudge, to bring back to hubby, who most definitely has an appreciation for the sweeter things in life.
I love walking through the open-air market. Don’t get me wrong, there are all sorts of vendors at the market. The price ranges are as diverse as the quality. There are some stands that are a total rip-off and there are some that are a total steal, but part of the fun of the experience is in the hunt. I bought the cutest bracelet with a mermaid clasp, and most of my memorabilia, including my Rainbow Row hand towels and pineapple fountain shot glasses have all been found at the open-air market.
I always make sure to stop at the Spartina store on King Street, and I never forget to swing by Woof Gang Bakery to bring back a couple gifts for my sweet dog, Tiberius, who always misses me terribly when I go away. Woof Gang is just as charming as the rest of the city, and the people who work there are so kind. They are truly dog people and they always love hearing customer stories about our canine family members.
The streets of Charleston are lined with old book stores, art galleries, and shops galore. There is no shortage of things to do, and while there are lots of beautiful sights, do yourself a favor and make time to walk by the harbor. You’ll know when you’re there because you can’t miss the famous giant pineapple fountain that stands proudly in the middle of Waterfront Park. You can sit in the porch swings and take in the gentle breeze, or you can go over to the railings and stare out at the calm waters, gazing at the boats as they drive by. Not only is it a lovely sight, but the harbor provides a few moments of peace. I love standing there with my mom and sister to take it all in. Part of getting away is restoring balance and gaining clarity. The harbor at Waterfront Park brings forth a stillness that carries us through until we return again.