GET TO KNOW THE HOLY CITY
On Charleston’s cobblestone streets, history, hipsters and high style coexist side-by-side. The best visits to the Holy City combine some of each.
Over the course of a few days, visitors will barely scratch the surface of all that Charleston has to offer — especially if they’re on a family trip catering to different ages — but even a short getaway is enough to whet the appetite and gain an appreciation for South Carolina’s oldest and largest city. With a little planning, it’s possible to explore downtown, learn some history, get out on the water and venture outside the city to enjoy the shore before it’s time to head back home.
Walking is the most convenient way to get around downtown, and when it comes to convenience it’s hard to beat the location of the King Charles Inn, a historic property that once hosted writer Edgar Allan Poe. The boutique hotel is a short stroll from City Market and other historic spots, and a block from great shopping on King Street. The South Carolina Aquarium is also nearby, as is Upper King Street, a trendy, up-and-coming district of restaurants, bars, and shops.
The King Charles Inn offers free onsite parking — practically unheard of in Charleston — and the staff is warm and welcoming, offering full concierge services. Each evening at the hotel’s happy hour reception, art lovers, foodies and history buffs chat about their day’s activities and the next day’s plans. There is also a small outdoor pool with tables and chairs on a terrace and a quiet library area that’s a respite after a busy day of sightseeing.
The following activities in and around Charleston are fun for families as well as adults with a sense of adventure.
TAKE A CARRIAGE TOUR: For an overview of the city, a horse-drawn carriage tour can be a better choice than a walking tour — parents will probably hear fewer complaints of “I’m hot!” and “My feet hurt!” The carriages have canopies and the one-hour tours happen rain or shine, covering 25 to 30 city blocks. Some include the French Quarter area, Rainbow Row and Waterfront Park, but to keep carriage tours from stopping traffic, the city prescribes the route of each carriage's trip by lottery (or rather by the draw of a colored ball in an old bingo machine.) Palmetto Carriage Works, which leaves from a big red barn on Guignard Street, received good reviews from Jan and Steve Dillard of Greensboro, North Carolina, who were visiting Charleston for the first time.
“Our horse’s name was Karla and she was very well-cared for,” Jan Dillard said. “I enjoyed the personal stories as well as the historical facts.”
EAT WELL: Recently rated as one of the top 10 foodie cities in the U.S., Charleston is home to established local legends like Fig, Hawk’s Seafood, and Husk, plus dynamic up-and-coming restaurants. One of the best casual restaurants in the city is HoM, which is a burger boutique, ping pong lounge and neighborhood bar. Carnivores can devour specialty burgers like the Cowboy Killer, with bacon, gouda, barbecue sauce, tomato aioli and crispy onions. Owners Pete Smith and Pete Rivas are especially proud of its smoky flavors, which invoke a meal cooked over a campfire. Vegetarians, meanwhile, rave about the sweet potato and black bean burger and the buffalo cauliflower appetizer, while kids will have fun playing ping-pong in the back. For a light and refreshing cocktail that tastes like summer in a glass, try HoM’s strawberry basil gin.
GET OUT ON THE WATER: In a new two-hour tour, guests pilot their own two-person boats and follow a guide along the Cooper River and out towards Fort Sumter.
“Seeing Charleston by boat is amazing,” said Ray Berrouët, director of sales at King Charles Inn, which handles bookings for the tour. “And you get to drive your own boat.”
Drivers must be 18 or older with a valid driver’s license, and there is room on each boat for two adults and one small child.
THINGS TO DO
Carriage tour of the Historic District
Boating on the Cooper River
Boone Hall Plantation
SING A GULLAH SPIRITUAL: Outside of Charleston in Mount Pleasant is Boone Hall Plantation, one of America's oldest working plantations. It has been continually growing crops for more than 320 years. It is gorgeous, with beautifully manicured grounds, a butterfly garden and an avenue of huge oaks lining an unpaved entrance road to the stately Colonial-revival mansion. Outside one of the nine restored slave cabins on the property, a Gullah storyteller entertains with tales of her rural South Carolina childhood, and asks volunteers from the audience to help act out the African-inspired tar baby story, in which wily Bre'r Rabbit outwits Bre'r Fox. Her presentation finishes with audience sing-along of “Amazing Grace” and “Down by the Riverside.” Admission to Boone Hall Plantation includes this and several other 30-minute tours and presentations.
TAKE A SURF LESSON: Also outside Charleston, on the Isle of Palms, the Boardwalk Inn at Wild Dunes Resort is a good home base for beach fun — a recent re-nourishment project just added 250 yards of white sand to the beach. The conditions in this area are much better for surfing than on Hilton Head Island, and the hotel offers surf lessons for beginners and up. A shop near the resort’s outdoor pools rents skim boards and boogie boards. Parents can sit in the beachfront pavilion and enjoy live music and ocean breezes while keeping an eye on their children. After a day in the sun, eat dinner at the inn’s upscale Coastal Provisions restaurant, where the creative menu, fresh fish and attentive service compares to and exceeds many downtown Charleston restaurants. Then spend the night at the inn, which has received a AAA Four Diamond award every year since it opened.