This story was originally published in the April/May 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
In 1670 Charles Towne, now Charleston, was founded in honor of King Charles ll of England. By 1690 it was the fifth largest city in North America and remained among the ten largest cities in the United States through the 1840 census. Over the years it has survived war and revolt, earthquake and hurricane. Today it is the fastest growing municipality in South Carolina, with a population exceeding 700,000.
Charleston’s well-preserved architecture includes historic homes with lush formal gardens, theatres, museums and military forts. Known for its rich history, sub-tropical climate and friendly people it consistently wins kudos for its hospitality from national lifestyle and travel magazines.
The city’s unique culture blends traditional Southern, English, French and West African elements. For arts, music, fashion and local cuisine the downtown peninsula, embraced by the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, is the place to be for visitors new to the area.
Actually, the rivers themselves offer incredible recreation opportunities that are often launched along the waterfront where a number of outfitters rent kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. Coastal Expeditions, with on-water locations in Mount Pleasant, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms offers Eco Tour Charters of the barrier islands.
This is a town of diverse fascinations. If you go for sports or the arts, you’re in luck. Charleston is home to a number of professional, minor league and amateur sports teams. The Charleston Outlaws RFC is a rugby union club in the Palmetto Rugby Union, USA Rugby South, and USA Rugby. It competes in Men’s Division II against the Cape Fear, Columbia, Greenville, and Charlotte “B” clubs. The club hosts a rugby sevens tournament during Memorial Day weekend.
There is also a minor league baseball team, the Charleston Riverdogs, playing in Joseph Riley Park, and The Charleston Battery, a professional soccer team that plays in Blackbaud Stadium.
In spring, the Spoleto Festival, a 17-day art festival featuring over 100 performances by individual artists in a variety of disciplines, draws thousands. It is internationally recognized as one of America’s best performing arts festival.
The city’s musical heritage is strong, too. George Gershwin spent the summer of 1934 at Folly Beach outside of Charleston composing Porgy and Bess, rooted in Charleston’s Gullah community. It is considered the quintessential American opera and still widely performed today. And speaking of performance, the historic Dock Street Theatre is home to South Carolina’s largest professional stage group, the Charleston Stage Company.
There are dozens of cultural reasons to visit, if not for the arts, then visit for the Lowcountry cuisine. Restaurant week in Charleston was the perfect excuse for our getaway. Local establishments sponsor two restaurant weeks per year—one in January and another in late summer. During this time, pre-fix prices are in place for savings on a broad selection of chef’s delights, plus small plates paired with excellent wines and handcraft beers.
The Cottages on Charleston Harbor
The Cottages on Charleston Harbor near the Charleston Harbor Marina in Mt. Pleasant would be the base for our activities. The waterfront property includes 10 luxury cottages with private harbor-front beaches, screened-in porches with hammocks and tech amenities like flat screen HD satellite TV, Bose Sound Systems and hi-speed wireless Internet. With designer furnishings throughout, gas fireplaces and a clubhouse with an outdoor swimming pool, one could hide out here for a long while. The property offers both a designated pet-friendly accommodation and allergen-free cottages. The two-bedroom designs are architecturally appealing and spacious.
Since the property is situated at the tip of Patriots Point, there is easy access to nearby attractions like the Naval & Maritime Museum, complete with the U.S.S. Yorktown and a Vietnam exhibit set up like a Disney-style MASH unit.
The real plus is the water taxi, a stone’s throw from the cottages, which will shuttle those on a mission to downtown Charleston across the harbor in only a few minutes.
The focus on restaurant week proved to be a good one. We ducked into The Tavern & Table on Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant for small plates out on the veranda. Chef Katie Lorenzen-Smith was on her game with shrimp beignets and remoulade sauce. The roasted Brussels sprouts, with bacon of course, were amazing. Tavern & Table serves retro delights too, like homemade pimiento cheese and Ritz crackers. The inventive menu, making use of Low country vendors, farmers and fishermen, blends familiar flavors in a festive way. It was a great way to start the getaway weekend.
Next morning after a tour of the Charleston Museum on Meeting Street, nearby Eli’s Table was full of diners for brunch. With the best selection of Benedicts in the Holy City (not to be confused with Benedictines), Eli’s was a huge fvorite. The Smoked Salmon Benedict was delicious and Eli’s Bloody Mary was the perfect spicy compliment. If the weather is nice, ask for courtyard seating.
Walking a few blocks down to 21 East Battery we toured the historic Edmondston-Alston House Museum, part of the Middleton Place Foundation. It overlooks the Cooper River and has recently redeveloped a portion of the property as a bed & breakfast. (See www.edmondstonalston.org for information.)
Its collection of antiques, books, paintings, telescopes and hunting rifles once belonging to the families who lived in this house on the Battery presents a rich portrait of their lives. The Exhibition Gallery contains a changing display of archival material illustrating the history of the house, its surroundings and visiting historic figures.
The winter sun was pleasantly warm along the harbor as we headed back to Mt. Pleasant to locate Pickett Park and the Pitt Street Bridge. Only a footbridge during the American Revolution, it was the only way across the inlet separating Sullivan’s Island from Mt. Pleasant. Later it became a Trolley bridge until 1927 when it was replaced by a vehicle bridge that is no longer in use today. It’s a great place to walk or bike and see coastal waterfowl. The view of the Charleston skyline from the bridge across the harbor includes Fort Sumter, the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, the futuristic span of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge and the Ben Sawyer Bridge.
Charleston’s restaurants are the talk of the town. The block between Meeting Street and King Street includes Hutson Alley, inhabited by five restaurants run by Holy City Hospitality group. They are Coast Bar & Grill, 39 Rue de Jean, The Victor Social Club, Michael’s on the Alley and Vincent Chicco’s.
Since we were looking for a rustic Italian meal, the choice was Vincent Chicco’s, a beautiful restaurant tucked quietly away at the end of the alley. If you go, be sure to try the house-made Burrata Cheese with marinated olives, it’s a great way to start. The veal saltimbocca was the hit of the evening, served with prosciutto di Parma over fettucini and paired with a red wine from Tuscany. The restaurant is perfect for special events involving large groups, as its elegant and especially long circular stair winds up to a huge loft above.
Holy City Hospitality and The Cottages are owned by Bennett Hospitality Group, one of the largest private developers in Charleston. The company is a multifaceted full service real estate and development, hospitality and asset management company. Founder and owner Michael Bennett’s start began in 1977-78 when he opened “Free Wheelin” a bicycle and moped rental business when he was a junior in college. From that start he developed a hospitality company that owns 16 hotels and eight restaurants in four states—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Montana.
Bennett Hospitality’s General Manager Marty Wall believes Restaurant Week is a great way for restaurants to show off their venues and offer great food and prices to local residents and visitors alike. “Charleston is fortunate that it continues to be a thriving destination,” he says. “Our CVB has done a great job in selling the city. Now we have to manage it, as we continue to improve with public and private support.”
The next morning in the cheerful clubhouse at The Cottages the breakfast was delightful and the company was good. Our visit to Charleston was complete, although if you don’t get down to the Lowcountry often, you should consider spending the entire week.
Photography courtesy of the Charleston CVB