Southern charm

By | Category: Travel destinations

Don’t take this personally but you look stressed. Happily the New Year is just around the corner and your next holiday is ready to be booked. Kaye Holland has a suggestion – the southern US city of Charleston – to get you started

“I’m going back to Charleston, where there is still a little grace and civility left in the world.” So said Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind – the now iconic American Civil War epic – and for good reason.

Thanks to its postcard pretty painted houses, charming cobblestone streets, carriage rides, cemeteries, cannons, colourful colonial-era mansions and craft markets, Charleston always looks the part. Church steeples (over 400 of them to be specific) – not skyscrapers – dot the skyline making this lovely city one that landscape artists live for.


The most interesting district for visitors to explore is the historic quarter which, unusually for an American city, can easily be negotiated on foot. Night or day, King Street – the beating heart of the old town – has plenty of appeal.

Shoppers (Charleston was recently named one of the nation’s top 10 shopping streets, so lots of tourists visit simply to shop) will love lower and middle King Street, thronged as they are with enough antique stores and one of a kind boutiques (individuality is what Charleston does best so don’t expect to find identikit shops here) to decimate your baggage allowance.


In search of some souvenirs to appease the partner you’ve abandoned back home? Quintessential Charleston items include Sweetgrass baskets. Originally made to winnow rice on plantations, the baskets are regarded as an indigenous art form and Gullah tradition and, as such, have become a sought after souvenir. Alternatively take home a rice spoon – an iconic serving utensil that has adorned Lowcountry tables since plantation age – from Croghan’s Jewel Box, a family owned repository of eye popping baubles run by the third generation of William Joseph Croghan’s descendants. Indeed one characteristic that sets Charleston apart from other US destinations, is the presence of multi generation merchant families. Other King Street favourites include Bob Ellis Shoes, M Dumas (a third generation clothing emporium) and Ben Silver – a second generation haberdasher.


For a post shopping sugar blow out, pop to the Peninsula Grill – home of the ultimate coconut cake – or the Charleston Bake House to gorge on Ginger molasses. For the truth of the matter is that no trip to Charleston is complete without a serious gastronomic exploration. Food is passion – there’s dining for every palate and price tag. The restaurant that is hotter than that Christmas jumper you’ve been wearing all month, is S.N.O.B (whose cheeky name stands for ‘Slightly north of Broad’ as in Broad Street). Be prepared to battle for a booking but if you get one, you won’t be disappointed with dishes such as Sautéed squab breast over South Carolina rice and BBQ tuna with fried oysters.

Slightly off the beaten path, Hominy Grill serves good tasting Lowcountry cuisine in what was an old barbershop. I enjoyed an extraordinary brunch (I’d fly back tomorrow just for the buttermilk biscuits and cheese grits) on the shady patio – the kind you can picture Gone With The Wind’s Miss Melly and Pitty Pat Hamilton sitting on, “fanning themselves placidly in the sun.”


But when it comes to bars, Charleston is rather less conservative that I had been led to believe. Upper King Street in particular has taken off as nightlife mecca and you won’t be short of spots to sip a cool cocktail or cold beer. I experienced a banging Friday night at Closed for Business – one of those places where you somehow become best friends with the waiter, at the same time as barely realising that your glass has been refilled. The night ended when I glanced down at my watch and noticed it was nearly 3am – which can happen in Charleston if you’re not careful.

Want more gravitas? There are many museums and historic buildings to explore including the Aiken Rhett House (an urban plantation offering an insight into antebellum life) and the Nathaniel Russell House. The latter is famed for its verdant English garden and self supporting spiral staircase.


However as interesting as the aforementioned houses are, the best way – in my books – to savour Charleston is to stroll along Rainbow Row (famed for its candy coloured houses that adorn the cover of every guidebook) before making a beeline to The Battery, the southern tip of the Charleston Peninsula. No matter how many times you potter along the promenade, the view will always make your heart flutter.


Tempting though it might be to stay within the old town,  Civil War buffs will want to seek out Fort Sumter. This pentagon shaped island – accessed by boat – is where the first shots of the Civil War (1861-65) –  a conflict that saw more than 700,000 casualties – rang out. Confederate troops occupied Fort Sumter for nearly four years, resisting several bombardments by Union forces before abandoning the garrison prior to William T. Sherman’s capture of Charleston in February 1865. Linger a while and let the knowledgeable National Park Rangers’ stories of courageous heroes in action from the Civil War’s first battle seep into your bones…



Further afield, it’s worth venturing to Folly Beach (George Gershwin decamped to this windswept island in the summer of 1934 and melded his experiences of Gullah spiritualism into the Porgy and Bess song, Summertime).

But for me, the real revelation was the city itself. Despite the wars, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes it has endured, the historic Port city maintains a unique, unspoiled identity. Throw into the mix 230 days of sunshine and Charleston makes one hell of a city break, sure to buoy your spirits for months after you return home…


Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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