Okay, I have to admit it. I got the idea for this trip after watching an episode of Giada’s Weekend Getaways on the Food Network. What can I say, she did an amazing job of showing the local color and history of Charleston and made a very convincing case to visit.
Not that it takes much convincing. Charleston is a city completely surrounded in history and intrigue. It moved to it’s current location in 1680, so as far as America goes, it’s got some history. A central point in much of America’s history – having seen and been the central player in much of the slave trade, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War – and often ravaged by natural disasters including earthquakes and hurricanes, Charleston manages to shrug it all off and keep it’s quiet sophistication. You can just as easily dine in a room that George Washington and other noble founding fathers once did as you can tour the history of one of America’s most stratifying institutions at the Slave Market Museum. Haunted ghost tours and a history of piracy give much to contemplate while dining at any of the city’s fine restaurants. And there is a lot of them.
Charleston is definitely a tourist town – with a population of 120,000 and an annual 4 million visitors, it is a city made to cater. And it does so with all the class of old fashioned Southern Hospitality and a city steeped in old money. To put it into perspective, the gentleman I sat next to on the plane ride in was so eager to exemplify Charleston’s hospitality that he gave me a lift in his BMW convertible to the place I was staying. Talk about arriving to the hostel in style!
Charleston was once home to 8 of the 10 richest families in the world; no small accomplishment considering it was a young upstart founded by Europeans whose family wealth went back many generations. It was the “white gold” of the Carolinas that largely was responsible for this. No, not cotton – it didn’t become king till later, and further from the lowlands around the ocean. It was rice and the knowledge of the African slaves that allowed it to be raised abundantly in such a hot and humid climate.
But after all the wars and natural disasters, Charleston seems ready to take it easy now. There are still plenty of beautiful old buildings that were never destroyed and the locals want to make sure you get to see them. They’re much more interested in leaving all that strife and the heady highs and lows it brought with it for a more relaxed way of life than commonly seen in America. Not relaxed in the way so much of the American South is more relaxed, but more so in a way reminiscent of Tuscany or Provence. They seem ready to enjoy the good life.
And enjoy it they should, cause the good life is all around them! Surrounded by the ocean, you can enjoy surfing on Folly Beach, excellent sailing opportunities and fresh seafood any time of year. Sitting at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers and right next to the Francis Marion National Forest, a 250,000 acre forest reserve, give plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun. The climate surprised me and reminded me more of Florida than anywhere else I’ve been in the South. And because of this, everything is growing all around the city. Gardens are everywhere, and like much of the storied areas mentioned above, people grow anything they can if there’s any space to grow it. Window boxes, railing boxes, and flower beds are everywhere. The city is awash in growing things and is all the more beautiful for it.
But there is a down side to having the good life and knowing others want it, and that’s the price. It can be a VERY pricey city to visit. A quick search on Expedia shows multiple hotels in the $150/night range. Charleston is tricky to navigate as well, since there is so much water dictating the landscape. A hotel might be very close to the city center by map, but has to cross a huge bridge to make it there, making it difficult to visit the city without a rental car. To stay in the city center itself, you can expect that average price to be closer to $250/night. Which is exactly why I stayed in the local hostel, the NotSo Hostel. I can’t say enough about how excellent this place is. If you’ve never stayed at a hostel before, this would be the one to start with. Extremely attentive and friendly hosts, friendly guests (many people stay there every time they’re in the area including some business travelers, so they become like second hosts), and great amenities including rental bikes for the quick trip into the Downtown area and free breakfast. All this for only $23/night for a bunk room and $60/night for a private room. One of the owners drove past in their work truck and honked and waved when she saw me wandering down the street. Try to get that kind of face recognition and pure enjoyment of their job from an employee at your average hotel. Simply put, you won’t be disappointed.
There are a few restaurants within easy walking distance from the hostel. The two we (I went on this trip by myself but believe me, you’ll find it very easy to make friends with the other hostel guests) went to were Fuel and Hominy Grill. Hominy Grill was good but a little too upscale to make it our go-to restaurant of choice. But Fuel, oh sweet sassy molassy was that ever good! Housed in an ex- gas station, Fuel oozed funky repurposing as thick as crude oil but much more appealing. Tables made from fuel-cost placards, lamps made from gas pump handles, a giant open-air bar where the service bays used to be and endless creativity with the food made for a dining experience that was an instant hit. Add to this completely reasonable prices and a good beer list and we found our favorite restaurant in all of Charleston. Try the others, it will be delicious and fun I’m sure, but you’ll always come back to Fuel.
For more sight seeing, I teamed up with my hostel-mates and we went to the Middleton Place plantation, a very beautiful and historic example of the extravagance of the old plantation owners. You can easily spend a whole day wandering the gardens, barns and out buildings of this place so plan accordingly. Oh, and watch for alligators popping out of the pools in the gardens. We saw a little nipper (about four feet long) sneak out of the pool and try to make his way back to the wilderness of the river. We also took the ferry out to Fort Sumter for some more American history, and went on a Haunted Charleston ghost tour that met up at the Griffon Pub, a very old English style pub in the city center. This was tons of fun and since many of the tour guides are also performing arts students, so it really has a high level of polish to it. Chances are good you’ll end up pretty scared by the end.
After all this fun it was time to wave goodbye to my wonderful NotSo Hostel and the friends I made there and start my kayak trip. The trip was through REI and run by Coastal Expeditions, a local kayak outfitter on Shem Creek just outside of Charleston. Chris, the owner, was also a tour guide and simply could not have been better. An astute naturalist, father, kayak and outside gear junkie and businessman, he was able to easily slip into and out of conversation with everyone on the trip. He’s also a natural leader and was able to easily guide a group with outdoor experience ranging from competent to “Anthony Bourdain” during very challenging conditions so well that everyone left with a smile. And by challenging, I mean a week of solid rain, swamp water, 99% DEET to stop to worst onslaught of mosquitos the world has ever seen(and possibly create the worst onslaught of cancer. Ugh, DEET…), salt water, and all this with no shower. And every single person left wanting to do it all over again. Now that’s a good guide.
All told it was a fun trip though. Kayaking through the mangrove swamps and black-water rivers, taking the old river-front entrance to historic plantations, seeing how much the plant and water life changes when going from fresh-water swamps to the estuaries and then fully into the salt-water environment around the barrier islands. We camped out on Bull Island during the last night we were there and I don’t think a bedroom of mine has ever had a better view. We ran into and paddled with a couple dolphins on the way out to the island, and on the way back a few of our group just barely spotted the back of a manatee breaching the surface. And now thats exactly how I remember the kayaking trip, and Charleston as a whole. Full of life, on the land and in the water. And it’s no surprise that the population of the area is so intelligent, fun-loving and easy-going. The people up on land must have learned it all from their neighbors in the water and the rhythms of the sea.
Want to check out the places mentioned in the article for yourself? Then check out my vacation guide on Charleston to get all the details.