On our recent trip to Savannah, GA, we also went to Charleston, SC for a couple days. Initially I was equally excited to see both Charleston and Savannah, but I loved Savannah so much that I was sad to leave it to go to Charleston. So I think that alone clouded my impression of Charleston a bit because I compared it to Savannah rather than approaching it with an open mind.The first thing we did there was walk down King Street, which was perhaps not the best introduction because it felt very commercial and touristy. Our hotel was also not in the best location and it was a bit of a hike to the older more historic part of the city.
On our way into Charleston we stopped at Drayton Hall located along the Ashley River. We had an excellent tour guide who was well-versed in researched plantation history, and it was interesting to see it more of a raw shape than other houses we visited on our trip, which have been more heavily restored. The goal at Drayton Hall is geared towards preservation rather than restoration; that is, preserving it the way it was found, not restoring it to a certain historical time period. The grounds at Drayton Hall are beautiful and littered with big old oak trees, one of my favorite things about the south. We walked down to the river and tried to imagine what it was for the Draytons to take in that view everyday when they lived there in the 1700’s. Oddly enough there is an armadillo problem there and they had traps set out around the house. I have never seen an armadillo and I certainly wasn’t eager to see one in the wild while we were there! Apparently they try to burrow into the house at night. We wanted to go to Magnolia Plantation, which is nearby, but didn’t have enough time.
In Charleston we saw several house museums, as we did in Savannah. First up was Calhoun Mansion, which is featured in the movie adaption of Nicholas Sparks‘s The Notebook. It serves as Allie’s parents’ home. It is now a private residence after having been condemned and heavily restored, and it’s filled with exotic antiques from all over the world. The owner of the house lives on the top floor and can apparently be seen walking around town with his two whippets (I think?). Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and poised, and after the tour we found out that she’s a only college student! Very impressive.
Walking around all the narrow streets lined with gorgeous houses in the historic district along Battery Park was everything I pictured Charleston to be. And seeing them decorated for the holidays was magical. My mom and I definitely got some inspiration for decorating our house for Christmas since my parents live in an older Georgian style home. Along our walks we saw a flock of guinea fowl waltzing down someone’s driveway (beautiful birds by the way), a couple in a horse-drawn carriage who had just gotten engaged, and beautiful historic house after historic house. We did go past Rainbow Row, but it was different than I had pictured it. It’s a somewhat congested area, and obviously very touristy, but for some reason I thought it was closer to the water.
View from Battery Park
Nathaniel Russell House
We also toured the Nathaniel Russell House, which was perhaps my favorite, the Aiken-Rhett House, and the Edmondston-Alston House (another favorite). The Nathaniel Russell House has a beautiful staircase and music room, and once again, our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable. She spoke in depth about the restoration of the master bedroom, down to the colors, drapery, and bedding. The Aiken-Rhett House is a self-guided tour, which was informative and it was kind of nice to go through the house at your own pace, but I prefer having a tour guide who can interject little anecdotes here and there. This one really highlights the slave quarters, which was definitely hard to swallow. It is also preserved rather than restored, so it felt a bit like walking through a ruin, which was a cool experience. The Edmondston-Alston House is right on the water and has a beautiful multi-level side porch, which is a very common architectural feature in Charleston. Our tour guide at this one was a very sweet woman who is a transplant to Charleston from the northeast. Not a bad way to spend your retirement…
Finding a place to eat dinner that wasn’t $50 for an entree and a two hour wait was a challenge. Apparently the holidays are one of the busiest times for Charleston in terms of tourism, and places were expensive and booked. We did have the best meal of the whole trip in Charleston though, at a place called Tradd’s on Bay Street. It offers a modern American cuisine and I had an amazing gnocchi dish with lobster as my entree. We also got a liver pate to start with and ended with some kind of interesting fruity pastry dessert. The atmosphere felt southern and bougie and I loved it.
Of course we walked through the City Market in search of sweetgrass baskets, a tradition that has been passed down through generations. There are so many artisans selling their sweetgrass creations and they’re all very sweet. You get to watch them as they weave the baskets, and it’s hard to choose who to buy from! My parents bought a basket and I bought a floral cross (I am not religious but it was so cute I couldn’t resist). It’s also signed by the artisan. There were kids selling sweetgrass flowers on the street, and we bought some of those. Sweet sweet kids. One thing that struck me about Charleston was how foggy it was! It was dramatic at night and we saw several ghost tours around the city around 10 PM one night.
We also spent a morning in Beaufort, SC, which is a super cute little historic town. The waterfront area downtown has a nice walkway with oyster shells embedded in the sidewalk! I was so taken aback because it was the first time I had seen something like that. There are also oyster shells stacked up against the seawall, which was a cool sight. There are some restaurants and cafes along this walkway as well. We ate lunch outside in January! Definitely a first for me…We walked around a neighborhood that had a lot of cute bungalows and we walked through a church cemetery where a mass had just gotten out. It was nice to see locals leaving church. It seems like a tight-knit community. We also walked through a military cemetery that had beautiful uniform grey tombstones with crosses and they were each decked with a wreath for the holidays.
After Beaufort we went to Hilton Head, SC and we drove for what felt like forever to get to the coast to see the ocean. I pictured Hilton Head as a small quaint island, but it’s actually very suburban and exclusive with gated communities. We definitely weren’t crazy about it, but it was worth the drive once we got to see the ocean. It is spectacular! And it just goes on as far as you can see. Standing on a beach looking out onto the ocean in January was also a first for me…and something I would definitely like to repeat.