Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Charleston: Don't Miss/Don't Bother

Wow! We just arrived home from our week long visit to Charleston. I am still reeling with the wonder of it all.

Charleston is a special city. It is so old, you are practically wading through history. It is gorgeous! The houses and architecture and flowers and palmetto palms and side gardens tucked behind scrollwork gates. It is friendly.
houses along the battery
Charleston may just be my new favorite city.

We stayed in North Charleston, which is a very convenient 10 minute drive from the heart of the Charleston Peninsula. We rented a condo. 3 floors. 3 bedrooms. 4 bathrooms. 4 televisions. Plus a furnished kitchen.  I am all about condos versus hotel rooms. The price is often comparable, but there is a lot more room for everyone to spread out. It was clean and spacious and nicely decorated. But, not fussily decorated. I didn't have to worry about the kids breaking stuff.

We kept busy and we spent a day at Patriot's Point, one day exploring the Charleston Peninsula, one day at Boone Hall Plantation, and one day at Fort Sumter. We were there off season, making most of the attractions not very busy. Plus the weather was pleasant. Perfect sunny days in the 70s. All week.

I went to Charleston for the history and the food, not for the beaches. That will probably be pretty obvious. I mean, I know it is the ocean and beaches are relaxing. But, I can go to the beach anytime. I can't go the Charleston anytime.

Here is my don't miss/don't bother/good to know list for Charleston. (also, most of the place names are links)

Good to Know:
-Parking at the Visitor Center is not free. I was told this by several people, so it must have recently changed. Parking is affordable at the Visitor's Center. I think the daily maximum is $16. That's a steal compared to some cities. (cough-cough...Chicago)

-The trolley is free. You can get around most of the Charleston Peninsula on any one of the 3 lines (which go to three different areas). The trolleys run frequently-generally every 15 minutes- and will place you within walking distance of most well known Charleston sites.

-Eating in Charleston is expensive. The ironic thing is that Charlestonians feel it is cheap. But, most entrees will set you back at least $15-$20 per person. And this does not include drinks. Or desserts. Or appetizers. Kids' meals were also expensive, often $8 a pop. This adds up.

-Most attractions will cost you $15-$20. Forts, houses, plantations, tours. So, plan for it. My mantra this trip was something I heard are not for saving money. Not that you have to be a spendthrift, but you saved to go on the vacation. So, stick within your budget, but don't feel guilty for spending on attractions. It is what you are there for.

Avenue of Oaks, Boone Hall Plantation

-I love getting down dirty in a city. I enjoy walking the streets and doing official tours (if I don't happen to know someone who knows the city). I think it is tremendously helpful and worth the money to take a carriage, bus, walking or bike tour of Charleston. The guides are often college graduates who have specialized in the history of the city. They are a wealth of information and anecdotes.

-The Charleston area contains a whole bunch of bad drivers. Their reputation has them at the second worst in the country.

Don't Miss:
-Kaminsky's Bakery and Cafe. They have the most tantalizing display of cakes and pies. Wow! And they are all delicious. We tried a nice round sampling of 6 different desserts. The prices are comparable to dessert prices at any restaurant.

-City Market. It's iconic to Charleston. The series of buildings, spanning several blocks, house all kinds of homemade goods. The most famous (and possibly expensive) of which would be the sweetgrass baskets. Beautiful, hand-woven baskets that you can actually watch the artisans make.

-Boone Hall Plantation. Only about 10 minutes from downtown Charleston, across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant, it is convenient and a good deal. Notable about Boone Hall is that it is one of the oldest working plantations in the Charleston area. The house is tasteful, both inside and out. Some people are bummed because the house is newer. It was built in the 1930s or 1940s. It replaced the former wood frame plantation house on the grounds. Regardless, the 3/4 mile long avenue of oaks is spectacular, and we really enjoyed the coach ride through the grounds, and the Gullah story telling time. There are 9 slave cabins original to the property that have a lot about slave culture and black history in them. It was amazing.

slave quarters

-Patriot's Point. Patriot's Point is where the USS Yorktown, USS Clagamore, and USS Laffey are permanently docked. You get to walk the decks of an air craft carrier, see air planes, explore a battleship and a submarine. The boats were all in use during WWII, and there is tons of WWII history involved in these tours. All of our kids enjoyed it. We spent 5 hours there. I am sure we could have spent several more.

-Charleston Crab Shack and Jim & Nick's Barbecue. Barbecue and seafood. Pretty typical of Charleston fare. But, both restaurants were incredible. Jim & Nick's is the outlying location of the well-known Nick's Barbecue. I think their barbecue may be the best I have ever eaten. Fall off the bone tender. Flavorful. Mouth watering. We went twice. (had to get our fill, until the next time) Our carriage tour guide recommended the Crab Shack over Hyman's. Hyman's is the more famous, and thus more busy. I am not a fan of busy, so we took our guide's word for it, and really enjoyed the Crab Shack. Maybe next time we will go to Hyman's just to say we did.

-Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter was a pivotal location in the Civil War. The fort itself is not exactly like it was back at the start of the Civil War, but it has been renovated quite a bit. There are guns and cannons, and Park Rangers with lots of info, and a small museum that shares the history of the fort. Plus the boat ride out to the fort was fun. I loved being in the sunshine on the water. Next time we go to Charleston, we will visit Fort Moultrie. It's history spans from the Revolutionary War through WWII.

-Arthur Ravenel Bridge. This is an brand new (within the last 5 years) suspension bridge built over the Cooper River. It is stunning. There is a two-lane walking/biking path on the bridge that is separated from the traffic by concrete barriers. The views of the city are phenomenal. It is totally worth walking anytime, but especially at sunrise or sunset. I am glad Mr. Hippie and I got up early on Friday morning to enjoy it. It is one of my favorite Charleston memories. The bridge is 5 miles across and back. Bring your own water, use the facilities before you set out and then enjoy the journey.

-Fire Museum (in North Charleston). Someone (not naming names, but it wasn't me) put diesel in our van on the way to Charleston. We ended up draining a lot of the diesel, after which we filled the van with the highest quality gasoline and drove to North Charleston. We made it up our exit when the van lost all power. Like it was out of gas. Thankfully, we were only a half a mile from our condo. The kids and I hoofed it to the condo, and Mr. Hippie got the van towed to the Honda dealership. Our van was fixed by mid afternoon on Monday. We were so thankful for those guys.

Regardless...the Fire Museum. On our run on Monday morning, we passed this museum. It was only about 1 mile from our condo, so we walked with the kids there while the van was getting fixed.

The Fire Museum is a museum filled with vintage fire trucks, history about fire-fighting, and fun hands-on stuff for everyone to do. Our kids loved it. And it was really cheap. Really cheap. So, if you have extra time on your visit, I would recommend it. After you have done everything else you want to do in the area.

Taking the Oath...the Junior Ranger Oath
Don't Bother (imho)
-The Calhoun Mansion. This mansion was built by a Calhoun after the Civil War. It is huge and gorgeous. And it is furnished with more valuable junk than you can possibly imagine. It is over done and ostentatious. People live there, but you can't move around without practically bumping into something worth thousands or millions of dollars. It is so cluttered. Seriously. It would drive me crazy. The owners totally don't get the idea of less is more. The beautiful architecture of the house is overwhelmed by the stuff inside.
the Calhoun Mansion was a disappoint, its gardens were not. Very pretty.

Also, something to remember is that sometimes the best places aren't the most well known places. Well advertised may just mean the person has a healthy advertising budget, not necessarily that they are the best of the best.

Have you ever been to Charleston? What is on your don't miss/don't bother lists?