Charleston, S.C. is like no other city in the Carolinas – port city, beacon for history buffs and poster child for gracious living. It was founded in 1670 by English colonists, and its plantation-based economy flourished in the years before the Civil War.
Unlike other towns, it has retained, even deified, its past. Other cities may tell you that local patriots were imprisoned by the British during the Revolution; Charleston can show you where, in the basement of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon on East Bay Street.
It’s not all Old World ambiance, magnolias and pastel-colored mansions, however. Just as there are hidden architectural jewels around every corner, there are other discoveries awaiting a couple with time to browse. Antique and jewelry shops, confectioners and a multitude of restaurants line the narrow downtown streets.
Outside of town there’s more history, beaches where a couple can stroll practically alone this time of year, a renowned golf and tennis resort, and a plantation that in February and March is a backdrop for thousands of blooming red, white and pink camellias.
CuisineThe many good restaurants owe much to the city’s stellar gastronomic past; you could get cocktails with an elegant meal in Charleston when the rest of the state was determinedly dry. They also owe a lot to proximity: The Atlantic is just outside the door, and in the mild climate (Charleston averages 7 degrees warmer than Charlotte), Lowcountry farms have a long growing season. One restaurant, Husk, insists on serving only food grown south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Other choices that offer something a little different: Hominy Grill, rightly famed for its emphasis on Southern food. Where else can you get a cocktail called Cheerwine Negroni? (Aperol, gin, sweet vermouth and Cheerwine).
McCrady’s, serving elegant meals in a building that George Washington once visited. Like Husk, its sister restaurant, its kitchen is presided over by James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock.
The Wreck. Across the Cooper River in neighboring Mount Pleasant, it may be the only restaurant in the Carolinas with no exterior sign. A “red nun,” or channel marker, suffices, since the locals who eat there already know where it is. It’s on Shem Creek, where moored shrimp boats make a postcard scene.
Locklear’s Restaurant, on the Folly Beach pier southeast of the city. Not a snack spot, but a full-fledged restaurant that has a sister establishment in Mount Pleasant. She-crab soup, homemade key lime pie and other delights are served inside or out.
The Charleston Grill, in the Charleston Place Hotel complex occupying the block between Meeting and King Streets. The elegance of the dinner-time jazz matches the menu.
The annual Lowcountry Oyster Roast at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, billed as South Carolina’s premier outdoor social event. Crowds queue up Jan. 29 to enjoy steaming platefuls on the Spanish-moss-draped grounds.
The Charleston Food and Wine Festival, March 1-4. Marion Square is given over to tents offering food samplings, competitions, book signings, celebrity chefs and winemakers. Parties continue afterward at restaurants.
EntertainmentMusic ranges from The Charleston Grill’s jazz to the blues, Americana and bluegrass of the Blind Tiger Pub in an 1803 building on Broad Street. Coming up soon is the Feb. 10-21 Southern Comfort Lowcountry Blues Bash, when a wide range of musicians – electric, acoustic, new talent and established performers – will play at more than 20 venues including clubs, restaurants, hotels, libraries and churches.
The PastThe east end of Folly Island is a great place for picking up large, intact sand dollars, but you’ll also encounter history here.
Gaze to the north and you see an 1876 lighthouse entirely surrounded by water. It’s the Morris Island lighthouse, which guided ships into the harbor for nearly a century. It was a half-mile inland when built, but erosion has erased the shoreline so that the nonfunctional lighthouse is now more than 1,600 feet out at sea.
Morris Island was also where the bloody battle depicted in the movie “Glory” took place. The film, starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, recounted the assault on the island’s Confederate-held Fort Wagner by the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
SportsKiawah Island, south of the city, is home to the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where the 54th PGA Championship will be played on the Pete-Dye-designed Ocean Course in August. Following the dunes alongside the Atlantic, the course is one of five designed by Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Gary Player.
Kiawah Resort is also known for its tennis facilities and its unspoiled surroundings. Lodging includes a luxury hotel, The Sanctuary, and rental villas, private homes and condos.
Nature, TamedHundreds of varieties of white, pink and red camellias are getting ready to bloom against a backdrop of live oaks and Spanish moss at Middleton Place plantation on Ashley River Road.
The formal gardens’ annual Camellia Walks will be each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday Feb. 11-March 24.
Nature, WildOn Feb. 4, a guided canoe tour sets off through the marshes of several former plantations that make up Caw Caw Nature and History Interpretative Center about 20 minutes south of Charleston in Ravenel, on U.S. 17 South. As you leisurely paddle through the irrigation canals of the former rice fields, a duck, a great blue heron or even an anhinga may fly up in front of you. Watch for bald eagles in the tops of trees, and don’t forget your bug repellent.
An even more romantic Sunset/Moonrise Tour is set for April 5. It leaves at 5:30 p.m., cruises through former rice fields, and ends up with paddlers watching the moon rise over Tea Farm Creek. On this one, says Caw Caw facilities manager Thomas Thornton, “We try not to talk too much and just let people enjoy the scenery.”
A 21st century architectural jewel is the crowning glory of 17th century Charleston, and a perfect spot to end a romantic journey.
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River includes a walkway for strollers, joggers and cyclists that’s separate from the traffic lanes. Hugely popular, it’s something of a steel park for Charlestonians, who can be seen traversing it day and night. Climb to its high point (the bridge is 2 1/2 miles long and 186 feet above the Cooper River) just before sunset. There you’ll find a resting area with benches.
As you look out over the harbor, you can watch the colors of the sky fade and lights begin to come on in the city and the occasional ship below.
Charleston is so much more than its beaches – consider an off-season journey to explore the many romantic spots of this Southern city.
ExploreCharleston.com (Charleston Area CVB)
www.ccprc.com/goonline (Caw Caw tour reservations)