Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Charleston

This historic southern city mixes elegant colonial houses with new boutique hotels, crab cakes with kobe beef and tea-party tours with jazz, says Patricia Cleveland-Peck.

December 19 2009
Patricia Cleveland-Peck

When the artist Alfred Hutty visited Charleston in 1919, he immediately sent his wife a wire: “Come quickly. Found heaven.” On a day when sweet olives and roses scent the air and skeins of ghostly Spanish moss trail from the live oak trees, you’d be hard put not to agree. No wonder that Hutty went on to co-found the artistic movement known as the Charleston Renaissance, whose work can be seen in the Gibbes Museum of Art.

It is absurdly easy to enjoy yourself in Charleston, South Carolina. Not only is it a historic town stuffed full of exquisite buildings and tempting shops, but its position in the fertile Lowcountry, lapped on three sides by water, makes for abundant fresh produce, which has encouraged many top chefs to open great restaurants.

It was this situation that also attracted early colonists. Charles Towne, as it was once known, was founded by the British in 1670. One of the earliest European settlements in the Carolinas, it soon became one of the richest due to its shipping trade. The settlers were cultured folk who lived well, but eventually their loyalty to Britain weakened and it was on the steps of the elegant Palladian Old Exchange building in Charleston that South Carolina declared its independence from Britain. Soon after, on June 28, 1776, came the first decisive victory of the American Revolution at Fort Moultrie on nearby Sullivan’s Island.

Many of the leading families had invested in plantations and grown rich from indigo, rice and cotton, for which slaves were essential. The Old Slave Market is now open to the public and contains moving reminders of this terrible time. When slavery was abolished South Carolina ceded from the Union, and once again it was from here, at Fort Sumter, that shots were issued that started the Civil War. (The war is referred to locally as “The Great Unpleasantness”, a euphemism for something that people still feel very strongly about.) By the time the Confederate flag was lowered, Charleston was in ruins, and many of its leading families were penniless. They likened what had happened to their city to a Greek tragedy, but in fact it was because the city was “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash” that the beautiful buildings of the Historic District were never changed.

And the Historic District is the place to stay – a peninsula that juts out where the two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, “flow together to form the Atlantic”, as the locals put it, and within which the best of Charleston is neatly contained. The luxurious Charleston Place Hotel, a member of Orient-Express, is situated smack bang in the centre. And even before you reach whichever of the 441 rooms is to be yours, the spacious marble lobby will have raised your expectations higher than the 12ft chandelier that hangs there. The service is impeccable, and the rooms are super-comfortable with plenty of mahogany, marble and tapestry furnishings. For the ultimate in sybaritic living, it’s worth going the extra mile and booking a Club Level room. Here not only do you have great views, but in the eighth-floor Club Lounge you can sip champagne (or anything else) all day, scoff coffee and pastries and have afternoon tea, an aperitif or a nightcap before bedtime.

Alternatively, the Market Pavilion is a smaller, newer, luxury boutique hotel. The manager, Gary Cohen, is a practised hand at dispensing true Southern hospitality. The 66 attractive and comfortable rooms have smart bathrooms equipped with Italian marble baths and Hermès toiletries. Here, too, it is worth opting for a Concierge Level room, if only to be able to seek advice from Steve Boyd, a large character who puts his all into caring for his guests.

General Robert E Lee’s field headquarters prior to the Civil War, The Mills House hotel, opened in 1853 and has been recently refurbished, though today’s pink-washed building is an enlarged replica of the original.

If, however, you’d prefer somewhere authentically old, Charleston is rich in historic inns and bed-and-breakfasts, many equivalent to top-end hotels – and as expensive. Overlooking the sea at 21 East Battery, the Carriage House behind the historic Edmonston-Alston House is more of a smart self-catering option than a conventional B&B, but it’s a great location in which to play at being a native Charlestonian for a weekend.

Once you’ve settled into your hotel, dinner is what’s needed to ease you into the Southern mood. In which case, sitting on an alligator-skin banquette beneath a ceiling fan listening to live jazz at High Cotton feels about right. Its motto, “This is livin’ large”, sets the tone, and a meal of buttermilk-fried oysters followed by wild shrimp and grits is a good introduction to traditional Lowcountry cuisine.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of the Historic District is simply strolling around. You’ll discover fine old churches, Greek Revival public buildings of great elegance and house-museums open to the public. When ready for a pause, Fleet Landing, a building straddling the sea that was used by the US Navy in 1942 for offloading sailors, is a good spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or a Buck’s Fizz while watching dolphins play.

At other times you can still “experience the essence of Old Charleston as a guest, not a tourist,” by taking The Charleston Tea Party Walking Tour. Laura Wichmann Hipp, a native Charlestonian who seems to know everyone of importance, takes groups into the homes of her friends and concludes with “an elegant three-course meal of Lowcountry cuisine served on 19th-century Cantonware”.

Less elegant but great fun for lunch is Poogan’s Porch, a small restaurant in an old wooden house which serves “Lowcountry plates”, the flavoursome Carolina crab cakes served with Hoppin’ John (seasoned rice and peas) and green beans – a treat, as are the fried green tomatoes. (Poogan was a “good ol’ down-home Southern porch dog” who turned up when the restaurant opened and became its mascot.)

For shopping, King Street is home to antique dealers, big-name designer outlets and several more quirky establishments, such as AD Alexandra, an antique shop chock-full of picturesque distressed furniture and garden artefacts. For something more contemporary, Raymond Clark stocks modern crafts, notably brightly coloured wooden furniture by Sarah Grant and jewellery made from 2,000-year-old glass by Angie Olami.

Mary Norton, a designer who was inspired by a dream in which she wove flowers into handbags, sells girlie shoes and feathery bags which have graced many a red carpet. For rather more conventional menswear, Ben Silver has irresistible displays of colour-coded shirts and shimmering silk bow ties and cravats.

The shop of the Historic Charleston Foundation on Meeting Street is another intriguing place, selling quality reproductions of heirloom pieces from homes and plantations, including furniture, china, linens and gifts – items that derive from Charlestonian traditions, history and culture. For those of practical bent, Charleston Cooks’ Maverick Kitchen Store on East Bay Street not only sells high-performance kitchen tools but also offers one-day courses in Lowcountry cuisine.

By Saturday evening, Charleston will be buzzing, as people go out to dine. Meat-lovers should consider Grill 225 (subtitle “The Truth in Beef”), which is carnivore heaven, though there’s quite a lot of fish on the menu too. Start with the Kobe beef tartare and follow it with an 18oz Prime New York Strip. Finish the evening with a drink and, if you are staying at the Market Pavilion Hotel, a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling city from the lively rooftop Pavilion Bar.

Charlestonians go out to brunch on Sundays, and there’s no more stylish option than Tristan, which serves subtle reinventions of traditional dishes: the she-crab soup is particularly light and delicious.

Suitably sustained, aficionados of military history might like to make a Sunday expedition out to Fort Sumter or Fort Moultrie, both of which played crucial roles in American history. Alternatively, you can sail out to one of the sea islands, maybe taking in some fishing, play golf on more than a dozen world-class courses in the area or simply relax on one of the stunning beaches that abound.

After which it will soon be time for dinner, ideally at the Charleston Grill where chef Michelle Weaver offers four superbly prepared, impeccably served menus entitled Pure, Lush, Southern and Cosmopolitan, or you can request your own special tasting menus. All things being equal, it’s worth choosing the Southern, the subtitle for which is “You Are Where You Eat”, ensuring that you will tuck into pulled pork, apple-smoked bacon, corn cake and fried squash blossoms, followed by skillet-seared snapper, red beans, rice grits and shrimp gravy. You’re not going to find those on a menu back home. And just the memory will be enough to tempt you back to Charleston. Y’all enjoy now.