Hear about travel to Charleston, South Carolina as the Amateur Traveler talks to Jen Leo from This Week in Travel and her husband John Caldwell about their many trips to one of their favorite U.S. cities.
Jen says, “The restaurant scene is so lively and always changing. They are always adding new hot chefs and new hot restaurants that I am super excited about the dining experience you can have in Charleston, but in the backdrop of a town with architectural beauty and people who are so interested in the arts and music and culture. It’s just a winning combination for me.”
John started going to Charleston first. “I lived in Columbia, South Carolina for a number of years in the 90s. I was running a record label down there but basically, at 5:01 pm Friday I would drive the 95 miles or so down I26 from Columbia to Charleston. I started going in the mid-90s and I am a huge fan of history. As many people know Charleston has a lot of history that to a great degree has remained untouched at least in the downtown for the better part of 200 years and change.”
John was “fascinated with the history of the town, even in the 90s when it hadn’t turned yet and become gentrified it was just a super cool place so I spent a lot of time there. It was the history and the vibe that really drew me to it”.
Jen starts us with breakfast at the Hominy Grill in a list of more than a dozen restaurants she recommends in the city.
In the city of Charleston, we recommend the carriage tour and perhaps a walking tour of the historic quarter. You can also take a boat ride out to Fort McHenry where the Civil War started. You can rent an apartment or even a mansion downtown or stay out in one of the beach communities including Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach.
Further afield we talk about visits to Middleton Place with America’s oldest landscaped gardens, America’s only tea plantation, a vodka distillery, and the great beaches in the area.
Chris’s photographs of Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston: Where History Lives
Joseph P. Riley, Jr. (Mayor)
Tours in Charleston
Ed Grimball Tours
Old Slave Mart Museum
South Carolina Aquarium
Charleston Farmers Market
Five Days of Meat
Charleston Restaurant Week
Tours & Charter Boats
Market Pavilion Hotel
Isle of Palms
Wild Dunes Resort
The Farmbar 26
Dock Street Theatre
Jen Leo (Twitter)
Vegas Jen Leo (Instagram)
Best Things to do in Charleston, South Carolina
Restaurants, Bars and Coffee Shops:
Butcher & Bee
Butcher & Bee Twitter Menu
Black Tap Coffee
Slightly North of Broad
Fast and French
Caviar & Bananas
Folly Beach Restaurants – 10+ Epic Places To Try
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 430. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about Civil War history, a tea plantation, and lots and lots of food, as we go to Charleston, South Carolina.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christenson.
This episode of the Amateur Traveler is again sponsored by BloggerBridge. If you’re a company looking to connect with bloggers, check out BloggerBridge and help support, indirectly, the Amateur Traveler.
There are also still spots available for the Amateur Traveler trip to Morocco, April of 2015. Go to Amateurtraveler.com and click on “Book travel” to see more details.
I’d like to welcome to the show Jen Leo, my cohost from This Week in Travel, and her husband, John Caldwell. They’ve come on to do a much-anticipated show about Charleston, South Carolina. Jen and John, welcome to the show.
Jen: Hi, Chris.
John: Thanks for having us.
Chris: I say much anticipated. Jen and I have some debate about how long this show has been in the making, but I was anxious to get her to come on and do the show before I went to Charleston, which now is coming up on two years here in October. But one of the reasons that I went was because Jen and John loved the city so much that when we were trying to decide between two different destinations, we chose Charleston. So why should someone go to Charleston, South Carolina?
Jen: The restaurant scene is so lively and always changing. They’re always not so much changing, but adding new hot chefs and new hot restaurants. I’m super excited about the dining experiences that you can have in Charleston. But in the backdrop of a town with architectural beauty and people that are so interested in the arts and music and culture, it’s just a winning combination for me.
Chris: When you say architectural beauty, I assume that you are implying some of the classic and older buildings in the area. Or is there a different architectural building thinking that you have in your head?
Jen: No, it’s just so far different from where I grew up and where I live in stucco, tracked home, southern California. All you have to do is have a pink house or a yellow house or even a porch with a fern basket hanging, and my mouth is open and drooling.
Chris: John, did you have a different answer? Do you go for a different reason?
John: Yeah, I started going . . . I lived in Columbia, South Carolina for a number of years in the ’90s. I was running a record label down there. I basically, at 5:01 Friday, would drive the 95 miles or so down I-26 from Columbia to Charleston, because as cool as Charleston is and was back then, Columbia, with all respect, is probably equally uncool. It’s just not a place for me, anyway. It didn’t work as well as Charleston.
So I started going in the mid ’90s, and I’m a huge fan of history. As many people know, Charleston was sort of our corner or one of our corners of the triangle trade. So it has a lot of history. It’s been an established city that, to a great degree, has remained untouched, at least in downtown, for the better part of the last 200 years and change.
Chris: Now, you threw you the triangle trade there. Having been a fan of the movie 1776, I know what you’re talking about. The triangle trade was molasses to rum to slaves. So molasses to Great Britain, rum to the Caribbean area, and then slaves up from the Caribbean.
John: I thought it was cotton.
Chris: Well, that was later on actually. Actually slavery was almost dying out in the US, or it could have died of natural causes if it hadn’t been for the cotton gin. So that kind of came later in the history.
John: Right. So fascinated with the history of the town. It was just cool, even in the ’90s, when it hadn’t turned yet and become the, my favorite word, ready, gentrified. It was just a super, super cool place. So I spent a lot of time there, and it was the history and the vibe that really drew me to it.
Chris: When you say gentrified, my impression was back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, there would be different words that you’d use for Charleston-dirty, gritty, even a little sleazy, I think.
John: Yeah. No, I’ve eaten food in a Mexican restaurant in Charleston that’s not there anymore. At different times in its history, it was a chapel and a whorehouse. So that’s two ends of the spectrum there. Back in the ’70s actually, it became real run down with the Navy base there and became really a lot of . . . almost a den of inequity.
There’s a guy, I believe his name is Joseph Riley, who just stood up and said, “No, this town is too cool. We’re not going to let it go,” got a lot of money in from different sources, federal government, et cetera, and really put a lot of energy and time and effort into making sure that Charleston didn’t become that permanent den of inequity.
Chris: It’s funny. When you go there now, they talk about it. It’s not like they hide that fact, but you wouldn’t guess that. I mean, it is such a spruced up place. There are such expensive houses, at this point. I know we stayed in a rental house, and right across the street was a mansion, for sale even.
John: Real estate prices between when I was there in the early to mid ’90s and now are about tenfold.
Chris: Yeah. So what kind of itinerary would you recommend for someone who is going to Charleston?
Jen: So we like to start our mornings off, when we arrive in Charleston, by having breakfast at the Hominy Grill on Rutledge. We go there for . . . I think John usually gets the shrimp and grits, and I get something sort of. It’s a small menu, but the grits are fantastic. The bacon is thick, and the biscuits are fluffy. So we really like to start off our Charleston trips with the breakfast right at Hominy Grill.
Chris: I would say a classic southern breakfast. Wouldn’t that be how you would describe it, done well?
John: Yes, absolutely.
Jen: I would then suggest, following breakfast, to take either a walking tour or a carriage tour. So you get the lay of the land downtown, and you can cruise through some of the historical houses that have plates on them.
John: But when . . . Again, in the 1970s time and whenever . . . I’m not exactly sure of the days. But whenever Riley decided to really kind of take some energy towards preserving the city, they made a lot of the buildings downtown historical landmarks, which means there’s only so many things you can do to them. You can’t knock them down, et cetera. Certain parts of Charleston, you’ll see a historic plate on almost every building. That’ll tell you the history. It’s everything from, “A president slept here,” to, “This guy lived here who was instrumental in the 1700s in Charleston.” It’s just fascinating.
One of my favorite things to do is to walk. I get up really early to walk around Charleston, downtown Charleston, and just read plaques. I’ve seen pretty much all of them at this point, after multiple trips there, but I think people would find it fascinating.
Chris: Okay. You mentioned either a walking tour or a carriage ride. Let’s take the carriage ride first. Where would I get one?
Jen: Okay. So you can pick up a carriage. When you’re downtown, you will see that there are horse-drawn carriages everywhere. What they’re doing is they’re taking you on tours of downtown and telling you about the history, the tour guides do. So you pick those up down by the city market.
John: All your carriage tours are going to be on Anson Street. That’s off the market. It’s right in the heart of everything. You cannot miss it.
Chris: Do you have a favorite carriage ride company? There’s a couple there.
John: I just know the guy. So I guess it’s not fair. There’s a company called Old Town Carriage. That’s just the only one I know because I haven’t taken one in many years, to be frank.
Chris: We did it when we were there. Especially as a history buff, I thought it was great, but everybody in that whole company that we were with enjoyed it. Then walking tours.
Jen: Yeah, we took a walking tour last October. So basically, I met John nine years ago, and we go back. We’ve been going once a year since I met him. So they do kind of meld into each other. We did a walking tour within the last couple years. What I liked about that was that not only are you on the streets, but you got to go into old churches and old houses if you chose to. So it wasn’t just sitting the whole time, listening to the spiel, but actually walking into an old church and talking about the pews and talking about the history of the churches, because there’s . . . Is there 108 churches in Charleston? There’s a lot.
John: Yeah, downtown specifically, in a very, very small area. You can’t . . . pretty much couldn’t throw a rock and hit a church anywhere below Calhoun Street.
Jen: I think he made a joke. I think the walking tour guide made some joke that there was 108 churches and 108 bars or something like that. I don’t know.
John: Even ratio.
Jen: An even ratio.
Chris: And the walking tour you went on, did you like it? Would you recommend it? And which one was it?
John: It’s kind of, in my opinion, geared a little bit towards an older crowd.
John: But I do think the older crowd would enjoy it. The guy’s name is Ed Grimball. The thing that I think is so cool about him is his family has been in and stayed in Charleston, all of them, for 12 generations. So it’s someone, again, that appreciates history.
John: So that’s what he does. He walks and shows people around Charleston. Your more hip, edgier listeners might use the word cheesy, but . . .
Jen: It was too slow for me.
Chris: It sounds like it may have been the same one that we did, and it was also questionable history. I wasn’t sure I really believed him because some of the things that he said, I knew weren’t true.
John: It could be.
Chris: So one of the things I liked is when you’re on the carriage ride, they’re saying . . . When you’re doing the walking tour, they’re going to point to this gun. They’re going to say, “That’s the gun that fired the salvo on Fort Sumter for the opening shot of the Civil War.” Of course, that’s wrong because this gun can’t shoot that far.
John: That’s correct. The gun that made that shot was out on the island where we did the shelling.
Chris: You did the other kind of shelling, the kind that they recommend now, which is looking for shells.
Jen: Let’s tell . . . Yes, let’s talk about that trip later.
Jen: Because that’s on my insider-y list. Okay. So after you’ve taken a tour and kind of gotten the lay of the land and soaked up a little bit of history, I would move on to lunch at our favorite lunch spot, which is Butcher and the Bee. We love Butcher and the Bee. It’s a fairly new restaurant. John can tell you exactly where it is. I just ate there.
John: It’s right under the bridge on King. It’s not really on upper King. I guess you’d consider it upper King. Basically, you just go up King Street. It’s on the right. It’s not the easiest thing to find. So check your Internet listings.
Chris: King is one of the two main streets, as I recall, that goes down the peninsula that defines old town Charleston?
John: Yes. You could argue that East Bay would fall under that category too, but yes.
John: It’s out away from what most people consider down-downtown Charleston.
John: But it’s not that far out. If you’re in a car, you’re talking five . . . Everything is five minutes if you’re in a car in Charleston. Right? It is absolutely fantastic.
Jen: So the Butcher and the Bee is a farm-to-table eatery, and they have their menus on Twitter. If you even go to their website, they say, “Our menus are on Twitter.” So their Twitter handle is @Butcherandbee, B-E-E. You can get a feel for the kind of food that they’re doing. Again, it is farm-to-table, but it’s not solely low country. It’s kind of like low country with a twist. I had one of the best roast beef sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life. I think it was roast beef on a brioche bun, with a pepper jam. They also might have a kale slaw. I’m looking at the menu right now. Grilled squash.
John: The thing about Butcher and the Bee that I think is key is it’s very sort of a good sort of marker of what the new Charleston is, which is . . . You walk into that place, and everybody in there is cooler than you are.
Chris: I get that a lot though, actually.
John: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: That doesn’t really define Charleston.
John: It’s just a really cool vibe place that they’ve done a great job with. Like I said, like a lot of the places in the new Charleston, a lot of places that popped up in the last 10 years, you walk in there, and you just feel cooler.
Chris: Now, Jen, you said that this is not quite low country. You weren’t using that as a pejorative, but you were using that as a style of cooking that is common to that coastal region there.
Jen: Yes. So I’m looking on their menu, and they’re showing chicken and grits, but they also have chilaquiles, and they also have a bahn mi sandwich. I don’t know if I pronounced that correctly. It’s not just going to be your shrimp and grits or your pimento cheese sandwich or . . .
Chris: Pulled pork barbeque or something like that.
John: It really would not be out of place in Brooklyn.
Chris: Okay. Interesting.
John: It really wouldn’t.
Chris: Got it.
Jen: But it’s so yummy. It’s so yummy, and you are tapping into local foods. They’re just really great gourmet sandwiches and side dishes.
Chris: What are we doing after lunch?
John: Beyond the walking tour, I think there’s some stuff in downtown Charleston that I think is really cool and I think really makes it unique. Not all of it is great. I think people should go to the old slave museum. I think it talks about a dark part of our history. It doesn’t necessarily sugarcoat it. It’s just one of those things that you’re not going to see anywhere else in the country.
Jen: I will give you some fun things to do with kids. Because as you know, we’ve got five-year-old Cora. So she’s been going since she was four months old. So we take her to the aquarium. They have an amazing, amazing aquarium that can compete with the best of them.
Chris: That’s actually up further up the peninsula, right by where you get on the boat if you wanted to go to Fort Sumter, as I recall.
John: Yes, that’s . . . The aquarium is on the very, very north or east, depending on how you look at it, side of the peninsula. It’s not on the tip downtown. It’s more as if you were going to get on the bridge and go over to Mount Pleasant.
Jen: If you don’t want to do something that big, and you want to do something . . . Say you’ve got smaller kids or younger kids, in the toddler or preschool range. They also have a great children’s museum that’s right downtown. We often time our trips . . . We always seem to be coming in right on a Thursday or Friday. So if we come in on a Friday, Saturday is the farmers market. So that is often one of the first things we do as well, is visit the Saturday farmers market.
Chris: Where is the farmers market?
Jen: That is right in the center of downtown, at Marion Square Park.
John: Every Saturday.
Chris: You mentioned timing. What time of year or what day of year would you go to Charleston?
John: This is a great question and one I feel pretty strongly about. I think you want to be spring and fall.
John: Summers can be quite difficult, especially for people that don’t like heat and humidity. One thing about the spring you got to be really careful is there’s a festival called Spoleto that runs almost a month, I think, so May into June, around that time. That’s also, by the way, the graduation of the college of Charleston.
John: So in terms of pricing, you’re really going to struggle there. That’s probably the most impacted time. Spoleto is great if you like opera and symphony and painting and author events of very sort of dry material. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but these are the folks you’re competing with. So there are a lot of people wearing suits, which you don’t see much in downtown Charleston, going to events and driving all the prices up. But fall is fantastic, temperature-wise. Those are the two times, I think, most people would like to go the most.
Jen: I just want to add that if you are going for the foodie reasons, like I do, it also makes it harder to get restaurant reservations if you’re going during graduation time.
Jen: Or when there’s a big hot festival. So just keep your eyes out for that.
Chris: You mentioned the festival isn’t your favorite. I gather. You didn’t say that very diplomatically. But is there one that you would like to be in town, even though it’s a little more expensive? Charleston at that time of year or at that particular day is just amazing.
John: There’s always something going on. For instance, right now, I believe they’re having something called Five Days of Meat. Yeah, it’s all over the board, in terms of what you get.
Chris: Now, we’re talking.
John: But nothing I can think of at the moment.
Jen: We went one time during restaurant week, and that was really fun because we got to sample a couple of restaurants on a pre-fixed meal at lower prices.
Chris: Usually, they do a restaurant week off-season to try and get more things. So was this similar to that?
Jen: It was probably in October. We usually go in May or October. I’ve only heard about how sticky and hot and humid it gets in the summer, which is why we’ve always avoided that time, that season.
Chris: I’ll tell you. We went in October. We took a sailboat ride. We were out in a catamaran, out in the bay, sailing around. The weather was just idyllic. I was ready to move to Charleston at that point. I mean, it was so wonderful. I had to keep reminding myself. Yes, but you don’t like humidity. You wouldn’t like it in the summer.
Jen: And Chris . . .
John: You would not like it in the summer.
Jen: No. So Chris, when you were there, I knew you went to go see one of the breweries. Tell me about the brewery that you went to, and then I’m going to give you another tip.
Chris: We did not go to a brewery, but we did go to a distillery.
Jen: A distillery. Oh, okay.
Chris: Yeah. So we went . . .
Jen: I thought you went to a brewery.
Chris: No, we went out to . . . Well, not that I recall. No, actually we did eat in one of the breweries, sorry, one of the microbrewery places downtown, but I’m not a beer drinker. So I can’t tell you much about the experience, other than everybody else seemed to be enjoying it. But we also did go to a vodka distillery out in . . . Do you know where the tea plantation is?
Chris: Out on one of the islands. So Charleston . . . We should say that Charleston is at the mouth of a river. There’s a harbor there, as we mentioned. Great place to sail. Then there are barrier islands. So we went out to one of the islands that has the US’s only, I believe, tea plantation, which was very enjoyable. But also in that area, there is a vodka distillery that is doing interesting things. We actually enjoyed that. It’s a quirky little place.
Jen: Well, now that you’re talking about it, talking about really getting out on the water, one of the best things we did, actually on our October trip, just this past fall, we chartered a small boat. There’s several different ways that you can charter a boat. You can look it up online, or you can look it up in the magazines that they have around town.
But we chartered a boat, and he sailed us around the harbor. It was on a dolphin cruise. So we were looking for dolphin, which was not that exciting at all, not even for Cora. But by the time we came back, we sailed underneath the bridge, the bridge, the fancy new bridge. It’s called the Cooper River Bridge. It was so beautiful to just look up at the bridge from a different perspective, and of course a great photo opportunity.
So I would recommend doing that in the late afternoon portion of your day, and then give yourself some time to refresh and redress and get dinner reservations in advance for one of the more famous or just delightful restaurants in town. I’m going to recommend Fig, F-I-G, or the very popular, if you want to keep up with the magazine crowds and the restaurants that people are talking about, Husk, which has won numerous awards and has the very notable chef, Sean Brock.
Chris: Excellent. By the way, the distillery I was trying to remember is the Firefly Distillery, vodka distillery. It is out on Wadmalaw Island.
John: Wadmalaw. Yeah, Wadmalaw.
Chris: Wadmalaw. Sorry. Not saying that correctly. They’re probably best known for their sweet tea vodka.
Jen: Oh, okay. That makes sense.
Chris: Yeah, very, very Charleston-sounding thing at that point, once you say sweet tea.
Jen: At this point, I’m going to give a shout out because when we were there a ways back, some of your listeners on the Amateur Traveler had a meet-up with us, Robby and Melissa. So hi to Robby and Melissa, who had our meet-up at the brand new, at the time, the Ordinary, which is a seafood oyster bar in an old historic bank. It’s a real posh place, but it made us look good on this last trip because people were telling us where to go. They mentioned the Ordinary, and of course we had already been there on a previous trip. Thanks to Robby and Melissa.
Jen: Then in the evenings, I haven’t been on one, but I think John has, the nighttime cemetery tours. Right?
John: Yeah, the ghost tours are just something, again, that I think is . . . Charleston is kind of spooky at night. Their cemetery is right in the middle of town. Some of the headstones . . . You can find them. There’s not many of them, but I think you can find them from maybe even the 1600s, if not for sure the 1700s. That’s something I really enjoy.
The one that I think most people sort of gravitate . . . Well, there’s two really. It’s Bulldog Tours, which do a lot of tours. They used to be, I think, a smaller company. Now, they’re kind of getting bigger. Then there’s Charleston Ghost Hunt. It’s just fun. It’s something you can do at night. The tone of Charleston changes. You walk down a lot of very creepy alleyways with no light and some guy guiding you and telling you that Black Beard’s ghost hangs out in this alley or whatever.
Jen: Then if you need a nightcap after that, there’s a rooftop deck at the Macintosh. I think that’s on King Street. Right, John?
Chris: The Macintosh is a restaurant?
Jen: Not a computer. It’s a restaurant with a . . .
Jen: . . . restaurant bar, and they have a bar upstairs with lounge seating. What’s really neat about that is from way up there, you can see the church steeples. So you’re looking at the city from a different view again.
John: So also another place for night drinks, there’s a place called the Vendue Inn. That’s been there for a long time. That has a cool rooftop bar. There’s a newer place called the Market Pavilion Hotel, that a couple friends of mine who I really trust really like. That’s right in the heart. It’s right by where you pick up your horse and carriage rides. So that’s some of the places, again, just filled with cool people, designer cocktails. Chris, you can pay $15 for a cocktail, which shouldn’t we all at some point in our lives.
Chris: I have an answer to that.
Jen: So nine years into coming to Charleston, I finally went to the Peninsula Grill and had their very famous, award-winning coconut cake. It was definitely everything that it was cracked up to be. I had not done my homework. I was wearing jeans when I walked in, and I was a little bit uncomfortable because I wasn’t dressed up. It’s a posh restaurant. It’s a lovely steakhouse. The hotel has a lot of historical value to it, and it’s just a place if you’re going to really be on a splurge. It’s a lovely, romantic evening if you are looking for romance on your Charleston trip, to share a piece of the coconut cake.
John: I think there’s a good point to be made here to Chris, which is you need to be careful if you’re a family in Charleston. There are some places that are old southern traditional places that you can’t rock . . . I mean, by law, technically you can rock a family of six in there, and kids are throwing stuff and all that kind of stuff, but it’s just not the right place and the right vibe.
So you should really . . . Even something as simple as the “good for kids” designation on Yelp, a lot of times, can tell you where it’s at. But if you’re going to take a family, make sure . . . Most of the places are very family-friendly, but you definitely will have some old sort of southern places, which tablecloth . . . Everyone is dressed up. It’s very quiet. It’s very formal. Those are not exactly the places to take your kids.
Jen: I would check your own comfort level. Cora has been going to fine dining her whole life. So she’s pretty well behaved most of the time. So we felt very comfortable taking her to Husk, but they had absolutely nothing for her, in terms of . . . There was no children’s menu. It was during restaurant week. So they were on a strict menu. I think she ate peas. I don’t even know if we got any pasta out of them. Not only do you have to check your own comfort level, but also you might want to check the menu ahead of time to see if you’re going to actually be able to feed your child.
Jen: That said, if you’re looking for . . . You want to get some shrimp and grits, or you want to get some low country food, and you are bringing well-behaved children. I was perfectly comfortable taking her, as a baby and as a preschooler, I think, to Slightly North of Broad, but I was not comfortable taking her, as either an infant or a preschooler, to Magnolia. So we have not been to Magnolia for their famous shrimp and grits, but Slightly North of Broad was perfectly yummy to me.
Chris: I loved the name, Slightly North of Broad, the abbreviation, SNOB.
John: Which is what everyone in Charleston calls it.
Chris: Any other places that you would recommend people see or things that they do in Charleston?
John: I definitely have a couple. Just in terms of a restaurant, this is an old classic. One of the first real cool restaurants, in my opinion, that came to Charleston is called Fast and French, also called G&M. It’s a tiny little place. You’ll be at a communal table with people you don’t know. The meals are terrific. It’s a great experience. Relatively expensive, especially for the new Charleston.
Jen: That was the first place John took me on my very first Charleston trip.
John: Have shrimp and grits, people. It may sound a little strange, but have shrimp and grits. It’s truly one of the dishes of the gods. I like Hominy Grill a lot, and you can have it at dinner there. But if you want that quintessential southern dining experience, go to Magnolia. Go to 82 Queen. There’s some tablecloth, candlelight restaurants out there for you. [inaudible:00:26:01] has owned it. It’s been in the family for hundreds of years.
Chris: Well, if it’s the same one, the main house was burned down by some irate Yankees who came through there towards the end of the Civil War, a little mad at the owner who had signed the articles of succession, and they had just fought a four-year war against the south. So the main house isn’t there anymore, but there are tours of one of the houses there still.
Jen: Either way, our friends had access to this gorgeous corner, right next to a swamp with a tree house and a boat dock. The kids were just jumping off this dock, into the water, at sunset. Here I am, coming in with my home team barbecue. Just magical.
Chris: But since the listener can’t do that, I will recommend Middleton Place as an interesting place to go. A little expensive for the tour, but it is the oldest gardens in the US and fabulous gardens there. Sheep grazing on the front lawn and everything.
John: Another picnic, which I think is something you can do in Charleston that’s really another cool place, I think, a newer place for picnicking is a place called Caviar and Bananas. That’s downtown. It’s almost like a Whole Foods kind of vibe. You don’t really eat there. They just have the homemade salads, homemade this, homemade that. You pick it all up, you get it in a container, and you take it out and eat it wherever you want. That’s a fairly unique place.
Jen: We took an excursion this last trip, and we went shelling on Morris Island. That was really neat. So we took a group boat out to this little island. They gave some harbor history along the way, and then we had at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, to walk along this little beach and look for shells and collect shells with someone who was talking to us about the nature of the island and what we might find. We were actually looking for little shark teeth and whatever shells we thought were pretty. But it was just such a nice and different thing to do.
Chris: Excellent. We actually coincidentally also went to an island known for shelling when we were there. We went to
Fort McHenry Fort Sumter, which was known for the shelling that started the Civil War, so a very different thing.
Jen: So was that boring for you? Was that just fun for us because we have a kid? Or was that fun for you?
Chris: No, no. Shelling actually . . . I wanted to get to beaches. We’re going to get back to beaches here in a second.
Chris: But I just had to make the shelling joke. For history fans, I found that very interesting too. The cruise out there, for people who aren’t history fans, the cruise was a beautiful cruise, especially, again, in October, out on the water, with the dolphins jumping along the side of the boat as well. But they did a fairly good job for the people who I was with. I was with my daughter and her fiance and two friends and such, who aren’t as big of history fans as I am, but they enjoyed how well it was presented. So it was approachable for them, even without being the big Civil War nerd that I am.
Yeah, beaches. You mentioned shelling, but the other thing, I think . . . Do you take time, as we did . . . For instance, we went out to Foley Beach. We went out and stayed for a while in the Isle of Palms. Do you do that when you’re in Charleston as well?
John: Weather permitting, we do. We just spent some time on Sullivan’s Island. The beaches in Charleston are really great. It’s not uncommon to East Coast beaches, but in California, we’re used to short beaches with very steep grates. Whereas in Charleston, you could put an eight-lane highway on a lot of the beaches there. It’s flat, and it just goes forever. They’re great beaches to run on.
Chris: And the water is a little warmer than we’re used to, even down where you are in southern California.
John: Absolutely. Charleston is not much of a resort town, per se, but there is the Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms, which is a very robust, complete family resort. Not what you’d call cheap, but definitely if that’s what you’re looking for, you can stay there and get into Charleston in about 30 minutes, maybe a little more.
Chris: Assuming that we did the history part, and I definitely recommend historic Charleston . . . But you’ve done some of that. You’ve got a few more days. You mentioned Sullivan’s Island. Are there other places that you have enjoyed staying or would recommend?
John: Well, we normally use vacation rentals.
Chris: Okay. That’s what we did as well.
John: Yeah, we don’t do hotels because I find, at this point, Charleston hotel pricing is . . . You’re just not getting value for your money. See, remember, all my experiences are tainted with the mid ’90s, when you could get a room in downtown Charleston for $90 a night.
Chris: Or even by the hour.
John: On Friday. Right. That was a little before me, but yes, even by the hour.
John: We’ve done vacation rentals on Sullivan’s Island. We’ve done vacation rentals on Isle of Palms. Certainly you can go down to Foley Beach. The infrastructure for that whole thing is robust. What a lot of people that we know do as families is they will stay out on Isle of Palms or in Foley Beach, and then you still got the ability to drive in to Charleston and experience all that history, but you can let the kids run wild and do the beach thing and everything else out on the budding islands.
Chris: We split our trip. We did half the trip, or I think three days of the trip, down in historic Charleston without a car, just walking every place, and then the other half we did out on Isle of Palms, doing again . . . Actually both places, we did a vacation rental. It’s a good place.
Jen: If I were booking it, and you’re feeling like the company that you’re going with is flexible, I would actually try to do a few days of each, a few days out on the islands by the beach, or depending on how long you actually get to travel, and then do a few days in downtown as well. Just sort of split up the trip.
Jen: We have done that because we don’t mind driving. Part of the reason we go every year is we have a lot of friends. They’re dispersed all over several of the islands that surround downtown Charleston. So we’re pretty much used to driving around. On this last trip, we spent a lot of time on Sullivan’s Island, and also we took a day trip out to Foley Beach. I thought the two were very different.
John: You’re going to get a little bit more of a party crowd in Foley Beach.
Chris: Well, Foley Beach is more of a beach town, I want to say. Although, Sullivan’s Island, actually we enjoyed the nightlife there. I mean, there are only, what, five or six restaurants there, but we ate at, I think, three or four of them. It was just a nice vibe as well, I think.
John: Yep. Now, if Sullivan’s . . .
Jen: If you’re looking to relax, I would definitely say go out to Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms.
John: There probably is no more victim of the sort of, again my favorite word, gentrification and pricing surge than Sullivan’s Island. You really are going to struggle to get a vacation rental these days that’s not going to really, really, really set you back. So most people are going to be in Isle of Palms or even Foley Beach. But for families, generally speaking, I think you’re probably better placed with Isle of Palms.
If you’re in your 20s, and you’re looking to party and hang out on the beach, Foley Beach is probably a better ticket. Both are equidistant really to downtown Charleston, I mean, roughly. Maybe Foley Beach is . . . It depends. Isle of Palms is quite a long island. So the far end of Isle Palms, I’m sure, is farther, but it’s roughly the same.
Chris: Before we get to our wrap-up questions, are there any other places like that near Charleston, that you would combine with a trip to Charleston?
Jen: We mentioned Wild Dunes. But if you’re having a reunion, a family reunion, or you’re coming with a few families, and you want sort of the full amenities, like you want a spa and restaurant, you want bikes that you can bike around, and you want umbrellas and everything for your beach experience, I was really impressed with what Wild Dunes had to offer. I would definitely go back there if I was traveling with another family on top of ours or going to a family reunion.
Chris: Okay. Any other tips that you would give us, before we get into my last questions?
John: I do have a few, just real quick tips for folks that are maybe trying to see Charleston for a little less dough. We often fly into Columbia. So it’s about an hour and a half, maybe a little bit more. Rental cars are cheaper. Flights are always going to be way, way cheaper. Flying into Charleston these days is . . . Unless you planned way ahead, and it’s still a very expensive gateway.
North Charleston is not Charleston, and it’s very important. I know a lot of people that have booked a “deal” out in North Charleston and come to be very disappointed. It hasn’t been brought forward, in terms of condition, the way downtown Charleston has.
Chris: It needs a little gentrification, is what you’re saying.
John: It needs a little something. I’m not exactly sure what. Lastly, I’m going to give a shout out to our friends. This is one of the most unique . . . We travel a lot, Chris. Your listeners probably have heard Jen on your guys’ show. Probably one of the most unique things I’ve ever done in my life . . . There’s a couple in Charleston that live out on [inaudible:00:35:01] Island. They call their place Deux Puces, which is French for “two fleas”. They have a website at Thefarmbar26.com. They host events infrequently. But if you check their calendar, and you have a chance to go out, it’s one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have.
The night that we went . . . Completely unrelated to what I do for a living, by the way. The night that we went, they fed us this amazing dinner on this farm that’s straight out of a magazine, and finished the night with poker and drinking and a really, really great time.
Jen: You get a home-cooked southern meal out on this goat farm. Right? Yeah.
John: And it’s really unique, and it really does look like it just popped out of the pages of Dwell Magazine or some hoity-toity architectural magazine.
Chris: Hoity-toity goat farm magazines.
John: Yes, correct. It’s a niche crowd, Chris.
Chris: It sounds like it might be. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in Charleston. Where are you standing? And what are you looking at?
Jen: If I’m standing in the prettiest area in Charleston, I love being down by Battery Park, looking at the gorgeous pastel-colored mansions.
John: I’ll give you a little cool history thing about Battery Park. The tree branches . . . Have you heard this, Chris? The tree branches hang really low. Do you know why they hang really low?
Chris: I do not.
John: Because back in the day, they would hang pirates from those trees as a deterrent for pirates that might be coming in to Charleston. At least that is the wives’ tale. If I’m standing on the prettiest place in Charleston, for me personally, I’m smack dab in the middle of the Cooper River Bridge at night.
John: You can see all of Charleston. Obviously it’s a very high point, 360 degrees, and really, really soak in . . . Even during the day, frankly, really soak in one of the things that makes Charleston unique.
Chris: Excellent. You’ve gone back now, Jen, you with John, nine times.
Jen: Probably eight. We didn’t go when we lived in London.
Chris: Probably eight. Okay.
Chris: So there’s something different about this place versus other places in the US. The one place you would stand that is the most Charlestonian.
Jen: I am a big fan . . . Because I didn’t know the old Charleston, and I’m not an East Coaster with roots and breeding, I get excited about all the new Charleston amenities. One of my favorite places where my heart starts racing, and you’re going to laugh, is a little coffee shop called Black Tap Coffee. I think it’s on Beaufain Street.
Jen: Yes. So that is something that I only discovered two trips ago. If you have an Apple computer, and you like pour-over coffee, you’re going to get excited by Black Tap Coffee. So that’s just a little slice of new Charleston, but I probably get as excited on the steps of Black Tap Coffee as I do driving into Butcher and Bee.
Chris: And John, for you?
John: I will be standing on the corner of Church and Queen Street.
John: Right in front of the Dock Street Theater, right in the heart of historic Charleston, with a view of St. Philip’s Church and just soaking it all in. I’ve spent many a night at the Dock Street, but I used to produce rock shows at the Dock Street Theater. I worked for Hootie and the Blowfish. So that’s like a whole thing.
Jen: The first time you took me to Charleston, we went to the Dock Street Theater to watch the very last show of Jump Little Children, who you’d been with for, what, 10 years?
John: I believe this is. . . You’re going to have to check me on the history here, but I believe the Dock Street Theater was, at one time, the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States. It has a ton of history. One of the first actors in the first lead play . . . There was a guy called Junius Brutus Booth . . .
Chris: Oh, yeah.
John: . . . whose father was a guy called John Wilkes Booth, who you may have heard of. Just tons of history, and I’ve spent many a night there, producing. I used to manage rock-and-roll bands, and we used to put on shows every year, very, very involved, elaborate shows. So it’s a special place to me. I think that corner, in particular, kind of summarizes what Charleston is all about, in terms of history.
Chris: Well, you’re also talking about a church with a graveyard that holds I don’t know how many different signers of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or whatever.
John: Yeah, that’s correct.
John: Additionally, by the way, if you go 50 meters north of Queen, on Church, you’ll see a little sign that doesn’t get talked about much, called Black Beard’s Alley. Black Beard used to keep a place there. It was kind of his hideout. He built a tunnel under the city, so that if people came to get him, he could get out and escape through that tunnel. There’s not . . . People, for whatever reason, don’t talk about it much anymore, but you can see the plaque is still there that says Black Beard’s Alley. That’s about, like I said, 50 meters north of Queen, on Church, kind of directly across from St. Philip’s.
Chris: One warning you would give about Charleston.
John: It has become certainly expensive. It has become, again, that word gentrified to, in my opinion, an annoying degree. Charleston has very narrow streets. When I was living there in the ’90s, you would see Mazdas driving up those streets at 25 miles an hour, whereas you now see Range Rovers driving up the street at 45 miles an hour, with out-of-state license plates on them.
The result of Charleston becoming hot is that it’s made some great amazing, cool places and made a very cool city cooler. The downside of it is you have traffic, which you never had before. Prices have gotten completely crazy. So know what you’re getting yourself into if you want to have a week in downtown Charleston, especially as it relates to budget.
Chris: Okay. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Charleston.”
Jen: I think the thing that cracks us up is on, I think it’s Upper King, there’s a shirt store that is probably double the size of any of the other retail stores. I think they just do collared shirts, where there must be some kind of embroidery or something where they’re doing your monogram.
John: They’re very high-end shirts.
John: But the store is probably 2000 square feet, on the most expensive shopping street in Charleston. That is what we call a bubble. That’s how you know the bubble is coming.
Jen: So that is something that we just kind of laugh at. So when we’re driving by, we laughed at it. We thought for sure it wasn’t going to last, and it wasn’t going to be there on the next trip that we just took. I think it was still there. We were just cracking up.
John: I’ll take serious bets that it’s not there next time.
Chris: Last two questions. Finish this sentence: You really know you’re in Charleston when . . . What?
Jen: You know you’re in Charleston when you see just an absolutely woman walk by, and she’s in a linen dress with a string of pearls and high heels, and she’s walking across a parking lot. You do a double take, and you think, “Is there a wedding going on?” You think, “No, this is just Charleston.” That’s just what they wear here.
John: I mean, you know you’re in Charleston when you look down at a tombstone and see someone that was laid to rest in 1798, and then you walk 10 feet from him and have one of the best gourmet dinners you’ll ever have in your life.
Chris: Excellent. If you had to summarize Charleston in just three words, three words each, how would you summarize it?
Jen: Historic. Hip.
Chris: Okay. Interesting combination.
Jen: And cultural.
Chris: Okay. John?
John: Yummy. And cool.
Chris: Excellent. Where can people read more about your travels?
Jen: Well, I’m not exactly memoir travels, but I am . . . Definitely if you want to see more of our Charleston trips as we take them once a year, I post a lot of restaurant and landscape . . . I post mostly restaurant pics of Charleston on my Instagram account, which is Vegasjenleo. If you scroll back about two months ago, you’ll see a bunch of them there. I’m on Twitter, @Jenleo, and I like to post travel deals that I find and would take myself on Jenleodeals.com.
Chris: Excellent. Jen and John, thanks so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your obvious love for the city of Charleston, South Carolina.
John: Thanks for having us, Chris.
Chris: I only have one news story for you today. That’s an odd one. Someone gets kicked off a plane for behaving badly. We had a situation on a Southwest flight, where a family was getting on the flight, and the man was not happy with the service he received from the gate agent. So he tweeted about her, with her name, and said what a bad job she was doing. I agree that’s a little questionable behavior. They kicked the family off the plane and wouldn’t let them back on until he deleted the tweet. That’s a little weird as well. For a link to that story, check out the show notes at Amateurtraveler.com.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or leave a comment on this episode at Amateurtraveler.com. You can also follow me on Twitter, @Chris2X. Don’t forget to sign up for Morocco, April 2015. As always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.