An easy two-hour drive south of Myrtle Beach is a town with a rich, storied history. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, and the ensuing battle was fought in and around a fort just outside Charleston. Inside the city, you’ll find it’s a lovely town to simply walk around. As old as any of the famous cities further up the East Coast (Philadelphia, New York, Boston), Charleston is a beautiful example of old fashioned Southern dignity.
Our day started at the North Charleston Visitors’ Center, where we learned that there is a free portion of the public transit system running throughout the city. The visitors’ center also houses a Fire Museum, part of which is a collection of antique fire trucks. The whole city drips with history, and there is no shortage of tours of plantations, historic places of worship, and museums. A single day was not enough to really get to see the city, but we knew we were only in for a taste that day.
And when I say a taste, it’s partially because my father saw a restaurant on a Travel Channel show he was dying to try. The Hominy Grill is only open for breakfast and lunch, but don’t think they only serve light fare. No, it’s a Low Country comfort feast that’ll stick to your ribs in all the best ways. As it was our lunchtime, I got a sandwich, and what better sandwich to get on the coast in The South than a catfish po’ boy—a dish with its roots in New Orleans. Served on New Orleans-style French bread (an American version of the baguette), po’ boy is usually filled with seafood, fresh vegetables, and some sort of Cajun aioli. If that sounds like a lot of food to you, you’re right; the length of baguette alone is enough to fill a small stomach, but all the flavor between that bread kept me eating long after I was full. My food wasn’t the only delicious meal, though. My father devoured his fried-chicken-stuffed biscuits (served over a bed of grits and slathered with sausage gravy); my girlfriend fell in love with her first ever plate of grits, and somehow all her fried catfish disappeared too. My sister, the queen of chicken tenders (she’s as obsessed with Buffalo Sauce as I am, too) ordered her customary dish, but had the option to get them “Nashville Style.” She took it, and it was the most I’ve ever seen her enjoy something new. They seemed to mix the spicy sauce in with the fryer grease, then dip the tenders in that concoction after deep frying them, and it was an incredibly beautiful thing. My favorite part about this meal, though, was the fact that everyone at the table gave a taste of their meal to anyone else (at the table) that wanted one. If you and yours make it to the Hominy Grill, I can’t recommend this enough. Odds are you’ll want to order two or three menu items just by perusing the list, so in the interest of cost, share, share, share.
It wasn’t a short walk back to the free bus stop from the Grill, but it was a simple one, and as I’ve mentioned, Charleston is a beautiful city. There is a distinctive sort of porch with its roots in Charleston: being a porch, it’s open to the air and usually has ceiling fans (it’s hot in The South) and a seating area. There are doors to the house’s interior, but the interesting part is that there are two exits to the outside: stairs down to the driveway or backyard and a proper front door, with a knocker and (apparently) a deadbolt. They would run longways down the side of their house, sometimes with stairs to the balcony above, sometimes with normal rooms above. They’re strange, and beautiful, and my girlfriend and I decided we want one on our house one day.
Interesting restaurants are good, but if it’s something good and touristy that you’re after (and something that requires no hunting to find), look no further than The Historic Charleston City Market. Market Hall is right by another free bus stop, but the Market itself stretches for another 1200 feet (four blocks) behind it. Within, you’ll find vendors and permanent shops selling food, toys, souvenirs, clothes, jewlery, and art, just for starters. Offhand, I can also remember seeing a leathercraft stand and one particularly enthusiastic vendor selling puzzle boxes. My favorites, though, were the praline candied walnuts and the wall art made entirely from metal bottle caps.
Just outside the city is an enclosure containing an absolutely mythical being. The Angel Oak is an exceptional example of the Southern Live Oak, an evergreen species of oak tree. This tree got its name from the original owners of the land on which it lives, but kept its name when stories began to persist about the spirits of former slaves congregating within its branches in the form of angels. There’s ample room among its boughs; the Angel Oak casts over seventeen thousand square feet of shade. It was deeply disappointing to show up two minutes after the park closes and have only the opportunity to stare through a chain link fence. I wanted to walk among its branches, see the sun through its leaves. If you’re like me, make sure to get there well before five o’clock, when the gates close every day. I keep a list of places I’ve been and need to see again; The Angel Oak has topped that list.
Charleston as a whole is high on that list. I love cities with their own strong identity, particularly when that’s a personal thing (in contrast with places like Nashville or New York City). Low Country cuisine is a truly excellent experience, though it likely will not work perfectly within your diet. History buffs and casual tourists alike will find plenty of entertainment in Charleston, much of it for free.
Four days after I returned home from South Carolina, I left with a different bit of my family for ten days in Ireland, and those articles are coming up next.