First priority in Charleston is to get a feel for the history and the beautiful architecture, best achieved by a guided ride around town on a horse-drawn carriage (http://www.oldsouthcarriagetours.com/). Highly ranked for vacations, lifestyle, careers, further education, shopping, romance, and retirement, the city’s James Beard award-winning restaurants put it second only to New York City. With cruises stopping there regularly and many airlines flying direct to the international airport, the sultry Southern city is always bustling. But the year-round warm weather, attractions and festivals help jack up weekend rates, so try to arrive on Sunday or Monday and leave by Friday. Despite Charleston’s high international profile, there are still tucked-away treats that don’t figure on typical tourist maps.
Riotous Rooftops – One of the best ways to tour the city’s nightlife is by rooftop. All those stairs are worth the schlep for the breezes, views of the grandiose architecture and scintillating sunsets. Make sure to include: Market Pavilion for poolside dining and dancing on chequerboard floors; the refurbished Vendue Inn (via an ancient elevator) for 360-degree views of the harbor and the French Quarter over custom cocktails; Élevé for art deco-influenced modern munching; Stars in North King Street for low-price mimosas on Sundays; and Henry’s for a more casual, hippy feel.
Second Storey Shopping – Sure, go to the Historic Charleston City Market (http://thecharlestoncitymarket.com/) for browsing and photo opps, but save your splurging for secret shops hidden in alleys and up stairwells beside the better-known brands. On King Street, find Be the Change Boutique (http://www.bethechangeboutique.com/) upstairs at 218B, as well as a stationery design company. Discover Sneakers at 237 King, down a little alley, set in a historic carriage house. Make sure to go next door and upstairs to explore Sassy Shortcake boutique. Opposite Williams Sonoma, pop down Burns Lane to The Hidden Countship to explore an extravaganza of Italian antiques and haute couture in an authentic Charleston house run by an Italian Count and Countess (http://www.thehiddencountship.com). And look out for fashion trucks (Rolling Rack Boutique, Fashion Forward Mobile Boutique and Red Rose Vintage) cruising the fashion district.
Free Sugar Fix – Charleston is a very walkable city with heritage buildings, cute alleyways, cobbled streets and imposing mansions dotted around. You’ll need some sustenance so take advantage of the candy stores such as Market Street Sweets on both Market and King which are open late into the evening, all offering complimentary praline samples (http://www.riverstreetsweets.com/retail-locations). Other freebies around town include corn hush puppies outside Hyman’s, free art galleries, free quarterly art walks with drinks and appies, free performances with the Youth Orchestra of the Low Country, free street entertainment on King Street (2nd Sunday each month), and complimentary early evening hors d’oeuvres and wine if you stay at the modernized Vendue Inn which also offers complimentary bikes for exploring (http://www.thevendue.com/).
Live Listening – Having inspired “The Charleston” song and dance in the Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild by James P Johnson in 1923, Charleston is still home to great live music. The ragtime jazz dance actually pre-dated 1923, having been invented on one of Charleston’s plantation islands and performed in black communities since 1903. Today High Cotton is the best place to hear live jazz on a daily basis although many other restaurants have musicians at weekends. Sunday Brunch at Halls Chop House features local gospel group, The Plantation Singers.
Step Back in Time – Charleston’s plantation past is kept alive at stately houses and gardens open to the public. Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, details the history of slavery to freedom as well as offering house tours, a nature train, boat tour and petting zoo. Visit late March/early April to see azaleas in bloom and have a picnic on romantic swinging chairs surrounded by pet peacocks (http://www.magnoliaplantation.com/). Unique in North America, Charleston Tea Plantation is also worth a visit and tastings (https://www.charlestonteaplantation.com/). Learn about the horticulture as well as the manufacture of tea using the innovative Green Giant harvester which the plantation owners invented. Nearby, do a free wine tour of the Irvin-House Vineyards (2pm daily except January) and try muscadine wines for $5.
Gullah Heritage – As the most pivotal port in America for the slave trade, the majority of African Americans – including the First Lady, Michelle Obama – can trace their roots back to this harbor. Although most slaves dispersed across North America, the strong African influence in the Charleston area has been preserved as the Gullah culture still evident today in art (especially Jonathan Green’s paintings http://www.jonathangreenstudios.com/), food, crafts (http://charlestonsweetgrass.com/), choral music and museums. The Old Slave Mart, which dates back to 1859, celebrates African American history, arts and crafts. And an app is being designed right now to link all the African-American heritage sites across South Carolina.
Kick back at Kiawah Island – Whether it’s for luxurious Southern hospitality, world-class golf, tennis, watersports, wildlife spotting or just lazing by the pool or beautiful beach, Kiawah Island is Charleston’s secret seaside retreat. The secret is that it is not as expensive as its Forbes 5-star rating would suggest. There are deals off-season which can even include golf at the famous Ocean Course, scene of many a PGA Championship and on a par with the top courses in the world. Check out family, spa, romance, events and tennis packages, too (https://www.kiawahresort.com/). And on the way there, visit the gigantic Angel Oak Tree, one of the oldest living things in the USA.
Beach Biking – There are very few places in the world where you can bike on the beach. Kiawah’s white sand is solid, flat and endlessly inviting, facilitating epic pedaling along the ocean’s edge. This tantalizing 10-mile stretch is complemented by 30 miles of bike trails around the island, arguably the best way to see the Low Country Wetlands’ wildlife as well as the Great Gatsby-style mega-mansions which dot the forests. It’s also the easiest way to get to Captain Sam’s Inlet to watch Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins strand fishing – they nose the fish onto the shore and gorge! http://www.kiawahresort.com/blog/kiawah-island/2014/06/24/bike-around-kiawah-island/
Oyster Roasts – Mingle at Mingo Point on Monday nights for an Oyster Roast and Southern BBQ. Synchronized with sunset, everyone congregates at chatty communal tables overlooking the Kiawah River. Kids can run around, get hair braids, design their own beach bag, and check out the wildlife at the Kiawah Naturalists’ presentation. And there’s moonlight dancing, artisan craft market, and optional river cruise (https://www.kiawahresort.com/dining/mingo-point-oyster-roast-and-bbq).
Ocean Course Sunsets – Free shuttle buses transport sunset worshippers from the Sanctuary Hotel and Kiawah villas to the Ryder Cup Bar at the opulent Ocean Course every night to watch the sun go down – look out for deer en route. Friendly and informal, the bustling bar is great for pre-dinner drinks before the seasonal seafood extravaganza in the adjoining Atlantic Room (https://www.kiawahresort.com/dining/the-atlantic-room).
Animal Action – On this nature preserve, there’s an abundance of wildlife spotting including gator, bird and butterfly walks, ocean seining, fishing, paddling, adventure tours and information portals with Kiawah’s Nature Program (https://www.kiawahresort.com/recreation/nature-program). But you can also just hang out on the beach with binoculars or a sharp eye and spot dolphins frolicking any day of the year. You’ll see platoons of pelicans patrolling the seas, sandpipers and dippers scouring the shallows, ospreys circling the intersecting rivers and lakes, and egrets pacing the banks keeping a sharp lookout for the island’s many alligators. Watch for deer skitting among the foliage on the sands in front of the Kiawah condos.
Ritzy Retail & Restaurants – When you’ve tried all the decadent dining options in The Sanctuary, by the pool, sunlounger-service on the beach, and at each of Kiawah’s three golf clubhouses (all linked by free shuttle buses), there’s nearby Freshfields Village to explore. Lots of beachy boutiques, ice cream parlors, gift shops, cafés and casual eateries in a pastel, picture-perfect setting. There’s a new boutique hotel, The Andell Inn, with a sumptuously decorated lounge and bar area. Go Thursday evening to take in the jazz and check out Forty Eight Wine Bar with 48 choices of wines by the glass from automated wine servers and 48 local and regional craft beers (http://www.freshfieldsvillage.com/directory/store-detail/258201).
By Louise Hudson
Updated: October 22, 2016