By Jordan Wright
Visiting a historic destination naturally brings comparison to our own beloved port of Alexandria, and a few of those thoughts rose idly like bubbles to the surface as I recently arrived in another beautiful waterfront city: Charleston, South Carolina.
I was curious to see what had changed since I’d visited two decades earlier, when, during a tour of a stately Southern mansion, a tiny octogenarian docent told our group the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It was the South’s right to keep the North out of their business affairs, she quaintly insisted. Stunned at this declaration, I’m certain my eyes rolled back into my head, but the cat had a firm grip on my tongue and I remained silent amid the small group of visitors. I still regret I didn’t lean in to challenge her version of history.
Since then, things have shifted somewhat. South Carolina’s governor has removed the confederate flag from the State House, and local African American artists, artisans and chefs are treasured for their unique contributions.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy no longer hold sway in a city whose rich cultural history is driven by some 30,000 college students and a more inclusive vision. Thankfully, the city’s charm and joie de vivre remain firmly intact.
The Belmond Charleston Place is a magnificent property in the tradition of America’s grandest hotels. A recent $30 million renovation affords it the distinguished cachet of a worldclass property. And with its central location and the city’s ubiquitous pedicabs, sightseeing is a breeze. To up your game, book a suite on the exclusive Club Level. Complimentary perks include hot buffet breakfasts; a recharge of afternoon tea, sandwiches and pastries; early evening cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; nightcaps and sweet treats; and flutes of champagne all the live-long day. On the main concourse, amid posh shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, there are three restaurants to choose from. Be sure to book in advance for the full-service spa with rooftop pool.
Within a five-minute walk is the Charleston City Market on Meeting Street. Rebuilt from the original after a fire in 1841, this National Historic Landmark houses dozens of indoor and covered stalls and is open from 9:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. Grab a softball-sized buttermilk biscuit with all the fixins’ at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and shop the stalls for Gullah made sweetgrass baskets, benne wafers, sacks of Carolina Rice, local art and handmade souvenirs. Refresh at Lowcountry Lemonade where quaffs are made with seasonal muddled fruit. Mine boasted sweet local peaches.
Spanning four city blocks, the market leads down to East Bay Street and Waterfront Park with its stately Southern mansions. Take in sweeping views of the harbor from White Point Gardens, a five-and-a-half-acre park that’s home to a protected Night Heron rookery set amid old oaks. From there you’re a hop, skip and a jump to the Gibbes
Museum, a breathtaking Beaux Arts structure that houses an outstanding collection of American art – both old master and contemporary.
Of all the mansions and plantations to tour (book through your concierge to tour Magnolia Gardens, Middleton Place, Boone Hall and Drayton Hall), I discovered what must be the most unusual. The Italianate-influenced Calhoun Mansion and Gardens borders on the bizarre with its eye-popping floor–to-ceiling collection of fine art, rare antiques and silver collection, and Orientalia. The extraordinarily ornate 1876 mansion is currently owned by a Washington, D.C. lobbyist. Our do cent was respectfully tight-lipped as to whom, but a bit of sleuthing uncovered D.C. attorney Howard H. Stahl, who lovingly restored the once-dilapidated 35-room manor house.
In a city renowned for great Southern cooking and countless restaurants, where to eat? You really can’t go wrong with soulful barbeque, low country cooking or the exceptional local seafood. But I have a fondness for a certain chef and the particularly stylish way he approaches ingredients. Circa 1886 is situated within the gardens of the Wentworth Mansion.
Chosen by prestigious Southern Living magazine this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary, it boasts an intimate, intrinsically Southern, candlelit setting that enhances fine dining. Helmed by Executive Chef Marc Collins, whose talent is playing sweet and savory elements against one another, expect to find unique combinations paired with top-drawer wines.
Our meal began with a trio of delicate crabmeat concoctions, artichoke pudding with
sunflower seeds and espelette pepper, a cold soup of turnip greens with a silken peanut cream, followed by gnudi with truffles and loin of antelope with foie gras and blackberry sauce. For an unforgettable taste of the South opt for Collins’ signature dessert – honeysuckle ice cream.