Southern Exposure: Charming Charleston

11/23/2016

Winter 2016

Aristocratic architecture, living history and a dining scene that could only exist here – what’s not to love about the South’s most tantalizing secret?

Every time I visit Charleston, it’s a revelation. While the refined pace remains the same, new dimensions of the city continually reveal themselves: A palm-shaded garden glimpsed through a wrought iron gate. A plein air artist capturing a vibrant row of clapboard houses. A children’s game of hopscotch beneath a 19th-century band shell. From the waxy magnolia leaves dangling overhead to the sweet sound of a saxophone drifting in the air, Charleston always makes it easy to surrender to its Southern charm. 

Photo: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

This small Southern city of about 130,000 people has earned a big reputation due to its innovative dining scene, singular shopping and gorgeously preserved architecture.

Fresh off the plane, I inevitably head to Hyman’s, a Charleston seafood fixture for more than 100 years. I sit at a table where, like the Beach Boys, I chow down on boiled peanuts and she-crab soup – although I had the choice to sit at tables where James Brown or Martin Sheen once indulged.

Gullah artisan weaving a sweetgrass basket. Photo: Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo
The entrance to the Charleston City Market. Photo: Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo

Across the street, the Charleston City Market is the gateway to low-country handicrafts. Here, vendors sell everything from homemade hot sauce to handcrafted sabers carved from swordfish bills. For many visitors, the market may offer the only chance to interact with Gullah artisans, who live nearby on the Sea Islands and are renowned for the intricate baskets they weave from sweetgrass. As I admire one woman’s handiwork, she spins me a long stem “rose” and presents it to me as a token of her gratitude for my appreciation.

A Rich History

Few places in America have a history etched like Charleston’s. Fort Sumter, where the Civil War erupted in 1861, is at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, within eyeshot of the Battery, the waterfront park that defines the city and serves as a constant reminder of its complicated history.

A restored portrait of Harriet Lowndes Aiken, painted by Geore Whiting Flagg, in the double parlor of the Aiken-Rhett House. Photo: nik wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo
A restored portrait of Harriet Lowndes Aiken, painted by Geore Whiting Flagg, in the double parlor of the Aiken-Rhett House. Photo: nik wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo

Gaslit cobblestone streets, flanked by stately 19th-century mansions with double porches, beg for exploration. Most of the city’s historic homes are privately owned, but several are open as museums through the Preservation Society of Charleston. The Aiken-Rhett House, built in 1858, has been left in all of its faded glory. Here, peeling paint serves as a backdrop for exquisite antiques. The mansion is one of the country’s best examples of urban antebellum life, complete with dark, cramped slave quarters out back. Although I have been here several times, I return to the neoclassical Nathaniel Russell House to marvel at the elegant – and rare – flying staircase, evoking the grandeur that Southern aristocrats have enjoyed for generations. 

Southern Fare with Flair

 While Charleston is rich with history, the city is constantly evolving. Everywhere, there are traces of the past, but nowhere is the past frozen in time. A port city, Charleston continues very much to be a place of progress, appropriating influences from around the corner to around the world.

Nowhere does that sense of adventure show up more vibrantly than in the city’s restaurants. For well over a decade now, chefs have congregated here to celebrate a confluence of influences ranging from Creole to English to European to African, uniquely informing the city’s food. There’s a reason Charleston is often ranked as one of the best food cities in America. This town pulses with chefs who care deeply about the provenance of ingredients and how those ingredients are presented on the plate. 

Shrimp and grits. Photo: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock
The Ordinary is a Southern seafood hall and oyster bar located in an old bank. Photo: Andrew Cebulka

Truthfully, the food is so good that, when I travel to Charleston, I plan on gaining five pounds in a weekend – no worries, no stress, it’s just what’s going to happen as I hopscotch across the city in my quest to leave no meal unsampled. This time I begin with crostini topped with cured country ham from the locally sourced menu at Husk, followed by yellow fin ceviche at The Ordinary, a temple to seafood housed in a historic bank, before heading to the homey Hominy Grill, where I order the best shrimp and grits of my life. I end my night at the classic Charleston Grill, which has a grown-up, feel-good vibe, with duck breast drizzled with a blackberry port reduction and playfully paired with pickled peaches.

Of course, it’s easy to extol the city’s culinary pleasures, as they are many. There’s more to Charleston, however, than corporeal pleasures. It is steeped in effortless grace. 

Antiques, Art and More

 The shops of Charleston are so beautifully appointed that they rival those of Paris for pure window-gazing. Charming clothing stores selling Southern staples like bow ties and straw hats predominate, as do artisanal food stores. No visit to Charleston, however, is complete without stopping in at the antique stores, many along King Street, that have made the city a magnet for dealers worldwide. Classic pieces plucked from Southern plantations, like Baccarat crystal chandeliers and Hepplewhite mahogany dining room tables, share space with quirkier finds like a pair of leather aviator goggles and an Art Deco-era optician’s table.

Historic Broad Street. Photo: Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Historic Broad Street. Photo: Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

Although the city is rife with art galleries, Broad Street  is Charleston’s gallery hub. Exhibits include museum-worthy pre-Civil War oil paintings alongside contemporary portraits, light installations and mixed media murals. Near the galleries, art enthusiasts and bons vivants gather at Gaulart & Maliclet Fast and French, an acclaimed bistro, to order plates of gooey French cheese and creamy pâté at twin lunch counters.

Like Charleston itself, the restaurant is a sublime mix of old and new, tradition and edge, history and progress – and on this particular day, they are both perfect. 

Exclusive Benefits for Subaru Owners

Subaru owners visiting Charleston, South Carolina, will receive the following special deals and discounts.1

Food & Lodging

Belmond Charleston Place is the grande dame of the city’s historic center. Most rooms have engaging city views and marble baths. Upgrading to a Club Room ensures you a hot breakfast, afternoon tea, cocktails (most of the day) and snacks and desserts in the evening. Mention SUBARU and receive 15 percent off published room rates. Offer valid through October 2017.

Cheers! The Charleston Grill with its wood-paneled walls, fine art and white table cloths is the epitome of Southern gentility. When you order two entrees at Charleston Grill, one of the city’s culinary trailblazers, mention SUBARU and receive two complimentary glasses of sparkling wine. Offer valid until November 2017. 

Historic Sites & Tours

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, named among the country’s best gardens by Travel & Leisure magazine, has sections dating back more than 300 years. Here, roses, camellias and azaleas share space with bridges and ponds. Mention SUBARU for a “buy one, get one free” admission until September 28, 2017.

Get a peek behind the doors and iron gates of Charleston’s most exclusive private homes and gardens on the once-a-year-only Fall Tour of Homes. Organized by the Preservation Society of Charleston, these small group tours take place every Thursday through Sunday in October on the city’s most iconic streets. Readers who use the code SUBARU when purchasing tickets online will receive $5 off any tour. 

Drayton Hall, an 18th century plantation house that’s on the National Historic Register, is located about a 15-minute drive outside Charleston. The Palladian-style home is one of the South’s most important as it has remained largely unchanged since the Revolutionary War. Plus, it tells the story not only of the landowners but also of the slaves whose labor made the plantation economy work. Mention SUBARU for $2 off the $22 admission price until November 2017. 

The Charleston Tea Plantation, owned by the Bigelow Tea Company, offers visitors the only chance in North America to see how tea is grown. Take a trolley tour of the vast grounds and peek inside the greenhouse before sampling tea. Mention SUBARU until the end of March 2017 and get $2 off the $10 trolley tour.

A great way to explore Charleston and its local beaches is by bike. Affordabike lets visitors peddle on everything from a city bike to a beach bike, a tandem bike to a hybrid or even a kids’ bike. Until the end of March 2017, mention SUBARU to get a 20 percent discount on any rental from this downtown shop.

Art Galleries

Joyce Harvey, who is known for her vibrant oil paintings, travels up and down the East Coast capturing water views and the life that surrounds them. Her home base is her eponymous gallery in the heart of Charleston. Purchase any of her original pieces, canvas or glass, and mention SUBARU until November 2017 and receive 10 percent off. 

Located in the prestigious South of Broad location, Helena Fox Fine Art  is known for its collection of international and local artists, from impressionists to realists. The gallery’s exhibits run the gamut from maritime to wildlife to gardens to street life. Readers who mention SUBARU until April 1, 2017, will receive a 5 percent discount. 

The charming Corrigan Gallery on Queen Street downtown showcases the artwork of local artists who capture the landscapes, cityscapes and people of the region. Readers who mention SUBARU Drive magazine will receive 10 percent off artwork or commissioned works by any of the artists the gallery represents through April 15, 2017.

Shops

Copper Penny, one of Charleston’s most sophisticated women’s clothing and shoes stores on fashionable King Street, is known for its trendy stock along with its dedicated team of personal shoppers. The boutique is offering 20 percent off any single item until April 2017 for readers who mention SUBARU.

Stop in the historic City Market at Gold Creations, which has been a feature of the venue for more than 40 years. The stall sells gold and silver jewelry that taps iconic architecture and emblems of the Lowcountry. Receive 20 percent off any Charleston Rice Bead Collection, crafted in the symbol of the region’s economic and cultural symbol, the rice grain, using purchase code DRIVE in-store or online until March 2017.

Shop for housewares, like hand-poured candles and soaps, along with ceramic serving platters and woven baskets at Open Door, an appealing boutique that has become a go-to for Southern tastemakers. The shop will give readers a 20 percent discount when they mention SUBARU at checkout until May 1, 2017.

1 Expiration dates vary.

Map of Charleston