In Another Country: Charleston, South Carolina

by Alecia Stevens, Tastemaker in Residence

Within an hour of landing in Charleston, my friend Hilary, a well-traveled garden designer from Brooklyn said, “I feel like I’m in another country.”

 “You kind of are, “I replied.

There’s just no way to adequately describe Charleston with words. But here I am about to try. I’ll pepper the piece with a few photos so you can see what I mean. There may have been more written about Charleston than any other city in the America in the past several years. If you google Best Cities to Visit in US, Travel and Leisure magazine’s visual is a bird’s eye view of Charleston, rated number one for what….the fifth year in a row? Truth be told, Charlestonians would be just fine with having their sleepy town back, to whatever normal was before Charleston was “discovered.” Within the last six months, The New York Times has twice enticed us with “36 Hours in Charleston.” I’m not going to tell you where to go and what to do. Just read these two articles and do what they suggest if you are going for a few days as they are very good. I have other things to talk about. 

Bear with me while I give you a bit of my own history with Charleston to understand my point of view. I’m a Yankee, born and raised on a small family farm in Iowa and a girl who knew nothing about the Civil War or the South other than the generally myopic version we get in high school history.  I moved to Charleston in 1978 when I was 25 years old on a lark. I visited once after being invited to work with a woman who was opening a very chic clothing shop on lower King Street in the crusty antique district, a sketchy part of the city at the time. (That shop, RTW, is thriving 38 years later in the same location.) I spent eight very happy years there, married a man who grew up in Charleston and moved to Minneapolis in 1985 to raise our family. Okay, I admit, there were moments in the next 30 years when asked myself, “Why did I leave?”

In 2012, with one behemoth of an ice storm in March just a week behind us, my husband, Lee (yep a different one, but 24 years strong) and I were visiting Charleston with friends as spring jasmine poured over mossy walls and the sun of the Equinox bathed our thirsty skin. For the second time in my life having to do with Charleston, I made a spontaneous decision.  We put an offer on a home with absolutely no idea when we would ever live there or how we would make it work with my business solidly still in Minneapolis or quite frankly, if we could make the finances work. We’ve never regretted it. We have made it work all the way around. This Yankee girl is back in the South. And I couldn’t be happier. 

So, why Charleston? What’s to love about Charleston? 

When we began to talk about where we might want to live “post Minneapolis” as in “what’s next” because that is something we are always asking, we made a list of the things we wanted in a place. We found each of these qualities in Charleston. And that’s what’s to love. 

  • Big water. The ocean is 20 minutes from downtown and our home. Funky Folly Beach offers surfing, beach umbrellas for rent, beach yoga, and a more active, public beach experience. Sullivan’s Island (our go-to) is residential (there are no public toilets that we have found so plan to hit a restaurant if you are there for long!) but it is quieter, bigger and filled with plenty of residents and their friendly dogs walking the beach on a weekend morning. The fancier Kiawah and Seabrook Islands are 45 minutes away and have the vibe of a resort. Take your pick.
  • Great food. I have recently heard from a local tour guide that even though Charleston is rated 255th in size (I call it a town, not a city) it is rated #2 behind New York in quality of food. The availability of fresh seafood, an almost year-round growing season and a beautiful setting is drawing chefs from all over the world. The food scene is my husband’s favorite thing about Charleston (well, maybe after the weather from November to May.) We typically spend $100 on a casual meal with drinks and more, of course, for something more “elevated” so prices aren’t low, but the quality is remarkable. 
  • Historic architecture. (This was my requirement.) I think I must have spent a past life somewhere in Europe because I feel most at home in a historic city with the relics of an elegant, sometimes crumbling past enfolding me. With only a small handful of cities in the US that fit this bill, Charleston was an easy choice since I knew it. Clearly, historic preservation is a massively lucrative economic idea, so how did Charleston get this one right while other cities allowed the wrecking ball to obliterate history and provoke the untimely death of so many urban centers? It’s simple. The Civil War happened and the South lost. They lost their economic agricultural base while the North wooed the industrial revolution and got the big piece of the pie. Some might say the North got the whole pie. 

It was the better part of a century before the economy began to strengthen in the Charleston. Interstate 95, the primary corridor connecting South Carolina to the east coast wasn’t built until 1968. So, during the quiet slow century post war, the Charleston remained in a kind of bell jar, preserved not by intent but by neglect. Yes, the brilliance of “Preservation by neglect” as it is affectionately called in Charleston is often expressed as “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.”  Now, the country and certainly the residents of Charleston are the recipients of this fortuitous history. 

  • Walking city. After living in New York for four years, we were hooked on living without a car. We managed with one car for ten years – not easily when we were in Minneapolis, which is decidedly not a walking city. Charleston is a walking city, especially for a weekend. (Not for living full time.) Sure, have a car to get to the beach and to Drayton Hall which is a must see. But, essentially, you can have your drink on the piazza (something we Yankees call a porch) then walk almost anywhere for dinner. My morning walk for fresh air, a bit of exercise and fun for our pup is a 1.5 mile walk down Church Street to the Battery and back, which I swear is one of the loveliest walks in all of America.
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  • The Arts. We know that a city that values its arts values what is human in us. Charleston has a long history of support for painters, writers, and musicians. Art galleries fill the historic district. Plein Air painters set up easels around town. There are jazz and folk and rock shows every night of the week. Spoleto, a two- week performing arts festival was founded in Charleston in 1977 after Giancarlo Menotti from Spoleto, Italy visited Charleston and found it to have the perfect vibe for the American version of the arts festival in Italy. It was founded as Festival of Two Worlds and draws performer and visitors from around the globe and is just one darn good excuse for two weeks of partying. It is going 40 years strong this year.
  • Cool people. This really was on our list. Not necessarily a reason to visit Charleston for a weekend. But it helps you to understand who lives here now. Although it is always hard to imagine replacing friends that have developed over a period of 30 years while you were raising your own kids, we have found friends and comrades in Charleston in a very short time. So many people in Charleston now are “outsiders” – they will NEVER be Charlestonians – that lots of people are looking for their pack. And because I personally have found Charlestonians, and Southerners in general, to be quite joyful and a bit (no, a lot) quirky, they never mind if you are quirky too. Especially if you are at all artsy. Even if you are a Yankee. (The topics of the Civil War and slavery are well beyond the scope of this piece, but don’t think I’m not negotiating all that, too.)

So, get your sweet booty down to Charleston. It’s like nowhere else in this country.  

36 Hours in Charleston: Great suggestions for places to see, things to do and the best of the food scene - NYT