Five Days in Charleston

Well, shit.

Last month, my WordPress.com hosting fee auto-renewed for another 12 months. I wasn’t sure why my credit card statement was as high as it was, but when I reviewed my transaction history, there it was: $125.00. Chump change for many, and a cost that I can certainly absorb, but that I would rather have declined had I paid better attention to the auto-renewal reminders that had indeed been sent to my inbox. So, I have no one to blame but myself.

But here we are. It has been five months since my last post, and while I will skip the play-by-play of what I’ve been up during that time <SPOILER ALERT: not much>, I did take a mini-vacation this past summer that I feel is worth writing about.

I went to Charleston, South Carolina!

You may remember in that June post my mentioning another mini-vacation – to Columbia, SC – in May. I loved the weather, the people, and the sights enough to take another long drive – roughly 5.5 hours each way – to the eastern terminus of U.S. Interstate 26, where it quickly becomes a fast-moving grid of surface streets that traverse the sweltering coastal city of Charleston…one of the most enchanting destinations on the eastern seaboard.

Daytime temperatures during generally ranged from 95 to 99 degrees, but it was going on 7 p.m. when I arrived at NotSo Hostel, and after checking in to my eight-bed dorm (not a bad place, and not fully booked until my last night in town), I headed downtown for dinner and to get my bearings, and delighted at the 80-degree temperatures as the setting sun shone its light on some of the Art Deco-style buildings along King Street, which appeared to be the main drag for dining and libations. I walked as far as Marion Square, which features a Holocaust Memorial on one side and faces the Citadel, a military training academy that now houses the city’s arsenal. I smiled upon passing a food truck selling alco-pops, and, after scouting menus, decided to splurge at Stars, a seafood grille with rooftop terrace and sky-high prices to match. Terrific service though, and the maître d’ rattled off a long list of night spots to hit up. “Perhaps tomorrow night,” I told myself, sated and tired, and took a leisurely walk back to the hostel.

The next day saw me covering almost the entire length of the peninsula that is downtown Charleston, and taking a boat ride as well. My first destination was Fort Sumter, a National Historic Park best known as the location that kick-started the Civil War. Fort Sumter can only be reached by boat, and while most National Historic Sites are free, a single-round trip boat ride costs a steep $23.00 for adults or $15.00 for children. While some boats depart from Patriots Point, a point of maritime and military history for war buffs on the opposite side of the harbor, most visitors board at Liberty Square, a few blocks east of Marion Square. The National Park Service Visitor Center sits adjacent to the South Carolina Aquarium, an even steeper $29.95 for adults or $22.95 for children. While the aquarium building is visually striking, I gave the aquarium itself a pass in favor of more time spent at the city’s historical sites.

Liberty Square sits in the shadow of the awesome Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge, which, like the Golden Gate and Coronado Bay Bridges in California, is high enough to allow large cruise ships to past underneath. Driving across it on a windy day would, I suspect, not be for the faint at heart. The boat ride itself was about 40 minutes, and passed the USS Yorktown on its port side and the now-ruined (and off-limits) Castle Pinckney on its starboard side. The closer to open water the boat got, the farther away sat the distant shore, meaning that riding on the top deck was better for sunbathing than for skyline photography.

We had little more than an hour at Fort Sumter itself, and if that sounds like a rushed visit, note that a) only one boat at a time is allowed to dock at the fort, and b) there isn’t much to see, as the three-story fort’s second and third stories were almost completely obliterated by shelling by the Confederates on April 12th, 1861, and by the Union Army for nearly four years thereafter. That anything is left at all is something of a miracle. A small museum on the grounds houses the tattered remains of the original Confederate guard flag with its palmetto tree blaze, and its air conditioner was getting a workout during my quick peek inside. The higher vantage points of Fort Sumter have placards notating other Civil and Revolutionary War points of interest, such as Fort Wagner, on unpopulated Morris Island, and Fort Moultrie, on ritzy Sullivan’s Island.

After returning to the Liberty Square Visitor Center, I took a long, long walk past a Cannery Row-style shipyard, passing the historic U.S. Custom House building and the lively Charleston City Market, which I made a mental note to return to later. Not far from here, a series of narrow, tree-lined streets were signposted as being part of the French Quarter, which was a delight to find considering how taken I was by the French Quarter of New Orleans during my visit there in 2009. The N’awlins Quarter was a place of architectural beauty and impossible quiet, aside from a touristy, three-block stretch of Bourbon Street. There, I still remember feeling the ghosts of centuries past, and while the Charleston Quarter pales in atmospheric comparison, it reminded me that one of the best things about travel is that new trips often carry trace memories of older trips, even if the destination isn’t the same. And I doubt there is a U.S. city that more closely resembles New Orleans than Charleston.

But I digress. The French Quarter of Charleston is home to one of the most wrenching and important museums in the southern United States, the Old Slave Mart. As a coastal port city that is a navigational straight line across the Atlantic to East Africa, Charleston was once one of the biggest slave trading centers in the country. Slaves were packed five-and-ten deep in dank wooden quarters of boats that set sail from Ghana to the U.S., Hispaniola, and elsewhere, then auctioned off in open-air markets to the highest bidder with little care paid to whether families were kept together. When public sentiment shifted during the waning days of the Civil War, the slave trade was brought indoors, and if the museum that is built over those grounds bears little physical resemblance today to the slave market of the 1800’s, its disturbing exhibits – a combination of artifacts (shackles, etc.) and historical placards – paint a thorough (and thoroughly horrifying) picture.

After visiting Fort Sumter and the Old Slave Mart, I was emotionally and intellectually knackered, so I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the nearby streets. My feet took me all the way to White Point Gardens, a public park at the southern tip of the city’s peninsular battery, and then back the other way, past NotSo Hostel, to Ashley Marina, a sunset viewing spot along the Ashley River, devoid of tourists except for a certain gringo whose legs would be red with sunburn the following morning. Dinner that evening was at Hom, a burger joint on King Street whose happy hour specials were posted on a bulletin board at the hostel, and whose beers went down as smooth as water into the gullet of a parched Bedouin at a desert oasis.

Apart from a tasty breakfast, at 132 Spring Street Coffee and Kitchen Bar,   a boutique eatery just down the street from NotSo Hostel, my third day in Charleston got off to a disappointing start, as my first planned destination, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site – the plantation-turned-agricultural site of Declaration of Independence signee Charles Pinckney – was closed for the day. Seeing as a bucket list goal is to visit as many NPS-managed sights in my lifetime as I can, this was a minor disappointment. After all, how often will I be in Charleston? The drive across the aforementioned Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge to the suburb of Mount Pleasant, where the remains of Pinckney’s Smee Farm exists, was thrilling, though. Not easily dissuaded, I stayed on this side of the bridge and made my way to Sullivan’s Island and Fort Moultrie.

Though playing a lesser role in the Civil war than that played by its more famous island counterpart, Fort Moultrie is actually part of the Fort Sumter National Historic Park. You can view a documentary and check out the Visitor Center for free; a self-guided tour of the fort itself costs $7.00. Many guests use the fort’s parking lot as a staging area for hikes across the dunes to the beaches of Sullivan’s Island, although the current immediately behind Fort Moultrie takes no prisoners. Do not swim here.

As for the fort, it receives a fraction of Fort Sumter’s visitors but is actually the more impressive of the two sites. Fort Moultrie was the site of several Union bombardments during the Civil War, but it dates back another 90 years, and was initially constructed entirely out of Palmetto logs and sand. These resilient logs, pliable in a way, withstood attack after attack after attack by British garrisons at the end of the Revolutionary War, hence SC’s nickname, “The Palmetto State.”

Post-Civil War, the fort was reinforced with several gun batteries and heavily armed through the end of World War II with an array of six, ten, and twelve-inch guns. I had fun walking atop the batteries, into the powder magazine, and up to the communications tower.  Battery Jasper, the newest component, is a mammoth building of its own, and I explored its bowels along with a family of nesting barn swallows.

Enough was enough. The water was beckoning. I followed a path over the dunes to the shoreline, where a few people were sunbathing, but smartly avoiding the deep-water current in this immediate vicinity. I walked one mile up the sand and finally reached a throng of beach-goers, including several people body surfing the waves.

Also out in droves that day were jellyfish. Dozens – hundreds, even – were washed up on the shore. This didn’t deter people from swimming, so I did as they did, and took a dip in water the temperature of a warm bath, keeping my eyes peeled for jellies. After a while, I finally let my guard down and simply enjoyed the water. When I emerged later, a group of women said that a dolphin had been swimming behind me!

It was a long walk back to the car. The waves didn’t appear any bigger behind the fort than they did one mile up the beach, but I’m told that the undertow is what makes swimming near Fort Moultrie so dangerous, as the fort is perched on a curvature of land between the open ocean and a bay into which the Ashley and Cooper Rivers flow. Note that the entire stretch of otherwise-inviting sand on Sullivan’s Island is devoid of human development between the dunes and the ocean itself. No changing rooms, lifeguard stations, or concession stands; I hope it stays that way.

Middle Street, the main drag of Sullivan’s Island, has two busy blocks of bars and restaurants, and I stopped off at one for pizza and salad. Good food, but I parted with some serious greenbacks. Charleston and its wealthy suburbs are expensive. (GringoPotpourri note: I Googled the restaurant, The 450 Pizza Joint, while doing research for this post, and learned that it has permanently closed.)

I walked down to another stretch of beach, cutting through an access road that passed a row of McMansions that face wide rear lawns, the dunes beyond that, and the beach on the other side. This beach was similar to the one I had visited earlier, and the crowds had thinned out by now to just a smattering of people. Kites were flown, lovers strolled, and the sun set lower in the sky.

A great day.

I woke up early and dined on complimentary cheese grits at the hostel while waiting for two British backpackers whom I had offered to give a ride across the bridge to Boone Hall, one of the largest plantations in the area. As it happens, Boone Hall is down the street from Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, which I knew would be open today. Admission to Boone Hall was a steep $24.00 for adults and $12.00 for children (sensing a trend yet?). Tickets were purchased at the gate, but I was allowed to drive them up Boone Hall’s long, oak-shaded entrance road to the Visitor Center itself. I snapped a few pics before leaving, and a quick look around suggested that Boone Hall is a hybrid of such places as Oak Alley Plantation, in Louisiana; Mount Vernon, in Virginia; and The Hermitage, in Tennessee. Perhaps I should have gone here instead?

I finally made it to Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, and the NPS-managed portion is across the road from a larger tract of land called Snee Farms, which was once owned by Pinckney as well. Snee Farms, in turn, abuts Boone Hall. The Pinckney Site, entrance to which is free, doesn’t offer much in terms of traditional plantation sightseeing, as the outbuildings have all been destroyed and the main house was rebuilt long ago. There is a small theater inside, and a few exhibits about Pinckney himself. As an NPS site, I wish it included more placards about the Gullah Geechee slave culture and the musical heritage that they brought with them from Africa to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. I did enjoy hiking the trails around the site’s periphery…although it sure was hot!

I plead ignorance about not knowing that the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier, my next stop, was permanently moored in Charleston’s harbor, and I should mention that part of the appeal of visiting was not only that the Yorktown, one of several military-themed attractions at Patriots Point, was on the same side of the bridge as the Pinckney Site, but also that walking around an air-conditioned vessel seemed a great respite from the midday heat.

So color me surprised when it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

The U.S.S. Yorktown, named after the Revolutionary War battle, is the fourth (of five) Naval vessel to bear that name, though it was commissioned just six years after its predecessor, which was sunk during the Battle of Midway in World War II. Exploring the CV-10 aircraft carrier, now a museum whose decks are all available for touring, is one of the coolest things I have ever done.

I was hungry from my sweaty morning hike, so the first thing I did upon boarding was grab lunch at the busy Fighting Lady Café, one of two places on board to purchase food. From there I simply explored the different levels and checked out its museum-within-a-museum gallery, the moving Medal of Honor Museum, honoring recipients from the Civil War through the Trump presidency. The hangar deck also houses replica Apollo 8 and Friendship 7 space capsules, and several historic airplanes. The flight deck, offering views of Arthur Ravenal Jr Bridge and the Charleston skyline, houses another dozen or so aircraft. Have you ever walked from one end of an aircraft carrier to the other? <SPOILER ALERT: it is a long walk.>

Strategic camera placement and a ten-second timer allowed for the above picture of your esteemed gringo blogger sitting in the Admiral’s Bridge. Other fun discoveries on board include the subterranean galleys, a dentist’s office, and the bowel-like workings of the Yorktown’s massive engine room. Docked adjacent to the Yorktown, and included in the entrance ticket, are two more ships, the U.S.S. Laffey destroyer and the U.S.S. Clamagore submarine. While the Laffey remains the most-decorated WWII destroyer of its kind in existence, the Clamagore never sailed into open water during those turbulent times. Exploring the Clamagore is not for the tall nor the claustrophobic, and it is said that the sub is scheduled to be towed to Key West and then sunk as an artificial reef. Fun fact: the Laffey – the second ship to bear that name – aided in the D-Day landings off the coast of Normandy, assisted with A-bomb testing off of Bikini Atoll, and successfully navigated mine-infested waters during the Korean War.

I barely had enough time to visit the final attraction at Patriots Point, the simply-titled Vietnam Experience. Although I can’t imagine how the average U.S. soldier’s immersion in Vietnam could ever be captured in a single staged recreation, the vehicles – three helicopters, an M725 ambulance, and an MK1 river patrol boat – were built for service in that bloody campaign, and the exhibit’s educational intention is good.

The parking lot and access road are dotted with other instruments of war and remembrances of it, including a striking Cold War Submarine Memorial, which resembles a full-sized, half-submerged Benjamin-class ballistic missile submarine. The memorial’s sail and rudder were taken from the U.S.S. Lewis and Clark SSBN 644. There is no charge to visit the memorial, and a turnout nearby allows for free short-term parking. There is a fee – steep, of course, to park at Patriots Point, and the admission price for the Naval and Maritime Museum – the Yorktown, Laffey, Clamagore, and Vietnam Experience – is $24.00 for adults, $16.00 for children, and $19.00 for seniors. Active duty military, in uniform, get in for free, which seems only fair.

It was 5:30 p.m. by the time I left the grounds, and as this was my last night in town, I deemed it a good time to grab dinner at Folly Beach, on Folly Island, a 40-minute drive from Patriots Point, over the bridge, across the Charleston peninsula, and beyond residential James Island. The last few blocks of Center Street, the main road into Folly Beach, resembled those of Seal Beach, CA, or Virginia Beach, VA, in terms of bars, restaurants, and sunscreen shops. Center Street dead-ends at the unsightly Tides Hotel, which fronts a lovely stretch of inviting beach and a nearby pier. I strolled to the end of the pier and back, watched competing beach volleyball matches on the sand below, and dipped my feet into the water. Not a jellyfish to be found!

The clouds that rolled in while I was touring the U.S.S. Yorktown later dissipated into a sort of haze, which resulted in a muted sunset that was memorable nonetheless. Is there any such thing as an unmemorable beach sunset? Dinner, at Pier 101, the restaurant at the entrance to the pier, was al fresco-style, and some of the tastiest swordfish I can recall ever eating (pictured below). I lingered over a couple cans of the local suds, Gullah Cream Ale, a tasty exception to the general rule that canned beer is, well, best consumed as quickly as possible to get the experience over with.

After dinner, I dipped my toes in the water once more, and watched as overnight beach-goers settled in for open-air movie night on the beach. I purchased a shot glass from the pier’s gift shop – another trinket for my collection – then drove back to the hostel, knackered after one helluva productive day.

I declined the cheese grits on my last morning in Charleston, and instead grabbed a heartier breakfast near the City Market of earlier mention. The covered market, which stretches four city blocks, features bric-a-brac ranging from souvenir tees to jewelry to artwork to Christmas decorations, and much of what’s on display is quite nice. I chatted with some of the vendors and learned that a Night Market operates under the same roofs each Friday and Saturday from April to December, and that if you wish to earn a permanent spot at the daytime market you must pass muster at the night market first.

I popped into a few nearby churches, snapped pictures of Rainbow Row – a series of colorful Georgian-style homes, though less spectacular than the similar “painted ladies” in front of San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park – and paid a quick visit to the Gibbes Museum of Art, which was renovated in 2016 and merits a visit, though not at the expense of other sites like the Old Slave Mart or the City Market if you are tight on time. During my visit, a second-story gallery of the museum was displaying African-American art on loan from the Studio Museum in Harlem, and it was, for me, better than the permanent collection.

As I was about to head back to Tennessee, I drove around the back half of peninsular Charleston, passing the lagoon-like Colonial Lake, and, on a whim, decided on one last beach visit. Back to Folly Beach! Fish and chips at the requisite Irish pub (every touristy bar strip around the world has one!) were followed by a bit of sunbathing and a glorious swim in water so warm it hardly cooled me off at all…yet was perfect all the same. And, once again, no jellyfish!

I set off to post a quick travel update, and ending up writing a novella. Mayhaps I miss blogging? But as it happens, I went to my page to upload this entry (written in Microsoft Word), only to find that the web page is no longer available. Alas, when my annual hosting fee auto-renewed, the name rights did not, so I had to pay again.

Well, shit.

Thanks for reading, pardon my French, and Happy Thanksgiving.

And go to Charleston!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

4 thoughts on “Five Days in Charleston”

  1. It was good to read about your travels again!
    As long as you are paid up for another year, you might as well do some more blogging.
    I am coming to the end of another month’s stay in Mexico City, but I will be back in January.
    Saludos,
    Bill

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