One could easily get lost in Charleston, lost in the extraordinary gardens, refined architecture, vibrant restaurant kitchens, tempting art and antique galleries, legendary museums and cobblestone streets. It’s a jewel of pleasurable pursuits, vivaciously enjoying a renaissance era. It’s one of the South’s acclaimed cities where today’s savvy traveler yearns to know more about its historic evolution and fashionable lifestyle. Come along to a beautiful city of sensory thrills, from the moment you arrive amid the wondrous homes and sun-splashed maze of the historic downtown.
Where are Queen and Meeting Streets? What stories do they share with the historic and picturesque Mills House Hotel? Staying at this artfully designed 1853 boutique hotel, you find your place quickly on the corner of two of Charleston’s streets with a pedigree. It’s perfect for walking to all of the city’s neighborhoods and activities. During the mid 1850s, Otis Mills (the Jacob Astor of Charleston) saw the need for a fine hotel where ladies and gentlemen could feel at home among marble staircases, priceless antiques and impeccable service. Today it’s still a place where business people can discuss issues over a snifter of brandy and leisure travelers feel as if they’re visiting someone’s private residence of the Grand Old South.
The Mills House Hotel’s warm welcome, from valet, front desk and everyone encountered, is genuinely given and received. It is a gracious representation of true southern hospitality. The staff greets you as if you’re family and not a name on their register; this acknowledgment didn’t wane for a moment during my stay.
They are as polished as the beautiful antique furnishings, marble hallways and brilliant crystal chandeliers.
Internationally recognized decorator Anthony Hail was awarded the task to find 17th and 18th century antique furniture, rare oil paintings, custom fabrics and wall coverings for 214 guest rooms and suites.
Tripp Hays, Hotel Director of Sales, is expert at describing and sharing the Hotel’s tales and treasures. A native of Charleston, he has served in his position for 24 years. The catalog of famous guests began with Robert E. Lee and Teddy Roosevelt, continuing today with iconic celebrities, Medal of Honor recipients and Pat Conroy, who has referenced the Hotel in four of his most famous novels. Hays is proud that the Hotel continues to make history.
Fitting for Charleston, the First Shot Lounge (named for the infamous Fort Sumter shot that began the War Between the States) and Tea Cozy rooms are designed so they open onto the hotel’s courtyard, where guests can enjoy al fresco breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails. The Barbados Room features a grand fountain and meticulous landscaping; Low Country culinary specialties are served here from early morning until the last guest has drifted off into dreamland.
Stepping out for a Charleston adventure, where the crossroads of Queen Street and Meeting Street hold the city’s ancestry in their streets, it’s hard to say where the past ends and today begins. Meeting Street, once named in 1672, was described as “The Great Street that Runneth from the Ashley River to the Market.” Queen Street was one of the original streets of the ‘Great Modell’ and was originally called Dock Street for its importance on the river. It was renamed Queen Street for Caroline of Ansbach, the consort of George II.
A history buff? The South Carolina Historical Society is situated across the street from the Mills House with personalized attention to whatever historic research is important to you. Their Winter Lecture Series runs from January 22 – March 12, 2013 featuring ‘Major Milestones over the Past Three Centuries’. www.SCHSonline.org .
Imagine yourself in the original “Charles Towne.” You would be visiting The Peninsula, surrounded by two rivers that bookend the city, the Cooper to the east, Ashley on the west. Each neighborhood of the historic area (approximately one mile square) deserves its own visit. This city, where the first shot of the American Civil War exploded over Charleston’s harbor, is defined by its relationship with the sea. Listen and hear a special sound as you walk over cobblestone streets that are paved with centuries-old ballast.
A theater aficionado? Begin your exploration at the famous Dock Street Theater, within a stone’s throw from the Mills House on Queen and Church Street. Hard to believe that they presented theater for two seasons in 1736! But as all of Charleston witnessed devastating fires, earthquake, wars and the Great Depression, the grand structure fell into disrepair until the mid 1930s. Currently owned by the City of Charleston, its glamour and place in history have been restored. The Charleston Stage Company has served as the theater’s resident company since 1978. The historic Dock Street Theater is entering its fourth century as the heart of Charleston’s artistic life and also home to the famous Spoleto Festival USA. www.charlestonstage.com
A gallery hunter? Find a brilliant diamond, examine its sparkling facets and envision that it’s the art scene of Charleston offering unique perspectives in paint, photography, sculpture and fabric. It’s a city that inspires imagination. Every street offers open doors and windows to the soul of hundreds of creative and complex personalities. In fact, Charleston’s skies are known for suggesting a palette of colors one can’t see anywhere else.
On Queen Street, the Horton Hayes Fine Art Gallery’s allure offered me a surprise encounter with partner/artist Mark Kelvin Horton. Learning that Mark was in the second floor studio painting, I imagined there might be a possibility to see his ‘moody skies and landscapes’ as he painted. An artist whose passion is teaching in the Charleston gallery studio as well as “on location” throughout the world, he has made distinctive destinations like Corsica, Iceland, Tuscany and Colorado a part of his landscapes. Subjects in the Gallery vary and include still-life, landscapes, figurative works and architectural depictions rendered in oil, pastel and watercolor. www.hortonhayes.com
A wild foodie? From casual and funky dining to impeccable 4-star restaurants, from barbeque and low country specialties to exquisite celebrity chef tables, Charleston’s restaurants set the bar on an international scale. This year, Conde Nast Traveler readers gave Charleston their No. 1 City award. According to Fodor’s, “Foodie-centric Charleston” is a leader in the Southern food revival. The New York Times reported: “Charleston is one of the great eating towns of the American South.” One must be prepared to face a dining quandary from the moment the sun rises until you just can’t eat another meal. Where do you begin?Read, study, ask around and just jump in. Be spontaneous and enjoy the luxury of strolling the avenues while studying menus outside every doorway.
I luxuriated in impulsiveness and had a master plan. This visit dictated dining on either Queen Street or Meeting Street and sampling the Mills House cuisine, too. It made selections a bit easier than trying to digest the entire city and nearby islands!
My first food encounter was in the Mills House First Shot Lounge, which offers weary travelers the most appetizing, easy-to-enjoy contemporary Southern comfort food all day and night. The cornmeal-crusted pickle spears ($5.95) with four dipping sauces prepared me for restaurant manager Eric Foor’s eloquent dish descriptions and hotel food philosophy.
Both Lounge and Barbados Dining Room offer the same casual menu with a few nightly dinner specials. Even a mundane Mini Slider Combo ($11.95) features pulled pork BBQ, pan-seared crab cake and island-spiced chicken served on dill potato rolls. Their clever “tasting trays” are perfect for sharing, especially the “From the Sea,” with local whitefish, shrimp skewers, corn meal oysters, southern slaw and KILLER house-made potato chips ($19.95). As hotels are known for mediocre food and hearty prices, the Mills House Hotel is masterful at dispelling the myth. Their food is excellent and the prices realistic with Charleston’s famed eateries.
Yes, there was one drizzly southern afternoon, just perfect for spotting ’82 Queen’ across cobblestoned Queen Street. I was tempted to reserve my own table for the ensuing three days after my first lunch. Nestled in the heart of Charleston’s historic French Quarter, the trio of buildings known as 82 Queen Street is located on the site of a famous Square, once part of the original walled city of Charles Towne. But it was the She Crab Soup that set my day on a sunny course. Lusciously composed, the aroma and beauty of the bowl ($7) swept me away. I wanted to sample every dish on the menu. There wasn’t one lackluster description, including the quintessential Carolina Crab Cake with red pepper bacon coulis and the most incredible roasted corn tartar sauce. ($11).
Recommendations for Eli’s Table were plentiful, froma bustling lunch crowd that looked like business folks sprinkled with visitors. Waiting for a table was just fine, giving me time to enjoy the art, cheery ambience and open kitchen starring Chef Scott Vosburgh.
Crispy Roasted Half Duck with Asian Soy Glaze couldn’t have been more succulent ($26). Chef’s Spiced Pecan Salmon with Sweet Potato Hash and Brown Sherry Glaze ($25) trumped every dish of my Charleston adventure. And it was the Bacon-Brie Knish that wiggled its way into my heart: a jumbo egg roll filled with luscious mashed potato, crispy crumbled bacon and melted brie ($6). Chef’s three exquisitely warm fried powder-sugared beignets actually brought tears to my eyes. How could I consider leaving my two-hour lunch and be late for my three-hour dinner?
Chef Michelle Weaver is the matriarch of cuisine at Charleston Grill, scene of my last dinner of the journey. The restaurant is a nightly jazz and cocktails favorite. Known for its 1,300 wine labels and impeccable service, Weaver’s award-winning menu is offered in four categories: Pure, Lush, Cosmopolitan and Southern. Each dish is masterfully presented. The Seared Foie Gras accompanied by a mini Cherry Hand Pie, Marcona Almonds and Candied Ginger compelled me to eat it very slowly, savoring the brilliant flavor combinations ($19).
Intoxicating Brazilian music escorted me back onto Meeting Street. As I strolled home to the Hotel, there was a moment in time when I felt that I had discovered a beautiful blending of contemporary southern soul with a place in history that will last forever. In this magical city where everyone appears to know everyone, the common goal seems to be preserving its natural spirit and special culture. When I return, I’ll start where I left off, not being lost at all.
ON THE ROAD TO CHARLESTON:
When driving to Charleston via Rt. I-95, get off Exit 33 and head directly to the Low Country Visitors Center and Museum. The historic Frampton House (circa 1700s) was part of an original King’s Grant that is worthy of a visit. Helpful and knowledgeable docents will supply you with Charleston area maps, valuable information and a feeling of nostalgia in a beautifully restored farmhouse. It’s an additional 65 miles along Hwy. #17 to Charleston, giving you time to read and prepare for your vacation. www.discoversouthcarolina.com
If you have a special interest when visiting Charleston, there is one company that I personally recommend. Linda Wohlfiel Jones, founder of www.AbsolutelyCharleston.com will customize your excursion and open the doors to history, architecture, grand homes, churches, people and the abundant charms of the City. Her company maintains its own fleet of vehicles (including a Classic American Trolley collection) and offers total destination management for groups and individuals. Absolutely Charleston is your guide to distinctive destinations on the South Carolina coast, even to places that you may not have yet dreamed about