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For a weekend getaway that involves unforgettable meals, shopping, and wandering quaint cobble-stoned streets, Charleston should be on your radar. And BNA now has multiple, (cheap) direct flights that can transport you to this fun, historic city in about an hour. Thanks to these affordable flights, understated elegance, and true hospitality, I’ve named it as my new favorite escape close to home.
Wherever you choose to stay, you will find that each neighborhood has a distinct personality. Downtown, I love the Charleston Place Hotel. Close to the main shopping district, it has a bustling social scene and bar. For something newer downtown check out the boutique hotel, Zero George. The collection of 5 historic residences joined by a courtyard has been completely updated with modern conveniences while maintaining a sense of history.
Away from the bustle of the city, my top choice from now on will be the Cottages on Charleston Harbor. Here, you can rent a two-bedroom cottage complete with a full kitchen and three baths—all for about the same price as a single room downtown. These well-appointed “houses” are tastefully decorated and right on the water. Each has its own wrap-around screened-in porch and private stretch of beach. We traveled with another couple and found it roomy enough to have complete privacy, plus we made to most of the fireplace and outdoor seating for group gatherings. There’s plenty to do within walking distance, which got me thinking about girls’ trips, family vacations, and what a value it would be to book one of the Cottages on Charleston Harbor on a regular basis. In fact, every time I think about this find, I start to smile. Since there are only 11 cottages, plan ahead and book a reservation. As for me, I’ll be planning all of my future trips around times when this treasured property has openings and make a vacation out of reading a book by the pool, lounging on the porch hammock, and taking advantage of the world-class dining, shopping, and entertainment, which is just a stone’s throw away.
Food is the main reason that so many people are rediscovering Charleston these days. With so many national nods to its restaurateurs, it’s become a true foodie destination. Rather than attempt to cover all of the latest and greatest, I visited a few tried-and-true establishments that never disappoint.
I started this trip with a butterscotch latte at Toast, which is a quaint, downtown haunt that is a bit of a secret, but locals swear by it. For my seafood fix, the only choice was Amen Street Oyster, where original art, high ceilings, and a lively atmosphere set the stage for enjoying unbelievably fresh, cold-water oysters from at least six different regions every night. Our group ordered them by the dozen and then noshed on lightly fried fish. High expectations were set for a night at Fig, and chef Mike Lata did not let us down. Presentation was on point and the food was the best of Charleston on a plate.
Brunch at High Cotton is a local tradition, and one I was happy to sign up for. We made reservations in advance (a must) and enjoyed egg-based delicacies and house made breads while watching the line grow outside. The only lunch that trumped that meal was the little old house that is home to Hominy Grill. This truly southern gem features a chalkboard listing dozens of daily vegetables and entrees that come with fresh biscuits and cornbread for the table.
My dining highlight of this trip was at Charleston Grill, located in the lovely Charleston Place Hotel. The ambiance alone invites you to stay for hours. There is soft, live music, making it lively, but with tables that offer complete privacy. The chefs often send out tastings prior to courses and dishes like foie gras or a sweet potato gnocchi dessert are the kind that will change your palate forever. Hands down, this is a dining experience not to be missed.
If there’s one thing this city knows well, it is the art of kicking back and enjoying a stiff cocktail or premium glass of vino. They take their happy hour very seriously, serving both locals and visitors the perfect pour every evening.
Our goal on the first night was to catch up with our Charleston friends over the creative concoctions at the Bar at Husk. If you haven’t been, this is a must. It is inside a carriage house directly next door to the acclaimed restaurant, which means it’s small--but there is nothing little about what they serve. Later, we heard about the great drinks over at Bin 152 Wine Bar just around the corner. Here, we could talk in a quiet environment, enjoy some rustic bread and cheese as well as a bottle of champagne to celebrate the upcoming wedding of our friends. With more than 30 cheeses and wines by the glass to choose from, it is an absolute haven for those who appreciate pairings. The environment is just as charming as the carefully chosen wine list.
As intoxicating as these first two stops on the Charleston cocktail tour were, nothing compared to the ambiance and spirit of The Gin Joint. Laboratory-like beakers filled with bunches of herbs sit on the small bar backed up by dozens of apothecary style bottles of natural bitters. They take their mixing seriously—and in most cases ask you to choose from “moods” or “flavors” on a menu of words rather than forcing you to decide between their extensive list of signature splashes. The handsome bartenders put a bit of a chef’s spin to each glass in this intimate, old-school style hideaway. And, to be clear—there is much more than gin here. They are known for their extensive bourbon and whiskey collections—so make sure you have a car service lined up for the ride home.
Antique lovers could waste an entire day at the tail end of King Street. I find myself intimidated by the vast selection so in order to find some things for my house, pronto, I looked to the concierge at Charleston Place as well as to Charleston Magazine, which led me to Celadon Home, a two-story treasure trove of home goods. There I found an expert mix of hand-carved chairs, concrete tables, gorgeous Indian fabrics, and light fixtures. It is a bit off of the beaten path (over the bridge of downtown and into Mt. Pleasant) but it was well worth the two-mile trip since I ordered and shipped multiple items home immediately. I’ve never found a home store with more things that I felt I just had. to. have.
For fashion, the shops downtown are lined with high-end designer chains—from Gucci and Louis Vuitton to the casual Lululemon. Where I found true solace was in a few select locally owned boutiques. I bought a few summer dresses, a winter coat on clearance, and even a few pieces of jewelry at stores like Copper Penny and V2V. Some stores were overpriced but these two were by far the best.
One tiny piece of advice to anyone visiting for the first time: Don’t waste a second in Charleston’s City Market. While the exterior seems grand and the concept clever, the interior is primarily filled with tourist-trap merchandise. Unless you are going in search of a gourmet shop chocolate, skip it. There is so much more to see at the city’s vibrant farmer’s market, which is packed with spices, honey and other gourmand items that are worth snapping up.
Charleston Chef’s Kitchen Tour
A behind-the-scenes look (and sampling) into several of the city’s most famous kitchens to meet the chefs and learn a bit about the restaurant. There’s also a Savor the Flavor Food Tour offered six days a week that includes a complete walking tour of landmarks and an abundance of food from various stops. ($42 per person; culinarytoursofcharleston.com)
History buffs and architectural enthusiasts will appreciate the expertly guided walking tours for viewing some of the city’s most prized properties and sites. Stops include secret gardens, details on antebellum homes and historic churches, graveyards, and Civil War sites. (charlestonstrolls.com)
Patriot Point Links
By far the most coveted golf course in the area (and literally steps from the Cottages on Charleston Harbor). Golfers love the fairways and greens overlooking the water. Watching ships come in and dolphins play while working on your short game is a great way to spend the afternoon. (patriotspointlinks.com)