So many people had told us what a great and wonderful city Charleston was – ‘you will love it and want to move there’ – ‘the best small town in America’ – that, perhaps, our expectations were amped up, and maybe, having been set so high, we were set up for disappointment.
Well, the only thing I can fault with Charleston is the unsanitary horse carriages that ply through town. I mean, really, can we throw some sawdust down on the horse urine? Even writing about it now rekindles that olfactory smell in my inner brain.
Driving south from Myrtle Beach (about 2 hours), we drove down Highway 17, through ‘sweet grass alley’, the source of material for the baskets which are sold everywhere in the town. Along the road, roadside stands invited tourists to pull over and buy the sweet grass baskets – unfortunately, they are all priced $100 or more.
Sweet grass baskets are a hand-me-down skill, passed through generations of slaves that were brought from Sierra Leone in Africa, landing at nearby Mt. Pleasant (their entry point into America). These basket weaving skills, at one time a pastime, are now a source of income for the descendants of these slaves.
In the City Market, weavers of various skill levels market their wares. I picked up a nice bowl, tightly woven, multiple colors, and turned it over – $200. It takes 2-3 weeks to weave one of these baskets – which is reflected in the price. An elaborate basket carried the price of $1800.
One kind weaver explained the difference between high quality and low quality baskets. It has to do with the number of bands that surround and wrap the sweet grass strands – the more, the better. When you pick one up, it should have a ‘heft’ to it, with clean weaves, and few broken pieces of grass.
Charleston was settled in 1680, a peninsular location at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Known as the ‘Holy City’, there are quite a few steeples that punctuate the skyline. Along with the steeples are the churchyard graveyards, many tombstones dating from the 1700’s.
King Street, one of two main streets downtown, is lined with New York style upscale shopping, eventually leading to the river and an overview of Fort Sumter – the first battle of the Civil War. Meeting Street, the other major avenue, is busier, has more restaurants, and a smattering of hotels.
We were staying on the outskirts of town this time, out by the airport – although getting into town was a short 15 minute drive. Next time, we would stay close to town. The weather was cooler – in the 50’s – for our three days in the town. This is a great walking town – one day we walked 9 miles just wandering down King and back up Meeting Street.
Along the waterfront, many mansions sit vacant, and in need of repair. No doubt, a victim of high property taxes and shattered investment portfolios.
Carriages will run you through town and offer guided services, though, we preferred to walk – and avoid the noxious odor of the horses.
Leaving Charleston, we visited the slave plantation of Middleton Place, established in the 1730’s (20 minutes outside Charleston), sited along the Ashley River (7000 acres). A self-guided walking tour leads you through this historic plantation, the main highlight (for me, at least) being the 900 year old Live Oak along the river. We had received free tickets for the tour – otherwise it would have been $25/person. For free, it was worthwhile – for $25 – I’m not so sure.
A little further down the coast is Kiawah Island, famous for it’s exclusive hotels and upscale golf courses. We were ‘granted’ a pass to visit the ‘Sanctuary’, a high-end resort on the island. When we asked the guard at the secure entry point where the beach access was – he explained there was none.
So, here we have this beautiful, low country island, filled with marshes, tons of wildlife (especially birds), and the public has no access? Unless you are willing to spend hundreds of dollars per night, you will NOT get a whiff of the ocean.
Loved Charleston, loved the area around the city – just please do something about the noxious horse smell – honestly, it reflects badly on this intriguing destination.