We got off to a rocky start in Charleston last night when we landed at Charleston International (sigh) Airport and went to pick up our rental car. Turns out we had made a mistake in our reservation and booked the car to be returned one day early, and trying to make any change in the reservation resulted in a $400 price hike!! So we’re stuck with the original booking and we’ll have to spend our precious last holiday afternoon driving to the airport, returning the car, then going back into town, and then go to the airport again the next day for good… Always triple-check your dates, y’all!
Today began equally ominously as it started to rain the minute we left the apartment, but thankfully it only went better from there: the skies cleared and the sun began to shine around noon, and Charleston is sooo beautiful! It’s completely different from all the other Southern cities we’ve visited in pretty much every imaginable way. This, finally, is an actual city with walkable streets, a city centre, sidewalks, stores and cafés, people out and about, squares, gardens… It’s also a college town, and you can tell by the people and the types of shops and bookstores. People have been unfailingly nice to us all throughout the trip, but it’s true that in New Orleans/Memphis/Nashville people were rowdier and noisier than elsewhere in addition to being nicer. Here in Charleston, everybody’s kind in a more subdued manner.
Charleston is a very old town (certainly by American standards), having been founded in the 17th century, and all that history shows through the many small, white churches with towering spires. There are many small, square, red brick buildings that to me have a New England air to them, like the ones I saw in Boston, but it’s also a coastal town that received a massive influx of population from Barbados shortly after its foundation, so there’s a visible Caribbean/maritime influence there as well. There were specific corners that looked like they had inspired the Nassau map in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.
As for our itinerary today, though, we began with the Waterfronk Park, which is so close to our apartment that we can see it from the window. It has a view of the river, and also the Pineapple Fountain, which is a fountain that is a pineapple. It’s so garish and conspicuous. Why? How does a pineapple fountain happen? I MUST KNOW.
Anyway, at that particular time the weather was pretty hostile, so we hightailed it out of there and decided to go to King Street, a very long shopping/dining street that bisects Charleston from south to north. There at least we could go into and out of shops while it was raining. As it happens, walking up and down King St. was really fun. There are brand stores -mostly American so still kind of unknown for us-, but also plenty of local businesses of all kinds. Did you know they grow tea in Charleston?
We were so engrossed by all the shiny storefronts that before we knew it we were in Marion Square (named not after a woman, but after a man’s last name), way further north than we had set out to go, so we took the chance to visit the Aiken-Rhett House, because my guidebook strongly recommended it and I love a good house museum.
…This isn’t it, y’all. What a monumental waste of time. Turns out, the Aiken-Rhett house is preserved, not restored, meaning everything is just the way they found it when they opened up the place. I’m sure it’s historically relevant but in practice, for the visitor, it means you pay to see lots of half-ruined empty ancient rooms with the roof half caved in and walls that have been rotting since they were put up in the 19th century. The mansion itself is the only part of the tour that still has some furniture left, and it also is in shambles. There’s just nothing there to see.
Disappointed and hungry, we went back to King Street for lunch. After passing on a bunch of national chain restaurants and burger joints, we happened upon Sermet’s, a delightful bistro specialising in Mediterranean-influenced cuisine. From the outside it looked pretty fancy, full of well-dressed posh people, but if you look at the menu it’s actually quite affordable. The food was good, and the chocolate cake was sublime!
After lunch, our next visit was to the Nathaniel Russell House, another of the trillion house museums in Charleston. This one is restored, and this was what I was looking for. The house, having been built in 1808, is quite older than most of the mid-nineteenth century houses and plantations we’ve seen, and you could tell by the red brick construction. It belonged to a couple who were already independently wealthy before they married and signed one of the first pre-nuptial agreements. The inside of the house is beautiful and spotless, laid out the way the original family is presumed to have lived in it, and that, coupled with the expertly narrated tour, really gave us an impression of what daily life must have been like for a family at that time. This one I very much recommend. Interestingly, like Houmas House in Louisiana, this one also has a freestanding spiral staircase, meaning it stands on its own without support from any walls or pillars.
When we got out, we saw we were now South of Broad, so we hopped over to Battery Park, a small leafy park on the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. It’s called the Battery because cannons were stored there during the 1812 war. It was fantastic to sit there under the sun seeing the water. I guess technically it isn’t the sea, but the meeting point of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, but it’s good enough for me! I miss the sea from back home.
Tomorrow we’ll travel to nearby Savannah, but we’ll have time to see some more of Charleston as well.