Travel Dates: March 13-19 2004
College Spring Break. The simple utterance evokes images of bikini clad women, drunken fraternity boys and preeminent death-by-accidental-overdose. During my freshmen year of college, instead of taking a road trip with my new sorority sisters for a week of tequila, rented condos and one-night stands, I opted for a short spring break trip to Charleston, South Carolina with my high school sweetheart.
On the morning of Saturday, March 13, 2004 we piled my thoughtfully packed luggage into the bed of his yellow 1997 Ford Ranger and began the 865 mile journey to Charleston. The Michigan morning was rainy and cold - the thought of 75 plus degree weather was a welcoming change.
To be quite honest, the subsequent drive through Ohio and West Virginia was rather uninteresting. Supremely lacking any visual stimulus, I fell asleep somewhere through the Appalachian Mountains. When I awoke, we were just crossing over the I-26 viaduct near the Ashley River into Charleston. What a way to wake up! The air smelled crisp and distinctly Southern. The sun was just beginning to rise and it was already in the upper 60's. I took off the hooded sweatshirt I was wearing, rolled down the window and breathed in deep. I was 18 years old and on Spring Break - life was very good.
We rented a room at the Master's Inn Charleston, a budget hotel on the outskirts of downtown. The room was clean - yet very simple. Not a complimentary bottled water or artfully folded linen in sight. Located right next door to a gas station, it was a great spot for the quick and easy late night snack and morning orange juice. The grounds included an outdoor pool, which we never used, and clean landscaping of beautiful Carolina palms and red cedar flower beds. For less than $100 for a 4 night's stay - it can't be beat.
We spent our first day in the downtown Charleston open-air market. The land on which the market sits was donated by one of the many wealthy Charleston families during the early 1800's. The five buildings that make up the open-air market span from Meeting Street to East Bay on the waterfront. Originally intended for local vendors to sell fruits, vegetables and other food products; the open air market now caters to the many tourists that visit Charleston every year. Luckily, you can still find local produce including delicious fresh fruit - perfect for snacking while shopping! You can also find many basket-weavers creating beautiful (and expensive) sweet grass baskets. This craft, passed down from West African slaves, is considered one of Charleston's most spirited traditions.
We then decided to venture out to the many local stores along King Street - the Fifth Avenue of Charleston. One of my favorite shops while we were there is the vintage shop, Granny's Goodies. Located at 301 King Street, Granny's Goodies is chock full of glossy black vinyl records, zany polyester shirts and all the Bob Marley paraphernalia an aspiring Rastafarian could long for.
Around lunchtime we found the Sweetwater Cafe on Market Street and decided to drop in for a bite. If you're in the mood for simple, short-order food; this is your place. You are able to view directly into the kitchen and watch the cooks grill dozens of breakfast orders. The formica tables, endless glasses of sweet tea and southern hospitality gave me the feeling that I was a guest in my Grandmother's house at a crowded family get-together. You won't find hustle and bustle in Charleston so every time the cafe doors opened and the fresh Carolina breeze wafted in, it reminded me to take it slow.
On my second day in Charleston, we decided to explore Folly Beach. While downtown Charleston is historic and reserved, Folly Beach is energetic and casual. At 9 AM we decided to stop at Folly Beach County Park located on the west end of the island. With 4,000 feet of Atlantic Ocean beachfront, Folly Beach County Park was a sight for my sore Northern eyes. Unfortunately, my very first dip in the ocean was not unlike an ice-bath. The wind was whipping around with 20 mph gusts, yet I removed my shoes, rolled up my jeans and took the obligatory splash in the frothy tide. I even paid two quarters to view the ocean from those kitschy boardwalk binoculars.
We then took a stroll along the tourist-trap beach shops, including Mr. John's on Center Street. Fair warning: you'll be forced to wade through piles of 'My friend went to Folly Beach and all I got was this lousy magnet' souvenirs. However, if you look closely, you could bring home some great loot. I bought my sister a fabulous miniature Jade Buddah - which she proudly displays on her bookcase to this day. I also picked up some artisan-made shell jewelry and hand carved tribal art.
Amongst the stilted homes and shops of Folly Beach, lies the Folly Beach Crab Shack. If you're looking for 'Shacktacular Seafood' as their welcome sign suggests, then you're in the right place. Beach music played in the casual dining space while the hostess led us to our shellacked wooden table. Each table had a large hole in the middle which we quickly learned was for tossing away your empty crustacean shells. Bibs on - it's crab eating time. This was my first time ever eating crab and I know what you're expecting me to say - it was astounding, succulently good, crab: a gift from Poseidon. But sorry folks, I was not impressed. My first complaint, it's a messy and time consuming process that yields little reward. My second complaint, you dip the crab meat into a vat of melted butter - of course it's going to be delicious. Anything covered in melted butter is going to be good. My third complaint actually has nothing to do with the crab at all but rather with a phenomena I experienced that I will refer to as 'generalized assume racism'. Our table happened to be seated next to a southern couple who took to us northerners and stuck up a conversation. During this conversation, the couple made several racial references. This left me very confused. Was it assumed that because I was white, it would be okay to make these remarks? After all, I am a complete stranger to these folks. Despite the awkward conversation, my time at the Folly Beach Crab Shack was pleasant. Our final bill of $50.88 was the most indulgent dining experience I'd had to date - however, many years later, I realize that I spend that during the typical cocktail hour and laugh at my formerly green self.
The third and fourth days in Charleston were spent discovering the remaining downtown Charleston area outside of Market Street. We visited the South Carolina Aquarium and had a lunch at the cafeteria style restaurant, Just Fresh at the IMAX. To this day I put all my faith in the prepackaged banana pudding parfait, and it always leaves me disappointed with a slight tummy ache - as did the one I sampled here.
My absolute favorite memories from Charleston were not spent in a restaurant, surf shop or any tourist spot. They are set in the back alleys and cobbled streets of downtown. I could walk these sidewalks for hours just marveling at the beautiful historic homes with their colorful window boxes and perfectly tended, iron-gated gardens. I walked the promenade of East Battery Street, along the Charleston Harbor and envisioned strolling alongside 19th century ladies-who-lunch, in their candy-colored hoopskirts, twirling their parasols. I could fantasize about living in the expansive mansions of East Battery and pictured myself lounging on one of my many piazzas. Morning tea and biscuits? Yes, please. Afternoon Sherry? Oh, but of course.
Charleston is the kind of city that despite pressures from modern influence, remains quaint, placid and distinct. It's a place were hospitality is engrained in the residents and casualness pleasantly coexists with old-world manners. After a lifetime of Midwest cynicism, I am now certain that sweet tea flows from kitchen taps and babies are born in a seersucker suit, if only in Charleston.