Southern Road Trip #4: Charleston, SC

We’re continuing our road trip through the South! In December 2016, it was my sister’s turn to choose and plan our girls’ trip, and she put together an awesome itinerary for a trip to Charleston, South Carolina.

  1. Charleston, South Carolina (December 2016)

Starting with our trip to Natchez, we began making fairly elaborate itineraries for our December girls’ trips. I don’t recommend strict itineraries if you are going on a relaxing vacation or a rambling road trip, but I do highly recommend them when there are several things you want to see and limited time. You save the time you would spend searching for a restaurant or tourist attraction and are able to put that much time back into exploring and taking in the culture. My sister compiled a beautiful itinerary for Charleston that started with, “Please do not blame Hannah for any problems that may arise.” This was our fourth trip, and by now, we had a catalogue of funny stories from things that went wrong, and she isn’t the sister of two lawyers for nothing.

On Day 1, we departed and drove to the Hampton Inn in West Ashley, a suburb of Charleston. Hannah was careful to put even the address of the hotel on the itinerary, which is another time-saver. We went up the road for dinner at a barbecue place and then just drove around the city. That might seem like wasted time, but it is actually what I remember most, seeing the Battery at night. Charleston abounds with beautiful mansions, and they know how to show them off with lights and fountains, etc. at night. It was one of those situations where someone is yelling, “Look over there! Oh, my gosh, this one is so pretty!” so much that you get whiplash.

On Day 2, we had breakfast at the hotel and then drove to Middleton Place for a tour. I will just warn you: the price was a nosebleed that left us standing there stunned for a few minutes before finally deciding it was worth it. The gardens there are extensive, and you get to ramble through them before you tour the house. Middleton Place is rather famous for its grass stairs leading down to the Ashley River. It looks like something you would see at a European castle. When we were planning the itinerary and narrowing down the house museums that we would tour, the moment I saw a picture of those grass stairs, I knew we had to go. And then…we promptly forgot to look at the stairs. Yes, I’m not kidding. We were afterwards so mad at ourselves for this that we still talk about it (jokingly, of course, sort of) as one of our life’s greatest regrets. But anyway, we enjoyed the gardens. The house tour was actually just a tour of what they call a “flanker” in Charleston. Charlestonian architecture often consisted of a main house in the center flanked by two long, separate wings. The main house and flanker were burned during the Civil War when the Union broke through the Confederate lines in the Spring of 1865. Therefore, the house tour wasn’t the most awe-inspiring I have ever experienced, but there were some pretty neat things about it, such as, for instance, the family had converted the flanker into a house once their lands were returned to them by the federal government, and they produced a very talented female artist in the family. (Side-note: I half-fictionalize this family and house in the Torn Asunder Series.)

Next stop was Edmonston-Alston House on the Battery. (Another side-note: I used this house as partial inspiration for the Ravenel-Thompson House which Adeline is restoring in the Torn Asunder series.) Edmonston-Alston is, in contrast to Middleton Place, a town house overlooking the Charleston Battery, so it has a very different vibe. My favorite room was the very unusual library. In contrast to most libraries of its time, it has white bookshelves and a very sunny feel. The balconies which look out over the harbor are absolutely magnificent. The residents stood on them and watched the Battle of Fort Sumter. The house is actually connected by family to Middleton Place, so these tours are great to do back-to-back.

From there, we went to Poogan’s Porch, where we had lunch. The house special that day were sweet potato dumplings with collard greens. It was to-die-for. I should mention that Charleston cuisine is “fancy.” It is a mix of French, Gullah-Geechee, and Southern cooking. It takes you just a moment to get used to it, and then you’re ready to try all sorts of new things. They have many world-renowned chefs in Charleston, so you may try many creative and delicious dishes, or you can just stick with the city special: shrimp and grits.

The Charleston City Market was next on the itinerary. We had to mark it off the list because we ran out of time, but I went on a subsequent trip, so I can highly recommend it. You’ll find local crafts, including the famous seagrass baskets. When my sister and I went in 2019, we struck up a conversation with a brother-sister duo with a Gullah-Geechee family history of making baskets. We told them about our family history of making split oak baskets in Woodbury, Tennessee, and they were very interested and told us we should come sell them at the Market, since no one sells split oak there. Not a horrible idea, if only we knew how to make them!

Next stop: Drayton Hall! This house was THE inspiration for Santarella, so if you visit, you will pretty much know what Shannon’s country house looked like! (Note: Drayton is on the Ashley River, and I placed Santarella on the Sea Islands, so there is a slight difference there.) The house is still owned by descendants (as is Edmonston-Alston), and they still have get-togethers there. I can’t remember if this is the reason there is no furniture in the house or if it’s because they have placed a real emphasis on preserving the bones of the house. And they have done an exceptional job of that. There is a colonial vibe in the house, since it is that old, and the double staircase really made my sister freak out. There is even an emphasis on preserving the old trees and vegetation surrounding the house, so you really get the feeling that the property is in good hands. Like Middleton, there used to be two flankers surrounding Drayton, but now, only the main structure stands.

Finally for that day, we had dinner at the West Ashley Crab Shack, which was delicious. And that was the close of an extremely busy day!

We slept soundly that night and woke up the next morning and had breakfast at the hotel again. Then we drove out to Boone Hall. You may know it from its appearances on movies and shows, particularly from North and South, where it was used as Orry Main’s family plantation – help me here, Mont Royal? Anyway, for that reason, it is probably the most touristy of the house museums in Charleston, featuring wagon rides over the property and fun activities like that for families. We were given a house tour by an extremely charismatic gentleman in a period-appropriate costume. Our Tennessee accents came up again since he needed help conceptualizing the Southern accent for the rest of the large tour group, most of whom weren’t from the South.

After that, we had planned a carriage tour, but we were either exhausted or it rained, because we marked it off. We went instead to Jestine’s Kitchen, which featured excellent Southern cooking, Charleston-style.

Then we drove out to Sullivan’s Island, another memorable part of the trip. It was December, but warm enough we took a refreshing walk on the beach before going to a restaurant on the island called the Obstinate Daughter, a play on Charleston’s Revolutionary War roots. This was DELICIOUS. I had a cold shrimp sandwich and Geechee Frites, which were actually fries made of grits. The whole meal was a play on Charleston’s shrimp and grits theme. We also went to a gelato place called Beardcat’s next door, where I tried red velvet cookie dough gelato. Heavenly.

We drove around a neighboring island, Folly Beach, one of the days we were there. There was an excellent ice cream place there called Dolce Banana. Are you sensing a theme here? I blame my sister.

On Day 4, we woke up, had breakfast at the hotel again, and then drove out to James Island to tour McLeod Plantation. We argued the entire way there about how that would be pronounced. (It is pronounced Mick-Loud run together really fast so that you hear the word “cloud”. I think. My mom had guessed right, and I was wrong, for the record!) This was our first experience of a sea island plantation, so again, there was a very different feel from the others. The masters and their families spent very little time on their Sea Island plantations, so you can really feel the influences of the Gullah Geechee culture that were able to ripen on such plantations. This tour focused on the enslaved people who had once lived and worked on the island, and the curators had done a remarkable job finding names and stories of those people to share and bringing their experiences to life. There were descendants of those once enslaved living at McLeod all the way through the 1990’s. There is some fascinating history about the enslaved on the Sea Islands during the Civil War, but I won’t spoil it: you’ll have to go yourself to find out!

Go to this link to learn all about Edmonston-Alston and Middleton and to see those stairs at Middleton: https://www.edmondstonalston.org/about/

Alright, that’s a wrap! Next time: we’re going back to Virginia!

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Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain and Northern Fire. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_

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