#GetOutandExplore: Charleston, SC & Thereabouts

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“It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River. He was talking about Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets. Charleston was my father’s ministry, his hobbyhorse, his quiet obsession, and the great love of his life. His bloodstream lit up my own with a passion for the city that I’ve never lost nor ever will. I’m Charleston-born, and bred. The city’s two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, have flooded and shaped all the days of my life on this storied peninsula.” — Excerpt from Pat Conroy’s, South of Broad. Conroy captures, with lyrical beauty, the romantic draw of the city of Charleston. This week my family and I spent a few days exploring the low country including downtown Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island. Spring gardens in the Holy City were filled with fragrant blooms, the air was warm, skies were blue and the locals welcoming—check out our adventures!

This past week was “spring break” for my husband and daughters, so I took the time off from work as well. EXHALE! Family time at this point in the school year is such great medicine for the soul. We enjoyed a little getaway to the Charleston area which holds particular sentimental value for us. It was the first vacation that we took as a “family” after our oldest daughter was born in 2001.

Since, we’ve returned every year for both long and short vacations. No matter how many times we visit, it is always such a happy place for our family whether we’re in Mt. Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach or right in the heart of downtown Charleston. Over the years we’ve enjoyed so many memorable experiences in the low country. Here are some highlights from this past week:

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Where to Stay

For many years, we’ve rented the same apartment right in the historic district of Charleston. This year, we weren’t quite on the ball early enough to secure our VRBO. So we took a gamble and booked a suite in Mt. Pleasant at the foot of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Our suite included plenty of sleeping quarters for a family of five, a lounging area, a full sized fridge, cooktop, dishwasher and microwave. Perfect for keeping a family of five fed when we didn’t want to eat out. Our hotel also had a beautiful garden tucked in back away from the busy streets in which we enjoyed breakfast each morning, early evening drinks under the wisteria, a place to watch the turtles frolic in the pond, and a quite space for outdoor yoga or reading. So magical at twilight!


Dining at Shem Creek

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Dinner and a view, sunset over Shem Creek

Making Mt. Pleasant our base camp was actually a perfect location to explore the whole area. We enjoyed a delicious low country boil right on Shem Creek. Dinner and a sunset view, you can’t go wrong!

In warmer seasons, we’ve rented kayaks at the Shem Creek marina and paddled out to Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary a 22-acre sandpit island used as nesting grounds by a number of shorebirds including brown pelicans, black skimmers, laughing gulls, American oystercatchers, willets, great egrets, ibis, tricolored herons and the state threatened species, Wilson’s plover. If you time your return trip to coincide with incoming shrimp boats, you will find yourself surrounded by dolphins swimming alongside and under your kayak as they follow the food train into the marina.

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The boardwalk, Sullivan’s Island

Sullivan’s Island

About ten years ago, some locals told us about the beautiful beach at Sullivan’s Island. We’ve been enjoying the relaxed barrier island ever since and this visit was no exception. Made up primarily of residents (full and part-time), there are no hotels, motels or B&Bs making this island a dream to visit if your goal is to escape the tourist-pace and relax a little. As such, there are no lifeguards on duty. If you are vacationing with tentative swimmers, this may not be the beach for you.

If you are looking for long expanses of sand, sun, waves and a beautiful view—you’ve hit gold in any season. The beachfront land is owned by the Town and held in a perpetual easement by the Lowcountry Open Land Trust which means the natural environment along the Atlantic is protected. What do visitors get in return? Long lazy boardwalks leading from neighborhoods to the beach, dunes covered in grasses and blooms, and no immediate development to interrupt the ecosystem. The water is a bit cold in April. But that didn’t keep my crew from diving right in!

In the warmer months, you’ll find yourself swimming with dolphins as they make their way up the coast cruising against the tide. Sunset walks on this beach, hand in hand with my sweet husband as our daughters splash in the waves, are some of my absolute favorite times. There is no need for talking—just deep breaths and long exhales embodied by feelings of bliss. That is Sullivan’s Island, pure and simple. **Parking is free along neighborhood lanes, where marked, as long as your tires are completely off the pavement.**

If you work up an appetite after all the fun in the sun, Sullivan’s Island is home to a number of delicious restaurants—from Poe’s Tavern to Taco Mamacita. Lots of fun choices.

More than just a laid back beach community, Sullivan’s Island is also home to Fort Moultrie National Monument, Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, and historic slave sites that can be explored in any season.

Mt. Pleasant Memorial Park Pierweb.Lower Ravenel

One morning we took a brisk walk from our hotel to the Mt. Pleasant Memorial Park Pier. Once you reach the park, the stroll takes you past beautifully landscaped gardens, a playground (for those with little ones) and down a pier with a spectacular view of lower Ravenel Bridge and Charleston across the way.

I keep a picnic blanket in the trunk of my car. This park is the perfect place to throw out a blanket, enjoy a farm-to-table al fresco brunch and take in the views!

web.Sailing. the boat sailsDowntown from the Water

Over the fifteen years we’ve been visiting Charleston, we’ve taken in all the historic homes, carriage rides, a harbor tour, walking ghost tours and even a garden tour of homes sponsored by the local historical society. They were all wonderful and well worth the investment. To mix it up a little, this year we booked an afternoon sail around the harbor. It wasn’t a “tour,” so no blaring historic tidbits or sound bytes. Just the sheer serenity of cruising the Charleston Harbor punctuated by the musical backdrop of clinging sails, soft breezes, birds, dolphins and beautiful views. What an incredible way to admire the old city!

There was plenty of time to chat with the captain and her crew. My husband even assisted in raising the sails as the 84ft tall ship got underway. We sailed the harbor for two glorious hours. Relaxed. Enchanted. In complete awe of the sun shimmering on the water, other sailboats crossing in our wake, dolphins and birds.

Downtown on Foot

Charleston or any city, in my opinion, is best enjoyed on foot. No matter where I’ve traveled around the globe, I have always made a point to walk the streets and bike the countryside to really immerse myself in the local culture. Charleston is no exception. There are the big tourist destinations that are worth seeing for sure. But the hidden gems are best discovered on foot.

Washington Square

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Live oaks and Luxury

Located at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets, Washington Square is one of the city’s premiere parks. Tucked under a canopy of mature live oaks, the ironwork and architectural features in this park make it a must-see when walking the streets near this famous crossroads. The views of live oaks and luxury makes for an ideal sanctuary from the vacation hustle and bustle. Duck inside the park to enjoy a local gelato, coffee or just some quite time before continuing your journey.

web.Downtown. Church2Charleston’s Many Churches

This beautiful city is also referred to as the “Holy City” because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline. Charleston boasts over 400 places of worship of many different denominations.

Multiple steeples can be seen both from the streets or any of the city’s elevated structures and rooftop gardens. Whether by day or by night, these architectural beauties are worth stopping and taking time to admire.

Battery & White Point Garden

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White Point Gardens

Located in the heart of Charleston’s historic district, this prominent landmark provides a spectacular view of Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor—where the Ashley and Cooper rivers empty into the Atlantic Ocean. The 5.7 acre public park located in peninsular Charleston was first used as a public garden in 1837. With the outbreak of the Civil War, it became a fortification for the city. Visitors today find an impressive display of historic mortars and cannons from the Civil War used to shell as well as defend the city.

For us, it is the perfect spot to relax, cool down and enjoy the breeze from the water, watch sailboats crisscrossing the river, feast, throw frisbee or take a leisurely break from the vacation hustle and bustle.

Rainbow Row

There is one place in Charleston, regardless of the season, that you will see tourists gathering to take photographs by the droves. Rainbow Row is a unique and historic area that is best known for the 14 rowhouses near the historic water front painted bright pastel colors.
web.Downtown.Rainbow Row w FionaRainbow Row dates back to about 1740. The homes run from 83 to 107 East Bay Street. Historically they belonged to merchants who would run the stores on the ground floor and live above them. You can look up a free walking tour online to soak up all the history while taking a leisurely stroll. Today, these restored homes boast colorful window boxes, ornate iron works and beautifully carved wooden doors.
Whether you are on a guided tour or sitting among the live oaks and luxury, Charleston and the surrounding areas are an ideal destination offering a multitude of adventures, on any budget, season after season.

Where to Eat

The local fare is outstanding—from signature low country boils to high end farm-to-table dining. Charleston’s food culture is booming! Ask around, get recommendations from locals, read reviews on Trip Advisor, throw a dart on a food map. You’ll find everything from dry rubbed ribs to freshly caught seafood, we’ve yet to have a bad meal.

Great Destination, Season After Season

Downtown.Rainbow Row Window BoxesThe best thing we bring home from our Charleston trips? More memories and dedicated family time together. There is no bad season to visit. The shoulder months are less hot and humid (spring and fall). Summer is tough but if you are looking for nothing more than a beautiful beach and great food, taking in the cooler night air as you stroll the city, we’ve had great summer visits too. In winter we’ve enjoyed art museums, warmer afternoons strolling outside and cool evenings by a fire. Year round it is a safe bet that you’ll discover something new and wonderful in the Holy City and thereabouts that will keep you coming back season after season. We sure do!
**All photos taken with my iPhone, Nikon 5100 or GoPro**