From Pamela Murdock, West Palm Beach, Fl
This year after the spring races in Camden, South Carolina, we decided to have a mini “southern tour” and drove down to Charleston, then Beaufort, Bluffton and finally Savannah. We only had a few days in each place, so we crammed in as much as possible. It was like a living history lesson, made even more fun by seeing wonderful houses, gardens and landscapes. We also had some seriously good food along the way. Here are the highlights.
Charleston, founded in 1670, is one of the oldest cities in the country and certainly one of the most beautiful. Historically and architecturally, it’s also one of the most important. Streets in the historic district (south of Broad St.) are lined with lovely, perfectly preserved houses with glorious gardens. This is one of those places where no matter how many times you walk down any street, each time you’ll spot something new and charming. There are house and garden tours in the spring and fall as well as the annual Spoleto Festival (May 28 – June 13, 2010). We stayed at the historic Governor’s House on Broad Street. While it’s in a great location and very nicely done, it is a Bed & Breakfast. (I realized, I’m more of a hotel person and prefer an elevator for heavy suitcases, as well as room service, especially for breakfast). The three plantations we visited were on the same road about 30 minutes outside town.
Janice Kahn’s business card says she offers “attention and knowledge lavished with old-fashioned charm & wit.” And she certainly did. Book her for a private architectural tour on foot or driving. 843-556-0664.
Places to Visit
The Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth Street) is allegedly haunted, and I also like the Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting Street).
Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Road; 843-556-6020) is a National Historic Landmark, from the 18th century, that has America’s oldest landscaped gardens, covering 65 acres with terraces, shaded allées, ornamental ponds and perfectly symmetrical garden rooms. The view looking down the broad grass “steps” across the famous butterfly lakes to the Ashley River is truly gorgeous. You can visit the old stables and the former gentlemen’s guest quarters, the only surviving portion of the three-building residence, which was burned in 1865. Today this pretty small house is a museum containing an impressive collection of Middleton family owned furniture, paintings and porcelain. Have lunch or dinner (reservations required) overlooking the Rice Mill Pond and try typical Low Country plantation food such as Hoppin’ John and ham biscuits, She-Crab soup,shrimp and grits, Okra gumbo and pan-fried quail.
Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Road; 843-769-2600). Also an 18th c. National Historic Landmark. It’s the oldest existing example of Palladian Georgian architecture in America and the only plantation on the Ashley River to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. It’s beautiful and imposing. “Rather than restoring the house to reflect a single period of grandeur, the National Trust made the bold decision to preserve the site as it was received from the Draytons in 1974 in order to provide a time line showing change and continuity through three centuries of American history.” People love that it hasn’t been furnished. Maybe because it’s fun to imagine how the interiors must have looked. Hope you get Bob for your guide. He’s a wonderful southern gentleman and very entertaining.
Magnolia Plantation (3550 Ashley River Road; 800-367-3517). Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, Magnolia Plantation is the oldest tourist site in the Low Country and the oldest public gardens in America (1870). We found it a bit touristy with all the activities offered but it was worth going to see the slightly spooky swamp garden with cypress and tupelo gum trees growing out of the inky black water and the huge, flowering azaleas everywhere. We also took the one hour “action-packed” (their words not mine) tram tour, which passes by a row of slave cabins, 19th c. rice ponds and a Native American ceremonial mound. I was most amused by seeing alligators sunning themselves on specially made mini water skiing ramps. In the spring they are joined by turtles who keep them company as they know they are safe from being eaten until summer. We found the architecture of the house itself, which is the third one to sit on the site, uninspiring and after peeking in the ground floor windows, decided to skip that tour.
Ann Long Fine Art (54 Broad Street; 843-577-0447). Ann specializes in classical realist paintings, drawings and sculpture by contemporary artists. Her taste is sophisticated and her eye is fantastic.
Peninsula Grill (112 North Market Street; 843-723-0700) is delicious. Try the veal sweetbreads and their signature lobster three ways: ravioli, tempura and sautéed with warm tomato-basil vinaigrette. And no matter what, have the coconut cake (12 thin layers of heaven), which is so famous, you can order it from the restaurant online. For drinks the sommelier suggested a Drappier Rosé Brut NV ($90) and with the main course, a Malbec Mendoza ‘07 ($45) from the Doña Paula Estate in Argentina. They were delicious, too.
Fig (232 Meeting Street; 843-805-5900) has a very good, “seasonally inspired” menu using all local food. For first courses try the Frisée Salad or Sea Island Grass Fed Beef Bolognese followed by Local White Shrimp and Radicchio Salad with a Warm Pancetta Vinaigrette or the Crispy Fudge Farms Pork Shoulder.
Other recommendations: Charleston Grill (224 King St.; 843-577-4522), Cypress (167 E. Bay St.; 843-727-0111) and Slightly North of Broad (192 E. Bay St.; 843-723-3424) whose chef is known for cooking game beautifully, especially venison.
Beaufort, about an hour’s drive from Charleston is located on Port Royal Island, one of the Sea Islands along the Atlantic coast. I was instantly charmed by South Carolina’s second-oldest city. It’s in a marvelous time warp and everywhere you look are wetlands, waterways, live oak dripping with Spanish moss and lovely antebellum houses—any one of which I could move right into. Movie producers agree and Beaufort has been used as a setting for several films including The Big Chill, The Great Santini (both were filmed in the Tidalholm Mansion, which is still privately owned), Prince of Tides and Forrest Gump. We were told the Beaufort Inn was where to stay and after checking in, decided it was not. We later heard we should have stayed at the Rhett House (1009 Craven Street; 843-524-9030).
If you are in Beaufort in October, don’t miss the Fall Festival of Houses & Gardens when one can visit private homes and gardens not regularly open to the public. And get invited to stay at one of the beautiful private plantations outside of town for a weekend of great bird-shooting.
Great Places to Visit
Drive around the Old Point area and see all the beautiful 19th-century houses. Take a guided tour of 10 restored buildings “downtown” including the 18th-century Leffers Cottage, the federal style John C. Manson House, the Victorian Josiah Bell House, the early-nineteenth-century Jail (amazingly in use until 1954 and allegedly haunted) and the adorable Apothecary and Doctor’s Office, which remains essentially unchanged in appearance—inside and out—since the 1800s. Also visit John Mark Verdier’s House, built around 1800. The Chapel of Ease on St. Helena Island was built between 1742 and 1747 to serve the planters on this island, it was mostly destroyed by fire in 1886. The ruins and small graveyard are charming and haunting. Parris Island: go if you’re in the mood for the Marines. This is their training location.
Bateaux (610 Paris Ave.; 843-379-0777). We had the most fantastic dinner at this restaurant whose chef, Michael Gottlieb, is very talented and nice. The amuse-bouche, was a mini biscuit with a tiny piece of fried chicken topped with a drop of cream gravy. my bouche was definitely amused. To start we had pecan-encrusted soft shell crab with dill honey mustard and local shrimp sauté with pan-seared pesto gnocchi. Then came an oven-roasted veal chop on a wild mushroom risotto and molasses-glazed rack of baby Colorado lamb with tomato fondue and creamy grits. As I’d been torn between two entrées, Michael surprised me with a mini portion of the hushpuppy-encrusted local flounder with asparagus and a white wine lemon butter. We ate that too, and even managed to let ourselves be talked into a piece of coconut cake for dessert, which was too good not to finish. We had no other choice than go directly to bed.
Plum’s Café (904 1/2 Bay Street.; 843- 525-1946). Eat indoors or on the terrace at this casual and good looking bistro overlooking the Beaufort River and downtown Waterfront Park. Great sandwiches and salads for lunch.
Other recommendations: Saltus River Grill (904 Bay Street.; 843-379-3474). It’s the hippest restaurant in town serving nouveau Southern food. For someplace a lot funkier, try the Shrimp Shack on St. Helena Island (843-838-2962) or Hog Heaven on Pawleys Island (843-237-7444).
Friends insisted we drive 30 minutes south to Bluffton and stay at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff (476 Mt. Pelia Rd.; 843-706-6500). When we said we were a little off “inns” at the moment and definitely not golf resort types, they promised we’d love it. They were right. The minute we stepped into our May River Cottage ($575 night), we were in heaven. The bedroom was large and very nicely done with a fireplace, luscious sheets, wet bar and fridge, plasma TV and a DVD player with a selection of locally filmed movies (a nice touch). The large dressing room had lots of closet space and the bathroom had a separate large steam shower and tub. Off the bedroom was a comfy screened porch right on the river. Room service is very good and quick. For two days we saw no reason to leave the room other than (very) short walks. If we had been compelled to leave the room, we would have seen the myriad of activities this large resort offers.
I wish Indagare’s new story about Savannah had been on line a couple of months ago before we planned our trip! The only thing I can add is the still undiscovered Masada Café at the United House of Prayer for All People. If you’re hungry and in a bit of an adventurous mood, head right to this longtime, local favorite, which is the industrial part of the city (about a five-minute drive from downtown Bay Street).
Who could be better at cooking down-home food than a church? The minute you walk through the door, you know you’re going to be well-fed. Then you meet the pastor’s wife, who runs the restaurant, and she makes you feel like a regular. Meals are served cafeteria-style and the menu changes daily. The day we went, the choices included: the crispiest fried chicken, beef and pork ribs (only available on Saturday and cooked in an enormous smoker out front), oxtail, country-fried steak, Savannah red rice, the best macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, green beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread and dressing (stuffing). Though we were stuffed, when the staff insisted we try the sweet potato pie, of course we obliged. The hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the meal is about $10 per person, including all the iced tea or lemonade you’d like.
Read our destination report on Savannah