“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” My head filled with images of Rhett Butler and Scarlet from ‘Gone with the Wind’, Charleston seems to me to be the epitome of southern grandeur and gentility. Today that charm overlays remnants of Charleston’s turbulent history. Before us, the waters around Charleston were plied by pirates and patriots, and by merchant ships carrying indigo and rice from, and, sadly, slaves to, the surrounding plantations. The first shot of the American Civil War exploded over Charleston’s harbour and the first wartime submarine to successfully sink a ship did so just offshore. Cobblestone streets paved with centuries old ballast remind us again of Charleston’s ongoing relationship with the sea.
Strangely for us, we arrived by taxi rather than by water, having hauled the boat for prop shaft repairs at Ross Marine, a 15 minute drive away (See Haul Out blog). I had booked us a hotel for the night using Hotwire, a kind of gambling thrill – booking and paying for a hotel without knowing what it is until after you have booked in order to get the best value. It worked out really well for us. We specified a three star hotel in the downtown core, and got a very nice non-smoking boutique inn on King Street – the main shopping street – called the Fulman Lane Inn. It was in a great location in the Antique District – close to the City Market, the French Quarter, the best restaurants, and the ritzy residential mansion area south of Broad Street, the residents of which are called SOB’s. There are also fancy homes Slightly North of Broad Street whose residents are (naturally) known as SNOBs!
The taxi driver was a friendly and interesting guy called Mark Fuchs (we did not try to pronounce that!), from New Jersey, who gave us some great tips of things to see and places to eat. We arrived at the hotel, which fronted a tiny gas-lit alley-way, just in time for their complimentary wine and cheese evening event in the sister-hotel, the Kings Courtyard Inn next door. Our room overlooked King Street, and had a great big four-poster bed, and, joy oh joy – an en suite with a BATHTUB! I don’t usually blog about my personal hygiene habits, but other sailors will relate to my excitement and enjoyment of a soak in a hot bath before we went out for dinner!
Taking the taxi-driver’s tip and marrying it with the concierge’s suggestion, we made reservations at the Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar – a highly rated and popular restaurant which specializes in fresh, local, sustainable seafood. It was a good thing we had reservations as there was a line-up when we arrived at 7 pm. We had she-crab soup to start – a low country favourite – rich and delicious. We sat near a young couple from Arkansas and got chatting – they were visiting Charleston too and were great company. After dinner we walked through the city market, around the French Quarter, and past the library back to the hotel.
We enjoyed a very substantial free breakfast in the sun-sprinkled courtyard the next morning, and then walked through the City Market, now open and bustling. At the vendors insistence we sampled benne wafers as we sauntered through. The primary local handicraft is traditional Gullah sweetgrass baskets – but we were shocked at the prices – ranging from $100 for a tiny one to $400 for a bread/bun-sized basket. I will clearly have to improve my basket weaving skills when we retire so I can supplement our income!
We decided to take one of the horse-drawn carriage tours and lucked into being the last people to board a waiting carriage, which, contrary to the early-bird mentality meant that we got assigned to the front row. Our tour guide was a fun, knowledgeable young guy who kept us all entertained. There is an interesting system of route allocation for carriages in Charleston, to ensure that there are not too many of them going through any area at the same time, since these are the main sight-seeing vehicles, but can cause congestion in the narrow streets. So there are 5 routes, and they are assigned by a controller after each carriage is loaded and ready to leave.
After waiting a few minutes for a carriage to return so that the maximum quota was reduced by one, we got lucky again when we were assigned one of the 2 routes which goes past the Battery – with its fancy mansions and view of the harbour, via Meeting Street and White Point Gardens on the tip of the peninsula. The horse-drawn carriages are high, which is great for seeing the over walls and into gardens, as we clip-clopped over cobblestone streets, between churches, hotels, museums and historic homes. Given our limited time there, it was a great overview of Charleston’s rich history, antebellum homes with Tiffany windows, architecture, gardens and culture.
Charleston is known by locals as the Holy City – partly because of its many churches, but also, surprisingly to us, for its reputation for religious tolerance stemming from its history of settlement by British colonists, French Huguenots, Jewish immigrants and others who left their country due to religious persecution.
Back at the drop off point near the City Market, we went to the recommended Cru Café for a light lunch – which was excellent. We were lucky to get a seat on the verandah of this 18th Century home on Pinckney Street. We went back to King Street to find an optician to fix Steve’s broken sunglasses – mission successful ($5 and a friendly chat with the optician who had spent holidays at fly-in fishing camps in Northern Ontario)!
We had mixed feelings when we received a call from Ross Marine around 3 pm – Tai Chi was repaired and about to be splashed back into the water. We were thankful and relieved that the repair was so expedient and successful, but rather disappointed that we did not have more time in Charleston. There was so much more I wanted to see. I would have loved to visit the Magnolia Plantation – especially at this time of year with the azaleas in full bloom. But we do count our blessings and are grateful for the ‘sampling’ of southern cities and hospitality on this trip….like a tasting menu! We will just have to come back to explore more and see the things we missed this time around.
We stayed on the boat that night and left early afternoon the next day, enjoying the different perspective and vista as the ICW emerged into the Ashley River, providing us with a great view of the Battery row of mansions from the water, as well as the steeple-spattered skyline of Charleston.
We anchored that night in the mouth of Charleston harbour. The anchorage was called Fort Johnson, but we are not sure why – we had a good view of Fort Sumter in the mouth as well as Fort Moutrie on Sullivan’s Island opposite and Castle Pinkney upriver near the soaring Arthur Ravenel Bridge, one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the Western Hemisphere. As the sun set in the peaceful anchorage which we shared with birds and dolphins, we watched activity across the harbour – pleasure boats, fast hydroplaning sailcraft, freighters, their tug escourts, and tour boats returning from Fort Sumter.
We left before dawn the next day in drizzly rain to make the Ben Sawyer Memorial Swing bridge before its rush-hour closure between 7 am and 9 am, making it just in the nick of time at 2 minutes to 7 am, just as the sun came up.
The day’s ride on the ICW was uneventful, looking at birds and homes as we travelled along, with a knot or more of current against us all day long. The wind picked up in the afternoon making the fast-flowing water of Winyah Bay muddy, choppy and uninviting. We passed the Estherville Plantation, fringed with flowering azaleas, and then miles of abandoned rice fields as we passed Georgetown.
We passed the Peedee River, inspiration for the American folksong “Swannee River”, and turned up the Wacamaw River though cypress swamps. As the river narrowed the scenery improved, till we were cruising between thick forest – majestic live-oaks draped with Spanish Moss. Pink and white flowering bushes (indigenous rhododendron?) adorned the waters-edge and osprey nests perched on top branches, dead trunks and navigation posts.
It is hard to believe that ospreys were endangered not too many years ago, almost totally knocked out by DDT. They are so prolific in these waters now. We even saw several bald eagles. After 12 hours ‘on the road’ we were happy to anchor up Bull Creek – alone with eagles and (after dark) owls in the forested creek.
View our photo journal for Charleston to the Wacamaw River.
View Tai Chi: Journey 2012 in a larger map