Charleston Vacation Secrets – Stay Across the Harbor, Restaurants an Insider Loves, and Top Shopping Choices
Up to have fun and play? Let’s play “Where was I?” ” Let’s go? Some clues. This is a direct flight from Houston and Dallas. (Hello Southwest!) This is one of the most popular small towns in the country where the saw palmetto leaves gently bend with the wind from its picturesque harbor. A place where horse-drawn carriages wind their way through charming cobbled streets, past historic Georgian houses. It is a place where civil and revolutionary wars have left their mark, and the rich Gullah culture is celebrated as well as the country cuisine it inspired.
If you guessed Charleston, South Carolina, aka the holy city, bordered by two rivers and dotted with picturesque barrier islands, you are right.
But this trip unlike my others, I opted not to stay in quaint downtown Charleston, but across the harbor – a short water taxi ride away – at the Beach Club at Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina located in historic Patriot’s Point on Mount Pleasant. It has 92 gracious guest rooms, almost all of which offer spectacular views of the marina, the nearby WWII aircraft carrier, and the USS Yorktown. And beyond the two, the edge of downtown Charleston appears.
Whether you’re arriving by car over the impressive Arthur Ravenel cable-stayed bridge or cruising through the marina (there are 459 slides), check in for a few days at this world’s first hotel, and off you go for a treat. Hit the beach or book a cabana for the day and soak up the sun at the property’s many swimming pools, then unwind with a massage at the on-site Estuary Spa.
Try to dine at the Fish House at least once, where Chefs Dan Doyle and Chef de Cuisine Cole Poolaw are in charge. Local tradition has it that these South Carolina chefs met in New York City when they faced each other on a reality show, Chopped. Now they are working side by side to offer fresh Southern dishes with local seafood.
Don’t miss their rendition of shrimp and oatmeal with bacon lardons, sweet peppers in a tomato broth – I still dream of this dish – as well as their decadent smoked chili gouda cheese dip served with pork rinds for the to pick up. Decadence aside, I passed out over their seasonal salad of peach, arugula and watermelon, not to mention a perfectly prepared gazpacho topped with blue crab and accompanied by a refreshing glass of Fleur de Mer Rose. (More information on Charleston food later from a restaurant insider.)
Of course, I made it my mission to explore downtown, visit art galleries and antique stores, and browse the boutiques along the old section of King Street. BTW, this aforementioned water taxi can be hailed at the dock outside the Beach Club (and three additional stops) and will take you past schools of dolphins frolicking in the harbor (if you’re lucky!) Aquarium. All for $ 12 for a day pass.
While it is admitted that several national chains have slipped between these downtown multi-story spaces, there are still many wonderful stores owned by local owners. My favorites include: Hampden and RTW – Charleston’s answer to Net-a-Porter, Shirtini – a beautiful boutique of women’s shirts and dresses (admit they wear our Claridge + King line), Worthwhile (a bit of everything beau), Ben Silver, M Dumas & Sons, and Billy Reid (all shops with men’s pieces), The Old Whaling Company (for handmade bath and body items), Buxton Books and Chocolates by Adam Turoni (deliciously handcrafted candies) to name a handful.
When I travel, I aspire to do things I would probably rarely get to do at home, like taking a sunset cruise on the 84-foot Schooner Pride. Book a ride aboard this three-masted tall ship, where you, the crew, and up to 49 passengers will set off for a leisurely two-hour sailing with no set course ($ 70 per person). They also offer afternoon and full moon sails.
Want to learn to sail? I took a lesson with a student on the varsity sailing team at the College of Charleston. Their on-site sailing center at the marina (a short walk from the Beach Club as well) will show beginners the ropes, literally educating future sailors on the difference between mainsail and jib, bow and stern. Before you even get in the water, you’ll have learned the basics and, with a qualified instructor by your side, you can take the helm and sail with confidence. Private lessons start at $ 80 an hour.
I couldn’t venture to Charleston without seeing my best friend, Marianna Michaels, who, along with Chef Ben Berryhill, owns the popular and highly regarded Mt. Pleasant gastro pub, The Red Drum. Regulars at the old Café Annie will recognize them. Michaels is the smart, calm woman who ran the house, while Berryhill is the talented chef who rose through the ranks at Tony’s and Café Annie before the duo left for Charleston ten years ago.
Who better to ask for restaurant recommendations in Charleston and the Islands beyond than a bonus restaurateur? I give you the list of the best dishes of Marianna Michaels:
Where to eat in historic downtown Charleston
Peninsula Grill at Planter’s Inn: Nice bar and restaurant for special occasions. Splurge on your birthday dinner here.
Hall’s Chop House: Steak house par excellence, very sophisticated. The place to see and be seen.
Gross 167: Think sushi, seafood towers, and lobster rolls. Right now, it’s the hottest new kid in the neighborhood, and people are crazy about it.
Figure: Chef Mike Lata is an annual winner of the James Beard Awards. You won’t forget his tomato pie.
SNOB (slightly north of Broad): Wonderful gastronomic spot on East Bay. I love the food here. It reminds me of Café Annie, an eclectic but refined Low Country cuisine. It’s been around for a long time and still delivers.
Xiao Bao Cookie: Amazing Asian fusion by a very hip and talented young chef. The place is in a converted old gas station. I feel like everything here is from a Wes Anderson movie. Their small menu is perfection.
Crosstown or Way Upper King and Morrison Drive
Leon’s fine poultry and oyster shop: Swing in for lunch and order the fried chicken and Siam salad. (Ben says the fish sandwich is delicious too.)
Little Jack’s Tavern: Burgers and more burgers. You will love the clubby tavern atmosphere.
Melfi’s: The website advertises pasta, salads and large “Roman style thin crust pizza” platters. Make sure you book in advance.
Butcher & Bee: Great casual place for lunch and dinner as well as a bakery. The Mt Pleasant Whole Foods Market has B & B’s delicious sourdough baguette – which often runs out when I’m looking for it.
Edmond’s Oost: Local brewery and dining room, a popular spot for the after-work crowd.
The stubborn girl: Cool southern restaurant perched on the second floor above the owner’s confectionery, the Beardcats ice cream shop. Expect a mix of influences from Spain to Italy on the menu.
Thyme Top: It’s a local hangout and honestly my favorite, maybe not as fancy as Obstinate Daughter, but it’s so much fun because it’s where you see everyone.
Cooperative: Meet here for a turkey club and a jelly.
Red drum: Former Houstonians and Café Annie alumni (in front and behind the house respectively), Marianna Michaels, and chef Ben Berryhill’s friendly restaurant serve wood-grilled steaks, seafood that mixes Southern cuisine (and hospitality) with Ben’s Texan heritage. A nice wine list too.
Old Village post office: Adorable little hotel and restaurant in the hamlet of Mount Pleasant. Treat yourself to small plates, crudo, cocktails.
The pavement: Away from the more touristy spots of Shem Creek, roll here for platters of fresh seafood served on paper plates. Don’t miss their lime pie.
The fish house
Coda del Pesce: Chef / owner Ken Vendriski’s small kitchen features handmade pasta and delicious seafood dishes inspired by Italian coastal cuisine. A small restaurant (book in advance and bring $$$). Coda is located directly on the beach and offers a magnificent view of the Atlantic. My favorite place to go.
New versions of the old southern BBQ concept have really taken off in Charleston. Two places in particular (Rodney Scott’s and Lewis) receive a lot of national press. To verify:
Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ: The 2018 Southeastern Best Chef winner James Beard specializes in pulled pork barbecue.
Lewis Barbecue: Texan-style barbecue from the real Texan John Lewis.
The Beach Club at Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina
The pride of the schooner
Charleston College Sailing Lessons
Charleston Convention and Tourism Bureau
Charleston Shopping Choices
Worthy of interest
Mr Dumas & Fils
The old whaling company
Adam Turoni chocolates