I LOVE Charleston! The history is fascinating, the homes unusual and captivating. I’ve sprinkled photos throughout the blog – hover your cursor over any photo for a caption, or double-click to enlarge the photo.
I would love this city even more if we had jet-packs for getting around. The traffic into, inside of, and out of Charleston is the worst we have seen in… I can’t even remember how long! Our RV park is 11 miles from downtown Charleston, on a major state highway, but it takes a minimum of 30 minutes to get into town – and heaven help you if you leave downtown later than 3 pm (we made that same mistake two days in a row).
We arrived at Oak Plantation RV Park (click here to read our review) on Wednesday afternoon with a long list of things to do/places to see. A trip to Costco was on that list (see, it’s not all fun!) and Costco turned out to be just 5 miles away, so we knocked that off the list immediately. By the way, it looked just like every other Costco we’ve seen – no porticos, pediments, or piazzas! I also made a reservation for a carriage tour of Charleston for 10 am on Friday. The company we used (on Ron’s recommendation), Classic Carriages, runs one Adults-only tour per day. Since it is Spring Break and there are kids EVERYWHERE, we opted for that one.
On Thursday morning, we headed downtown. Agenda: figure out where to park to catch our carriage tour and how long it would take us, then head to the headquarters of Ft. Sumter National Park to brush up on our Civil War history.
We would have been completely lost without our GPS. These pre-Revolutionary cities built on peninsulas surrounded by ocean, rivers, swamps and bogs don’t lend themselves to easy navigation. There were streets downtown that barely accommodated the width of the Jeep! It is crazy and challenging.
By the time we located our carriage stop for the next morning’s tour, all we wanted to do was find a parking space, abandon the Jeep, and set out on foot. That’s what we did, spending the next hour exploring the Ft. Sumter National Park headquarters (we plan to take the boat trip to the fort on Tuesday). The displays were great, explaining in detail the events and politics leading up to the Civil War (which began with the shelling of Ft. Sumter). Way better explanation than what I (presumably) learned in school!
Then we wandered off downtown, hungry. We had a fresh, delicious lunch at Basil, a Thai restaurant recommended by Ron, viewed the sun-worshipping co-eds from the College of Charleston on the grass at Marion Square (Odel lingered rather longer than I), and took dozens of photos.
Spring has arrived in Charleston. The graceful, creamy dogwood are breathtaking. Great cones of purple are fattening on the wisteria vines, and the azaleas are mounds of brilliant blossoms. Some of the trees are fully leafed out, but many look fuzzy, covered with tiny, vibrant green leaf buds. Pollen falls as a fine, yellow dust, coloring everything, a fresh coat delivered daily.
We finally left the downtown area around 3:30 pm, coming face to face with the reality of Charleston commute traffic. Stop-and-go, gridlocked intersections (in spite signs warning of penalties for blocking intersections), confusing ramps leading to bridges crossing rivers… once again, the GPS was our savior. We were very happy to get home.
We obviously hadn’t learned our lesson, though - at 5 pm we were heading back out onto Hwy 17 (traveling AWAY from Charleston) to do a little sightseeing, then celebrate our anniversary (prior blog) at the Fat Hen restaurant. Have I harped on the traffic enough already? Let’s just say it is astonishing!
On Friday morning, we left home at 9 am, allowing one hour to drive 11 miles, park, and find our carriage. Since we’d already checked out the route and parking, we were right on time.
All carriage tours in Charleston (and there are MANY different companies) proceed from their loading zone to a tiny shed near the historic market. At this point, they turn in a passenger count (they pay a tax per passenger) and receive a carriage license with a number on it, 1 through 4. That number indicates which route the carriage will take. If the guide deviates from that route, s/he pays (personally) a $1100 fine!
Only 20 carriages are allowed out on the tour routes at one time so, if 20 tours are already out, carriage 21 has to wait until a carriage returns – and the license is passed along. These two things (stick to the specified route, and no more than 20 tours out at a time) are designed to keep the residents of Charleston from going berserk, I’m sure, as the carriages definitely add to the congestion and slow-mo traffic.
As we waited for our license (delivered when a returning tour driver ran to the shed to turn his license in), our guide explained all of this to us. She pointed out that tourism makes up 50% of Charleston’s economy – and mentioned to us that Easter and Thanksgiving weekends are Charleston’s busiest. We had planned to visit the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Marion Square until we heard her say, “If you think this is busy, wait until this weekend. It will be crazy down here! Carriages will be waiting half an hour or more to get a license!”
The tour was great. Tour guides in Charleston are licensed only after passing a very stringent test, and we were fascinated by the stories she told. Once the tour ended, we moved the car from the $1/per half hour parking lot to a free spot on the street – well away from the heart of tourist activity – and headed back to our favorite area on foot.
Though we saw many, many wonderful houses on our tour, this was my favorite because of its story. This house is on South Battery Street, right across from White Point Gardens, a two-block park that fronts on the Ashley River at the very tip of the peninsula that holds the oldest sections of Charleston. See the very top of the columns? That is the height of the storm surge when Hurricane Hugo (Category 4) hit Charleston in 1989. The two columns on the right show the greatest damage, revealing brick where the ornate design was battered away. Although the grand home has been repaired, it has not been restored. The lone inhabitant, a woman, lives in the 4 (out of 20+) rooms that remain usable. Quirky, eh?
Did you notice the photo of the big, ornate, cream-colored house captioned “Charleston’s most photographed house”? According to our guide, the husband and wife couldn’t agree on the architectural style for the home, so they split the front in half and each had the design they wanted – notice how the left front side is curved, the right front side square?
I can’t describe how much fun it is to wander the historic area of Charleston. Tiny little alleys, cobblestoned streets (built, like those in Savannah, with the stones used as ballast in the ships that came empty into Charleston harbor to pick up goods), brick streets. The lovely, graceful, “Charleston Single” homes, a design specific to historic Charleston:
"For maximum outdoor living space, the Single was sited far to one side of the lot. Unlike most houses today, in which a wide facade faces the street, the two long sides of the Charleston ran from front to back. On one side, the house was augmented by a long veranda, or piazza, often topped by balconies. The veranda and balconies sheltered doors to the rooms. Thus, the doors could be left open in the heat of the day and even in rain storms. Windows located on the opposite long wall promoted cross ventilation."
Here are two more examples of the Charleston Single, with the front door on the street and the piazzas running the length of the house and lot. Our tour guide said that you might not truly understand the need for the long, shaded piazzas on a nice spring day. “Come back in August”, she said. “During an August tour, it is so hot and humid people in the carriage don’t even turn their heads to look at the houses as we go by; they’re just trying to breathe.”
Historic plaques hang on walls and gates, or on poles in front of pre-Revolutionary buildings – yep, people still live in ‘em. Carriages clop past, walking tours huddle in groups near their leaders, making it easy to pick up additional bits and pieces of history as you wander. It is simply a wonderful way to spend a spring day.
Blog readers/Facebook friends Jesse and Ginger were scheduled to stop by our RV site sometime after 3 pm (our first actual meeting), so we headed home early – 1:30. We made it home by 3 pm, even after making a couple stops on the way. Jesse and Ginger arrived around 4, bearing wine and snacks, and we spent a couple of pleasant hours talking “full timer” talk – favorite campgrounds, workamping, traveling with pets, places to see, places to eat, and gossiping behind the backs of all our mutual friends. :) JUST KIDDIN’!
So, today… given our guide’s warning of the craziness of downtown Charleston over Easter weekend, we stayed home. It’s been a full day of research and planning (where are we going from here??), walking, weeding through more than 100 photos I’ve taken in Charleston. Laundry. Odel did some waxing on Scoopy. We planned tomorrow’s adventure (a day trip to Beaufort, SC), and I finally sat down at 4 pm to catch up on the blog. Its a wrap!