James Island & Charleston

Joe Riley Waterfront Park

The best accommodations option for our venture into Charleston was the Hip Island House on James Island, 15 minutes from downtown Charleston. Online, it looked like a mid-century (which has become code for 1950s-60s) gem, but, in reality, it felt more like a frat house on the morning of parents’ weekend. Kitchen drawers stuck upon opening, burnt baking tray, and the plastic containers for leftovers were old plastic pints from Chinese restaurants. When I came in through the front door, I expected to have beer bottles flying past my head like that scene in Animal House when Flounder brings his attractive cousin to the Toga party.

Hip Island House

Couple that with expected highs in the low 50s for our trek through Charleston, and my lack of running due to my herniated disc acting up, and I’ve gotta work a little to remember how fortunate we are to be on this adventure — a good problem to have.

After consulting our go-to's, the New York Times 36 Hours (whenever there is one for a spot we’re hitting) and the guidebooks Spence gave us as parting gifts, we headed into town mid-afternoon, parked by our dinner reservation at Basic Kitchen, and walked east to get a drink and chat with Zoltar on the water at The Rooftop at The Vendue, the #1 rooftop bar in Charleston, according to vendue.com 😊. Brisk day, as they all seem to be in early December, but the sun was out, so we walked on that side of the street (love Louis’ version of that song!).

At the venue at the Vendue, we had what’s become our signature elixirs for this leg of the excursion:

- an Old Fashioned for me, as we’re in the south and 95% of Bourbon is made in Kentucky. You know what they say, “When in Rome” (not a typo). This is probs as close to that state as we’re gonna get, no disrespect to the land of “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” (state motto).

- a Caroltini for my Bride. What, you’ve never heard of a Caroltini? It’s vodka (Grey Goose or Tito’s preferred), just enough cranberry juice to make it pink, add some lemon, and mint — yes, mint — shaken and poured into a martini glass that’s been stored in those same freezers that hold the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for C-19, i.e., really cold. (Editor’s note: Carol hates this branding idea.)

We drank in the skyline and noted that there wasn’t much of it, lots of lovely church spires jutting into the sky, which is why its moniker is the Holy City, but that’s it. And as we found out on our tour the next day, it seems like they had a lot to pray about here in the early days.

Chatting with Zoltar

We bounced down a block east to the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, named after one of the longest-serving mayors in US history — 40 years, from 1975–2016. He’s still ticking and is credited for much of the city’s revitalization. The space juts out into the Cooper River just enough to give you a great view while sitting on swings made for two, of the Ravenel Bridge to the north, completed in 2005, and the Fort Sumter National Monument to the south, where the Civil War shit initially hit the fan. Real nice spot!

Sauntering back for dinner we happened upon Philadelphia Alley, which dates back to 1751 and has the feel of it — in the best sense. Got us excited for the next morning’s walking tour!

Then it was dinner time at Basic Kitchen, chosen for its combination of eating garden out back and space heaters. They’re hard to find, and in this winter of C-19, there should be an app for that! Get to work somebody!

In addition to the logistics, we picked this venue, as we do 99% of eateries these days due to its heart-healthy cuisine. I’m not a foodie — but you HAVE to come to this restaurant and try their corn ribs — not a typo. If you search on the dish, you’ll see that apparently, it’s a thing. We never heard of it before, but it was delish. Carol will definitely be serving them it summer at Forest Lake. The net is; cut an ear of corn in half, then quarter it down the cob (which acts as a bone), fry/bake it briefly to puff up the kernels, then treat it like ribs, adding dry rub or sauce.

Another favorite vacation ritual of ours is chatting up the locals. Great way to get the feel for what it’s like to LIVE somewhere, as opposed to just viewing the geographic icons and checking the box. Our boys will each do an involuntary eye roll when they read this, after years of being embarrassed by us calling across tables and asking, “Excuse me, but…”. Due to these times, the pickins are slim, but chatting up the wait staff is always money in the bank. Tonight, it was our hostess Robin who grew up in Lambertville, NJ, and felt NYC was too overwhelming. So, when the proprietors of the restaurant she worked in in the Lower East Side decided to open this restaurant in Charleston, it seemed like a Three Bears/Momma Bear scenario for her, a just right-sized city! She’s been here for two years and hasn’t looked back.

The next morning, we did what we usually like to start our visit to a new city with, a Free Tours by Foot. We took one with dear friends of ours in Greenwich Village years ago, and we’ve been hooked ever since. We’ve taken them in various parts of NYC, two different ones in Stockholm, and they’ve never disappointed — including today. Our guide for Historic Charleston, Scott Nelson, had that secret sauce — passion, coupled with great knowledge, empathy, and humor, to bring the city to life.

I won’t bore you with too many details, but the overarching context was how much the use of enslaved humans — a term which appropriately disrupts my mindset as opposed to the term slaves, built the wealth of this city, and I respectfully submit, much of the wealth of our country.

Tour highlights included:

- walking into an empty Dock Street Theater, which occupies the site of the first building in the 13 colonies designed for use as a theater. An early notable thespian who performed there was Junius Brutus Booth, the patriarch of a family of actors, which included John Wilkes Booth

- The Pink House, a building that had been standing since 1712, arguably the second oldest residence in Charleston

- The Slave Mart, where, after Uncle Toms Cabin was published in 1852 and became the second largest-selling book after the Bible, slave auctions were moved indoors. This “Mart” was operational from 1856–1863

- Rainbow Row — thirteen pastel-colored Georgian row houses

- Remnants of the original wall that surrounded the city of Charles Town, founded by the British in 1670, to fend it off from the Spanish to the south, the French to the north, and pirates in the Cooper River, due east, which included Black Beard, who held a harbor blockade for six days in 1718

- The home that Stephen Colbert grew up in, and where his grandma still resides, overlooking the Cooper River, near the Carolina Yacht Club

Post-tour, we chowed down out back at the Brown Dog Deli with a couple of dachshunds and their owners, for the happy recap. Coming here right after Savannah, you can’t help but compare the two. At the end of the day, they’re both greeeaaaatttttt, just in different ways. As far as vibe goes, if you want honky-tonk and can’t do Nawlins, Savannah’s the spot. You can walk the streets with a Solo cup (no glass) in hand, while Charleston is more buttoned-up. Household income there is 36% higher there than in Savannah as of 2020, and it feels that way.

As I write this, my one regret is that we forgot to pay our respects at the Mother Emanuel AME Baptist Church where nine worshipers were killed during Bible study on June 17th, 2015, by a 21-year-old white supremacist. Yet another reason to go back to the Holy City. 24 hrs. doesn’t do it justice. Like my childhood friend, Howard Alan Hoffman, often says, “That’s why they make tomorrows!”

Kids are off the payroll, home is sold, spending the next six months roaming the U.S.A. airbnbing it and working virtually to find our next Happy Place!