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Weekend in Charleston

Jordan Wright
October 9, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Photo credit: Jordan Wright

Historic Charleston

Historic Charleston

Visiting a historic destination naturally brings comparison to our own beloved port of Alexandria, and a few of those thoughts rose idly like bubbles to the surface as I arrived in another beautiful waterfront city.  I was curious to see what had changed since I’d visited two decades earlier, when, during a tour of a stately Southern mansion, a tiny octogenarian docent told our group the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.  It was the South’s right to keep the North out of their business affairs, she quaintly insisted.  Stunned at this declaration, I’m certain my eyes rolled back into my head, but the cat had a firm grip on my tongue and I remained silent amid the small group of visitors.  I still regret I didn’t lean in to challenge her version of history.

The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston’s historic French Quarter

The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston’s historic French Quarter

Since then, things have shifted somewhat.  South Carolina’s governor has removed the confederate flag from the State House, and local African American artists, artisans and chefs are treasured for their unique contributions.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy no longer hold sway in a city whose rich cultural history is driven by some 30,000 college students and a more inclusive vision.  Thankfully, the city’s charm and joie de vivre remains firmly intact.

The lobby at the Belmond Charleston Place

The lobby at the Belmond Charleston Place

The Belmond Charleston Place is a magnificent property in the tradition of America’s grandest hotels.  A recent $30 million renovation, affords it the distinguished cachet of a world-class property.  And with its central location and the city’s ubiquitous pedicabs, sightseeing is a breeze.

Pedicabs are a convenient way to get around

Pedicabs are a convenient way to get around

To up your game, book a suite on the exclusive Club Level.  Complimentary perks include hot buffet breakfasts; a recharge of afternoon tea, sandwiches and pastries; early evening cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; nightcaps and sweet treats; and flutes of champagne all the live-long day.  On the main concourse, amid posh shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, there are three restaurants to choose from.  Be sure to book in advance for the full-service spa with rooftop pool.

Club Level luxury suite at the Belmond Charleston Place

Club Level luxury suite at the Belmond Charleston Place

Within a five-minute walk is the Charleston City Market on Meeting Street.  Rebuilt from the original after a fire in 1841, this National Historic Landmark houses dozens of indoor stalls and is open from 9:30 till 6pm.

Callie’s Biscuits at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit

Callie’s Biscuits at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit

Grab a cat’s head-sized buttermilk biscuit with all the fixins’ at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and shop the stalls for Gullah made sweetgrass baskets, benne wafers, sacks of Carolina Rice, local art, and handmade souvenirs.  Refresh at Lowcountry Lemonade where quaffs are made with seasonal muddled fruit.  Mine boasted sweet local peaches.

Horse-drawn wagons take sightseers around the old city

Horse-drawn wagons take sightseers around the old city

Spanning four city blocks the market leads down to East Bay Street and Waterfront Park with its stately Southern mansions.  Take in sweeping views of the harbor from White Point Gardens, a five-and-a-half-acre park that’s home to a protected Night Heron rookery set amid old oaks.  From there you’re a hop, skip and a jump to the Gibbes Museum, a breathtaking Beaux Arts structure that houses an outstanding collection of American art – both old master and contemporary.

The Gibbes Museum’s magnificent Beaux Arts interior

The Gibbes Museum’s magnificent Beaux Arts interior

Of all the mansions and plantations to tour (book through your concierge to tour Magnolia Gardens, Middleton Place, Boone Hall and Drayton Hall), I discovered what must be the most unusual.  The Italianate-influenced Calhoun Mansion and Gardens borders on the bizarre with its eye-popping floor–to-ceiling collection of fine art, rare antiques and silver collection, and Orientalia.

Calhoun Mansion

Calhoun Mansion

The extraordinarily ornate 1876 mansion is currently owned by a Washington, DC lobbyist.  Our docent was respectfully tight-lipped as to whom, but a bit of sleuthing uncovered DC attorney, Howard H. Stahl, who lovingly restored the once-dilapidated 35-room manor house.

(l-r) Black-eyed pea and rice salad ~ Low country shrimp topped succotash at the Belmond

(l-r) Black-eyed pea and rice salad ~ Low country shrimp topped succotash at the Belmond

In a city renowned for great Southern cooking and countless restaurants, where to eat?  You really can’t go wrong with soulful barbeque, low country cooking or the exceptional local seafood.  But I have a fondness for a certain chef and the particularly stylish way he approaches ingredients.  Circa 1886 is situated within the gardens of the Wentworth Mansion.  Chosen by prestigious Southern Living magazine this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary, it boasts an intimate, intrinsically Southern, candlelit setting that enhances fine dining.  Helmed by Executive Chef Marc Collins, whose talent is playing sweet and savory elements against one another, expect to find unique combinations paired with top drawer wines.

Dishes from Executive Chef Marc Collins at Circa 1886

Dishes from Executive Chef Marc Collins at Circa 1886

Our meal began with a trio of delicate crabmeat concoctions, artichoke pudding with sunflower seeds and espelette pepper, a cold soup of turnip greens with a silken peanut cream, followed by gnudi with truffles and loin of antelope with foie gras and blackberry sauce.  For an unforgettable taste of the South opt for Collins’ signature dessert – honeysuckle ice cream.

An artistically designed dessert featuring honeysuckle ice cream at Circa 1886

An artistically designed dessert featuring honeysuckle ice cream at Circa 1886

Weekends are perfect for brunching at the Marion Square Saturday farmer’s market.

Marion Square Saturday’s farmers market

Marion Square Saturday’s farmers market

Plan ahead for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival (February 28 – March 4 2018).

Jet Blue flies direct to Charleston from Reagan National Airport.

For a pedicab call Bike Taxi – 843 532.8663.

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