Carrie Bradshaw with a southern accent? It’s not so hard to imagine in Charleston, S.C., where many of the fashionable women are bedecked in boas and men don ascots bright as the pastels of the city’s 18th and 19th century residences. Even the trees are dressed up: the Spanish moss is gauzily adorned and palm trees look positively wigged.
Although billed as the city of churches, Charleston’s American Theater (446 King St., (843) 853-0246), a 1942 art deco movie palace, brings in each new week by airing “Sex and the City” on the big screen. While a popular scene, Charleston’s streets, like Manhattan’s, invite the city outside for roving. There’s no Central Park, but Charleston does have the Battery, a park at the tip of the old downtown’s peninsula, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet. An elevated harbor promenade skirts the Battery’s main square. From the promenade, there is a dramatic view across the water of distant Fort Sumter, for those unwilling to take a ferry out to the island. Even the grand homes seem to crowd together for a better view. For those longing to snoop through one of the mansions, the early 19th century Edmonston-Alston House’s doors are open for a minimal fee (21 E. Battery, (843) 722-7171).
A few blocks up from the Battery, the Dock Side Theatre (135 Church St.) offers live theater. And for art lovers, there’s a smart new contemporary art center, the City Gallery at Waterfront Park (One Vendue Range), which opened its doors this year.
Waterfront Park is on the Cooper River just a few blocks up the peninsula from the Battery off Vendue Street and is the perfect place to unwind. A pier with numerous benches and a few swings invites passersby to linger, as does a public fountain filled with prancing, smiling and posturing children.
An appetite can be worked up quickly in Charleston’s heat and humidity, thick as much of its food. Near the Battery and Waterfront Park, there are two standout eateries on East Bay Street: the Blossom Cafe (171 East Bay St., (843) 722-9200) and S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad at 192 E. Bay St.,). S.N.O.B. features Maverick Grits, where shrimp, country ham and smoked sausage all find room enough to play.
Back on King St., savory fare from all over the globe awaits the adventurous, including most notably the Vietnamese and Thai fusion cooking at My Tho (304 King St., (843) 965-5091) and the Greek specialties served up at the cozy Olde Towne Grille and Seafood (229 King St., (843) 723-8170). King St. also has numerous restaurants specializing in local cuisine, including low country southern cooking at Alice’s Fine Foods (470 King St., (843) 853-9366).
Seafood restaurants are as common as salt in the air in the city of churches. There’s low country seafood at Fish (442 King St., (843) 722-FISH). A block east of King on Meeting St., Hyman’s (215 Meeting St., (843) 723-6000) offers full plates of seafood at fish camp prices. Those ready to pass out after a big meal may be interested in a nearby Embassy Suites (341 Meeting St., (843) 723-6900), which occupies the old military school for the Citadel. The military school, founded in 1842, now is located a few blocks away (171 Moultrie St.).
Spires from the 19th century still dominate the Charleston skyline, but there also are other religious sites of interest. Congregation Beth Elohim (90 Hasell St., (843) 723-1090), the country’s second oldest synagogue and oldest one continuously in use is in Charleston. And the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum (2 Desportes Court, (843) 727-0691) pays tribute to an African American lawyer from Charleston who gave up his practice to teach the Baha’i principles of religious tolerance nationwide.
For pagans, Charleston has myriad beaches, offering sunny respites from the long shadows of steeples. Pawleys Island boasts elegantly shabby cottages, while Sullivan’s Island truly is more shabby. Isle of Palms has public access to beaches as well as the exclusive Wild Dunes Resort. Plus there are numerous other beaches: there is no lack of ways to get salty and wet here. For the newly bronzed bored with their flip flops, King St. offers several tempting venues, including Rangoni of Florence (270 King St., (843) 577-9554), Bob Ellis (332 King St., (843) 722-2515), and Saks Fifth Avenue (211 King St., (843) 853-9888).
Is Charleston the old New York? Carrie might type into her laptop and look up in wonder. You might consider packing up your laptop and visiting the city with one foot in a time capsule and the other in all that is new, and unearth your own answer.
© Allen Smith 2003
Originally from Durham, North Carolina, Allen Smith is the editor of the Americans With Disabilities Act Compliance Guide. He has had poems published in numerous literary journals, including Chicago’s Off the Rocks, Crucible and Maryland Poetry Review, and has published an essay in the Urban Hiker.