Ask a friend to name an American city and the chances are that few will trump up with Charleston. I’ve just been out and not only is this South Carolina charmer a brilliant city to visit, but the surrounding state offers a swathe of things to see and do.
Getting to Charleston has long been tricky for UK based travellers as there were no direct flights from anywhere in Europe. Handily British Airways have just started flying from Heathrow out to South Carolina’s second largest city, really opening up the state.
I touched down on the third-ever flight to Charleston and was instantly won over by the warm southern welcome. This friendly vibe permeated everywhere during my visit, from hotels and restaurants, through to shops and bars, and on to beaming faced tour guides.
My first base was the grand Hotel Bennett (www.hotelbennett.com) in Charleston. This stately dame only opened in January this year, but already it has become the place to stay. It is awash with hardwoods and marble, with plush guestrooms and palatial public spaces. It also enjoys a prime location overlooking the green lung of Marion Park and the rooftop pool comes with sweeping views.
I didn’t get the chance to dine at any of the Bennett’s restaurants, but that wasn’t a problem as Charleston has emerged as a real foodie hub, part of the reason why it keeps winning awards in America from a slew of travel publications. Last year Charleston was awarded the title by Conde Nast Traveler of ‘Best Small US City’.
This seriously foodie city boasts a rich bounty of local produce from the Atlantic and the hinterland. Tuck in at Tradd’s was one of my favourite restaurants – in grand surrounds I feasted on fresh oysters and prawns as a starter, before a delicious lobster gnocchi main. At the Darling Oyster Bar I savoured a boat fresh seafood platter followed by South Carolina crab linguine. At Prohibition it was all about the tasty sharing plates and cocktails, while my most elegant meal came at the Charleston Grill, who specialise in US Prime Beef steaks – their crab cakes were divine too.
Many Americans flock to Charleston just to experience its foodie scene. I, though, had history firmly on my mind too. Charleston and South Carolina played a pivotal role in the American War of Independence, while the first shots of the American Civil War rang out over Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Boat trips are on hand to ease you out to this iconic fort.
I also took another boat trip aboard Schooner Pride. This gorgeous old sailing ship proved the ideal way to discover Charleston’s abundance of water. The city has very much been built around the harbour ever since the first British settlers sailed here in 1670. Until 1996 Charleston housed a major naval base and the maritime links live on – you can visit historic submarines, battleships and even a giant retired aircraft carrier at the city’s museums.
A walking tour is a great way to get a feel for the rich history of the oldest city in South Carolina. I joined up with Bulldog Walking Tours and found myself deep into the American War of Independence and the American Civil War. My guide delved back to evoke the time the British finally occupied the city after it had defiantly held out in 1780 and the day when George Washington stepped triumphantly ashore in 1791.
You could easily spend a week, or even two, in Charleston, but as I’d heard South Carolina offers much more I headed out of town bound for Lake City. This modest ‘city’ of only 7,000 inhabitants was but a blip on the map until it chose to foster the arts. All across town cultural venues have sprung up alongside a blossoming of one off events and dedicated festivals, including the massive ArtFields (www.artfieldssc.org), which has been hailed as ‘The South’s Most Engaging Art Event’.
The minute I arrived Lake City impressed with striking murals adorning a swathe of walls. I also checked out the TRAX Visual Art Center, one of South Carolina’s largest art centres at 5,000 sq ft, which only opened last year in a reborn old warehouse. Next up was Jones-Carter Gallery, a state-of-the-art gallery that hosts myriad temporary exhibitions and also stars during ArtFields.
My last arty stop in Lake City was at a plush hotel, the Inn at the Crossroads. Here I found a portrait of Apple founder Steve Jobs. On closer inspection I discovered it was made up entirely of old Apple products, bits of old phones and computers – strikingly different recycling and very Lake City.
My next stop was at the famed beach resort of Myrtle Beach. This is a no-holds-barred beach playground, a sort of American Blackpool with a much better beach and much more reliable weather. My base was the Residence Inn by Marriott (www.marriott.com), which lay right down by the famous sands with direct access to the Atlantic beach.
Myrtle Beach is a beach resort set up firmly with family fun in mind. I made off to explore the local mall culture at Broadway at the Beach. This is America writ large with all the big brand name stores you are familiar with and a litany of fast food joints where the portions are massive. It’s infectiously fun if you can ditch the traditional British reserve for a few hours.
Broadway at the Beach is also home to Ripley’s Aquarium, where you can come face to face with stringrays, turtles and hulking sharks. They also offer a very unusual experience – the chance for a sleepover with sharks! Then there is the giant Myrtle Beach SkyWheel. Take a trip on this and you get a real feel for just how expansive Myrtle Beach is as the sands stretch off into the horizon both north and south.
My highlight in Myrtle Beach was the Myrtle Beach State Park. This green lung lies just south of the main resort and is a protected nature reserve. You can amble here along the beach. A network of trails then lead off deep into the thick forests and dense undergrowth. Above I spotted an eagle soaring in the thermals, while in a murky pond I saw water snakes slithering through the shallows. You can fish for your own dinner in the park and cook it at one of their bbqs too – an experience at the other end of the scale from a day at the mall.
Another coastal destination tempted, one that has shown a remarkable resilience to come back after been buffeted by multiple hurricanes. Georgetown is South Carolina’s third largest city. Historically it has Native Indian heritage fused with Spanish and British colonial influences.
I met a local historian for lunch at the Claw House in Murrells Inlet. As he talked me through the story of the Georgetown area we enjoyed shrimps with grits. This is proper southern cuisine, plump shrimps on a bed of what looks like and tastes a bit like porridge, albeit laced with cream and cheese. It was much better than it sounds!
I was bound for one last night in Charleston. This small city may not really be on the travel map yet for UK travellers, but with those new British Airways flights and such a multitude of history and modern attractions I’ll wager you’ll be hearing a lot more about this southern charmer and the beguiling state that swirls around it.
British Airways (www.ba.com) now fly direct to Charleston from London Heathrow with return flights from £547. Car hire is available from www.holidayautos.com. Lonely Planet’s Georgia and the Carolinas guidebook has useful information.
Hotel of the Fortnight
Dalmahoy Hotel & Country Club – Looking for a great value retreat in the countryside with all the trimmings, which is still within striking distance of Edinburgh? You just found it. Dalmahoy swims in serious history dating back centuries as it was a stronghold of the Douglas family. Today it is a four star resort hotel that boasts two golf courses, a swimming pool and a gym. They have just spent £2 million as part of an ongoing major revamp, with the 208 bedrooms and seven suites given a striking new look by Scottish interior designers 10 Design. I was impressed with their dining options too, both the grand Pentland Restaurant and the lighter fare served at the James Braid Bar and Brasserie down by the pool. Doubles from £77. www.dalmahoyhotelandcountryclub.co.uk
Cheap flights – A key piece of advice when looking for great value flights is to not only consider a choice of airlines, but also be flexible on your airport. I’ve just been looking at flights down to Fuerteventura from Edinburgh for next February. I could get my family of four down there for just over £1,200. Rather than settle for that I searched using www.skyscanner.com (my favourite of the aggregator flight sites). I found flights from Glasgow for just over £800 and then, even better, flights from Newcastle for under £600!