Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stumbling across Charleston

"Hey look, a Maserati dealership," said Pam, as we motored into Charleston. That sign of affluence was a portent of more to come, and to tell the truth we didn't have a clue what to expect on our little visit to Charleston. This one-day detour came about because we have set such a good pace driving across the country, thanks mostly to the great weather, that we had a day up our sleeve as we planned our visit to Savannah.

"We could just stay an extra day in Savannah," I offered to Pam, but she poked her finger at Charleston on the map and said "what about there – that's in South Carolina, so that'll make another state we'll visit." So, an overnight stay in Charleston it was. We expected it to be a bit like Savannah, without the fancy layout of streets and squares. It turned out to be something very different indeed, an up-market surprise in fact.

Charleston feels like a town with plenty of money. As you drive in, the rivermouth harbour is filled with very fancy, large motor cruisers and yachts, and as we pottered around the streets heading for the lunchtime restaurant zone, grand homes lined the way.

Cruise ships stop here (this one had the not very classy name of 'Carnival Fantasy') and the stylish new bridge across the river fits in with the image as well.

When booking ahead for hotels I should have realised what was in store at Charleston. Most of the downtown hotels were asking anywhere between $300 and $500 for a room on Saturday night. Gulp! So we didn't stay downtown for once, instead staying out on the edge of downtown, the paupers' patch, for a much more modest fee. Meanwhile, back at the $500 fancy place that's harbourside, even their streetside window boxes were upmarket deluxe.

After a pleasant lunch at a local cafe, we went wandering to check out the shopping, and we soon found this place. Now, this photo is not one of ours (I pinched it off Google Images, but it'll do, except that it lacks the throngs of shoppers present when we visited). We were told these were the 'French markets' but they are in fact the old Slave Markets of Charleston. In this photo you can see the front of one low, wide pavilion about 80 yards long. It leads to a second, identical building, then a third one. Each was crammed with stallholders selling their wares, but the goods for sale weren't just the usual T-shirts and caps for tourists: artisans sold their hand-made crafts and well-to-do shoppers already decked out in designer clothes shopped for expensive 'bargains'.

Most notable here were the many local Gullah people making and selling their sweetgrass baskets. Instead of spending ages explaining the craft here in detail, here's a link to one article I found on Google. The short story is that Gullah people arrived here late in the 16th century as slaves and brought with them their basket-making skills from Africa, which they adapted to local plants, notably sweetgrass, or Cabbage Palm, now South Carolina's state plant emblem. Many skilled artisans make these baskets, and any of these pictured would probably cost between $100 and $200 each, or more. It takes time to make these very sturdy, long-lasting baskets, and the prices barely cover the long hours of labour. I can't remember how many basket-making artisans there were at the markets, but there were dozens, and their prices were identical. We just couldn't afford the ones we liked.

After an hour or two of shopping we went wandering, then later on driving, as it soon became apparent that Charleston's elegant older-style residential area is far too big to walk around. The trees here don't have much of the Spanish moss seen in Savannah, but the houses are, if anything, grander and speak of more affluence. Most are weatherboard (clapboard), two storeys and well-kept. Here's a few more shots of them...

We arrived late-ish for lunch so decided to make lunch our main meal of the day, and it was very nice. As we then lazed around in our hotel room, tired as can be from all the walking, looking for a cable movie to watch on TV, we picked up a very nicely produced 'Charleston Living' magazine and discovered that we were not eating out in one of the most famous towns for food on the East Coast. Well, we had never intended to come here, and we of course had done no research whatsoever about the place, and so we missed out on trying one of the many interesting and innovative restaurants featured within the pages of 'Charleston Living'. We comforted ourselves with thoughts about how pricey they would have been, anyway. All I can say is that if you take our tips about visiting Savannah seriously and do plan a trip there, add Charleston to the itinerary, it's only 100 miles north of Savannah, but save up for it, too.

Having left Charleston the next morning for the 300-mile drive to Atlanta, we did the first part of that trip by our favourite means: touring the backroads through all the little towns and villages. Gosh there are some cute houses along the way!

Deeper inland we even came across a house where almost everything was covered in Spanish moss. Maybe they're originally from Savannah.

The rest of the trip up to Atlanta had its moments. In the small town of Bamberg, South Carolina, there was only one restaurant open for lunch that Sunday, Rusty and Paula's, and it proved to be a real find, a buffet of home-cooked southern-style soul food, and in Tummy Time 9 we'll show you what we had for lunch there, and say farewell to the delicious home-cooked food of the south at the same time.

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