Few places outshine South Carolina's romantic low country when it comes to a memorable summer getaway. Although we wish that airfares were sometimes lower, they'll come down again once the kids are back in school (around August 17 or so). Charleston, the region's star city and one of the South's most appealing destinations, has more things to do than can comfortably be listed in a short round-up, but here are nine of my favorites.
An Amazing Art Scene
Charleston is known for its historic charm, but it also boasts a vibrant contemporary arts scene well worth exploring. Start with a visit to the College of Charleston's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, located in an attractive new space on Calhoun Street.
Charleston remains remarkably independent from the outside world; it may be a small city, but it manages to sustain a healthy number of unique shops, particularly as you move north and away from the most touristy bits of the historic center. Start a crawl of Upper King Street -- perhaps the best shopping strip in town, even in trying times likes these -- with a visit to Blue Bicycle Books; make sure to check out new shops coming in on nearby Cannon Street. Take a breather just a block off King at St. Phillip Street's chic Hope & Union, the city's best coffee bar, not to mention one of its most beautiful café spaces.
The Beaches (Of Course)
Charleston's got the harbor, but just minutes away, the charming village of Sullivan's Island has the ocean and pristine sand. Explore the appealing, mostly residential island on foot. Follow up with a stop at Poe's Tavern, the town's coolest pub, for beers and burgers.
In recent times, Charleston's gone high-end, attracting wealthy travelers from around the globe. This means really luxurious (and really pricey) hotels such as Charleston Place, which feels more like an urban resort, with its multiple restaurants, shopping and a spa. Even if you don't stay over, book a massage; spa guests gain access to the hotel's excellent health club, which features a saltwater pool under a retractable roof. (And if Charleston Place is a bit pricey, you'll find many budget choices over at TripAdvisor).
The best thing about the city's restaurant-of-the-moment, Husk, isn't the restaurant at all. The real action is right across the alley, in a beautifully renovated old brick building, where you'll find the Bar at Husk. Squeeze your way in - it gets crowded - and ask to see a cocktail menu, filled with excellent southern classics, including the Sazerac. Just a few blocks away, the more laidback, speakeasy-ish Gin Joint makes for a sophisticated second stop, with more classic drinks and house-cured meats for nibbling.
A short drive from Charleston, Kiawah Island is one of the country's top golf resorts, featuring five championship courses in privileged oceanfront locations, all centered around one of the East Coast's most luxurious resort hotels, The Sanctuary. Any links lover should at least glimpse what life is like on the island, if not spend a couple of days of serious play.
One of the best things about Charleston is how long you can be there without ever needing your car. The core of the city -- south of the Route 17 highway -- is compact, safe and walkable. Start your exploration with a morning on foot in the prettiest part of town, the prized South of Broad neighborhood, featuring an embarrassment of beautiful residential architecture and offering expansive harbor views from along the breezy Battery. (For best results, read the Pat Conroy novel, "South of Broad," before visiting.) Guided walking tours are provided by The Original Charleston Walks among other organizations.
Charleston loves to eat, and supports a lot of really good, high-end restaurants. But if you're looking to cut through the hype and just want to go to where the food is best and most consistent, head directly to FIG. The name is an acronym: Food Is Good. Simple? Yes. So is the restaurant itself, with a fun, neighborhood bistro feel that welcomes more locals than tourists on some nights. The food -- smart, carefully-sourced New American -- is equally accessible, too. You really can't go wrong here. And if you eat just one thing on your next visit to Charleston, it should be that famous low country dish, shrimp and grits. Simple to make, impossible to master, try the rendition at Anson, a Charleston classic where the grits are house-made (grown and produced, yes) and topped with not only juicy shrimp but bacon and roasted tomatoes, too.
The Lovely Low Country
Coming to Charleston and not getting out into the quieter parts of the low country is like coming to New York City and not seeing Central Park. You can skip it, but you'd be missing out big time. At least once during your stay, hop in the car and head out into the wilds; a great destination is bucolic Beaufort, one of South Carolina's most perfectly formed and preserved old towns, you might just find yourself wishing you'd planned a vacation here instead.
Find Airfarewatchdog's latest list of cheap fares, on Southwest Airlines and other carriers, into Charleston and nearby Myrtle Beach here.