"People come to Charleston, first, for its history and, second, for its food."
These words were uttered by Charleston Area CVB's C. Doug Warner during a recent LGBT media trip to Charleston, South Carolinaand a recent visit to the Palmetto State city showed that it had a lot more to offer than the stereotypical sultry heat.
The first stop in Charleston was Belmond Charleston Place ( 205 Meeting St.; CharlestonPlace.com ), a hotel known far and wide for its elegance and efficiencyeven in the face of a technological glitch and temporarily altered the check-in process for guests ( e.g., manually filling out forms ). Fortunately, staffer Star saved the day.
Besides the visual attractions such as the huge chandelier in the lobby and the twin staircases, there's the Thoroughbred Club, which offers light bites, smooth drinks and cool entertainment.
Our media group was fortunate enough to stay on Belmond's exclusive Club Floorcommonly called the hotel within the hotel. With 72 guest rooms, is floor offers numerous extras, such as a complimentary continental breakfast, afternoon tea, evening hors d'oeuvres, after-dinner cordials and desserts, and full beverage service. As the famous commercial line goes, "membership has its privileges."
However, the hotel offers plenty for all. My spa facial was a soothing ( and pleasantly talkative ) experience, and the health club ( which must be reached by walking through the humid pool area ) was much larger than I've seen at most hotels. There's also shopping available, thanks to plenty of boutiques on the first floor.
Dining at Belmond is a must. The Charleston Grill has earned a AAA Four Diamond Awardand with good reason. Chef Michelle Weaver's menu is divided into four categories ( Pure, Lush, Southern and Cosmopolitan ), and everything I tried was incredibly delicious.
In the mood for food
Fortunately, The Charleston Grill was just the beginning of a culinary journey that showed that you can't wrong in this city, whether you want a casual bite or a more formal meal.
Magnolias Restaurant ( 185 E. Bay St.; magnoliascharleston.com ) was already recommended to me before I departed Chicago, so I was really looking forward to this spot. Stopping by for lunch offered such sinfully tasty items as fried green tomatoes; housemade potato chips with crumbled blue cheese and scallions; and a Caesar salad with fried shrimp. However, feel free to try a fried oyster po'boy, grilled portobello Reuben, Down South egg roll or Charleston crab-cake sandwich.
Lewis Barbecue ( 464 N. Nassau St.; lewisbarbecue.com/ ) is a down-home spot where you can eat inside or outside ( the latter on picnic tables ). For prime beef brisket, pulled pork, turkey breast and/or Texas hot guts ( housemade sausage ), this place can't be beatand there are plenty of sides like cole slaw, potato salad, cowboy pinto beans and green chile corn pudding.
Hominy Grill ( 207 Rutledge Ave.; hominygrill.com/ ) is famed for its Southern-style brunch. Patrons can choose from offerings such as she-crab soup, sesame fried catfish, shrimp and grits, and the appropriately named Charleston Nasty Biscuit ( with fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese and sausage gravy ).
Lastly, be sure to check out Little Jack's Tavern ( 710 King St.; littlejackstavern.com/ ). While there are plenty of drinks at this acclaimed spot, the dinner is worth bragging about as well. The baked egg ( with celery root cream, peas, prosciutto and crusty bread ) are worth the price of admission alone, but there are other goodies, including the shrimp burger.
But don't think for a minute that Charleston is just a place to eatalthough one could just do that.
One could go on the Bulldogs Walking Tour ( 205 Meeting St.; CharlestonPlace.com ). However, given the record-breaking heat ( and, for Charleston, that's saying a lot ), I decided to take the Carriage Tour with Old South Carriage Co. ( 12 Anson St.; OldSouthCarriage.com ).
The guide amiably described the various buildings and streets we navigated for approximately an hour, covering 30 blocks of the historic part of the city. ( One pleasant surprise was seeing a church with a rainbow flag in front that proclaimed, "God is still speaking." ) He also talked about the horses pulling the carriages, detailing everything from the animals' schedule to their care. ( Guests can meet horses during a complimentary 15-minute tour. )
Another option is to take to the water, specifically with The Schooner Pride ( 360 Concord St.; www.schoonerpride.com/ ), which is not LGBT-related, despite the name. The two-hour tour allows riders to take in many sights, from the towering Ravenell Bridge to the schools/pods of dolphins that swim alongside the boats.
Also, there's the Rainbow Market ( 40 N. Market St. ), which showcases dozens of vendors selling everything from decorations to candy bars to clothing. ( An interesting part of this area involved the one vendor who peddled mammy dollsand wouldn't allow any photography of her wares. )
Spilling the LGBTea
As for how LGBT-friendly Charleston is, travelers might be pleasantly surprised, according to locals.
At an LGBT reception at the stunning home of Warner and husband Truman Smith ( complete with an infinity pool in the backyard that overlooks an expanse of marshland ), many insisted that Charleston is basically a blue bubble in a red state. ( One of the attendees at the reception was lesbian activist/philanthropist Linda Ketner, who, in 2008, narrowly lost a U.S. Congressional race to the Republican incumbent. )
Also, while actual LGBT nightspots might be somewhat scarce ( with Dudley's on Ann seeming to be the main one ), people insisted that LGBT individuals can go practically anywhere without being harassed. ( I do intend on testing that theory the next time I go there. )
And here's another gay-positive sign of change: The aforementioned Bulldogs Walking Tour now has an LGBT walking tour calleddrum roll, please"The Real Rainbow Row LGBT Tour." Check out bulldogtours.com/real-rainbow-row-lgbt-tour/ to find out more.
Despite all the fun I had during this trip, there was one stop that made this one of the more emotionally tough media trips on which I embarked: Middleton Place ( 4300 Ashley River Rd.; MiddletonPlace.org )a National Historic Landmark and home to this country's oldest landscaped gardens that was once a plantation.
It's the latter part of that description that put things ( temporarily ) in flux for me and other African-American writer in our journalist groupespecially upon hearing the guides discuss how slaves lived ( and died ) in antebellum days. Also, in showing how owners and workers lived, we saw a shanty that represented a slaves' homecomplete with a large sign that showed the names of all the slaves who lived there ( as well as how much they cost ).
Cue the tears and heavy thoughts. However, it's an undeniable part of our history, and it needs to be acknowledged ( although I was admittedly disappointed there wasn't more of an homage ).
However, the gardens themselves are extremely beautiful and immaculately manicured, the house museum has a treaasure trove of items and factsand the plantation farmyard features a menagerie of animals ranging from pigs to peacocks ( although the smells reminded me why I'm a city person ).
Many thanks go to Belmond Charleston Place for arranging this trip. I do highly recommend Charleston ( which, incidentally, isn't too far from my actual birthplace )for its food, history and friendly people.