Looking for a refreshing mix of art, music, and restaurants devoted to heritage vegetables? Start whistling Dixie with a quick visit to Charleston, South Carolina.
CHARLESTON, South Carolina – If you were writing a math equation, the coastal city of Charleston would sum up all parts of culture, food, festival, history, walking, and Lowcountry hospitality.
WHEN TO GO
It's always the right time to head to Charleston for a shot of Southern charm. But if you had to pick the extra perfect time of year, it would be May when the city gets an infusion of festival-charged energy.
Early May brings the inaugural Charleston Food Film Festival, May 10-11. It will be a feast for the senses with culinary and visual delights from all corners of the globe — from Paris to Tokyo to East Texas. The documentary Ramen Dreams follows noodle expert/chef Keizo Shimamoto, who will be on tap from Japan to demo and serve his famous noodles.
In late May the stage is set for the 37th season of Spoleto Festival USA (May 24-June 9, 2013), founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti to complement Festival dei Due Mondi (the Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy. Over a period of seventeen days and nights, Spoleto presents opera, classical and modern music, theater, and dance. Highlights of this year's festival include the American premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's contemporary opera Matsukake, directed by the acclaimed Chen Shi-Zheng; a double-bill of rarely performed Italian operas, Puccini's Le Villi and Giordano's Mese Mariano. Dance performances include Compagnie Käfig and Spain's renowned Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía, along with performances by tap phenom Jared Grimes and traditional Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa. Topping it all off is the highly anticipated American premiere of a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with puppets.
WHERE TO STAY
The best part of Charleston is that it remains a glorious walking town. Drop off your bags at the historic Planters Inn and request a room on the second floor if you are in the mood for a ghost or two.
Fulton Lane Inn is the cost-effective option.
John Rutledge House Inn is the place for a touch of history.
WHAT TO DO
A light lunch at the culinary anchor S.N.O.B (Slightly North of Broad) kicks off with a sip of something bubbly and fried shad roe. Mainstays like Hominy Grill, with those high-rise biscuits and award-winning shrimp and grits, are great for brunch. Or you can snag a seat before the crowds line up for sweet tea, crunch pickles, fried chicken, and porter-steward collard greens at Jestine's Kitchen (251 Meeting St.; +1-843-722-7224).
King Street is ideal for shopping mainstream and indie boutiques. Indie Heirloom Book Company offers hard-to-find vintage culinary titles. Boutiques like Worthwhile and Alice & Daisy cater to the fashion savvy. Indigo & Cotton does a modern take on seersucker.
Stroll through the various graveyards (like historical favorite Saint Philips Episcopal Church Cemetery) and peek down the narrow corridors and secret gardens of Charleston's grand homes. Feel like a walk back to 1870? Try Magnolia Plantation and its stunning gardens. Or check out the Gibbes Museum.
Sunset drinks at the rooftop bar of the Vendue Inn always entice. Locals order Palmetto lager and enjoy watching the day slip away. Try your luck scoring a coveted, quiet outdoor courtyard table at Peninsula Grill and order the steak tartare or foie gras with Carolina peach jam.
Neither Husk nor chef Sean if-it-doesn't-come-from-the-South-it-doesn't-come-through-my-kitchen Brock need an introduction; a meal here is a must. The airy dining space is a wise choice for the diner who appreciates food rooted in the culinary past of the Carolinas. Husk's bar is a real highlight, mixing modern mixology with a woodsy, ramshackle vibe (and Paul Bunyan-esque tenders to match). Note the prevalance of preserved berries, syrups, and okra. And a healthy range of Kentucky bourbons.
Sleep is in order after the gastronomical pleasures you encounter in Charleston. (You'll be hungry come morning.)
OUTSIDE THE CITY LIMITS
A glorious nature preserve called Kiawah Island beckons with snowy egrets and lowcountry mise-en-scene. Your beach cruiser easily lets you have your own guided tours. The Sanctuary, which backs up to the Atlantic Ocean, is aces and is also one of Fathom's Most Romantic Hotels in the USA. Pam Harrington and Beachwalker offer villa and home rentals. Although I'm not a golfer, I'm extremely fond of Robert A.M. Stern's flawlessly designed Ocean Course Clubhouse at the island's end. Start with rosé and oysters under the compass of the bar. End in a rocking chair outside, soaking up lush panoramic views.
Read more on Fathom: Love Letter to Kiawah Island.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly: Landing in Charleston (CHS) just got easier: Southwest Airlines is in on the action. Check out the Spoleto festival schedule and local hotel partners list for specific trip-planning info on Spoleto.
See all locations mentioned in this story. (Google Maps)