17 October 2013

the grand Charleston adventure

have you ever floated on a cloud of bliss for three days, only for your hometown to rain buckets of tears upon your return? It felt fairly certain, or maybe that was the residual champagne feeling, that we were to stop at our houses only for larger suitcases and the dog before turning right around and returning to Charleston. The rain and falling leaves told us so, or so we told ourselves.

We arrived at the delightful French Quarter Inn Monday at noon, to find Bellinis readied and a place to hold our bags while we explored Charleston. It has been nearly five and a half years since I was last there, and the city seems to have crowded exponentially with visitors. We chose to eat at the bar at Poogan's Porch, a perennial family favorite when visiting, as even at two in the afternoon there was a fifteen minute wait for a table.

It didn't matter: they've revamped the menu from the traditional French-inspired plates I was used to, to a selection of modern Southern classics. The fried chicken sliders were no disappointment, nor were my oldest friend's crab cakes. In western PA, crab cakes are surprisingly easy to find: sad things made mostly of breadcrumbs and the occasional whisper of crab. Not at Poogan's. The sweet tea was delectable, as sweet as the bartender who kept us apprised of new places to go while spinning his way through the never ending drink orders.

I took Gina first to White Point Gardens, so named for the oyster shells used to line the paths, along the Battery and facing the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, as they join to meet the Atlantic Ocean. It is a remarkable bit of green space in a city littered with gardens both public and private, sitting as it does on some of the most valuable real estate on the Eastern seaboard.

The City of Charleston rents the beautiful gazebo in the Gardens by the hour for weddings. As our carriage tour driver later told us, he will often be waiting on a wedding party pickup to leave the gazebo, while watching another take pictures after their ceremony, and a third waiting to enter the structure to say their own vows.

After returning to our beautiful room, we were back on the run for a harbor cruise from the Charleston Sailing School. In possibly the most relaxing three hours of the vacation, we sailed under the Ravenel Bridge and around the harbor. Though the clouds rolled in, there was not a drop of rain. We even managed a glimpse of the setting sun between two cloud banks.

After three hours chatting with Captain William Miller, the owner of CSS, we hustled off again, but not before giggling over the City Marina tagline: "home of the megadock!" We headed to Kaminsky's for dessert and drinks. After that late lunch at Poogan's, splitting a piece of Snickerdoodle Cake with vanilla ice cream turned out to be all we could manage as we pondered the existence of a special sailor's barber who turned out haircuts that looked better after three hours wind than before. Our hair had not held to that standard.

After getting up at four thirty Monday morning, we made our way back to the FQI and quite nearly passed out upon falling across the beds. Of course, the hotel robes and the delicious port I picked up from the evening cookie and desert selection in the lobby did not hurt. We even valiantly tried to watch a little Monday Night Football, but, alas, a long day and fresh air did us in.

Thankfully, the coffee at FQI is exceptional. Tuesday morning we woke early and had breakfast at the hotel before wandering through the cemetery of St. Philips and down Meeting Street to the Gibbes Museum of Art. While the Gibbes hosts a fascinating collection representing the history of Charleston, we were there for the traveling show of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "Photography and the American Civil War."

That exhibition shares not only over two hundred photographs taken during the Civil War, it discusses the prominent photographers of the time, their methods, the burgeoning practice of personal portraits, and the photographic technology of the time.

After taking our time at the museum, which includes a portrait of Virginie, Madame Pierre Gautreau, we continued our wanderings. Most famous now for having been the woman painted by John Singer Sargent in his infamous Madame X, she attempted to regain her reputation by commissioning a number of other portraits. One of those portraits, a stunning and full-size representation of Madame Gautreau in what today would be a beautiful off-white, satin, bridal-style gown, hangs in the Gibbes. Charleston is a city made for long walks in mild weather, stumbling across cafes and semi-private public gardens.

Soon we had to be back at the FQI for our private carriage tour. Carriage tours are a large source of tourist knowledge in Charleston, in which case one sees any number of horse drawn carriages pulling crowds down the streets as drivers, occasionally costumed, declaim the city's history and the cost of recently sold homes in varying deepnesses of the Lowcountry accent. It is also an excellent way to learn the geography of Charleston's often winding streets and take in the architecture. Some carriage drivers are master storytellers. Some are not.

Once we returned to the FQI, we found a picnic waiting for us. Dispatched on a bike taxi, we trundled off to the Waterfront Park for a bountiful meal. The shrimp & grits were delicious: spicy but tempered by the ground corn and paired perfectly with a smashed sweet potato salad. There was fruit and cheese and sparkling grape juice, water, two whole sandwiches {turkey with an onion chutney and grilled portobello mushroom and goat cheese}, plus thick house-made potato chips, and mason jars with ribbon on them as glasses.

Delicious as it all was, it was far too much. Frankly, by this point we were feeling rather too wasteful. Just one of the options would have been more than sufficient, delicious as everything was. We looked in vain for anyone who appeared hungry, even contemplated sending everything to a shelter, but succumbed and returned the basket with the bike taxi rider when she returned. It was a sobering point on a grand adventure, reminding us that while champagne at all opportunities sounds like a lot of fun, it tends to feel rather wasteful.

Soon we were back in the whirlwind, sitting and waiting for the Charleston Water Taxi to make its rounds and swing back by the Park. We hopped on and headed over to Patriot's Point, the home of the USS Yorktown and the take off point for our helicopter tour. Once again, we were provided with champagne, though I remain baffled by the idea that folks can drink champagne while flying in a helicopter. There were too many beautiful sites, and too many fascinating new angles on the Charleston area, and a head-set microphone to contend with instead of drinking.

Though I'm fairly convinced that at a point or two Forrest Andrews,our pilot, wanted to see if he could make us scream, the half hour on the Low Country Helicopter tour was the most exhilarating portion of our trip. Unless, of course, you count my finishing half the bottle of champagne on my own {certainly, people will believe me if I say Gina made me, right?}, then our scamper to make the Water Taxi back before it left the dock at Patriot's Point might have been a teeny bit more exhilarating. We had a beautiful sunset trip across the river, then made our way back to the hotel to become beautiful and glamorous before the exquisitely served dinner at Tristan.

At Tristan, we had perhaps the lightest focaccia bread I've ever tasted. We split the Braised Beets Salad {Goat Cheese, Pistachios, Vegetable Ash, Burnt Honey & Blood Orange Glaze}, then Gina had the Scottish Salmon {Carrots Cooked in Embers, Roasted Shallot, Enlightened Carrot & Coriander Juice} and I the Canadian Duck Breast {Foie Gras Polenta, King Trumpet Mushrooms, Misoyaki Glaze}. My duck was rather more like a rare filet of steak, and incredible. We had espresso and sorbet after, then took a wander in the mild evening air.

The service at Tristan, as with everything connected to the FQI, was impeccable. We were beginning to be convinced that we never wanted to leave Charleston. Gina threatened to become immovable from her bed in case of departure. In the end, we went with complimentary room service from the continental breakfast and lollygagged around on our final morning.

We had no plans beyond our 1:45pm ride to the airport, so we gathered our coffee and left our bags at the front desk and wandered. Perhaps the best weather of our excellent weather trip, Charleston put on a show for our last morning. Walking up the battery, we snuck through the crowds of bus tours, looking for someone who looked capable with a smartphone to take our picture. Instead, we improvised.

Matchy-matchy, we had not intended, especially since I wore a skirt just a shade or two darker than Gina's sweater. When you've known a woman for most of your life {since we were seven...can not believe it has been twenty-seven years of friendship}, this is what happens. We wandered our way up East Bay and over to King, then up some more, managing I don't know how to not buy anything anywhere on King, to Jestine's Kitchen {though nearly everywhere online contends that Jestine's is closed for renovations, it is not} on Wentworth and Meeting for some fried oysters, steamed shrimp, and fried okra, and our last hit of sweet tea.

Now I'm home. The thank you notes are ready to be mailed, my suitcase is unpacked, and I'm already plotting when to return to Charleston. I wonder if I can enter #TakeMetoCHS after winning once?

{note: the majority of this grand adventure came courtesy of a winning package in the #TakeMetoCHS sweepstakes. The French Quarter Inn provided transportation to and from the airport, booked the harbor sail with the Charleston Sailing School, the private carriage tour, and the helicopter tour by Low Country Helicopters, as well as providing two nights' accommodation, with their typical amenities and aplomb, the picnic, and a $100 gift certificate to Tristan}

{photography note: any smaller photos were taken by my iPhone 4, with those taken with the phone in the helicopter by Gina Bianco. Otherwise all photos were taken by Victoria Reid. No reproduction without permission}

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

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