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Palmetto-ing to Charleston SC- - Contrasted With New Orleans

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Jan 1st, 2012, 08:16 AM
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Palmetto-ing to Charleston SC- - Contrasted With New Orleans

*Logistics*

This year, in conjunction with a visit to my parents in the Washington DC ‘burbs for Christmas, I decided to tag on a visit to Charleston…a city that prior to December 27th I had never seen before. My uncle lives in nearby Beaufort SC but his girlfriend lives in Charleston, so a major reason for this trip was to pay them a long overdue visit. Since I very much enjoy train rides, I opted to take the daytime Palmetto train from DC and returned northward from Charleston to New York City via the overnight Silver Meteor sleeper train.

*Introduction and Contrast with New Orleans*

Prior to this visit, I had imagined Charleston to be very much like New Orleans, both venerable historic Southern cities with roughly similar vegetation and climates, both known for their architecture and cuisine. What I discovered however is while the two cities mentioned in “Gone with the Wind” share the above in common, to my eyes, they have saliently different personalities.

The predominant right angles and crisp lines of Charleston’s streets, buildings and shutters bespeak of a degree of 19th century uniformity. The buildings in Charleston I found to be immaculate, stately, and imposing, which led me to think of the words “patrician”, “haughty” and even “square”. There seemed to exude a quest for perfection in the pristineness and the grandeur ubiquitous throughout the city’s core. New Orleans in contrast seemed to me to be less planned, more organic in its formation, which created more of a mish-mash, a patchwork quilt of architectural style. While certainly, there are pockets of genteelness, and equally stately, patrician-seeming buildings peppered throughout New Orleans, there’s something more laid-back and laissez les bons temps rouler (sorry to repeat that cliché expression) about the overall vibe of the Crescent City.

Perhaps you might think after reading the last paragraph that I had a negative impression of Charleston. Au contraire, as I appreciate friends whose characters differ in ways similar to these two cities, I appreciated the cities for their differences too. I greatly respected that Charlestonians have been so diligent and remarkably successful in their efforts of preserving the character of the walk-able historic downtown peninsula. While the unremitting elegance of the “elite”-seeming neighbourhoods south of Calhoun Street might lead one to imagine the populace looking down their nose at those “not in the club”, I found those I interacted with in Charleston to have an unflagging hospitality and easy friendliness. Plus, I’ll spell it out: Charleston is a beautiful city at the confluence of the Ashley & Cooper Rivers, with palmettos, more than a smattering of cobblestone/brick streets, genteel parks/fountains and unrelentingly handsome architecture. It was seemingly impossible for me to NOT be seduced as I ambled through the storied streets.

*Coming up… Coming via the Palmetto… Also, what did I do in Charleston? Where did I stay in Charleston? *
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Jan 1st, 2012, 08:49 AM
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Jan 1st, 2012, 12:04 PM
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Daniel -- that's a very good assessment

I loved both cities, but their personalities are very, very different. Charleston sort of, for me, comprises everything good about the old south. The buildings are gorgeous, immaculately kept, the gardens are lovely, the peo are elegant & incredibly gracious. The city is genteel & romantic.

New Orleans, on the other hand, is a city devoted to excess: too much food, too much drink, too much music, too much sex ..... the city has a dark underbelly that is both repellent & fascinating, & one gets the feeling that voodoo could actually be real.

Both have amazing food, btw
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Jan 2nd, 2012, 08:37 AM
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What a treat to find your report this morning, Daniel. You have visited two of my favorite Southern towns, Charleston and Beaufort. I look forward to the next installment.
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Jan 2nd, 2012, 08:57 AM
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Interesting report Daniel--I look forward to reading more.

I've lived both in New Orleans and Charleston's sister city of Savannah, and your assessment of the two is dead on!
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Jan 2nd, 2012, 11:33 AM
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*Palmetto Train DC-Charleston*

I’d taken the Amtrak’s Silver Meteor sleeper car from DC-Florida in the past (which travels along the same route as the Palmetto), and for some reason I wasn’t expecting that the Palmetto was going to offer much in the way of new visuals for me. However, leaving DC at 10am and arriving in Charleston at 7:15pm, one sees the Virginia, North Carolina and even a bit of the South Carolina portion of the track during daylight, which if running on time is generally not the case with either the northbound or the southbound Silver Meteor train.

So, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by the estuaries in the vicinity of Quantico VA and getting the peek at towns I don’t know that I’d ever see otherwise such as Quantico, Fredericksburg, Ashland, Emporia VA, Rocky Mount and Fayetteville NC. The train passes right by the stately buildings at Quantico, the charm of dignified Randolph-Macon College and the wooden wide-porch homes of Ashland, as well as the current frothing over rocks as one crosses the James River from a high bridge south of Richmond VA. I even enjoyed the early winter vistas of the northern South, with the orange-red leaves carpeting the landscape beneath the seemingly never-ending thin barked skeletal trees, periodically criss-crossed by streams and occasionally broken by the sight of an occasional bog.

*The Vendue Inn*

For $150/night for an Interior Queen Room, I felt this inn was an incredible offering. Not only was the Vendue Inn centrally-located on the Historic Peninsula right next to Waterfront Park in Charleston, but I found the staff upbeat, efficient and exuded hospitality. There was an elegance here that I’m not accustomed to (and honestly don’t demand) at inns I’ve stayed at in the past… bellhops to greet you, innovatively designed modern sinks and showers in the immaculate bathrooms, Charleston Chew chocolates and a greeting card welcoming me in the well-maintained comfortable bedroom, gilded mirrors and period-piece portraits in the hallways, handsome chairs in the sitting areas. The included breakfast here was thoughtfully prepared (I didn’t think I liked grits until I tried the variety on offer here, much more meal-like, flavourful and not so goopy… then again, ill-educated on the subject, I’ve probably only eaten the low-quality instant variety in the past), served in an airy, elegant dining room. My favourite part of the stay however may have been the milk and home-baked cookies served each evening (warm, with different varieties on offer, fresh out of the oven) at 9pm in the lobby.

*Coming up: Activities in Charleston*
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Jan 2nd, 2012, 11:37 AM
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But let me tell you that without the vision of Joe Riley, the current mayor of Charleston, it was headed toward urban renewal instead of urban restoration in the 70's.
The two cities are very different, but I do think they are both our most "european" cities--walkable historic districts, good food, ambience.
I agree with "old South" for Charleston. NOLA is much more of a meeting of cultures--maybe even a smackdown. And I also agree, NOLA makes you think voodoo could be possible.
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Jan 2nd, 2012, 12:45 PM
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Instant grits? I shall now swoon.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the Vendue. Did you get up to the roof? It used to have such a great view.

I read reviews from people who didn't enjoy Charleston hotel rooms because they "need updating". It's always so interesting to me, since Charleston is not known for new.

I can't wait to find out were you ate!
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Jan 2nd, 2012, 03:19 PM
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I've heard Joseph Riley speak before. He is very passionate about Charleston. He says that beauty is very democratic. Everyone young, old, rich or poor enjoys beauty.
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Jan 3rd, 2012, 12:23 PM
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*Meals of Note* My uncle took me to two restaurants in stand-out downtown Charleston during my stay, both specializing in southern cuisine: Hominy Grill and Husk.

Hominy Grill: I loved the outdoor “courtyard”-like waiting area at Hominy Grill where we grabbed a glass of wine while waiting for our table. Of course, being enjoyably outside period in late December comfortably with no winter coat was a treat for this Montrealer. My first ever boiled peanuts were a local specialty appetizer treat while we waited for our meal. The Brunswick Stew (which I’d heard of, but never had before) I had at Hominy Grill was exceptional, as were the spiced vinegar doused collard greens that my uncle ordered.

Husk: Husk (which we were lucky to get reservations for, what with its recent award-winning in Bon Appétit magazine) I admired for its use of all local ingredients. My uncle’s girlfriend ordered a burger, which had an especially rich flavour, the ground beef being apparently mixed with a certain percentage of smoky bacon. The cider-braised cabbage that accompanied my main course pork shoulder was the highlight of my meal.

*Exploring the Historic Peninsula*

The Waterfront Park, right by my hotel, I loved for the ever-so-civilized swinging benches provided for the public at a pier overlooking the water. The fountains here (one shaped kind of like a pineapple) and arbours of trees, coupled with the views of the cable-staying Ravenel Bridge and birds such as herons in the tall grasses by the shore of the Cooper River…made for a romantic and peaceful way to start each morning.

One thing I loved about exploring Charleston was that I did much on foot and using transit. The biggest boon I felt was the free #211 trolley run by CARTA, Charleston’s transit system, a convenient way (one every 10 minutes during the day) of getting from the southern part of the peninsula up to the more northerly attractions nearby the Charleston Visitor Center. Taxis were available at the train station, apparently costs about $15 to get into the city from there according my uncle.

Architectural Highlights: As I was only in town for 2 days, the historic homes I opted to visit were the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House.

*The Aiken-Rhett House*, belonging to Governor Aiken and his descendants, had preserved original furniture, sculptures, fixtures etc… rather than being restored. I felt sad to see how 150 years can weather and fade what must have been an elegant home and pole of upper-crust social life in mid-19th century Charleston. The audio tour was excellent here and I found it quite eye-opening; I wasn’t aware that there was a hierarchy in slave quarters, with the most prized slaves getting larger rooms, sometimes window-views and fireplaces. I was also surprised to learn that Governor Aiken was an avowed supporter of the Union, something I thought was quite rare among South Carolinians living in the Civil War period.

The area surrounding the Aiken-Rhett House was probably my favourite in the city, with handsome churches such as two tall-steepled churches (one was the Lutheran Church) around Marion Square and the lovely Second Presbyterian Church with a cloistered entryway with a pathway surrounded by arbours of trees leading right up to the doors of the church. The Chapel Street Fountain Park nearby the Aiken-Rhett House, although quite small, was my perhaps my favourite spot in the city… seemingly unvisited but peaceful offering a bench with views of lovely homes and a fountain. I didn’t have time to explore the interior of the nearby Manigault House nearby, but enjoyed the gardens—I was told the tour is quite worthwhile.

*The Nathaniel Russell House* which was owned by the eponymous wealthy shipping merchant, unlike the Aiken-Rhett House, is restored, so recreates 19th century upper-class Charleston in a vivid way, while Governor Aiken’s house requires more imagination to picture it at its height of glory. Rudge Calhoun (my uncle said, “Can you get a more South Carolina name than that?”) gave an excellent tour of the home. Here, as at the Aiken-Rhett Home, I was struck by formality of inter-human interactions (I wondered, despite all their wealth, with the rigidity of daily duties, were they *happy*?) and the admiration of all things elegant Western European as a seeming hallmark to distinguish those in their upper strata from those beneath. I was also surprised that apparently one had to *pay* for a seat at a pew at the area churches in the 19th century… a fee which seemed to me, well, rather an un-Christian practice… The elliptical staircase at the Nathaniel Russell House, which is detached from the wall, struck me not only as a marvel of architectural engineering, but also geometrically aesthetically pleasing. Outside, the gardens were lovely, replete with multiple variety of camellia; I learned of and enjoyed sitting/swinging on the *joggling board* (Wikipedia it!) in front of this historic home.

*Other downtown Charleston architectural highlights*

I was surprised to learn that Charleston was a pole of attraction for both the Jewish and French Huguenot communities in the 19th century. The French Huguenot church in historic Charleston is to my understanding, the only one of its kind in the USA… and quite a distinct (and handsome) structure with multiple dark pinnacles that reminded me in shape of a hybrid of the tip of an asparagus with the quasi-conical roofs of Angkor Wat.

Chalmers Street, cobblestone, and Church Street, narrow with unceasingly charming homes, were probably my favourite streets in the historic downtown core. I appreciated the plaques describing the history of random homes passed by, as well as noting those that had received the Carolopolis Award, an esteemed honour for those buildings (such as the venerable Dock Street Theater) that had been particularly well-preserved. St. Michael’s Church (located at the “Four Corners of Law”—the corner of Broad St. and Meeting St.) and the Hibernian Society (which had lovely circular railings) struck me as being unusually pristine ivory white buildings…which gave them to my eyes a particular architectural beauty and distinctness. My uncle believes the relative lack of polluting industries allows for such crisp white buildings to exist.

*Coming up: A Day at Fort Sumter, A Nearby Drive and Concluding Comments*
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Jan 3rd, 2012, 01:34 PM
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How did you manage to get a hamburger at the dining room at Husk? We were there over Labor Day and had a lousy meal. My college daughter would have LOVED a hamburger but they told us these were only available in the carriage house bar they owned next door to the dining room.
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Jan 3rd, 2012, 01:50 PM
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LBloom, probably lunch, unless they've changed minds since your post

Daniel, I'm always happy to see a Brunswick Stew convert. The dish was cooked in the fall, at the end of harvest season. So yummy with the lima beans.

On Church Street you likely passed Mrs. Whaley's Garden. It's one of my favorite streets too.

There ARE polluting industries here. They just paint a lot.
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Jan 3rd, 2012, 04:00 PM
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*Fort Sumter*

To thank my uncle & his girlfriend for their hospitality-- who had treated for each meal despite my protests (I tried to treat them to the Nathaniel Russell house, but my uncle bumped me neatly aside at the cash register, preventing my giving the $20 bill to the cashier!)-- I managed to successfully get to the ticket booth ahead of my uncle to pay for everyone’s boat ride out to Fort Sumter ($17 adults/$15 seniors).

Even were it not a place of great historic importance, the 30-minute ride out to Fort Sumter was worth the money for the aesthetic beauty of cruising down the Cooper River to the *tiny* island where the Civil War began. The commentary on-board of the antebellum and Civil War history as we sailed by downtown Charleston, Fort Pinckney, Fort Moultrie and Fort Wagner was well-presented and reminded me of details that were fuzzy at best from my American History class back in the 11th grade (nearly a quarter century ago now!). As much as the history lesson, I appreciated the about half-dozen porpoises I saw doing croquet hoops in the water right beside our boat.

I believe this ferry out to the Fort Sumter showed better than any history book possibly could the brilliant strategic placement of Charleston as a settlement generally and why Fort Sumter was an island so heavily coveted by all parties in the Civil War. So, Charleston is a peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers…south of Charleston is Fort Pinckney (a tiny island where Union soldiers were kept during the Civil War); south of this is Fort Sumter, the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean that is flanked on either side by the larger Sullivan’s Island and Morris Island where Fort Moultrie and Fort Wagner respectively are situated… creating multiple lines of defence against any would-be attackers from penetrating the major population center of Charleston.

One reason I love travelling is I always focus on the history of the place I’m visiting—and as much as history is a subject I devour ravenously like a sponge soaks up water, each trip I take provides a needed reminder of my own gaping canyons of ignorance as far as world or even North American history is concerned. The plaques at Fort Sumter were no exception. My eyes were opened when I read that when the Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard bombarded Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, he was attacking his former teacher at West Point! I also had no idea that something as sophisticated as a submarine existed in Civil War times… so reading about the 9-man powered submarine called the H.L. Hunley, whose air supply underwater would diminish so low that the candle on board would blow out, was fascinating to me. The plaques describing pluck of blockade runners, the seemingly-indestructible-but-not Ironclad warships (again I didn’t know these were around in the 1860s, years before the automobile!) and Fort Sumter’s holding firm in Confederate hands up until the war’s end…all educated and fascinated me. I find it interesting how regardless where one is on the East Coast: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, DC, Virginia, Charleston, etc… there is perhaps unconsciously a local viewpoint and emphasis on regional events and heroes, that one almost wouldn’t imagine that there would be other equally compelling tales, prominent figures and takes on American history further up or down the coastline.

*Driving around some of Charleston Surroundings*

After Fort Sumter, my uncle & girlfriend wanted to drive me to the see some of the surrounding area before I caught the 9:30 pm Silver Meteor train northward. We had lunch at Coconut Joe’s in Isle of Palms, which I most appreciated for its view of beach and ocean. Funny enough, the ocean here in December felt warmer than the ocean off Cape Cod in August . We also visited Fort Moultrie, which had a delightful maze of underground passageways and pleasing water views.

I felt a bit saddened by the volume of suburban automobile congestion in Mount Pleasant and James Island near where my uncle’s girlfriend lives, that reminded me more than I expected of the high-volume traffic of DC’s Northern Virginia suburbs…particularly given that Charleston is only a city of 120,000 souls. There seems to me a certain melancholic irony that suburbs such as these, conceived and settled I believe as a peaceful haven from the crowdedness and hustle-and-bustle of urban living, have become a place that I, a non-driving urban dweller, find stressful. Longer commutes, frightening lane changes due to the volume of traffic and aggressive drivers, parking lots fraught with danger…it feels to me far busier than my somehow simpler seeming urban existence…I really rather dislike it. My uncle's girlfriend felt the congestion had increased dramatically in suburban Charleston over the last 20 years. The street I stayed on in downtown Charleston and the street I live on in the heart of Montreal bizarrely enough seem quite peaceful in comparison to this suburban location.

*Concluding comments*

For those of you leaving Charleston by train, don’t think that your number is up as your taxi driver pulls down an eerily deserted, unmarked (or very poorly marked), service-like road in North Charleston just across some railroad tracks. No, that’s indeed what the road looks like on which the train station is found; my uncle’s girlfriend drove about a mile past this turn before she realized something was amiss. Similarly, for those of you arriving in Charleston by rail, don’t think that the almost forlorn train station location is representative of the quality that Charleston will offer you. Charleston is a charming, walk-able city replete with beautiful homes and terrific food--a unique spot on the North American continent that I feel has given me a greater perspective on US history.

I wish all of you a Happy 2012 filled with interesting travel experiences! DANIEL
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Jan 3rd, 2012, 04:11 PM
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placename-- Thanks for bumping!

OO, lojoblais, cmcfong, Gretchen, suewoo, LBloom-- I enjoyed all your comments!

suewoo, LBloom-- Yes, I did go to the rooftop of the Vendue Inn, which indeed had a great bird's eye view of the city. And LBloom, suewoo is correct, the hamburger we had was at lunchtime... the burger my uncle's girlfriend seems to think is actually apparently something Husk is known for?

cmcfong-- Didn't make it to Beaufort this trip... although I was there in my teens visiting my uncle, at a too unappreciative age I'm afraid to say. So I must go back!
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Jan 3rd, 2012, 09:36 PM
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Beaufort is lovely!!!

We had an amazing meal in Charleston at the Magnolia. Try to be seated in the front room where the piano is - it's much nicer, IMO.

A great place, about a 10-15 min ride out of town, is Magnolia Plantation. You might recognize it because many films about the Civil War period are shot here. It's all restored, the tour is really interesting, & the gardens are beautiful.

Also interesting is the tour of the Jewish Synagogue. I also learned about the jewish & hugenot settlements in Charleston, & the synagogue is the oldest one in the US that has been in continuous use since it was built.

In New Orleans, have breakfast at the Hummingbird Cafe. Looks like a divey diner, which it is, but the food is amazing!
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Jan 4th, 2012, 08:43 AM
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Daniel,

Believe me, NOBODY dislikes all that traffic more than we do! The aggressive drivers are, ah, from Somewhere Else. I actually live in a quiet section of Mt. Pleasant and avoid that congested road every day. There is a nicer way to get to IOP. Let me know when you decide to come back and I'll tell you what to do.

I was on the beach (along with everybody else) the day they brought the Hunley up and brought her through the harbor. It was quite a sight! Next time you visit go see the work they do as they excavate it.

Two days here is too little. Heck, I live here and haven't done it all! But I do have to work, lol.
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Jan 4th, 2012, 07:20 PM
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Lojoblais-- Thanks for the suggestions when I return back South.

Suewoo--How exciting to have been there as they brought the Hunley up! And also to live so close to such an interesting city! I also agree two days was too little, but I'm still glad I had the two days rather than no days. I think I was trying to pack too much into this vacation (parents in DC, uncle in Charleston, aunt subsequently in NYC).

I think I may have seen the route you go to IOP (detouring by the side roads near the beachfront of Sullivan's Island?)...that part didn't seem too bad traffic-wise.

Best wishes, Daniel
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Jan 5th, 2012, 09:59 AM
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>Two days here is too little.<

What an understatement!! Daniel~thank you so much for your detailed report. Charleston is at the top of my Want-to-go Back! cities, and you've given me ideas.......
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Jan 5th, 2012, 05:21 PM
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tenthumbs-- I appreciated your comments and I'm glad I gave you ideas, so thank you!
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Jan 5th, 2012, 05:58 PM
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Daniel,

It WAS amazing to watch. The Hunley was escorted by everybody with a boat through the harbor. Fabulous.

And yes, the route through Sullivans is so much less nerve wracking. And I have a secret local's spot in Mt P. I'll share with you when the time comes
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