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Trip Report Trip Report: a week in Charleston and Savannah, March 2011

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We were invited to a wedding in Washington DC and decided to extent our trip by a week to visit Charleston and Savannah. The weather was generally cloudy with periods of rain during our entire trip.

When visiting Charleston, we stayed at the Best Western in Mount Pleasant ($100 per night through Cheap Tickets), which is 20 minutes from downtown Charleston; to be precise, from the public parking on Queen St. just south of King St., probably the closest parking to the historical core. The room was fine with the exception of the AC which worked but was too noisy for those of us without window units at home.

We were traveling with a friend. We went from SF to Charleston via Chicago, leaving in a horrendous rain storm. Our friend was worried about snow in Chicago and went via LA & Miami and got stuck in Miami because of the fuel fire and did not arrive until 5 p.m. the next day.

Our first dinner in Charleston was at the Water’s Edge in Mount Pleasant. All three of us had shrimp & grits after sharing an hors d’œuvre of fried oysters. As far as I can tell, grits is the Southern word for polenta. With drinks it came to $105 for the three of us. The second night we ate at an Italian restaurant close to Market St., which I recall as acceptable but not memorable. Our final dinner was a Husk--http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/5621041202/in/set-72157626432606484. Reservations are a must, but it is worth it. It’s a little chichi in its emphasis on local products and the meal was not cheap with a bottle of wine ($40) it came to $183 plus tip (see menu). For its quality and service, this is a better value than equivalent SF restaurants.

We rented a car for our entire stay. We had free parking at the Best Western in Mount Pleasant, but had to pay $10 a day for our parking in Savannah. We chose to have the car because we knew we wanted to visit some of the plantations around Charleston and that would necessitate private transportation. For seven days we paid $215.06 through Hot Wire for a medium sized car from Budget picked up and returned at the airport. Budget tried to upgrade us to a SUV for another $10 per day, but the car (a Mercury) was more than what we needed in terms of luggage space.

We did not arrive in Charleston until 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, so our touring did not begin until the next day. We had reservations for a morning architectural tour of Charleston. The tour guide was OK, but it really was not an architectural tour because a lot of extra chit-chat was included. There was a curious neo-Southern explanation of the slave issue: we would have eliminated slavery in the 1850’s but we did not know what to do with them and the Civil War, aka War between the States, aka the War of Northern Aggression, was about taxes. I wonder what the guide would have said had our friend, who is African-American, been with us. But the tour gave us a sense of the historic district of Charleston so that we could repeat the tour without comments with our friend the next evening to give her a sense of that part of town. In the afternoon we went on a tour of the Calhoun mansion. It is currently occupied by a collector of 19th century antiques. The claim is that he uses the main parlor as his living room when there are no tours, and my question is: Where does he sit? It is simply overstuffed with antiques without having a museum quality layout. Worth a visit but just over the top when it comes to furnishings. We then went to the airport to pick up our friend who was scheduled to arrive at 2:15 but did not arrive until 5:30 because the plane from Miami did not have enough fuel and had to refuel in Fort Myers.

The next day we saw the Aiken-Rhett mansion. It is interesting because it still has its slave quarters and stables. Most of the mansion is in sad shape, and the parlor with the large portrait does not reflect the condition of most of the house; yet someone lived in it until the late 1960s, if memory serves me right. In the afternoon we took one of the house and garden tours which was mostly house and less garden. One large one was very nice, and a small courtyard with shade trees and a little fountain was absolutely charming. The houses varied in style, and one of the most interesting house was a building whose downstairs had been a store; the whole house was done in what I could only call a neo-Deco style.

We visited Middleton Place one morning. All the azaleas were in bloom, but not much else. It has some farm buildings with animal corrals--water buffalo in one--and some demonstration occupations: a blacksmith and a pottery area. There is also a primitive two-room cabin that was occupied untill the 1930s by a woman working at Boone Hall. It was not claimed to have been a slave cabin, but thought to reflect what they must have been like. However, the cabin was furnished for one person, not for a family with multiple children. The Fodor’s Guide gives an accurate description. That afternoon we visited the Nathaniel Russell home and the Heyward -Washington house which has the slave kitchen and laundry room in the back.

On the day of our departure, we went to Boone Hall. The main building is from the 1930’s with 19th century furnishings. But Boone Hall offered more slave history in its slave quarters than did Middleton Place. In that regard, it was historically more interesting. We also had an excellent presentation of what Gullah is and represents. From Boone Hall we went to its roadside restaurant/shop for lunch and then by-passed Charleston to go to Savannah.

For Savannah we obtained through Expedia two rooms at the Inn at Ellis Square for 3 nights for $619.19 plus $10 per day for parking. The Inn is a 4 story restored warehouse with a well-integrated 7 story modern addition of equal total height. Its breakfast was far superior to the Best Western in Charleston. Essentially we were within walking distance of historic Savannah. We had a view over the river, but that is less than one would think: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/5590979891/in/set-72157626432606484.

In Savannah we ate at Garibalidi’s, Jazz’d and Wiley’s Championship BBQ. All the meals were very good. Garibaldi's is an institution, and fish and seafood is what we ordered. Our friend had a whole flounder--tempting had I realized what it was rather than some fillet of flounder, but I can’t complain about the shrimp & scallops my wife and I had. With a glass of wine and two teas, the meal came to $100 plus tip. The food preparation did not match Husk’s. Jazz’d advertises itself as a tapas bar, but one should not expect Spanish style tapas. 6 dishes plus wine came to $98 plus tip. There was live blues, with an interesting singer on the guitar, but unfortunately his electric bass accompaniment was much too loud. Our cheapest meal was at Wiley’s Championship BBQ, which I recommend although not being a connoisseur, my recommendation might not be valid. The place was full of locals and it offered the standard fare found in these types of establishments: ribs, chicken, sausage, beef brisket, etc.

On our first morning we had reserved a tour with Savannah Rambles (http://www.savannahrambles.com/ ) whose sole guide is Dirk Hardison. The tour is a great introduction to ante-bellum architecture in Savannah. My only reservation is that it is only ante-bellum architecture, with some seepage into the 1870s, so that some of the interesting buildings in the historic district of a later date were not mentioned at all. I admire and like the Oglethorpe plan for the city, but I found the traditional Charleston architecture with the piazzas (they would be called verandas elsewhere--but one import is well worth another) far more attractive. Dirk Hardison knows his subject, so he could explain a remark I heard about how wrong the brick slave quarters were in terms of climate (the soft brick absorbs, stores and then radiates heat). He could explain how the houses evolved: some of the major builders came from New England, started with New England style houses, and then adapted them--bigger windows for example-- to the Southern climate. Cost of a 3 hour tour: $20 per person.

During the rest of our time we visited individual houses. The Owens-Thomas house stands out for its architectural innovations, and the Davenport house for its restored interiors--or perhaps it was the guide who could give a specificity to what the room represented that made it stand out. We did not do the river walk. I did not do the planning, so I do not know if it even was an option, but it rained so hard on our last day that we stayed indoors as much as possible. One absolute waste of time was the Jepson Center for the Arts. Fodor’s says that “[w]ithin the steel-and-glass edifice you can find permanent hangings of Southern art, African-American art, and photography.” We did not see a single piece of that permanent collection, if it exists. All the rooms had only temporary exhibits, one of which was a so-so Hopper exhibit of his take of Riverside Drive and the Hudson river. Do not bother with this museum unless it happens to have a temporary exhibit that you might find interesting.

We were in Savannah during its music festival and went to a double bass concert in the Telfair Museum. It was interesting, with an amazing performance--entirely solo--by the double bass player.

We drove back to Charleston and caught a flight to Washington D.C. for the wedding. We stayed at the Capitol Hill Suites for $139 per night (a group rate for the wedding guests). The hotel is very conveniently located, one block from the metro and 5 minutes from the Library of Congress. We managed to see a couple of museums and exhibits while there. One evening we saw King Lear as performed by the Synetic Theater. Not a word was spoken, and if we had not seen the play very recently in a traditional performance, we probably would not have understood what was happening on stage. Nonetheless, I would recommend seeing a performance by that theater group whenever possible. We then flew home with a transfer in Philadelphia.

Aside from food around the wedding event (evening reception for out-of-towners, the wedding banquet, post-wedding brunch), we went for convenience. We had lunch at RFD Washington, 810 7th Street Northwest, which has good beer and decent hamburgers. The American-Indian Museum has a good variety of foods representing the different indigenous cuisines (modernized) of the U.S. We had a Mongolian fire pot in Chinatown. It brought back memories of 35+ years ago in Pittsburgh and we think that it was better in Pittsburgh. The meat was fine, but the vegetables were offered only as a single vegetable per plate price, which meant that it was far more limited than if a mix of vegetables came on the plate (the customer cooks the meat and vegetables in a broth at the table and drinks the created soup at the end of the meal). Service there was not very friendly. Not a rip-off, but it could have been better

Here are the pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157626432606484/

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