Destination of the week: Charleston
History buffs, ocean enthusiasts and folks who like to walk will find a lot to do in this historic Southern town.
Sat, Feb 27, 2010 at 08:35 AM
In many ways, Charleston is a stereotypical Southern city. Life moves at a noticeably slow pace, the atmosphere is filled with low-key charms, and there are remnants of the past around almost every corner. South Carolina’s second largest city is growing, but remains relatively small, with a metro area that has a population of just more than a half-million.
Charleston has a lengthy history. It began its life as a colonial port town in the late 17th century and played a major role in the development of the Southern U.S., in the American Revolution and also in the Civil War. The buildings, sites and plantations still hearken back to the long-past glory days. But there is more to Charleston than its storied past.
The coastal areas near the city and the islands just off the coast are popular among golfers and adventure tourists. In fact, some of the most underrated eco-tourism opportunities on the East Coast can be found near, on, or even in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean near Charleston.
It is these often-ignored features that make Charleston a good place for a low-impact vacation. The city’s compact size means that sightseeing on foot is easy, the agricultural industry makes locally grown food readily available, and the many eco-adventure opportunities make a multi-dimensional, environmentally centered vacation possible.
Charleston is best explored on foot. The historic downtown district is within walking distance of many of the better hotels. Those who plan to spend their vacation around this popular part of town probably won’t even need to get behind the wheel at all.
There are other options for getting from A to B, including horse-drawn carriage tours and a “trolley” that stops in front of major tourist sites. Known as the DASH (Downtown Area Shuttle), these vehicles, which are buses made to look like old-fashioned trolleys, run four routes in and around downtown Charleston. Rides are $2, with a $4 “day pass” also available.
Taxis are a reasonable way to traverse the city at non-peak times or if weather is poor (summers can bring rain and winters are often quite chilly). Charleston Green Taxi is the most environmentally friendly option, boasting a fleet of hybrid vehicles.
Soul food is a major part of Charleston’s cuisine scene. Alluette’s Café puts an organic spin on this classic cooking style. The kitchen relies mainly on organic ingredients. Alluette’s is also a performance venue for local talent. Artists display their work, and jazz musicians and poets regularly take the restaurant’s small stage.
Fig puts a haute cuisine spin on the sustainable/organic theme, sourcing ingredients from local farmers to create unique dishes inspired by Southern cooking styles. Of course, it is also possible to get some of these ingredients one step closer to their source. The Charleston Farmer’s Market is held each Saturday morning (and through the early afternoon) in Marion Square. There is a brief hiatus during the colder months of the year (January through March). This is more than a place to get fresh produce; the square is also filled with food vendors, juried arts and craft shows, and live entertainment.
A famous name in the hotel game is seeking to be the first LEED-certified inn in South Carolina. The newly opened Holiday Inn Express and Suites is hoping to earn the certification later this year. All the “green hotel” standards are in place: energy efficient lights, recycling bins and non-toxic cleaning agents. The hotel was constructed using recycled materials, and the previous building’s foundation was used in the process of creating a driveway and parking spaces. The hotel also has a saline swimming pool and a roof that reflects sunlight, lowering cooling costs during the sometimes brutally hot Southern summers.
Some Charleston tour companies offer themed walking tours. Most of these tours are centered around Charleston’s history. Regular routes pass aged buildings and historic sites from the colonial days, the Revolution and Civil War. Ghost tours are also popular. Companies like J&G Tours offer bicycle tours and tours that focus on the area’s ecological features.
There are many plantations in and around Charleston, though most are no longer in the business of agriculture. The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which dates back to the late 17th century, is a popular spot with widespread greenery in gardens that are nearly 200 years old. The Cypress Gardens is an alternative to the agricultural sites. It features “swamp tours,” several miles of trails and a popular on-site butterfly garden.
The real eco-enthusiast destinations lie outside of Charleston along the coast and on the barrier islands.
Aqua Safaris offers cruises past the saltwater marshes in the Charleston area and trips to view the wildlife in and around the barrier islands. Tour groups are led ashore to get up-close views of the wildlife and unaltered topography. The Aqua Safari website lists bottle-nosed dolphins, alligators and herons among the creatures that cruisers may come in contact with.
Barrier Island Eco-tours is another company specializing in guiding tourists through this unique part of the country. Its excursions are based around the Capers Island Nature Preserve and are led by naturalists and marine biologists.
The barrier islands are a popular site for sea kayakers. Coastal Expeditions is one of the more experienced outfitters when it comes to paddling adventures. The outfitter also runs a ferry to Bull Island, an undeveloped island crisscrossed by roads and hiking trails.
MNN homepage photo: diephosi/iStockphoto
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