We drive into Charleston on the spur of the moment one weekday, surrounded by oppressive heat and the kind of sultry humidity that yields lots of squashy green stuff in the trees. We pass little ramshackle businesses with cardboard signs that are picturesque in a gritty sort of way, and Rite Aids and the like, which are not. In the distance I spot an odd, futuristic triangular structure which as we turn a curve in the road opens into the beautiful Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. It cuts the cloud-spotted sky into pie slices as we drive over it. I keep expecting a skyline but it never happens. Charleston’s charm turns out not to be the skyline, as we go straight from highway to historic buildings, close to the ground, in shades of strawberry pudding and turquoise, complete with white porches I half expect Southern belles sipping mint juleps to be lounging on. They aren’t. My husband and I start playing spot-the-porch but get bored after a while since there are so many and give up.
Since we plan on eating a disgusting amount of food over the next day and a half, we attempt to counteract that by walking. The air becomes increasingly heavy though and as we’re sitting at lunch, the skies open up to torrential rain. So sporting a nicely drowned otter look, we head to a hotel in the French Quarter to check in. Vendue Inn is not where Ed’s GPS says it is, and we bicker about that for a while, mostly with the GPS’s generic female disembodied voice, rather than each other. Eventually we turn enough random corners and spot the entrance, a wrought iron affair decorated with tiny lions. We feel rather smug, and decide not to use GPS (this will probably last until the next time we’re lost). The boutique hotel is a converted warehouse, so the lobby’s split into a handful of different rooms, like a ceiling fanned breakfast room, or a comfy lounge with tan leather club chairs and a winding staircase. It manages to be quaint and welcoming, without the chintzy details you sometimes get at historic hotels that feel like the Ye Olde Hotel ride at Disneyland. After an hour or so, the insistent drumming of the rain on the slatted shutters of our room stops. Armed with an umbrella (I’m English, so it’s practically part of the uniform) and walking shoes that are more granola than they are chic, we hit the town. A few steps from our hotel, and still puddle-ridden after the rain is Charleston Waterfront Park. It’s a picture post card hodge podge of pineapple-shaped fountains, Parisian-looking benches, lush grass by the shoreline, and a modern fountain which a handful of small giggling children discover is a walk-in fountain.
We leave the park and head south on East Bay Street to White Point Gardens, passing homes with converted carriage houses, the Historic Charleston Foundation, and side streets with uneven cobblestones that shine a little in the dampness of the evening. The rain stopped long ago, but we still feel like an overcooked vegetable, soaked and a bit limp, as the swampy heat churns on relentlessly. On East Battery, the road opens into a pier. The houses along this road tend towards the outsized, and cars are increasingly posh. When you reach White Point Gardens, you’re at the very bottom righthand corner of Charleston. Here is where we find The Confederate Soldier Memorial by Hermon MacNeil, dedicated to defenders of the city, as well as some dainty little benches. Sitting on them seems slightly less relaxing than it might be, thanks to two alarmingly large Civil War era cannons flanking them. So we head to Meeting Street, home to some of Charleston’s most beautiful historic homes, all lovingly restored. Many have porch front doors, a quirky little architectural feature I hadn’t seen before. It’s one that seems either to predate burglaries, or to be sweetly trusting. Just off Meeting Street is a narrow lane, St. Michael’s Alley, lined with cypress trees. Smaller historic houses peek coquettishly from behind them. It feels like a secret world here, with hardly any traffic. We potter around town for another hour before collapsing gratefully in front of a cocktail. But more about that next time.