Sunday, February 22, 2009

Charleston is the Best Thing to Come out of Charleston Since Stephen Colbert

This is about a week late, but I've finally got a little time to spend getting the photos ready for the post. Last week, K and I spent a couple of nights in Charleston, SC, and it's now my second-favorite city in the South. Asheville, NC, still gets top billing with it being set in my preferred topography (the mountains) and the fact that it has a huge art/music/food/beer scene that is unmatched by any city of its small size outside of the Pacific Northwest, perhaps. Charleston's known for good food (although we didn't get as much time to sample that aspect as we would have liked), but it's a bit lacking in the beer and mountains, although there are a few exceptions to the beer part I'll get to later. Still, there's something to be said about a city infested with homes that, if they were described as Antebellum, the bellum part would refer to the Revolutionary War and not the Civil War. I've never seen so many buildings that old.

The first evening we rolled into town, we had reservations for Cypress: A Lowcountry Grille, a much more high-end restaurant than the name would imply. We were seated in a booth along the restaurant's wine cellar, something that towered over us for the entire height of the building. We asked our waiter (who was very good at his job) how many bottles were in that wall of wine, and he said it was around 4,000 bottles. Impressive. We split a half bottle of Petit Syrah and had the Chateaubriand as our main entree. My lobster bisque before the meal was pretty incredible.

We had actually gotten to Charleston a couple of hours before our reservation, so we took a walk through the Market before heading over to the restaurant. After walking through the Market's seemingly endless stalls of Gullah sweetgrass baskets, clothing and other tourist trinkets, we noticed a "winery" sign just across the street. We still had a while before we needed to head back to the hotel to get ready for supper, so we stopped in. I honestly had fairly low expectations. Southern wineries aren't always the best and you'll often end up with wine with a few off flavors. The fact that this place was a store front with a couple of fermentation tanks in along the wall didn't raise my expectations.

It turns out that this place, Market Street Winery, was pretty good (and that the small tanks in the store front were mainly for test batches and the main workings of the winery were out of sight). For $5 you could get five samples of their wines and we got a sample of the Cabernet Sauvignon and four of their fruit wines. The Cabernet was only okay. There were no off flavors and was a perfectly acceptable wine, but it didn't really have much depth of flavor (and this is coming from a guy who is far from an experienced wine snob.) The fruit wines, on the other hand, were quite tasty. We had the blackberry (our favorite), cranberry (a huge surprise, but would perhaps turn off people who dislike tart flavors), raspberry, and elderberry. The guy behind the counter gave us a sample of the strawberry too, but it was just too sweet. The rest of the wines were lightly sweet with bright fruit flavors. Several of them would make for great summer evening tipples. They probably aren't going to impress any wine snobs, but I think anyone else would really enjoy these. K and I bought a half case, partly as thank you gifts for my mom and sister (who paid for most of our trip as a Christmas present) and partly for us to have at home.

After supper, we wandered East Bay Street and some of the nearby streets looking in some of the shops and peering into the windows of some of the closed artist galleries. There was one guy who did a lot of nudes who had a painting of a woman in a pool from the perspective of being under the water. Really cool painting, but I'm not sure how I'd pull off having it in my house without looking like a giant pervert. Sure, as a heterosexual males with no pretenses of not like the sight of a naked woman, the boobs were quite the attractive feature of the painting, but it was honestly a really cool work. You'd kind of have to see it to understand, I think. After that, it was back to our hotel, the Andrew Pinckney Inn, and off to sleep.

The next day was overcast, rainy, and a little chilly. We didn't really have any plans. We actually made tour reservations for Sunday, but we knew that there was a Dock Dogs competition at one of the Charleston parks as part of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. We had planned on getting tickets for to see the leaping labs later in the day, so we just started wandering around town that morning looking for something interesting. All of the sudden, we walk into an upscale shopping center and suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a huge crowd of people and a bar serving bloody Marys. Turns out that the mall was actually part of a large hotel and we had accidentally stumbled into one of the main locations of the SEWE. We went ahead and bought tickets and walked through the exhibits in the hotel. This location was the fine art hall. In other words you had really good painters and sculptors exhibiting their wildlife and nature inspired works of art. Some of these people were incredible and creating stuff that I would have loved to have if I could have afforded anything they made. Others were making more realistic works that looked like the cover of a Cabela's catalog. Still good stuff, but not my style.

There was also the guy who made bird paintings by slathering paint onto women's breasts and pressing them to the canvas. He took an odd interest in K for some reason. Just so you know, she'd be good for painting turkeys.

After finishing our wandering through the fine art hall, we caught the shuttle to another location, this one more of the arts and crafts part of the festival. The best thing I saw at this spot was the guy who made stone knives by knapping obsidian and flint and lashing them to wood and antler handles. Some of those were incredibly beautiful works of art, although I'd doubt they'd be all that practical.

Finally, it was off to Brittlebank Park for the Dock Dogs competition. If you haven't seen these on TV before, it's basically dogs jumping off a dock into a pool. Sounds really lame, but it's oddly captivating. Some of these dogs are amazing, making leaps of more than 20 feet. We saw a couple of the early rounds, meaning we saw a few dogs who jumped poorly or, in one case, refused to jump at all, but we also saw a couple of dogs make the pro-level finals with jumps of 22'4" and the like.

We finished off the afternoon wandering around a new (for us) section of Charleston, where we found Cupcake, one of those gourmet cupcake bakeries that features HUGE mounds of icing. I'm usually not a fan of icing, but this stuff was good. The vanilla icing was specked with vanilla beans and actually tasted like ice cream that wasn't cold. I only had to scrape off the top half of the icing instead of 3/4 of it. This place is worth the visit if you have a sweet tooth while in Charleston.

Unfortunately, there were no photos from our first two days. K had put the camera in the back of the car instead of where she had thought it was so it was locked away in our car in the parking deck the first two days. We didn't get back to the car to check for it until it was too late on Saturday to get any photos. We did get a few good photos on Sunday, however.

We started the day off with a trip out to Fort Sumter, the target of the first shots fired in the American Civil War. The place is in ruins today, but then so it was for the majority of the Civil War. Construction on the fort was begun in the 1820s and it was still incomplete several decades later when the war started. Within a year, the fort, which originally towered more than 50 feet over Charleston Harbor, had been reduced to mounds of earth and rubble by the regular attacks. Even though the Confederate Army overwhelmed the undermanned fort on that first attack, the Union Army never was able to retake it even though the original structures had been destroyed. The fort was only abandoned by Confederates when Sherman sent word from Savannah that he was on his way to take the city after burning a large swath across Georgia. The rebels ran and Sherman went to Columbia instead.

The Charleston skyline from the Sally Port of Fort Sumter.

These were once storerooms in the original fort. This is about all that's left of the original structures, except for the lower section of the wall that faces the harbor. After the original structure fell, the Confederates brought in great loads of earth to build protecting mounds and the original remains had to be dug from under as much as 20 feet of dirt when the fort was finally being restored as a historical monument.

The big black section was added to the fort during renovations after the Civil War in preparations made for the Spanish American war. It currently houses the museum, restrooms, and gift shop. There are a few really cool artifacts in the museum.

Looking down the barrel of a Civil War cannon.

The National Park Service flies six flags over the fort now. The tallest, of course, is the current US flag. Behind that, from left to right, are the 33-star US flag that flew over the Fort at the beginning of the Civil War, a Confederate flag, the South Carolina Flag, another Confederate flag, and another US flag, this one I'm guessing a flag from the Spanish American War era as it has a couple more stars.

Close up of the far left American flag.

Close up of the far right American flag.

Seagull flying over the ferry.

This is the USS Yorktown, now a museum at Patriots Point. I liked the contrast of the giant aircraft carrier providing the backdrop for a swarm of small sail boats. It was really windy this day. We didn't get a chance to check out the carrier. This is the view from the ferry heading back from Fort Sumter.

I skipped the rest of our tour, but we had no photos from the rest. We drove through the College of Charleston (outrageously gorgeous campus in the center of old Charleston), the Citadel (and the original building downtown that is now a hotel), Rainbow Row, and a few other really neat Charleston locations. I wish we'd gotten to town early on Friday so we could have done the tour then and been able to use parts of Saturday and Sunday to do more exploration on our own after we knew where everything was. This is the view out the car window on our way out of Charleston on the way home. Interesting fact about the Citadel: Even though the girl who made the big legal stink that forced the school to allow female students dropped out before the end of her first term, no female student since has dropped out of the Citadel despite the fact that hundreds of males drop out of every class.

This was a cool carving I bought in the Market. It's actually the bone that makes up the "sword" on a swordfish. The guy who makes them is a commercial fisherman and carves knives, swords, and letter openers out of the nose bones of the fish.

Now, back to that beer comment I promised earlier. The bars in Charleston are a little limited, at least compared to what you'd find in Asheville, or a much larger city like Atlanta. The Mellow Mushroom in town was probably the best beer bar around (and is perhaps the high end as far as the Mellow Mushroom chain goes). It's a beautiful bar with the best music selection playing that I've ever heard in a bar. However, I wonder a little about the wisdom of putting the bar upstairs when the bathrooms are downstairs. It seems like there'd be too many drunks falling to serious injury down those stairs. I was a little ticked that I missed Coast Brewing's Blackbeerd Imperial Stout by one day at Mellow Mushroom. It had gotten great reviews on the beer sights and I'd been looking for it all weekend when we stumbled across the pizzeria about 10 p.m. on Saturday night during one of our rambles. The beer was on the menu, but had been drained the night before. So sad.

Charleston does have one shining star in the beer scene, however. There's a beer store just off of East Bay Street not far from Rainbow Row called the Charleston Beer Exchange. This place was amazing. The best beer store in Georgia is Greens in Atlanta, and I think the Beer Exchange is better than that. I honestly can't think of a store I've ever visited that would put the Exchange in too much of a shadow. It's a tiny little store, but they put the space to the best use possible. There's not a crappy beer in the store and they even have a few taps to sell fresh growlers, something that's not even legal in Georgia. That is especially nice given that many craft breweries make some of their best beers as keg-only offerings. You can buy the beer retail here instead of having to pay bar prices by the pint. It shows that this store is run by beer geeks who really know their stuff.


Julie said...

It sounds like you had a great vacation. I've heard it can be a really nice weekend trip and now we've got some suggestions should we decide to ever leave our house.

Courtney said...

Sounds like a lot of fun. I've never been to Charleston, but now I really want to go.

And 4,000 bottles of wine on one wall?!? I'd like to see that.

Mickey said...

Better than Green's? Cool.

Charleston sounds awesome. I'd like to go sometime but haven't yet because, like so many places, all the fun requires an outlay of cash. It really sounds like you guys did it right, though.

Jennifer said...

Great vacation