Summer Travel Series: Charleston

Around here schools are back in session, so I guess summer has come to an end. I debated scratching this post all together, since I didn't get it up two weeks ago as planned, but I've decided I'm going to count Labor Day weekend as the official end of summer, so here is one final post in this year's Summer Travel Series. Check out Charleston...

Charleston did not disappoint. The city was everything I'd always imagined it would be--fantastic architecture, great southern hospitality, and delicious food. The downside was we were only in town for two days, which meant covering a lot of ground as quickly as possible. The first thing we did was hit up the visitor center, where we were able to get some advice on what not to miss, as well as the lay of the land. We set off for the heart of downtown, where we were told we'd find the famous Straw Market, a can't miss experience if you're visiting this historic city. The Straw Market has a conglomeration of everything--souvenirs, baked goods, art and the famous Sweetgrass Baskets.

First introduced to the United States by slaves brought to the United States from West Africa, the tradition of Sweetgrass Basket making is nearly 400 years old. The skills for making these baskets have been passed down through families of those original slaves for generations and have become synonymous with Charleston. Because some of the materials used to make the baskets are becoming more and more difficult to find, many say the baskets are becoming rarer with time, which means these beauties don't come cheap.

The Sweetgrass Baskets are truly works of art. I was lucky enough to meet one of the basket makers while shopping and learned the story of my little basket. The man who sold it to me said the basket I selected was made by his daughter, who learned to make the baskets from her mother at just four years old, as had her mother before her. Her father told me that when his daughter turned 13, she declared she would never make another basket again. She didn't value the tradition and was tired of making all those baskets. Years later, the man's daughter gave birth to her own little girl and a few years later, the young woman called her mother and asked for some materials for making baskets. She wanted to instill her heritage in her own daughter and she finally saw the beauty in the tradition of the Sweetgrass Baskets. I don't think I will ever forget that story. I love my little basket and it always makes me think of the story of this young woman, whom I don't even know. When I purchased the basket, the young woman's father told me that the story of how each basket is made is part of the tradition and just one of the many reasons these baskets are so special.

We worked up quite an appetite after all the shopping and lucked into finding an awesome restaurant for dinner. Located near the Charleston harbor, Blossom offered fine southern dining with a casual atmosphere. The dinner was delicious (my sister said the tuna steak she ordered was the best she'd ever tasted), but for me, the highlight was the creme brûlée we shared for dessert. It was silky smooth with a perfect brûlée crust. They even put a sparkler and chocolate round on top that said "Happy Birthday" (because my dad let it slip that it was my birthday). If you visit Charleston, be sure to check out this amazing restaurant, or one of its sister restaurants, Cypress or Magnolia. They're all located on the same street near the harbor. Check out their menus at www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com. After dinner, be sure to take a walk along The Battery and enjoy the view of the water and several grandiose antebellum homes.

For our second day in Charleston we decided to drive out to Middleton Place plantation, home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States. There are many plantation tours to choose from near Charleston, but as an avid gardener myself, I could not resist the descriptions of Middleton Place that I read in the brochures. We only had a few hours to spend at Middleton Place, but we arrived just in time to catch a carriage ride tour of the property, which was hands-down the most efficient way to see the vast landscape. We saw an abundance of wildlife (alligators and unfriendly peacocks included) and learned a little background on the plantation. The gardens at Middleton Place are gorgeous. We were visiting in March, at the end of the azalea and camellia seasons. The gardens are divided up into several garden rooms and accented with beautiful statuary. Middleton Place also houses Plantation Stableyards, which provide a living history experience to visitors, showing what life would have been like for a plantation worker in the 18th and 19th centuries. The day we visited the stables were abuzz with excitement, as one of the sheep had given birth to a lamb the day before. For more information on Middleton Place visit www.middletonplace.org.

We ended our day at Middleton Place with a picnic lunch from the outdoor cafe on the plantation property and then it was time to head south for home. I hope to get to visit Charleston again one day. I know there is much more to see in this charming city. Maybe next summer...