I write this as snow—the first of the season—dusts the nation’s capital and the region primes itself for a run of days with temps hovering in the mid-teens. I write this, thinking back to last September, when I was fortunate enough to escape DC and head fly to Charleston, South Carolina. The city was downright hot, summer temps clinging stubbornly to the region while I explored the area beaches and the city’s postcard-perfect cobblestone streets, and ate and drank—and then ate and ate some more. Pickled shrimp and raw oysters opened by a wandering shucker at a cocktail party (complete with an ice bucket anchored to his belt? Fried chicken and collard greens served at the opulent Middleton Place? Yes please, and a few cocktails to go with that, thank you very much.
Though the city has weathered its share of tragedy—the fate of the mass shooter from the 2015 incident at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church current hangs in the balance, and the city is still healing from wounds inflicted by the shooting death of Walter Scott by an ex-cop, city itself remains resilient. Simply put, the city’s rich history is replete with trying times—they suffered defeat by the hands of the British after a six-week siege in 1780. And less than a century later, in 1860 the state succeeded from the Union. Shortly thereafter, Charleston witnessed the start the Civil War on April 12 of the next year with the shots fired at Fort Sumter.
Modern-day Charleston doesn’t shy from its complicated history. If anything, it makes the kind-hearted, generous nature of its modern-day citizens all the more welcoming. As Top Chef’s current season is showing the rest of the country, eating is an art form here. A big, hearty, rich, heavenly Lowcountry pastime of low-and-slow cooking and a legion of other traditions that contemporary chefs like Sean Brock have elevated to heaven at Husk and his recently re-imagined McCrady’s restaurant.
The city was founded in 1670, but the surrounding landscape pre-dates it all, an amoeba-shaped series of waterways, inlets, beaches, and bogs. Here you can rent and ride cruise bikes on the beach alongside Wild Dunes resort, flirting with the slow-crashing waves and weaving around Frisbee throwers. You can take a half-day outing to Capers Island and wander the coast at sunset, exploring a forest of dead trees while your boat captain preps a seafood bake of prawns, potatoes, and andouille sausage. You can visit plantations like Middleton and start to unravel the paradox of seeing so much beauty in a place that witnessed so many horrors within America’s dark chapter of human slavery. You can try to not have too many drinks at the Cocktail Club—and happily fail. You can wander the city streets, checking out luxe shopping, and breath in the city’s history. And—if you’re like me—you’ll start to plot when you can return.
My hope would be that this dispatch would be a warm alternative to this cold January—but right now in Charleston the temps are in the mid-30s. But by next weekend? Forecasts call for a high in the 70s. Here’s a few other highlights, and a handful of sun-centric products to consider.
1. Proof Sunglasses; 2. Mer-Sea and Co.; 3. Helen Jon Swimwear; 4. Sanuk.
Image: Photo by Spencer Means, CC-BY-SA
Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).
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Where to Stay
Wyndham Property Rentals offers loads of great choices for small and big group houses. If you want to stay on the beach, as opposed to in the historic city, they're a solid bet. For traditional resort rooms, consider Wild Dunes. Within Charleston, go for a boutique hotel like the King Charles Inn, The Restoration or French Quarter Inn.
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What to Do
Middleton Place Plantation offers a window into both the opulence and the dark part of the South's history with slavery, offering self-guided tours, a fantastic restaurant, recreation/education displays, and expansive gardens to explore.
Historic guided tours of the main city also offer a solid way to start to grasp Charleston's complex history. The city tourism office can help find a guide suited to your interests.
To get out on the water, hook up with Barrier Islands Eco Tours, who run guided wildlife trips out to places like Capers Island. Think bottle-nosed dolphins, osprey, pelicans, bald eagles, and more. And you can arrange for them to cater a traditional shrimp boil on the island.
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Where to Eat
Simply put? Pretty much anywhere. But don't miss Sean Brock's Husk, which serves locally sourced Southern dishes from an ever-changing menu. The Cocktail Club serves legions of specialty drinks as well as the classics in an intimate setting of exposed brick and wood. Then hit The Macintosh, where three-time James Beard semifinalist Jeremiah Bacon source ingredients from Lowcountry's farms and waterways and spins 'em into modern American dishes.
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Sun Valley feels like a natural city for a sunglass company to grow—after all, the mountain town averages 205 sunny days a year. Proof makes both sunglasses and prescription frames crafted from wood—a path that pays homage to the grandfather of the three owners (all brothers), who started a sawmill back in 1954. Go for the Donner Eco ($130), their take on the classic aviator with a decidedly retro framing. The polarized lenses offer 100% UVA/UVB protection, with hand-made wood arms along with a wood insert at that bridge.
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Mer-Sea and Co.
Integrate the lingering scent of the ocean into your daily life with one of Mer-Sea's arsenal of sea-inspired products. The Boxed Candle with Agate Coaster ($48) comes a deep-blue piece of agate upon which the ten-ounce candle rests. I vote for the Crisp Sails scent, which starts with orange and green camphor mixed with a spray of flowers and ends with spicy cloves, berries, and a touch of wood and moss. Subtle, not cloying.
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Helen Jon Swimwear
The Crystal Cove Dress may come in St. Lucia Chocolate ($138) but it'll be a clutch cover-up option in any beach locale, Charleston's waterways included. It comes with adjustable straps, removable soft cups, and a V-neck front and back for a loose, casual style.
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So-Cal shoemaker Sanuk might've made their name with their Sidewalk Surfer sneakers, but for those who find the raw edges of that shoe style a bit too casual, consider the 100% beach-friendly Casa Vintage, a slip-on with high-texture vintage washed canvas uppers with buffalo leather panel detailing. The EVA footbed can handle ours of boardwalking, and an antimicrobial additive in the insole is designed to reduce odor-causing bacteria.