A Travellerspoint blog

October 2011

Charleston Part 1: The Yankees Invade (Again)

Historic Charleston, South Carolina fairly oozes the genteel manner of a bygone era. Flickering gas lamps illuminate the city's gracious homes, while horse-drawn carriages roam her cobblestone streets. "Sir" or "ma'am" is the proper way to address someone, and even insults are softened with a gentle "bless her heart" at the end.

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Indeed, cultured Charleston has been named the "Best-Mannered City in America," a designation bestowed by etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart, herself better known as the Queen of Couth.

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Yes, I know: The irony is killing you. But everyone knows that a trip report written by an ill-mannered barbarian is way more fun than a regular report, so stop your snickering.

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Most historians agree that Charleston was originally part of the Carolina territory that was granted to eight Lord Proprietors by Charles II in 1663. The Lords arranged for the first settlement, Charles Towne, as it was originally called, to be established by English settlers from Bermuda under William Sayle in 1670.

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There is, however, a little-known alternate theory, which is that Charleston was founded by a group of greedy orthopedists who conspired to create the most treacherous, uneven sidewalks in the entire 13 colonies.

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They fiendishly arranged the craggy flagstones in a haphazard jumble, then sat back and reaped the windfall that resulted from the never-ending parade of twisted ankles and busted kneecaps. While their fellow settlers delighted in the peal of the town's many church bells, these bastards delighted in the unmistakable thud of yet another unsuspecting pedestrian taking a header.

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We arrived on Friday morning to bright blue skies and warm southern breezes so, after dropping our luggage at the hotel, we decided to take a leisurely (read: painstakingly slow and wobbly) walk up to Hominy Grill in Charleston's Elliotborough neighborhood. Housed in a former barber shop, Hominy Grill is rumored to have some of the best Southern food in Charleston, so I prepared by donning my best elastic-waist expandable dress, and off we went.

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There was a bit of a wait when we arrived, so we sat on the patio with a few drinks to, er, grease the skids for the abomination of fat and cholesterol to come.

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I decided to try a John Daly, which is a boozy version of an Arnold Palmer made with local Firefly Sweet Tea vodka and lemonade. You can almost picture the advertising exec who thought that naming a mixed-up drink like iced tea and lemonade after famous golfers would make the game seem less boring. Nice try, but you could post strippers at all the odd-numbered holes and golf would still bore most people, um . . . stiff. Heh-heh.

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Our meal began with a complimentary basket of boiled peanuts. Boiling the nuts renders them delicious, salty, and addictive, made all the more so by the fact that the softened peanuts are almost impossible to remove from their shells in one piece. So you could end up eating an entire basket just for the challenge of finding the one or two peanuts that come out completely whole. Hypothetically, of course.

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Before I could get that far, our fried green tomatoes thankfully arrived. Although there is probably no one on the planet who loves tomatoes more than I do, fried green tomatoes are not for me -- the texture is just too off-putting. Luckily these came with a serving of homemade Ranch dressing, so I ate the fried breading dipped in Ranch (which is surely the official dish of at least one Southern state), while Angel ate the denuded tomatoes. Teamwork!

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Next up was Hominy Grill's famous shrimp 'n' grits. Although I thought grits might be related to crowder peas or okra or some other little-known confederate vegetable, grits are actually made from a familiar ingredient: ground corn. Which are then prepared with butter and cheese and topped with bacon, which means they could be made out of sawdust and I'd still eat them. I may be a Yankee, but I'm a Southern girl at heart, y'all!

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Angel went with the creole shrimp, which was a little bit spicy and a whole lot delicious.

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I'd heard that Hominy Grill's vegetables were worth a try, so I went with the (mouthwateringly vinegary and salty) cucumber and onion salad . . .

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. . . and the macaroni & cheese, which is vegetarian, so close enough.

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After lunch we picked up a couple of those walkers with the tennis balls for feet so that we could safely navigate around town, then shuffled over to East Bay Street to look around and grab an afternoon cocktail.

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We decided on drinks at Squeeze Bar, which bills itself as the "tightest bar in Charleston." Obviously the owner of this place has never seen a NYC closet.

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Like almost every place we visited in Charleston, Squeeze Bar is a model of cool interior design, with repurposed egg-basket light fixtures fitted with bare Edison bulbs; rough exposed brick; a chocolate brown and pale blue color scheme; nubby ostrich upholstery; and a bartender who looks like he was born to serve up small-batch whiskey.

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After successfully not dropping dead after that lunch at Hominy Grill, later that evening I decided to double-down . . . with some fried chicken skins at Husk. I know what you're thinking: Is it actually possible to improve upon chicken skin? In fact it is, if you deep-fry it, then serve it with a sticky-sweet dip made of honey and hot sauce.

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Also amazing was the bread at Husk, which is so soft as to be almost ephemeral, and topped with a thin, buttery crust dotted with pretzel salt. The result is a bread so good that it doesn't even need butter but, this being the South, you can bet your bippy there is butter aplenty. But not just any butter: pork fat butter. I can practically hear Paula Deen cackling maniacally in the background as I type this.

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The other dishes we ordered -- pimento cheese with country ham as a second shared appetizer, and the cornmeal-crusted catfish for Angel's entree -- were good, but the pork chop I ordered as my entree was, unfortunately, the fattiest, most gristle-and-bone filled piece of meat I've ever had the displeasure of leaving, almost entirely uneaten, on my plate (and which the waiter astonishingly failed to notice when he came to clear them). And so, if you are contemplating a meal at Husk, I'd recommend sticking to the bread and the fried chicken skin, and perhaps a nice after-dinner angioplasty.

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Saturday's weather was just as glorious as Friday's had been, so we planned a walk from Meeting Street west to Colonial Lake, then south to the Battery, finishing up at East Bay Street. Not wanting to undertake such a long journey without proper provisions, we stopped at 82 Queen for brunch, which we chose just as much for the food as for their lovely courtyard.

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Having decided that if the combination of fried chicken skins and Charleston's sidewalks hadn't killed us, nothing would, we each started with a bowl of 82 Queen's award-winning she-crab soup, which is made by combining a 55-gallon drum of heavy cream with 1 cup of crabmeat (measurements are approximate).

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I decided to stick with sweet tea, while Angel tried the Raspberry Spritzer. Secure in his masculinity, that one.

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I tried to go a little lighter for my entree by ordering the Oven Roasted Creamy Chicken Salad. Now, you might think the word "creamy" would be a dead giveaway that there was nothing healthy about this salad, but this is the South. The fact that they added a few pieces of lettuce to the plate automatically qualifies it for the spa menu.

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My plan to eat lighter was foiled in part by the industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise that was surely used to prepare that delicious chicken salad, and in part by Angel ordering this:

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That's right: Just when Hominy Grill had convinced me that adding butter, parmesan, and bacon was the ideal way to prepare grits, the evil genius behind the stove at 82 Queen goes and dumps a whole fistful of cheddar cheese on them instead. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!

After lunch we waddled over to Colonial Lake, which was notable for the fact that even though it was a gorgeous day, and a Saturday to boot, the lakefront wasn't completely overrun with people. Put a lake like that in the middle of NYC, and on a sunny Saturday you're liable to be trampled to death by an army of women pushing $1,000 strollers.

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Later we made our way down to the Battery, where we took in the massive oak trees at White Point Gardens.

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Oh, and the massive piles of bricks on Murray Boulevard, East Battery, and elsewhere.

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Why be repetitive when you could also be redundant in addition?

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CLICK HERE for Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 17:30 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston fig 82_queen hominy_grill low_country husk Comments (5)

Charleston Part 2: Breakfast of Champions

Some of Charleston's most exclusive addresses are found along its waterfront, where the homes are priced out of reach for all but the wealthiest scions of polite society. These upper-crust folks are distinguishable from us commoners by their penchant for wearing tennis outfits even when it's raining, hiring midgets to entertain their party guests, and guarding their homes with stately fake animals.

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Of course, the homeowner with the concrete animals AND the marble entryway automatically wins. You just know he's got a gold-plated toilet seat in there somewhere.

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Well-off Charlestonians have also opted for a less manicured, more kudzued look than is prevalent in the northeast.

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Of course, no walk around the Battery would be complete without an afternoon pit stop for refreshments.

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Sure, Angel is cute, but the person who owns this bike bell is my true soul mate.

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That evening was dinner at FIG, which stands for "food is good," and is also the understatement of the year. This is particularly true at FIG, which was our favorite meal in Charleston, hands-down. From the autumn-inspired allspice martinis we started with, to the salad of baby lettuces with ricotta salata, buttermilk-herb dressing, and the most succulent heirloom tomatoes I've ever tasted, to the Carolina white shrimp escabeche marinated in fall vegetables, ginger, and fresh herbs, everything was fantastic, and that was just for starters.

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For my entree, I went with the snapper barigoule, prepared with artichokes and white wine sauce, along with those same sweet tomatoes, plus turnips, carrots, and a giant blue-crab-filled raviolo. Angel decided to try the grilled triggerfish with Capers Inlet clams, sweet potato, butternut squash, fennel, and lipstick peppers, which was also delicious. A spirited fork duel then ensued, with each of us trying to defend our own dish while simultaneously stealing bites of the other's. I think you can guess who won.

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As if there weren't enough reasons to love FIG, they were burning the most deliciously fragrant Milkhouse Creamery candle in the ladies' room, which was Ginger and . . . Fig. When they care enough to match the candle to the restaurant, and I care enough to notice, you know you've got a match made in OCD heaven.

After that, we certainly didn't have any room for dessert . . . so we stopped by O'Hara and Flynn wine bar across the street for a glass of red wine. To aid with digestion, of course.

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On Sunday morning we made our way over to East Bay Street for brunch at High Cotton.

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Spending time in the South took some getting used to, what with people looking us in the eye and holding doors open for us and such, but perhaps the hardest thing to get used to was the fact that people get dressed up to go out to eat. I actually saw a man in a suit! At brunch! Show up for brunch in NYC wearing anything fancier than your pajamas or last night's clothes, and you'll get the stink eye from every hung-over slob in the place.

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After a round of regular mimosas, I decided to try a pomegranate one, while Angel went with the Huck Finn, which is made with huckleberry-infused vodka, fresh lemonade, and a splash of soda. I hereby nominate this incredibly tasty concoction as the Official Drink of Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Supper, Breakfast, 4pm Snacks, and Midnight Snacks.

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I decided on the banana nut bread French toast with berry butter, Blis bourbon maple syrup, and applewood smoked bacon. After everything I've eaten thusfar on this trip, would it be wrong to complain that my dish didn't contain enough bacon? Two skinny slices just ain't gonna cut it, especially in a town where lard is its own food group.

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The bourbon in the syrup was a bit overpowering for my taste, and the nut bread was rich and dense, and so between the two I only ate about half of my French toast. A-ha! That explains why I needed more bacon.

Angel went with the buttermilk pancakes with spiced apple whipped cream, and managed to eat all his bacon before I could even figure out that I only had two measly slices. Hog.

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In addition to being unaccustomed to Charlestonians' charming manners, we sometimes found it difficult to remember that it was 2011, not 1954.

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After brunch we stopped by the Powder Magazine, which was originally a military storage area for loose gun powder. The Powder Magazine's walls are three feet thick, and are supported by four enormous arches designed to implode on themselves in the case of an explosion.

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A group of schoolchildren were there on a field trip when we arrived, and the guy in the skirt was telling them all about how the roof was cleverly built with sand stored in it, which would drop down and smother any fire in the event of an explosion. Sure, that was interesting, but all I could think about was how lucky I was to have grown up in Pennsylvania, where our field trips included a visit to the kitchen at a Wendy's and a trip to the Meadows Racetrack and Casino. Good ol' Pennsyltucky!

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Later that afternoon we decided to join one of the Preservation Society of Charleston's house and garden tours. Now, you may remember that we did a similar tour in Key West back in February, which ended in tears and thoughts of suicide. Charleston's tour wisely heads off such unseemliness by granting participants a mere peek into the homes on the tour: At some houses only the gardens were open to visitors; at others, only certain rooms were available for viewing. And unlike the tour in Key West, there was certainly no poking around in Kenny Chesney's closet . . . no pun intended.

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After the house tour we decided to make our way back to the hotel via King Street, which happily coincided with "Second Sunday": On the second Sunday of every month, the street is closed to vehicular traffic and becomes pedestrian-only for the afternoon. This gives residents the rare opportunity to walk on smooth, flat pavement and provides a much-needed respite from worrying about face-planting on one of the misaligned tectonic plates that pass for sidewalks around these parts.

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Tonight was the night we'd designated for tackling the Peninsula Grill's famous 12-layer coconut cake. In order to make sure we'd have room for the cake after dinner, we decided to eat at Magnolias, where they offer "small plates" in addition to their regular entrees.

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Thus, in keeping with Operation Save Room For Cake, I dutifully ordered from the small plates menu.

So I had the grilled meatloaf with butter-whipped potatoes and mushroom-sage gravy.

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And a side of macaroni and cheese.

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And a cup of tomato bisque.

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And a complete lack of willpower.

Angel had the parmesan-crusted flounder with jasmine rice and creek shrimp pirloo with sweet corn, tomato, and asparagus salad; lump crab; and a sherry beurre blanc. No, we don't know what pirloo is; it's just another of those southern words that sounds vaguely dirty to northern ears, like cattywampus or hoecake.

I could tell that our waiter, though unfailingly polite, was disappointed that we didn't order one of Magnolias' classic southern specialties, like the fried chicken or the shrimp and grits. But I didn't want to explain that I was currently engaged in Operation Coconut Cake (which would have been perceived as a direct assault on Magnolias' pecan pie), nor did I have a plausible explanation as to why eating an entire meatloaf was actually in furtherance of said operation, so I said nothing, even though I felt bad that he was left with the mistaken impression that I hadn't eaten everything in Charleston that wasn't nailed down.

And so it was on to the Peninsula Grill. I'd worn a dress and heels for the occasion, to go along with Angel's blazer, as we understood that jackets were recommended for men. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the Champagne Bar, only to see at least two patrons in jeans, one of whom was also wearing a jean jacket. I'm sorry, but jeans + a jean jacket = a crime not only against fashion, but against all people with eyes.

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The Ultimate Coconut Cake, as it is called, should probably be the Penultimate thing you eat before you die. (The Ultimate being a feast of lasagna, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, potatoes au gratin, fried pork chops, meatloaf, and macaroni & cheese . . . but I digress). It is a whopping 5" tall and extremely dense, so much so that it looks like it might be dry as dust -- but is actually so moist that the cake sticks to your fork.

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The layers of super-moist cake are alternated with layers of a decadent coconut cream that's been infused with fresh vanilla. And just when your eyes have rolled almost completely back in your head, you discover that the outside of the cake is completely covered in a butter-and-cream-cheese frosting, and that is covered with freshly toasted coconut.

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Angel and I shared one slice but still could not finish it, and so we did the next best thing: We ate half at Peninsula Grill, and the other half for breakfast the next morning. Wheaties, Schmeaties.

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CLICK HERE for Part 3!

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Posted by TraceyG 17:29 Archived in USA Tagged charleston low_country high_cotton peninsula_grill coconut_cake magnolia's Comments (2)

Charleston Part 3: Fit to be Fried

Monday morning started off cloudy with threatening skies, so it wasn't the best day for the lunch we had planned, which was to enjoy the view of the water from Fleet Landing. However, Monday also happens to be Fried Pork Chop Day at Fleet Landing, which means we were going there regardless of whether we received 3 inches of rain or 3 feet.

Housed in a 1940s structure built by the U.S. Navy as a debarkation point for sailors, Fleet Landing's interior design is what the restaurant refers to as "maritime chic," and what others might call, "Where the hell are all the cute Navy officers I was expecting to see?"

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Angel said he'd just have a few bites of whatever appetizer I chose, so I seized the opportunity to order one of the world's great artery-cloggers: spinach and artichoke dip. The northern version of this dip is made with, in order of appearance, spinach, artichokes, and a bit of cheese to bind it all together. In Charleston, however, this dip consists of an entire bowl of cheese and cream bound together with a single spinach leaf and a pea-sized piece of artichoke. In other words, it was divine.

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But the real star of this lunch was the fried pork chops. I mean, knock me down and steal my teeth! Butter my butt and call me a biscuit! Lordy be, but these were some dang good pork chops!

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Oh, and Angel had some food, too.

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These interesting light fixtures are made from blocks of syrofoam. Our waiter said they were to help with the acoustics of the large space, but I think it's to muffle the sound of people yelling "HOLY #$%^!" when they finally get a taste of those pork chops.

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After lunch the rain really picked up, so we instituted our rainy-day contingency plan, which was to walk up to the South Carolina Aquarium. But we'd only gone about two blocks before my shoes started squishing like a soaked sponge, so we called a cab and headed on up.

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This is an albino alligator. I can't remember his name, but judging from his skin, I'm guessing it's not Marshmallow.

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Call me paranoid, but the large seam running down the middle of this aquarium is less than reassuring.

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By the time we were ready to leave the aquarium, it was a full-blown monsoon outside, complete with pouring rain and whipping wind.

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Indeed, the weather was so horrible that by the time we got back to the hotel, I did what any reasonable person who'd been caught in a semi-tropical storm would do: I peeled off all my wet clothes, then took to my bed with a martini.

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For dinner on our last night, we decided to save the best for last. Cypress, you ask, or S.N.O.B.? McCrady's, perhaps? Well . . . not exactly.

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That's right: Where there's a 'Shroom, there's a Tracey.

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In the grand tradition of wanting whatever I can't have, Mellow Mushroom ranks near the top of my list, given that the closest one to my house is in Washington, D.C. As soon as I discovered that there was a Shroom right in downtown Charleston, visions of pepperonis began dancing in my head.

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Having decided that free-flowing arteries are completely overrated, Angel ordered the aptly-named Holy Shiitake pizza, which consists of grilled shiitake, button, and Portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions on an olive oil- and garlic-slathered crust. This fungilicious delight is then topped with mozzarella and Montamore cheese (a sort of parmesan-cheddar hybrid, the inventor of which should win the Nobel Peace Prize), drizzled with garlic aioli, and spritzed (yes, spritzed) with black truffle oil, then garnished with shaved parmesan. One slice is estimated to be 17,000 calories, or 2 additional belt notches.

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Mellow Mushroom's pizza has a unique taste, probably because the crust is made using spring water instead of tap water, and the crust does not contain any refined white sugar. That sounds suspiciously like some sort of health food, which is why I wasn't foolish enough to actually finish mine. Well, at least not all of it.

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Our last day began with Angel and I dragging ourselves to the gym in a futile attempt to undo the damage inflicted by a thousand mushrooms the night before. As Angel leisurely pedaled away on his exercise bike, I decided to spring on him the surprise I'd been harboring for weeks: I was taking him to Chick-fil-A for lunch. So I leaned over and, as casually as possible, said, "You know, you're gonna have to pedal alot faster than that if you want to go to Chick-fil-A for lunch today!" At which point, after the shock wore off, Angel pedaled so fast that the fake wheels fell off his exercise bike and the electronic speedometer went up in smoke.

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Now, if you've never been to a Chick-fil-A before, you're probably wondering why all the fuss over a simple fast-food chicken sandwich. All I can tell you is that Chick-fil-A serves the most tender, juicy, almost sweet piece of all-white-meat fried chicken ever to be placed on a soft, pillowy, perfectly buttered bun. Each sandwich is served completely plain so as to not distract from its fowly fabulousness, save for 2 or 3 small bread-and-butter pickles tucked underneath the filet. Although I don't actually eat those, the remaining pickle juice adds just the right je ne sais quoi to the sandwich, resulting in pure poultry perfection.

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Sadly, we were forced to enjoy our meal in full view of a bunch of students from the College of Charleston, all of whom can down twice the amount of Chick-fil-A that we can, because they have twice the metabolic speed. As if that weren't reason enough to hate them, they also get to spend their days wandering around what has to be one of the world's most gorgeous college campuses, burning off all that Chick-fil-A and Mellow Mushroom.

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After lunch we took another walk down King Street to do a little shopping.

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The patrons and owners of this adorable Italian place off King Street have taken a blood oath of secrecy, which is the only possible explanation for me not finding out about it and then proceeding to eat them out of house and home.

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The pull of the mother ship. Strong, it is.

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This adorable little store is the Savannah Bee Company.

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All of the honeys sold here are produced for a different purpose, such as sweetening your tea, drizzling over cheese, or adding to a marinade for grilling, and are available to try at their tasting bar.

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Although I didn't taste any discernible difference among them, I am a sucker for both cute stores and cool packaging and therefore purchased one of each.

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We were strolling along when we noticed this interesting gate:

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We followed the shady path to the cemetery at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, which is hauntingly beautiful during the day with its weathered headstones and overgrown foliage, but would surely scare the bejeezus out of you after dusk.

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This has to be the saddest little headstone I've ever seen. You spend, 50, 70, maybe even 90 years on this planet, and all you end up with is a headstone the size of a potholder? What a ripoff.

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As is liable to happen in the Holy City, we came across more churches than you could shake a stick at during our walk. To avoid mixing up their names and exposing myself for the heathen that I am, let's just call them all St. Elmo's in honor of the best movie of 1985.

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Inside one of the churches, Angel knelt in one of the pews and said a short prayer of thanks for our lovely trip to Charleston, while I took some pictures and concentrated on not bursting into flames.

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Soon it was time to return to the hotel and prepare for departure, so we decided to take the scenic route back. Not that there's any other kind of route in Charleston.

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Along the way we spotted these two adorable wine bars, which immediately made me curse the fact that I'd wasted time walking around and taking pictures when I could have been doing something worthwhile, like drinking.

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Although we didn't have any more wine, we did stop by the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse so Angel could sample their beer, which is brewed on the premises.

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Unfortunately none of them could live up to the Palmetto Espresso Porter he'd had at Hominy Grill earlier in our trip. The way Angel was stalking that beer all over town, you'd think it was a hard-to-find chicken sandwich or something.

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Do you know what lots of beer plus Charleston sidewalks equals?

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Top billing in the next Jackass movie, that's what. They can just pay me in pork chops.

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Next up, we're headed back to Anguilla, where the beaches will be beautiful, the rum punches will be potent, and the cheeseburgers will be plentiful . . . and then to Key West, where the beaches will be rocky, the drinks will be free-flowing, and the amount of weird will be off the charts. Hit the "Subscribe" button located in the box on the right-hand side of the page and you'll receive an e-mail alert when a new report is posted!

Posted by TraceyG 17:28 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston mellow_mushroom low_country fleet_landing Comments (5)