Charleston Chew

I am not a big city bear. I enjoy a day trip to the city, walking amidst the tall buildings, window shopping, people watching, visiting museums and grand big city parks — even riding the subway can be fun. But I hate the chaos of traffic and trying to find a parking spot, especially in a big city that I am unfamiliar with, and even more so when I am the driver, navigator, and sole crash avoider.

Charleston, South Carolina signBeing on the Atlantic coast and reluctant to leave the water behind, I thought I’d take a chance on the city life and make like a Southern belle for a few hours in Charleston, South Carolina. After all, Charleston represents the founding of our nation, Southern charm, and more history than you can imagine.

The plan was to head downtown, take in some history, photograph antebellum homes for the folks back home, have a little dinner in a quaint local establishment in a 200+ year old neighborhood and then head to Asheville and the mountains.

Having avoided Savannah and taken a more direct secondary highway into the state, I missed the official welcome center so I had no state map. Just outside the city I came upon a tourist information center so I stopped to get a map. Being a private tourism office, they make their money from referrals to hotels and restaurants in Charleston; the agent had no state maps and she was not too pleased with my plan to just visit the city for a few hours and hit the road again. (Let’s just say she did not offer a stellar example of Southern hospitality.)

Olde Market, Charleston, South CarolinaThough I asked for directions to the historic area where I could see the antebellum homes and such, she directed me to the Olde Market area — “200 years old and lots of arts and crafts.” OK I am up for that.

Basket vendor, Olde Market, Charleston, South Carolina Niche hotel and horse drawn carriage, Charleston, South CarolinaAfter navigating into the heart of the old city port area, where streets are twisted and narrow, one way and dead ended, driving around for 1/2 hour, dodging people, cars, and horse drawn carriages to find a parking spot, I found the olde market — a succession of 8 – 10 or more brick buildings with open ends and half walls filled with vendors. They have indeed stood here as a place to vend goods (originally from the ships in port and the plantations outside town) for 200 years.

The area was originally a warehouse district, though now the warehouses sport major chain and niche hotels, pubs, and restaurants for the tourists.

Baskets, Charleston, South CarolinaSince I was expecting “arts and crafts,” I was not prepared for the flea market atmosphere — a few handmade basket vendors (a Charleston specialty) and hand sewn bonnets, aprons, and household items, but stalls were mostly filled with 21st century junk “as seen on TV” or you’d find at K-mart. After walking through 3 buildings and literally finding nothing worth even pausing to look at (except the baskets – tourist priced), I bought a handmade lemonade and bolted back to my car. Following my own intuition and with the help of the lemonade vendor, I managed to make my way to White Point Gardens at the water’s edge.

This delightful couple blocks of green space, though under reconstruction in spots, offered a respite from the traffic and chaos. Walking around the area, I discovered the kind of historical homes, large and small, that I was looking for, towering live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, old brick and cobblestone streets, sections of the old city wall, gates offering glimpses of 200 year old courtyards and formal gardens, pavilions, statues, and more historical markers than you could count. Horse drawn carriages were everywhere, telling of the history of certain houses and residents (I guess taking the tour was the “seeing the antebellum houses” the tourism maven had in mind.)

Enjoy this photo tour of the area south of Broad.

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Fort Sumter, Charleston, South CarolinaBeing a coastal city, a seawall and promenade, 6-feet high and wide enough for 4 people to walk abreast protects the homes from the sea (and served dual duty as a battery in times past (the canons now sit in the park.) From the top, you get a view of Fort Sumter where the Star Spangled Banner was penned. (Never realized this historic fort was so small.)

For some reason, my foot hurt, making it really painful to walk (I learned later I had cracked a metatarsal bone; don’t ask me how) so I departed without finding a local historic establishment for dinner and set my sites on the drive home — via Asheville, North Carolina, and through the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.

I have decided that a solo meander is not conducive to big city exploration. Charleston is a charming Southern city, worthy of a couple days or a long weekend of exploration where one can ferret out the historical gems and quaint restaurants. Visit with a friend, spend the money and stay in the heart of the city, and act like a tourist — take the horse drawn tours, visit the market, go to the fort, walk the old streets and live the history of America.

Lighthouses

Take a good look at these lighthouse photos. What do you notice?

Having visited many lighthouses in many locations, I have noticed that each is unique — each a different height, made of different materials, with different paint patterns — but not being a navigator, the real purpose of each light’s unique style and paint job never really crossed my mind.

Tybee Island Lighthouse station signWhen I visited the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum, near Savannah, Georgia, I learned the real and really quite obvious reason for those unique patterns — called a day mark, they are a way to identify which lighthouse is which when you see them by day.

Tybee Island offers a rare opportunity to view a working lighthouse and see how the keeper, his assistants, and their families lived from the late 1700s until the light was automated well into the 20th century.

Climb the 178 steps to the top and think about doing that several times a day to keep the oil lamp burning. Look into the 1st order Fresnel lens (large enough for 4 people to stand inside) which magnifies the light of a single 1000 watt bulb and focuses it into a beam that can be seen 18 miles out to sea.

From the outdoor observation deck at the top, you get a good view of the Fort Screven battery, below, built as a protection for nearby Savannah,as well as the beach, ocean, and nearby coastal cities.

Fort Screven battery from top of Tybee Island lighthouseDon’t leave without lunch at the North Beach Bar and Grill between the lighthouse and the beach. The smells emanating from the kitchen make your mouth water and the coastal Americana decor is a delightful beach break.

Jekyll but no Hyde

A few miles up the road from St. Augustine, the landscape changes from endless miles of sandy beaches to wilder salt marshes, estuaries, and individual barrier islands. No longer do beach cities and development extend to the waves lapping at the shore.

The Atlantic coast of Georgia (USA) is filled with inlets, outlets, and barrier islands. It is a magical place of winding estuaries and tall marsh grasses that glow in the sun lending the nickname, the Golden Isles. Due to bad weather and limited time to meander and explore, I had to make like a dragonfly and zip through this area, lightly touching down from time to time. Here are a few of the highlights.

img_8314-qprSt. George Island (can you see the English connection in that name?) is the site of the Kinglsey Plantation, a national historic site depicting life on a Southern plantation. Since the idea of Southern plantations has a negative connotation, due to the Civil War, I recommend visiting and learning more about this era of American history.

The part the history books don’t tell is that under Spanish rule, slavery was outlawed. (In fact, Ft. Mose, just north of St. Augustine, was a settlement of Africans – freemen and former slaves.) But, when the British and later the Americans took over, land owners were actively recruited but were not granted tracts of  land to work agriculturally unless they had a certain number of slaves for every acre. Yeah, I know, shocking isn’t it?

Jekyll Island, once the winter playground of the rich and famous, this island is home to “cottages” built by people with names like JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, Goodyear, and Pulitzer that are bigger than the houses, even McMansions, of most people today. A group of these millionaires, bought the island from the family of the original plantation owner and created an exclusive club for the rich and famous. Many historic moments occurred here such as the first meeting of the Federal Reserve and the first transcontinental telephone call.

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Today, anyone, for a small fee, can drive to the island, tour the historic district and get a sense of the opulence of the Victorian era. You can rent a cottage or a room in the turn of the 20th century inn, or if just a day tripper, wander through the public rooms viewing vintage photographs, grab a bite in the Bistro, or dine in luxury in the historic dining room. Rent a bicycle and pedal through the historic area; head to the beach and on your way you will discover ruins of the original plantation house, the old cemetery and enjoy scenic vistas and byways.

img_8345-qprBe sure to stop at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center where nestlings are monitored and injured sea turtles are rescued, rehabilitated, and if possible, released back into the wild. There is a nice interactive exhibit hall with live animals. Your admission fees support the work they do to preserve these magnificent creatures, some of whom are threatened and endangered.

Skidaway Island is the home of a large state park that provides access to the salt marshes and estuaries. The campground is located on a large hammock on the intercoastal waterway, a brackish water river system that extends most of the way down the eastern seaboard, separating the mainland from the barrier islands, offshore, which serve to protect the land mass from storm surges.

These barrier islands afford opportunities to enjoy unspoiled beaches, paddle quiet backwaters and estuaries, hike, bird watch, and get away from it all in many ways. I could spend months or years exploring them all, but alas I do not have the time. I look forward to another opportunity to travel this way, stay longer and explore deeper.

Canaveral National Seashore

As I mentioned in the last post, acres and acres of the land around  NASA’s Kennedy Space Center not needed for space agency business is preserved partly as a wildlife preserve (Merritt Island) and partly as a wild, natural seashore (Canaveral National Seashore.)

I spent most of a day, walking trails, visiting historical locations, and getting coated in the salt spray from storm tossed waves. I even got rained on but it was well worth it. Another national treasure just waiting to be explored.

Here are a few images for you to enjoy. More on the historical locations another time.

If you are near Florida’s Space Coast, be sure to take some time to take a walk on the wild side.

By the way, all this was happening while they launched a SpaceX rocket from the Kennedy Space Center.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Blue Bear at Merritt Island National Wildlife RefugeAnyone who knows me knows that getting out into the wide open spaces to view the beauty of an unspoiled landscape and the creatures that call it home is a passion.

NASA Vehicle Assembly Building, FloridaAfter leaving Cocoa Beach, where my only real escape from the chaos of that over-developed tourist community was the beach in the early morning, I headed to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. This large expanse of Florida estuary, salt marsh, mud flats, and hammocks, literally in the shadow of the NASA vehicle assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center, provide breeding grounds and refuge for many threatened and endangered species.

I would love to hike, bike, or kayak in this area but since it was mid-afternoon before I got there I had to be content with what I could see quickly, mostly from my car. The National Park Service accommodates this need (and provides those who cannot or do not want to get out of the car) with the Black Point Wildlife Drive — a 7-mile drive that winds through spectacularly unspoiled Florida scenery. Take a video tour here.

Here are a few creatures I met along the way.

Next scenes from Canaveral National Seashore.

Sunrise – Edisto Beach, South Carolina

img_8465-qpr img_8503-qpr img_8507-qprIf I could just stay right here for a few days I would but alas, since my meander was slowed by rain, and I have to be home for an April 26 engagement, sadly I must leave today so I might enjoy the sights and sounds of the rest of my trip. This is one place I will return to though.

Since this is probably my last day at the beach for a long while, I am so glad it was and is a beautiful beginning.

St. Augustine

St Augustine bannerI could not be in NE Florida without at least stopping at our oldest city, St. Augustine. This city dates back to the 1500s when folks like Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon (of fountain of youth fame) claimed this land for Spain. They were not the only ones, the French and English were here too, before the good ole USA either bought or fought their way to claiming all east coast lands from Maine to Florida.

Castle-like turret, St Augustine, Florida

Back to the Spanish —

Pedro Menendez, the founder of the first European colony in what is now the US, landed here in 1565 (40 years before Plymouth Rock), met up with the Timucua people, indigenous to the area, and set about creating a thriving society that at once enriched the coffers of Spain and inadvertently decimated the native peoples (by giving them European diseases to which they had no immunity.) The city’s architecture still maintains a very Old World, Spanish feel, with tabby (a cement made with oyster shells) walls and tile roofs, at least in the historic downtown area. If you like history, you will find it in St. Augustine, in all its fascinating and commercialized glory.

Dominating the downtown is the old Hotel Ponce de Leon (now the home of Flagler College). Built in the Spanish Renaissance style and covering an entire city block, it was one of America’s most impressive resorts when it opened in 1888, and is no less impressive today with its beautiful courtyard and stained glass designed by Tiffany.

Across the street is another Flagler hotel, the Alcazar (now the city hall and home of the Lightner Museum), also in the Spanish Renaissance style, and a few steps away is Villa Zoyada, a 1/10th scale of a section of the Alhambra Palace in Spain.

If you tire of opulence and Spanish Renaissance architecture, the parklike square offers glimpses of life in the old city — the old market and well, along with tall ships in the harbor, the historic bridge of lions, not one but two historic forts, the city’s lighthouse, and numerous “attractions” that interpret the city’s history.

I was going to take a picture of the fountain of youth for y’all but since everything came with a price, this is as close as you get unless you come yourself.

Fountain of Youth, St Augustine, Florida