Cam’s Charleston: Touring the Holy City with a Local

There’s a ticklish irony knowing that my friend Cam lives in a city known as “the Holy City.” Luckily for him, Charleston is so nicknamed for the numerous church steeples defining the skyline. He recently played tour guide and introduced me to his Charleston, South Carolina.

Our Saturday morning began with sipping coffee, catching up and planning the rest of the weekend at downtown’s East Bay Coffee House. It seemed to be one of a few places open. Sitting in the oversized sofa tucked in the back by the bar, I felt like one of the artsy poets who perform during Monday Night Blues. A poetry reading begins at 8:00 p.m., followed by musicians at 9:00 p.m.

We then wandered through the historic City Market between North and South Market Streets. It was a little overwhelming taking everything in. Built in the late 1800s as a produce and meat market, these four brick stalls hold a mix of Charleston’s finest handicrafts, baked goods and modern knickknacks. [Tip: Bring quarters for parking].

The area’s most popular crafts are hand-woven, aromatic sweetgrass baskets. Weaving dates back to the 17th century when Western African slaves were introduced to South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The baskets had functional uses then, but today, are art masterpieces. Women sit, weave and take the time to say “hello,” in and around the market. The baskets’ sweet, woody aroma was one of the best scents in Charleston!

We tasted a local treat called benne wafers from Market Street Munchies. These thin, crunchy cookies are sweet with a hint of saltiness. The benne seeds look and taste similar to sesame seeds and were introduced by West African slaves. The seeds are believed to harbor good luck to those who eat them.

Being a Saturday, the Charleston Farmer’s Market was happening at Marion Square. This is the place to find farm-grown and organic fruits and vegetables, vibrant wildflowers, jewelry, handmade soaps, jellies, artwork and other crafts. The Farmer’s Market is open every Saturday now through December 17, 2006. In 2007, it should begin again in April sometime.

Earrings, necklaces and rings made from shards of white and blue Chinese porcelain and set in sterling silver really caught my attention. The porcelain dates back to the Qing and Ming Dynasties (300 to 600 years ago). The artists, Fran Ridgell and Robert Clair, collectively called South East Creations, spent time in China and Japan and recently moved back to the Charleston area. Forty percent of the proceeds from the jewelry sales go to the Cambodian Academic Relief Project serving needy students and schools in Cambodia.

Despite the thick, sticky humidity on this September morning, we walked down historic streets gazing at mansions with amazingly lush mini-gardens. We crisscrossed over Church, Meeting and King Streets, seeing the transition from modern, high-end shops to classy antiques and art galleries. In the residential areas, tall oak trees arched and provided much appreciated shade. [Tip: Wear flat shoes, no heals. Some of Charleston’s historic streets are cobbled and would be difficult to maneuver in stilettos].

Over on Archdale Street, the Unitarian Church in Charleston’s Churchyard called us in. The canopied tree walkway looked invitingly cool. We were intrigued to see what was at the other end and found something like a secret garden, except it was a graveyard. Grass seemed a bit overgrown, but the walkways along the weathered headstones (dating back to at least the 1800s) are maintained. Pink and orange flowers peeked out of the tall grasses and a chorus of birds sang along with the organ playing in the church.

Rumbling tummies called us to the rolling surf of nearby Folly Beach. One of Cam’s favorite spots – for lunch, dinner and evening – is 11 Center Street. The first floor has rows and rows of wine. I picked out an “okay” Oregon chardonnay from the cooler and took it upstairs for a bird’s-eye-view of Folly Beach’s main drag and the water. 11 Center Street serves a Tapas menu with Mediterranean-American flare. The coconut onion rings were tasty. Imported beers and microbrews are available, too.

Our evening plans were made with help from the area’s free entertainment publication, the Charleston City Paper. Decisions, decisions. It was off to Theatre 99 to see the weekly Saturday performance of The Have Nots! Improv [Comedy] Jam. As we wandered along the waterfront killing time for the 8:00 p.m. show, gussied-up wedding parties left churches and starry-eyed newlyweds cuddled in the back of horse-drawn carriages.

If you’ve seen Drew Carey’s television show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? then you understand improvisational comedy. Audience participation is a must and Cam being a born performer, volunteered to help the comedy troupe with a skit. Bottom line, funny stuff. [Tip: Bring cash; credit cards are not accepted; and don’t be shy during the performance!].

A late-night, light meal and hookah pipe topped off the night at Cafe’ Paradiso on South Market Street. We sat by the sidewalk eating a plate of fresh hummus, zippy tabouli and other Mediterranean treats while smoking a hookah pipe, rented from Cafe’ Paradiso. A live band drew a crowd, as did the hookah. Passersby stopped and watched, thinking we were smoking something illegal, when in fact, we were smoking mint flavored tobacco. Cam invited the curious folks over, explained the pipe and offered tokes to everyone from young college students to gray-haired, sophisticated ladies.

Shrimp and grits was my Sunday morning breakfast at the St. John’s Island Cafe’, a little place we found on our way to the Charleston Tea Plantation. Cam enjoyed the seafood omelet and portions were generous. The Cafe’ looked like a favorite among locals.

The Charleston Tea Plantation was the main reason for making the trip to the area. The drive down Maybank Highway is beautiful; huge oak trees dripping with Spanish moss canopy the road. Private plantation homes are on either side of the street, hidden at the end of long, winding driveways. Just when we thought we missed it, we’d spot signs giving us mileage updates.

Tours of the Charleston Tea Plantation began in January 2006 after three years of restoring the grounds. The tour is a brief trip through the factory, explaining how the tea leaves are harvested and how tea is “born.” Interestingly, black, oolong and green teas are all derived from the same tea leaf. What makes it a specific type of tea is how long the leaves are oxygenated. Iced tea is served in the gift shop section, which of course, sells tea and tea-related souvenirs. Visitors cannot wander through the rows of tea bushes, but can get pretty close.

During my brief visit to Charleston, I didn’t walk along on a ghost tour, visit the Slave Mart Museum or Boone Hall Plantation. Despite missing the typical tourist spots, I’m glad for experiencing the city through a local’s eyes. Especially those of a friend. Besides, this leaves more to explore on a return visit.

– JA Huber

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