Saturday, January 3, 2009
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Tell someone you’re even thinking about going to Charleston, South Carolina and they’ll get a dreamy look in their eye. Its reputation as a charming Southern city didn’t materialize out of thin air. Small size, compact layout, and a captivating diversity make this city the perfect long-weekend destination in any number of seasons. Crowds are drawn to the blooms and the world famous Spoletto Music Festival in Spring, but this town doesn’t really have an “off season,” to worry about, unless you count summer heat/humidity amongst your dreaded enemies. DestiKNITions is all about the “grab your girlfriends and go,” trip, so here’s my suggestions for a perfect four days—I’ve chosen a Thursday to Sunday format-- in The Holy City (nick-named for all the churches within its confines). Grab your needles, your suitcase, and off you go...
Dinner at Jestine’s Kitchen
251 Meeting Street
If you want to feel like you just stepped into a good cook’s home kitchen, Jestine’s is the place. Lauded on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and surprisingly reasonable, this restaurant has the kind of food you’d associate with Southern hospitality, and the room just oozes with it. It’s wonderfully casual, so you can literally climb out of the car in your “fat jeans” (the ones with the big waistband you use for long car trips or enduring the trials of air travel) and saunter on in. Just make sure you’ve taken your cholesterol medication before you do—this isn’t spa food. The Sunday brunch, while spectacular, will buy you a long line of waiting so opt instead for Jestine’s as your first Holy City dinner. The entrees are all good, but for me, eating about is really only about the deserts; and this place doesn’t disappoint. We were wisely guided toward three in particular, each distinct and marvelous. Do what we did: order all three; a handful of spoons, and let everybody eat everything. The coconut cream pie was my particular favorite, but the Coka-cola cake was an intriguing twist on chocolate cake that you can’t find anywhere else. The three-berry cobbler was equally luscious—no small feat to stay on level ground with the other two. Whatever you order for dinner, make sure you leave room for these deserts.
Waddle on back to your lodgings, finish off whatever knitting you didn’t get done on the plane or in the car, and settle in for the night—you’ll be off and running tomorrow.
It’s a Stitch of Charleston, SC
3464 Maybank Highway
Johns Island, SC 29455
Charleston’s all about the history, so we’re going to start this off “old school.” Grab breakfast wherever you like and drive away from the city out to Johns Island where many locals live. If you can catch the Fat Hen open for breakfast, it’s supposed to be fabulous (we tried for lunch and found it closed), but I can’t speak for myself. After downing everything you ate at Jestine’s, someplace called the Fat Hen might suit perfectly, and it’s only a matter of blocks down the street from It’s a Stitch of Charleston, SC You want color? It’s a Stitch has loads of color. Owned by lovely and knowledgable New York transplant Margot Anderson, this store has a foot firmly planted in both the knitting and the needlepoint camps—which is what makes it fascinating. This is not your mother’s needlepoint—I saw things here that made even me consider taking up the craft—as Margo puts it “you don’t have to make just pillows!” I dare you to leave the store without taking home a cool, small needlepoint project to try your hand. Best of all, Margot is delightfully familiar with tourism stitching, so she won’t even flinch when you call back in three months to say you miscalculated and you need four more balls of dark blue cashmere to finish the scarf you started on vacation. Or need six more skeins of a yarn in baby blue because now your sister is having a boy and she wants one of the gorgeous blankets you made for your niece. A woman who knows her customer base, Margot’s got a hefty collection of baby yarn and patterns designed for auntie/grandma/great-grandma knitting.
Projects Margot recommends:
Feather and Fan Shawl in Euroflax
Charleston’s fickle climate (something we know a little about in Chicago where it’s six degrees below zero as I type today) makes for challenging fiber choices. Euroflax comes in a wide palate of delectable colors, so it’d be hard to go wrong. They’ve got a feather and fan shawl pattern on hand that works up in delicate waves. Euroflax starts out stiff but softens up as you wash (Margot says to wash it in a pillowcase to prevent a washing machine full of fuzzies) to an all-season stunner that’s sure to get loads of use.
Jojoland Swirl Scarf – This one caught my eye immediately. Use Melody Superwash to create a true piece or art that will impress even your picky mother-in-law.
Margot gets true kudos for handing me her last ball (literally!) of Superior to undertake the Tahki Sampler Scarf. While white was my only option, Superior comes in loads of colors. This will be my project from the store, no small endeavor and not for beginners but enticing for those who want to kick their skills up a few notches and need a highly portable (i.e. one ball small needles) attention-grabber. More later.
My favorite story from this place: As I was interviewing Margot, I asked my usual set of questions. As for coffee, Margo quipped “At Startucks they know me as ‘Venti Half and Half’"—she actually had one in her hands as we talked. While we were discussing our favorite places to knit in public, a well-dressed man popped up from behind a huge bank of needlepoint yarn and said, “Oh, I know the answer—airplanes.” Now, this response was valuable for it’s shock value to my twelve-year-old son alone (“There are guys who do this???”), but as a telling example of the store’s conversational atmosphere. Collectively, the room decided that “anywhere you have to wait” is the best place to stitch. Here, here! When I’m on an airplane, it’s not my “dangerous pointy needles” you should fear. It’s the nasty, snarky woman I’ll become after even thirty minutes in coach if you take away my knitting needles…
Next Stop: Angel Oak
Flush with your fiber finds, take a short drive to a natural wonder, the Angel Oak. Locals call it simply “The Tree.” It deserves all the capitalization it gets—really. You would not think a tree could be so impressive, but this oak stands as the oldest thing—living or man-made—east of the Rockies. You simply will not see anything like it anywhere, period. Estimates place this grand old lady at over 1400 years old. Fifteen minutes under her shade is guaranteed to lower your blood pressure. Even in November, when we saw her, it was astounding. If the weather is amiable, grab a picnic table and cast on your spanking new projects while soaking in the ambiance.
Next Stop: Freshfields Village
Johns Island, SC
Now might be a good time for a little retail entertainment. Margot recommends the Indigo Bookstore among the other fine establishments in Freshfield’s Village . After you’ve exhausted your feet (or your wallet), either wander the coast for a bit or head on back into town and spend a lazy afternoon knitting away on your new projects from It’s a Stitch.
The trip’s fancy dinner: Peninsula Grill
112 N. Market Street
Dress up a bit tonight, it’s time to treat yourself like the treasure you are and have a memorable dinner at Peninsula Grill . According to the restaurant, patrons will gladly pay the $100 it takes to have the coconut cake shipped to them when they’re not in town. That’s a mighty tall claim, and you owe it to yourself to see if the dessert warrants it’s c-note status. Expect this dinner to cost you—this is a top-of-the-line establishment, but it’ll be worth it. The Peninsula Grill is handily located right on the Market in Charleston, where souvenir shopping is at its zenith. Just think, you can go from cheesy trinkets to celestial coconut cake in half a block! Dine out, knit some more, and get ready to do another side of this splendid city tomorrow.
Kudu Coffee House
4 Vanderhorst St
Charleston, SC 29403
Today we take on urban cool—the other side of Charleston’s unique character. Ditch the corporate mode and get your morning java fix at Kudu, where the African vibe makes for a great experience. Sip your favorite among the exotic wildlife décor inside, or enjoy one of the single origin coffees on the outdoor patio. I had a great, strong cup of coffee here, and if you like yours as much as I did, you can get some shipped home. A great way to give a little exotic flavor to a Midwestern grope-bleary-eyed-for-the-coffeemaker winter morning.
Next Stop: knit
87 Wentworth St
Charleston, SC 29401
Once you’ve awakened your senses, it’s time to take the short walk to “knit” . Yes, that’s “knit” with a lower case K, mind you, but this is one capital store. You’ll not only be greeted by charming owner Gay or our own personal guide Marianne, but the store’s three resident miniature schnauzers, Ruben, Bunny, and Bailey. Those dogs hold a world record by being the only thing that could get my son to voluntarily enter a yarn shop twice in 24 hours! Plan to stay all morning—not only does the store offer a collection of comfy chairs and great coffee , but Saturday hosts a very friendly crowd of local regulars who will chat with you like you’re their favorite cousin. The yarn selection gave me a wicked case of the “gimmies,” but the bag selection was just as compelling. Buttons? They’ve got some of the coolest. Books? Chances are they’ve got that book you’ve been yearning for. If you, like me, get into “souvenier yarn,” ask about the fascinating local yarns in amazing colorways. Local fiber artist Sara from Sara’s Colorwave Yarns just happened to be in the store on my visit, and we had a lovely chat. Sometimes the local stuff goes fast, so if you’re really in the market for something you can’t get anywhere else, it might be wise to call first.
Projects recommended by the folks at knit:
Basketweave Starter Scarf Kit – an excellent choice for those brand new to the craft. One of those great patterns that looks more complicated than it is (I love those!), with everything you need in one handy $30 kit.
February Lady Sweater If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Zimmerman, this is a lovely version of one of her top-down patterns. Charming and not so overwhelming that there’s no nope of getting it finished.
Rick Rack Feather and Fan Shawl– The project I’ll be taking on in the coming weeks. Rick Rack, hand died by Judy L. Ditmore for Interlacements is one of those yarns that looks so wonderfully artisan you’ll feel cool even in your “mom jeans” wearing this shawl. The deliciously colored rayon yarn’s a bit slippery to work with, but well worth it. Warning—this hank is treacherous to unwind by hand. Do yourself a major favor and have it balled in the store while you enjoy some of knit’s great brewed coffee. Not only will it fit in your suitcase more easily, but your kids will be saved from the cursing episode you’ll surely have when you tangle the yarn trying to ball it at home (not that I’d know or anything…)
Next Stop: Lunch at Caviar & Bananas
51 George Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Once your fingers begin to cramp up from knitting, take a well deserved break by walking up through the College of Charleston campus to Caviar & Bananas . The ladies at knit said “I’d eat at Caviar & Bananas every day if I could,” and trust me, so would I. The energetic vibe of this upscale market-eatery makes you feel hip and trendy. You can fool yourself into believing the handsome college-boy barristas really are flirting with you over chicken salad that makes your eyes water. There’s a reason the knit ladies said “if I could”—this is foodie, costly gourmand fare, but worth every penny. “Girl food,” according to some of the men in my party who were still infatuated with Sticky Fingers ribs. Well, this girl loved it. Make sure to stock up on some prime snacks for the rest of your stay (and your next stop), or take a brochure if you have need of a truly scrumptious gift basket to be sent somewhere in the near future—say your favorite knitting travel blog author??
Next Stop: Tourism ala Fort Sumpter
Departing from Liberty Square and Aquarium Wharf
Fortified with yarn and goodies from the market, make your way over to the Aquarium Wharf and book yourself on the 2:30pm SpiritLine cruise to Fort Sumpter. You can knit and nosh during the 30-minute cruise while you get a cram course in Charleston history (it can’t all be about the fiber, darlings). The Fort gets Weather (hot, cold, windy, etc) so dress accordingly, but there’s no better way to get a quick, real feel for Charleston’s pivotal role in the Civil War--or is that The War Between the States?
Next Stop: Blue Bicycle Bookstore
420 King St
Charleston, SC 29403
Chances are all that history has given you a taste for knowledge, so head to Blue Bicycle Books, the town’s primo place for rare, used, and local books. Quality independent bookstores like this are an endangered species and deserve your business. Blue Bicycle is open until 6pm, and the website will give you lots of details on the art of parking your car in this part of town.
Next Stop: Cupcake
433 King St
Charleston, SC 29403
Travel from the academic to the indulgent by heading just up the street to Cupcake , a charming little cupcake bakery. If frosting is your thing, this place is just short of heaven. Do what we did—order multiple flavors and pass everything around. The store calls them “perfectly sized portions of personal happiness” but I ran out of adjectives after the fourth flavor.
If you’re still up and running by the end of Cupcake, you’re a better woman than me. Head back to your lodgings and spend a few hours knitting through your sugar coma watching the sun go down over the low country.
Next stop: Dinner at A.W. Shucks
70 State St
Charleston, SC 29401
After your nap (I dare you not to take one after a day like that…), head on out to A.W. Shucks for some serious but affordable seafood. You may have to wait a bit, as this is a popular joint in the touristy side of town, but hey, you’ve brought your knitting, haven’t you? You’re back just outside The Market, so if you find you can’t resist that seashell do-dad for you saw the other night, now’s your chance. Stare appreciatively at the sweetwater grass baskets, but if you want to take one home, be prepared to part with some serious cash…and we’re really here for fiber of a different kind, aren’t we?
You should konk out like a baby after all that fiber, sugar, history, and food. Go ahead.
Note: If you find you had to bring men-folk along with you, I suggest you send them to spend the day at the Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum before or after doing the carnivore thing at Sticky Fingers rib joint. They’ll be just as well fed and seriously exercised as you by the end of the day. Touring the USS Yorktown is a combo treadmill, stair-climber, and patriotic duty all in one.
Sleep in. Knit in bed if it suits you. This might be a good moment to talk about your choice of lodging. Charleston offers you a host of options depending on your budget and your tastes. Staying right down town in the thick of things is alluring but pricey, and parking can be challenging, but the ability to walk out your door into all that historic charm is not to be ignored. Plus, this town has so much character you might feel like you’re missing something to be staying in a “looks like it does in any city” chain hotel—although the city boasts an impressive selection of most of the major chains. Here are a couple of recommendations for your consideration:
149 Wentworth Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Want your pampering wrapped up in a history lesson? Take the advice of the staff at knit and book yourself into the stunning Wentworth Mansion --it’s even thematic, since the original owner Silas Rodgers made his money in cotton, which is technically a fiber, right? How can you resist an inn rated in the top 100 hotels in North America with a five-star restaurant and its own spa? Charming Inns (the parent company) sent charming Sally Davis to give me a tour which included the stunning view from the rooftop . While I considered it another unique knitting roost if it’s neither too hot nor too windy, Sally tells me it ranks as one of the city’s top sites to “pop the question.”
Two Meeting Street Inn
2 Meeting Street
Another property with a porch just begging to host knitters for hours of stitching relaxation—not to mention an inviting “low country afternoon tea” is Two Meeting Street Tucked among ancient-looking trees with a tension-melting view out into the park and water, this location will land you square amongst some of Charleston’s primo real estate (more on that in a minute).
5 East BatteryCharleston, SC888-723-1574
Can’t leave your precious pet behind? For a small fee and with pre-registration, the carriage house the Palmer Home (known as the Pink Palace) welcomes pets as well as the knitters who own them.
Vacation Rentals by Owner
Several Charleston resident list their homes with VRBO, a handy option if you’re adventuresome with your car and have a group of four or more, although many book on a weekly basis so do your research.
So what’s the plan for Sunday morning? There isn’t one. After all, an agenda can be exhausting and you’ve got twelve more rows in your repeating pattern. Spend the morning knitting, noshing, and when your thumbs cramp up, take a leisurely stroll through “The Battery,” the lower point of the peninsula between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers that makes up Charleston.Narrow cobblestone streets and gardens tucked behind wrought iron gates make this a visual delight even in winter—something is always in bloom. Graveyards—many of which hold important historical figures--sit eerily in church shadows. Wander the streets and daydream about what it’d be like to be able to live in one of these movie-set-ready homes. Art galleries—we loved the Nina Liu and Friends Gallery on State Street—as well as interesting boutiques abound, although this is primarily a residential area. If you’re so inclined, there’s a whopping list of historical homes and churches open for public touring and charlestongateway.com will provide you with a nifty map and all the pertinent details. When your feet tire of negotiating the wobbly terrain, you’ll be ready to sit in plane or car and take yourself—and your fab fiber finds—home along with your memories.
Stay tuned for “knit along” blogs of both the sampler scarf from It’s a Stitch and the feather and fan shawl from knit.