Touring Charleston, South Carolina… with a dog

We just returned from a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. We have one day’s respite and then we are heading to Lake Hartwell (on the Georgia – South Carolina line, but not along the coast) for Thanksgiving. Lots of fun travels this month!

This was our first long trip with our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, where we were not ultimately staying with family. It was also something of a homecoming for Sherlock, as we got him from a breeder in South Carolina. You could tell he knew he was returning to a place he was familiar with, too. When we pulled off of Interstate 95 onto Highway 17 in the Carolina Low Country, he started going wild with excitement. It was a familiar-smelling place to him. I wondered if he thought he was going to see his brothers and sisters.

Highway 17 passes through endless marshes that are stunningly beautiful. You will experience what James Joyce called “aesthetic stasis” driving through the Low Country on a bright day. I think rural Beaufort County was my favorite part of the entire drive, in fact. The golden sweetgrass and winding cerulean creeks, set against a giant expanse of sky. You see that and you understand why Charleston has produced so many writers and artists.

Although Internet travel sites rave about what a dog-friendly place Charleston is, I would say it was a mixed experience overall. Charleston is nowhere near as friendly as Florida when it comes to taking pets out and about.

It is very easy to find a pet-friendly hotel in the area. On our recent trip to Ft. Lauderdale for the International Boat Show, I booked a room in a small hotel operated by a rather eccentric fellow because I liked his gardens. Rodney begged me to find a “normal” hotel this time, so I went with the Hotel Indigo at Patriots Point. It was a decent place, I thought, and they had live jazz music every night in the lobby/bar restaurant. The chap on the saxophone was wicked talented.

The only potential downside to staying there is that you have to pass over a 573-foot tall suspension bridge (yeah, I Googled its height after hyperventilating en route) over the deep-water Cooper River every time you go back and forth to historic downtown Charleston, which occupies a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. If bridges freak you out that’s something to consider, though I did make peace with the bridge after our third or fourth trip over it. You have spectacular views of container ships being loaded and the battleships from the top of the bridge. There is a pedestrian walkway to the side of traffic for really brave people (hard pass).

Sherlock’s first night several stories up in the Hotel Indigo was something to remember. We are all accustomed to falling asleep to the sound of the ocean here in Florida, along with the hum of critters from the jungle behind our house (mostly bullfrogs). The only things Sherlock has to bark at are the occasional barred owl – which makes a sound exactly like a monkey – or a whippoorwill. The whir of city traffic all night kept him on high alert.

But the thing that really drove him insane was a flashing light on a nearby building. Once he noticed it, he would not stop barking at it. The hotel room only had a translucent Roman shade to cover the window, so he could still see the flashing light when it was closed. We were afraid we were going to get kicked out of the hotel as a nuisance. We had to pile up pillows on top of the air conditioning unit to block his view of the skyline. But he knew it was still out there.

The two biggest problems you have with a dog in Charleston are (1) finding a place to eat that allows dogs and (2) finding grassy areas for your dog to do his business. With the exception of a few parks at the extreme boundaries of the city, most public spaces are cement or rocks.

(While I am at it, Charleston is not handicap-accessible by a long shot. As you will see from my pictures below, the sidewalks are a mix of materials from three centuries, and even the mostly even path along the Battery has slate stones that collapse slightly when you pass over them. Even agile walkers will find themselves worriedly looking down at their feet instead of their surroundings.)

If you were simply perusing the app Bring Fido, you would have the impression that there are a lot of restaurants in Charleston that accept dogs. And if you are spending most of your time downtown, this is definitely not the case.

People who live in downtown Charleston agree with this observation as well. We started off Saturday morning walking through neighborhoods in the French Quarter looking for a place for breakfast. We chatted for a while with a woman who moved to Charleston from England and was out walking her labradoodle. She told us we were going to have a very miserable time finding any place in town to eat with our dog. At first I thought that was sort of mean, but later we realized she was simply being honest.

Downtown Charleston is a beautiful but highly congested area. It is nearly impossible to find street parking, and there are so many people (and horse carriages) crisscrossing the streets that you can’t drive around looking for a place easily (especially in the dark). You need to park in one of the parking garages and walk. We walk everywhere anyway, so this was not a big deal to us going into this project. We had come to Charleston intent on walking up and down each of the streets and just taking it all in. But it’s not fun when you are hungry.

You can only take dogs in some of the restaurants that have outdoor seating. Because there is so little free space in the city, “outdoor seating” usually means a few small tables on the sidewalk pushed against the building. For those spaces, you are competing with other pet owners and droves of millennials who hang out downtown and will park themselves at a restaurant only to nurse a Michelob Ultra for an hour. (And heaven help you if you are seated next to a table of these ubiquitous hipsters. I had quite the moment of clarity listening to our seven-year-old daughter rattle on about DNA and cloning over dinner while the millennials behind us talked loudly and obnoxiously about threesomes and pot. I don’t think I ever appreciated living among the “adulting” crowd in Florida so much. Gentrification has taken some of the genteel out of Charleston, sorry to say.)

For a port town, Charleston has surprisingly few options for restaurants. Your choices are mostly touristy crab shacks (no thanks, we have those in Florida), Southern comfort food (which is only special if you are not Southern), and weird food millennials like because it has pseudo-scientific health benefits. We tried going to a “French” restaurant for brunch, but discovered it was one of the latter. It had “French” avocado toast and crêpes made from buckwheat flour. Have you ever had crêpes that looked like Pumpernickel bread? I don’t recommend it; they are gross. But you could have your dog on the patio there, so it’s one way not to starve in Charleston.

On our last night in Charleston, we found what was probably one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten at in my life, Circa 1886 (located at 149 Wentworth Street, in the original carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion; it looks out on a beautiful courtyard). I’m not going to lie, this place is pricey – like $2,000 Bordeaux on the wine list pricey – so it’s not going to be an option if you are trying to visit Charleston on a budget. But if you are a foodie, this place is special.

Circa 1886 has a menu concept like no other restaurant I have seen. The menu is divided into four quadrants, with starters, entrees, and desserts in each quadrant. Each quadrant represents a culinary tradition from South Carolina. You can pick a meal based on ingredients used by Native American tribes in the region, African elements (for the descendants of slaves), French elements (for the Huguenots who settled in Charleston), or modern South Carolina. The dishes are creative, but the ingredients are historically significant.

Elise ordered the preserved rabbit as a starter, which was a sort of rabbit stew with corn cob bouillon, seewee bean succotash, and bear tallow. Yes, bear tallow. She loved it. Rodney and I both had foie gras, which was served with a lemon rosemary olive oil cake, tart cherries, pistachio, Neufchatel, and peppercorns. We paired the foie gras with a glass of Riesling.

The chef also sent us out a pre-starter starter of salmon mousse with caviar and a shot of some sort soup that I could not figure out (sorry).

For our entree, we all settled on venison steaks served with indigo grits, parsnip, turnip collard green “mixit”, and preserved peach sauce. We had a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with the venison, which was an excellent pair.

For dessert, Elise and I had chocolate soufflés with molten ganache and chocolate barley malt ice cream. Rodney had a West African entremet.

As an aside, I have been somewhat amused lately by how the ceremony of presenting wine to couples has evolved. I am accustomed to 20 years of having servers present Rodney with a sample of the wine before we drink it with our meal. (And I have absolutely no problem with that, as the order of being served wine doesn’t strike me as some critical feminist quest for legitimacy.) At two restaurants lately, I have seen that shift. At the first, here in Florida, the server poured a smidgen of wine for both of us to try and confirm. At Circa 1886, the server noted that I was the one who had selected the wine (Rodney told him that I was the one with all the opinions about what to drink – I was born in California wine country, after all), so he presented it to me.

Every bite of that meal was sublime. And this remarkable restaurant allowed us to eat at a table outside with our dog. When we arrived, they had set up a table in the courtyard with a flowing white tablecloth and candles. Next to the table was a dog bowl with water in it. Sherlock went to Charleston and was served by an army of men (and women) in tuxedos.

So I am not entirely down on the culinary scene in Charleston. But if you want quality food there, you are going to have to go all-out for it.

These are scenes from the Battery, which is the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula, overlooking Charleston Harbor, and filled with 18th and 19th-century mansions. I learned that the mansions were built (long before anyone talked about climate change) with a sort of nut-and-bolt system of cranking up their floors as the ground sank beneath them. Even in the 18th century, settlers were worried about how to keep their properties above sea level.

The original tiny houses. I’m pretty sure I have furniture larger than this house.

Imagine using this as a garage.

I wonder if these folks worry about waking up one morning to discover themselves smothered in a blanket of ivy that crept in the window during the night. That’s some Hitchcock material right there.

This house was special because it was built sufficiently above sea level to have a basement, which I am sure is actually an indoor swimming pool or aquarium.

A view of the fort Castle Pinckney from Waterfront Park and Charleston Harbor.

A random graveyard in-between houses.

Sherlock watching Elise, who found a playground in the middle of the Battery.

This house belonged to the surgeon general of the Continental Army.

Apparently this is how you patch a pothole in a cobblestone road.

Elise found cannonballs at White Point Garden / Battery Park.

A statue honoring William Moultrie, a South Carolina politician and planter who became a general in the Revolutionary War.

One of the many massive Confederate monuments in the park.

Elise was mostly impressed by the “old-time telephone” in the park. It doesn’t swipe. This is almost as bad as when she sees a big blue USPS box and says “look, Mommy, it’s an old-time mailbox, for when people wrote letters.”

Again, shouldn’t we be intimidated by this plant?

Apparently FEMA is requiring a bunch of houses to be lifted up to something like 13 feet above sea level. We saw several houses in this condition. They lift the house up and then they build a cinder block foundation underneath it. Eventually these houses are all going to be on their own pillars like the bust of some famous person in the ocean’s foyer.

I thought it was nifty that construction on the United States Custom House was halted two years ahead of the Civil War and was finished afterward. “Yeah, we are going to see how this conflict shakes out before we build any more government buildings.”

This is the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point. It was built during World War II for the Navy.

Also at Patriots Point, these are twin 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. I assume they baked many a Nazi to a crisp.

A very sad memorial to the men on the submarines we lost during World War II, mostly situated around Japan and the Philippines. This was of interest to us, as Rodney’s grandparents were liberated by Allied Forces from a concentration camp in the Philippines. They were imprisoned as Christian missionaries to China during the war.

Part of a Cold War-era submarine, also part of the memorial to lost vessels. I had no idea how massive these submarines were, and each was equipped to start a nuclear holocaust at any given moment.

The interesting thing about Patriots Point is that it is situated right next to the massive suspension bridge. Apart from being a monument to the brave men and women in our Armed Forces, the whole landscape is an incredible physical testimony to generations of American engineering might.

Fascinating city. I am happy to have spent a weekend there.

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