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Exploring the History of the Southeast

Author: Ben Szweda
Date of Trip: September 2013

My goal is to visit every state in America. I had wanted to visit Charleston, SC, for some time now. When I looked into the trip and saw how close Charleston was to the Georgia border I decided I had to include a visit to Savannah, GA, in my trip as well to knock off two states I had yet to visit.

From my home airport, Cleveland (CLE), it was cheaper to fly into Charleston (CHS) than Savannah/Hilton Head Airport (SAV). I booked a round trip flight on Delta from CLE, connecting in Atlanta (ATL) and on to Charleston for Thursday 12 September to Wednesday 18 September 2013. Within that time frame I would spend three nights in Charleston, one night in Hilton Head since it was on the way to Georgia, and then the rest of my time away from home in Savannah.

This trip marked my first time flying through CHS. It is a pleasant, but very small airport. I rented a car at this point using Advantage Rental Car. Do note, that only Avis, Hertz, Budget, National and Enterprise have in airport counters. The hotel I had chosen to stay at in Charleston, the Marriott Residence Inn Downtown/Riverfront, was outside of the historical district, but it offered free breakfast, free weekday evening snacks and drinks, free parking, and for those without a car, a free evening shuttle to Market Street.

The drive into the historic district from my hotel did not take long at all and I easily found parking in the historic district when needed. The first activity I drove in to do was a food tour. Including this one, I have now been on six food tours all across America. This three-hour tour however so impressed me that it now ranks quite high on that list of six. The company was Charleston Culinary Tours ($55/person; $100/couple) and the tour I did was the Historic Downtown Tour. This food tour followed a different format than any I had been on before. First of all, there was so much food! Normally I am used to one sample per establishment visited; this tour however provided three samples at the first and second stop and two at the third. The starting point was Southend Brewery. Our group then went to Lowcountry Bistro, Leaf Café & Bar, and Kaminsky’s Baking Company for dessert. Aside from the amazing food however, and I did not have one piece of food I did not love in Charleston, the tour guide is who made this tour so amazing. He was so passionate, emotional, and enthusiastic about food that he brought history to life through food. Using food and ingredients, he analyzed the history of “Charles’ Town” from colonial times to modern day.

On day two of my trip I was up early for a 0930 sailing with Fort Sumter Cruises; check the website for sailing times as they change based on the time of year ($18/person). There is plenty of metered street parking near the boat’s dock, which is located just to the right of the aquarium ($0.25 per 20 minutes). Arrive early for your tour, or plan on staying after, as there is a rather good museum above the boat’s dock. On the cruise over to Fort Sumter there is a recorded narration that plays on the boat explaining the layout of the rivers and their historical importance. At the fort, you have one hour to listen to a free park ranger lecture and explore the fort. I was initially worried that one hour would not feel like enough time, but it really is plenty. I was able to listen to the lecture and still take all the pictures I wanted to. The ride back, also narrated, takes about 30 minutes and we were back in dock at around 1130.

From here I drove to the “Big Red Barn” of Palmetto Carriage Company. For four-hours of free parking buy your carriage tickets online (three-hours free if buying in-person). The mule or horse drawn carriage ride lasts about one hour ($22/person) and takes you from the starting point near Old City Market through the neighbourhood near The Battery and back. If you are not sure which of the historic homes in The Battery you want to tour, this carriage tour gave a good overview of them all and might help spark your interest for a specific one.

On my third day in Charleston I headed to Drayton Hall (Plantation) for a guided tour of the house ($18/person). This property is just one mile away from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. I chose however to visit Drayton because after visiting two plantations in Louisiana I had been disappointed that they were so made up. Unlike Magnolia, Drayton Hall advertises to be just the opposite: “preserved, not restored.” There is truth in the advertising slogan and I therefore thoroughly enjoyed my tour. While you can pay to just walk the grounds on your own ($8/person) I would definitely encourage you to take the guided tour. The guide, very passionate for the work of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was very good at explaining the use of the property and it’s various rooms. I learned a lot from her and at the end enjoyed a nice scenic and leisurely walk along the river path located behind the house.

From those four tours I believe I got a good feel for the city and it’s place in history. I also enjoyed walking around “The Battery,” really White Point Garden. Also, one should not miss the famous Pineapple Fountain in Waterfront Park. Aside from the restaurants I ate at on the food tour I enjoyed and also recommend Henry’s House and Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House.

Early Sunday morning I drove to Hilton Head, which takes about 2 hours. I was slightly disappointed in the Island owing to incorrect expectations. Hilton Head is very commercialized with it’s own Walmart and outlet mall. The resort I chose to stay at, the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, did a bit to hide away all those stores however. The Omni is located on a secure area of the Island pass a guard house so only those living nearby or staying at the Omni have access. This, and the Omni’s private beach, did help to make my day on the Island have a bit quieter feel to it.

The Omni’s adult only and two family pools were very clean and relaxing. Their beach was also very clean and on my day in town it was not crowded at all. My one disappointment in the Omni was their food. I found the food in Palmetto Market, their lunch spot, to be disappointing for a secluded resort; I should have driven off resort to find lunch.

That brings me to a point on transportation. I would not say Hilton Head is as bike friendly as it is made out to be. Yes, there are bike paths and the sand is very compact so you can bike on it too, however the Island is very spread out. I would only advise biking for fun, not to get somewhere. Have a car and drive it to the Harbour Town Lighthouse and The Salty Dog Café. It does cost $5 per car to enter the area of the Island The Café is located on, but it is worth it as these two parts of Hilton Head resemble what I had hoped the entire Island would be like.

The next morning, Monday, I made the quick 50-minute drive to Savannah. The hotel I chose in Savannah, the Hyatt Regency, may be the best-located hotel I have ever stayed in. It was in such a central location that the food tour I did met in literally one building to the west, the riverboats I cruised on were docked just a few paces to the east, and the trolley company I used had several stops within just a few blocks. Whether you stay in the Hyatt or not, I definitely recommend picking something in this area; I also recommend a river view room. From my river view room I had great views of the Talmadge Bridge and massive container ships coming and going up the river.

The first main tourist activity I did was another food tour. The company was Savannah Taste Experience and I did the First Squares Food Tour ($45/person). A list of the stops on the tour can be found on their website; my favourite ones were where we got to meet the owner of the establishment. This happened at two of the shops and in three of the shops we had a nice presentation on the product sold. While not all the stops were substantial food stops, I did enjoy learning about local small businesses and the work they do locally.

On Monday afternoon I took a riverboat cruise. Savannah Riverboat Cruises run buffet and one-hour sightseeing cruises. I did the latter, which run daily at 1400 and 1600 ($22/person). What made this cruise better than any I have ever been on was the fact that it was narrated – live – by the captain of the boat himself. From this primary source I learned not just facts about historic Savannah, but about the shipping industry and Savannah’s port.

My plan for my second day in town was to hop on and off the Old Town Trolley tour bus ($25/person online, $27/person when bought on site). I first road the entire loop of the trolley as I like to do; it took 90 minutes. The narration from our drivers, Nette and later Denise, was great and I learned a lot of history that I did not know before. The tour was also a good way to get an overview of the city and make some decisions on which house museums in Savannah you might want to explore more in depth. My favourite stop was number eight: The Cathedral of St John the Baptist. You can hop on and off the trolley from 0900 to 1700.

On Wednesday I ate early in the hotel restaurant and then checked-out. I had to make the drive back to CHS today for a 1700 flight. On the drive back to the airport I made two quick stops. First, I stopped at Tybee Island. This is on the Atlantic Ocean, just about 18 miles from where my hotel was. The beach was again very clean and not crowded. I easily found parking on a residential side street and walked to the beach via a long wooden ramp arching over dunes. I walked from around 11th street where I parked to the main pier and back. If I repeat this trip in the future, I would most likely skip Hilton Head and extended my time in Savannah. If I wanted to visit a beach I would visit Tybee Island for a day or two.

My second stop on the way to CHS was in Beaufort, SC. This small town, as many people had told me, is quaint and beautiful and home to the filming of some of the Forest Gump movie. It doesn’t take long to visit Beaufort, but I recommend a walk to the waterfront and a stop in St. Helena’s Episcopal Church. Inside we found a very nice docent eager to talk about her church’s history and role in the war.

Despite my two stops I made it to CHS with plenty of time to spare. There is no point arriving too early as there are no airport lounges and no shopping to be done. All in all a very fun and education trip to the Southeast. Without hesitation I would fly to Charleston for dinner tonight if I could.

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