We spent a very rainy long weekend in this southern city, and enjoyed it despite the weather
by Carmen on November 18, 2008
I don’t know what wild bug possessed us to decide to drive from Virginia to South Carolina, rather than flying, but seven hours in a car makes me a bit bonkers. So, to entertain myself, I began taking note of the exits and sights along Interstate 95 so that other hapless travelers might benefit from my boredom. Keep in mind that I’ve written this in the southerly direction on I-95, coming from Virginia. So if you had the mind to drive from South Carolina north, everything would be backwards. I also haven’t written about every exit and every gas station along the way. There are already books for that. I’ve just mentioned the highlights – and lowlights – that I had along my own journey. Make sure to stop at the first rest area across the North Carolina border, if for no other reason, than to get a picture with the "Welcome to North Carolina" sign. (I have a picture of me with every state sign of every state I’ve visited.) The bathrooms here are immaculate – possibly the nicest I’ve ever seen. There are snack machines, plenty of grass for the pets and benches to just sit on and sip your soda. Once you get back on the road, you’ll see signs for the Premium Outlets and the J.R. Outlets, though they’re still about an hour away. You’ll find the Premium Outlets at exit 95, featuring stores like Hilfiger, Coach, etc. You’ll also find a good selection of restaurants to chose from – we picked Texas Steakhouse for a good meal (and clean bathrooms – I have a thing about nasty public bathrooms.) The exit just before, exit 97, is where you’ll find the J.R. Outlet, featuring cigarettes for cheap (save money while you kill yourself slowly), and other less-name-brand-y kinds of stores. Pick your poison, I guess. The next big stop is about 2 or so hours later, when you cross the state line into South Carolina. There, at exit 1, you’ll find the gaudy, neon South of the Border, calling you in like a lure calls a fish. It’s like you lose all brain function when you see the twinkly neon lights that call out "Shopping! Mini Golf! Game Room!" You think you’d be numb to their charms after seeing a billboard every 20 feet announcing that Pedro and his South of the Border were coming up in 100 miles. However, your sense of fun and love of all things gitchy make you stop. Resist the urge if you possibly can. The stores are cheap, the bathrooms are horrible and it’s nothing but a drain to watch your money go down. The gas is even more expensive here, but we’d already stopped, so why not?Instead, consider locking the doors until you travel a mere two more exits to the South Carolina Visitor’s Center. Here, you can have a photo op with the "Welcome to South Carolina" sign, visit a much nicer South Carolina gift shop and tinkle in a well-maintained bathroom. However, I will note that the bathrooms that are inside the nice visitor’s center are closed after 5 p.m., so you’ll have to make to with the ones around back after dark, which seemed kind of backwards to me.From there, unless you have a nervous bladder, it should be a straight shot to Charleston. Make sure to cross the suspension bridge – it’s gorgeous!
As I planned my trip to Charleston, I posed a question for my friends on Facebook asking for recommendations for good restaurants. Almost everyone who responded mentioned the Hominy Grill, giving it an enthusiastic two thumbs up for its breakfast/brunch menu. Never one to pass up a good opportunity for breakfast foods, we planned to make the Hominy Grill our last stop after an early-morning carriage tour before heading home a day early. (The incessant rain drove us back to our sunny hometown.)This quaint little restaurant is just that, quaint and little, so there was a wait. Outside. In the rain. With no shelter. However, everyone was dutifully waiting, so I took that as a sign that it was worth waiting for. There is both indoor and outdoor seating, and some were even braving the weather outside, however, we waited around 25 minutes for a table indoors. The menu is simple, in terms of the number of choices, but detailed in the low-country ingredients that make up each item. I chose the cinnamon French toast with apple maple syrup, which was warm and gooey and made me feel like I was in someone’s southern grandma’s kitchen. The apple taste and consistency in the syrup was a nice surprise, not overpowering at all, but very fall-inspired. My boyfriend had an egg biscuit, and the only fault he could find was that the biscuit was so flaky that it kept falling apart. The taste, however, was quite nice. More importantly to him, the coffee was hot, good, and flowing. The service was efficient, if not a bit brusque, but I can see that they were trying to keep the customers turning over so that those outside wouldn’t have quite as long to be miserable in the rain. The breakfast total came to about $25 for the two of us, and it was worth every bite.You’ll need to taxi, bus or drive to the Hominy Grill. Even though it’s located in the downtown area, it’s a significant number of blocks away from any of the tourist hubs. However, when you arrive, you won’t be disappointed.
Had we not chosen to visit Charleston during a stationary front storm off the coast, I would’ve preferred to take a leisurely stroll through the city to enjoy the architecture and history. However, I wouldn’t have gotten to see as much laden with an umbrella over my head, so I thought I’d let someone else do the driving. As far as I can tell, there are two major horse-pulled tour companies in Charleston, and honestly, we’d planned to use the other one, because we had a coupon. However, we quickly grew tired of driving our rental car up and down the one-way streets looking for them, and we saw the sign for Palmetto Carriage Tours and the "Free Parking" sign and said, "Sold!" They then sold us our tickets ($20 each, if I recall) and directed us to their Big Red Barn to park. I was a bit disheartened to realize that we would be on a mule-drawn carriage with about 15 other people, rather than the private (and as I learned, more expensive) horse-drawn carriage (not that I’m prejudiced towards mules, just the crowd.) However, our mules – named Salt and Pepper – were good pullers and the guide was quite animated. He was a Charleston native, and told the history intertwined with corny jokes and anecdotes. We lucked out on our route, I think. There are so many horse- (and mule-) drawn carriages in downtown Charleston that there’s a lottery for which route they will take. The driver pulls up to lottery central, a draw decides which way we’ll go, and then we’re off. This keeps the horse and mule traffic from clogging the roads any more than the actual car traffic does. Our route took us past a few churches, beautiful homes, but most importantly, the Battery. With it’s beautiful architecture, pastel colors (which comes from being a colony of Barbados, in the city’s early years) and the sweeping porches, I could just envision myself with a hoop skirt and a gentleman caller. Then the need for indoor plumbing and air conditioning brought me back to reality, and I was able to get some nice photos for my scrapbook.We started our tour at 10 a.m., and ended at 11 a.m. (tours depart starting at 9 a.m. every 15 minutes or so.) The rain even managed to restrain itself to a sprinkle throughout the ride, so it turned out to be quite a pleasant experience. The starting and ending point of the tour is right next to the famed Charleston Market, so afterwards we headed there for some souvenir shopping. I would say our "accidental tourist" way of choosing our carriage company turned out to be a success. Though, in the busy season, I might suggest making a reservation for your preferred time.
Connected to the hapless TBonz restaurant is a dessert shop called Kaminsky’s. One glance at the baked goods in the case and passing the place up becomes a non-issue. Once you step inside, the aroma of not only cakes and cookies but specialty coffees and other desert drinks fills your nose and leaves you wanting more.That desert case would’ve been my downfall had I not been so set on eating actual dinner first at TBonz. However, it was my saving grace after a half-hearted steak dinner at its companion eatery. The hardest part was deciding what I would get after the waitress in TBonz slipped next door to write down the evening’s desert selection (the deserts vary each day and season.)We decided to each get a different desert and then split them so we could taste two of the sumptuous sweets. The two we chose were the Nestle’s Tollhouse Pie and a double chocolate torte. We got them to go, so as to give our tummies time to digest the huge steak we’d just eaten and so we’d have something to do while we watched TV in our hotel room that was so far away from anything. Along with milk bought at a gas station on the way back to the hotel, the desserts made the night. Both brought a smile to my face and a fullness to my belly.Aside from getting a South Carolina praline at one of the candy shops in downtown Charleston, I’d say that Kaminsky’s is the sweetest place for sweets in the city.
In celebration of almost every trip I’ve ever been on, I always plan a nice steak dinner to check out the local "moo" scene. I posted on my Facebook page for suggestions, and got a few recommendations for TBonz. Reservations aren’t allowed for small parties, so when we decided to head into the heart of downtown Charleston on a rainy Friday evening around 6 p.m., I was sure we’d have a fair wait ahead of us. I don’t know if the weather was a factor, but our wait time ended up being a short one – 20 minutes. While we waited, we checked out the menu so when we were seated, we could order right away. The ambience of TBonz is a little bit western bar combined with a little bit bistro combined with a little bit of a sports bar feel. There are whimsical decorations – like a bucking bronco statue at the door – to keep the young’uns entertained, the brick walls give it a comfy feel and the flat-screen TVs throughout that are strategically placed delighted all of the World Series followers that were there for the evening. Some of the lucky few earned tables next to the windows that open out onto Market Street, allowing you to watch the tourists – and the horse-drawn carriages – go by. The menu was pretty varied, but as the name suggests, was loaded with steak and fish and ribs. It was a meat-etarian menu if there ever was one. However, what looked mouth-watering in print didn’t entirely live up in person. The food was certainly edible, mediocre, even, for the $25 each that we spent. However, it didn’t make my taste buds go "wow" or anything. It was a perfectly fine steak dinner that I could’ve eaten in any Outback or Logan’s across the country. What I wanted was a quaint steak in the quaint town of Charleston, without the "quaint" (read: expensive) price tag to go with it. There were other recommendations we could’ve followed, that would have followed with a $100 dinner bill. I preferred spending that money in the Market. The best part of TBonz is the sweet shop next door, Kaminsky’s, which I detail in another review, but you can order the deserts from your table rather than getting up and waiting for another table there.
When we were looking at hotels for our long weekend getaway to Charleston, we were astonished at the rates for the hotels in downtown Charleston. Admittedly, they were close to the action, but I’ve stayed in 4- and 5- start hotels for what it would cost for a 3-star there. While researching other options on the Internet, we learned of the Hampton Inn, on Daniel Island. It’s a ritzy suburb of Charleston, about a 25-30 minute drive in your rental car to get to downtown.As hotels go, it was satisfactory. For our $159 a night on Thursday and our $189 a night on Friday and Saturday (though we would depart a day early), there was a comfortable bed, an incredibly pleasant staff and a free continental breakfast with tasty southern biscuits, fresh fruit, etc. However, what the hotel gained in service it lacked in ambiance. It was clearly a hotel geared toward the business traveler, and less so for the tourists that flock for the southern charm. The bare-bones décor was kind of stodgy and the building itself was quite minimal. However, all that would’ve been fine if not for the location. Now, I realize that I made a conscious effort to get a hotel outside of the tourist center of Charleston. However, the price of gas and a rental car would’ve offset the cost of staying in the downtown area. The trek to and from the city took every bit of the half hour we were told it would, and that’s where all of the attractions are. Worse than the commute, was the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot going on around the hotel in its little suburb. There were a few restaurants, one on the hotel property, but none of the others within walking distance. So as far as a review goes, the hotel was certainly passable, clean and service-oriented. The hotel décor lacks the southern charm that you’d expect from Charleston, and the location is pretty far from the action. However, if, like me, you want to avoid the high prices in the hotels downtown, this one would certainly be a good option.
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